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Sunday Telegraph: Sunday business comment: Too much local power

By Sylvia Pfeifer, Deputy City Editor

Energy is a hot topic in Whitehall these days. Alistair Darling, the secretary of state for trade and industry, had his first run-out with the utility sector at a private dinner last Tuesday. Chief executives from, among others, ScottishPower, Scottish & Southern Energy and E.On UK had the chance to air some of their grievances.

It may surprise some that top of their list was not high energy prices or the energy review, but planning.

Thanks to our ridiculous planning laws, it often takes years to get a decision on an application – at a cost of millions of pounds. It took ScottishPower, for example, five years to get approval for its new windfarm at Whitelee, south of Glasgow. The £300m project will be the largest onshore windfarm in Europe and will save about 650,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.

Last week, meanwhile, a consortium led by Royal Dutch Shell, the oil giant, and including E.On UK had a planning application for a landmark windfarm for London rejected, despite months of careful preparation.

The problem, say the executives, stems from the fact that local authorities are free to opine on everything from the merits of the kind of energy being planned to the impact of the scheme in question at a local level.

While local community concerns should be given a fair hearing, it seems nonsensical that every planning application rehearses the same arguments over whether wind is better than gas or nuclear. Those big decisions are ones for central government, not local councillors.

It’s an issue that the Government needs to take to heart if it wants to hit its target of producing 20 per cent of Britain’s electricity from renewable sources such as wind by 2020. It is a challenge that Darling, with his background in transport, should recognise.

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