Public acceptability

Causes of concern

4.63 A review90 of earlier research in 1998 concluded that the widespread establishment of SRC was potentially acceptable to most users of the countryside. However, a recent study91 has identified that concerns were likely to be about:

• generating plant,

• storage/processing building proposals,

• associated traffic movements,

• doubts over the reliability and location of biomass supply,

• lack of benefit for the local community.

4.64 A key problem identified in case studies was the site-specific nature of NFFO contracts. Proposals for such contracts were based on one site, determined in a secretive process, and not open to subsequent modification. Public consultation was then aimed at persuading the public of the correctness of the choice, rather than being a genuine consultation. New plans should recognise the importance of community involvement in planning decisions and be genuinely open and flexible. It is essential that uncertainties and different premises be explicit in the planning process. A key recommendation of the Commission's Twenty-first Report, Setting Environmental Standards, was that people's values should be integrated into each critical stage of decision-making. These principles should be applied when planning any biomass installation. In our Twenty-third Report, Environmental Planning, we made recommendations on improving procedures and developing new processes for more effective and productive public involvement in the development of new schemes.

4.65 With any new-build biomass facility, as with any combustion process, there is also likely to be public concern about emissions. At an early stage, it is necessary to ensure that the public in general, and major players such as the environmental groups, are comfortable that emissions will be satisfactorily controlled and that biomass generation represents a contribution to essential developments in energy provision. Risk estimates, often presented as the objective outcome of a scientific assessment, may involve important but often obscure assumptions and value judgements. Thus perceptions of risk that diverge from expert estimates are not necessarily irrational but may well reflect different values from those underlying the expert assessments92. The conflict between the values and risk estimates of local experts and industry experts has been cited in a number of studies93 as a source of contention during the planning stages of biomass facilities.

4.66 The need to minimise the intrusiveness of plant by careful design and location was discussed in chapter 3 (paragraph 3.56). In particular, for plants situated in residential areas the ensuring 'ownership' of the plant by people living near it is essential. This suggests that small plants serving local communities may be better accepted than large ones that also serve communities living some distance from the plant. A public perception of biomass plants is influenced, to a degree, by the existing situation. Plant replacing old, inefficient, polluting oil-fuelled plant (that are used in many off-grid areas) are likely to cause less concern than plants that are planned as new


Wood chipper and storage shed surrounded by walls and trees, West Dean

4.67 Local public involvement in a scheme is important, and the developer and council will need to:

• make explicit the local benefits and impacts from the facility,

• ensure that local energy costs are reasonable,

• ensure complete transparency throughout the process,

• demand sensitive design and architecture,

• engender not just openness but involvement.

Role for government

4.68 The acceptance of renewable energy options by the public is important to the success of any energy strategy that reduces CO2 emissions to the levels that will stabilise climate change. The government has an interest in engaging public opinion in the debate about renewables, including biomass. There may therefore be a role for Government in assisting the communication process leading to the development of individual planning proposals, to ensure that public concerns are addressed and that renewable energy strategies are enacted.

4.69 A broad range ofopinion should be incorporated into the key stages of design and planning of biomass projects. This is important to ensure that the assessment processes properly address public concerns and do not overlook the importance of incorporating a range of different perspectives into the design of a scheme and its subsequent implementation. This will require a fully transparent process, with information about biomass energy placed in the public domain and machinery in place to obtain the views of a broad range of people. In our Twenty-first Report we proposed a conceptual framework for environmental policy that involved several complementary and inter-related components, including inter alia scientific evidence, risk assessment and economic appraisal. We recognised that all components would be characterised by uncertainty or indeterminacy, and might be influenced by different interests and beliefs.

4.70 The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is currently consulting on replacing existing planning guidance on renewable energy (Planning Policy Guidance note: Renewable Energy - PPG22). The new consultation document, Planning Policy Statement 22 (PPS22), is much more concise than the document it is proposed to replace, and gives more guidance on the importance of achieving renewable energy targets and how to address conflicts with other land uses. It highlights the public concerns raised in connection with renewable energy projects and gives advice on addressing them, whilst achieving the overall renewable energy objectives. The guidance note remains to be finalised.

4.71 There is more that could be done centrally, however, to initiate and inform debate about biomass energy. We recommend that the network of existing Renewable Energy Advice Centres should be expanded to increase the level and geographical coverage of the advice available. Performance incentives should reward those centres that see schemes through from advice to installation and operation. Models and Internet displays of energy crop plantations and conversion plants and demonstration projects would help. Biomass is not a cheap form of energy; it requires high levels of capital investment and part of this is the cost of establishing that the scheme will be acceptable to the public.

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