Planning committee to vote on plan labeled ‘environmental racism’ and a ‘subsidy cash machine’ tomorrow, amid vehement opposition.
The fiercely opposed planning application for the Lawrence Hill power station, proposed by company Plutus Energy, is due for decision at a council planning committee tomorrow (Wednesday 28th).
It’s the second time the application, for an intermittently-running back-up power plant with 48 biodiesel generators, is to be debated by councillors. In July, the vote was deferred to allow for further consideration of the plant’s environmental impact.
This type of facility, known as a STOR (short term operating reserve) or FGF (flexible generation facility) is becoming more common as the country’s energy supply is increasingly strained. STOR facilities only switch on at peak times when demand for electricity exceeds supply.
The plan has been fought every step of the way by residents, who claim it will simply add pollution to an area of the city which is already suffering dangerously high levels. Others publicly opposing the plan are Lawrence Hill councillors Hibaq Jama and Margaret Hickman – who described the plan to put a polluting power station in a deprived area with a largely BME population as ‘environmental racism’.
The Feeder Road location is close to St Philips Marsh Nursery School and the Paintworks development, in the Lawrence Hill ward which is already the most deprived in the city and within the Air Quality Management Zone due to unacceptably high levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and other pollutants.
Concerns about the emissions form the bulk of the approximately 350 objections lodged to the plan, yet frustratingly for the plans opponents, the current air quality planning policy does not provide clear limits with which to oppose the plan. Instead the significance of the impact of a development relies on the interpretation of the assessor.
“The problem is the planners are making decisions on planning rather than air quality law,” says Bruce Yates, from campaign RADE (Residents against Dirty Energy), who fears that the lack of clear understanding among councillors and council planners will lead to a vote in favour. “Unless we can give them an absolute, irrefutable reason to say ‘no’ under planning law, they could approve it.”
“They’re scared of getting sued,” he adds, pointing to the council’s dire financial situation.
The planning officers most recent document to council still recommends approval of the application, despite noting that: “This type of back-up power generation plant is a relatively new type of development… As a result, there is not an accepted tried and tested methodology for realistically and reasonably assessing air quality impacts.”
Defra have said they will aim to have regulation in place by 2019.
“Would it not be best to employ a precautionary principle?” asks Jon Ross, governor of St Philips Marsh Nursery School and opponent to the plan. “We know they’re bad, we don’t know how bad it is, let’s wait two years. It’s not that long.”
Public health vs planning policy
As it is, the case exposes the limits of public health concerns as a material planning consideration to object to developments. Although Bristol City Council has policies such as Development Management Policy DM14 (which stipulates that “developments that will have an unacceptable on health and wellbeing will not be permitted”), the council’s planning office has judged that the public health concerns are adequately covered by adhering to air quality planning guidance.
The standard guidance is the ‘Planning for Air Quality’ guide produced by Environmental Protection UK and industry body the Institute of Air Quality Management (IAQM). However, utilising the framework requires elements of subjectivity on the part of the assessor – and the assessor is the applicant.
IAQM’s vice chair Roger Barrowcliffe, co-chair the working group that produced the guidance, explains: “The guidance provides a framework for assessing the severity of the impact but makes it clear that the judgement of significance has to be done by the assessor, taking other factors into account.”
Due to the subjectivity of judging the impacts, it falls to the planning officers to be flexible to interpretations when dealing with applications employing the guidance. Although, says Barrowcliffe, “Unfortunately it happens too frequently that planning officers take things at face value.”
A battle of documents
In an attempt to right what they perceived as a biased initial air quality assessment, submitted by Plutus Energy along with their planning application, RADE independently funded a separate study which offered a different and much more critical interpretation of the impacts of the development, along with noting what were perceived as flaws in the Plutus assessment’s methodology.
It was the last-minute admission of this report that prompted councillors at the last planning committee to vote to postpone the decision for time to assess the new evidence.
Plutus Energy has since submitted more documentation, this time taking background levels of pollutants into account.
The company maintains that their assessment has been thorough and fair:
“We believe that the approach to determining the significance of the proposed FGF has been applied correctly and takes account of background concentrations for determining the severity both long and short-term impacts and the corresponding effects of the impacts taking account of the aspects set out in the guidance.”
They do however acknowledge within the 36-page document that limits of NOx will potentially be exceeded at several locations when the new facility’s emissions are added onto the already high background level, including in Sparke Evans Park. However in their conclusion they state that the impacts are not considered ‘significant’ because they occur only at ‘industrial receptor locations’. It is unclear how they consider Sparke Evans Park to be an ‘industrial’ location as it is a public park.
Barrowcliffe is suspicious of arguments from developers to justify exceedences such as this, stating instead, “You want to design your development to prevent it”. He also questioned whether the argument would stand up under EU air quality legislation.
The sheer volume of documentation provided by the company and the council planning office has drawn criticism from opponents, such as Bruce Yates of RADE, who claims: “This is the way they [Plutus] do things, throwing a load of useless information at you to wear you down.”
This sentiment is echoed in the strongly worded open letter to the planning committee from Simon Holmes, head of St Philips Marsh Nursery school: “The volume and impenetrability of the various reports produced by the applicant, and by the planning department could not be better designed to overwhelm, confuse and obfuscate. They do not answer in any way the main concern of the hundreds of local parents: What will be the impact on our children’s health?” (emphasis in original)
A lucrative market
STOR facilities are designed to provide back-up power to the National Grid at times of peak demand or low supply from other energy sources, and the government has made big subsidies available to energy providers who operate such facilities.
The government recently introduced a ‘Capacity Market’ approach to establishing energy provision for the future when the energy supply shortage is expected to deteriorate. Under the capacity market, companies bid for contracts to be available as energy producers in the future.
A 20MW STOR facility would receive around £400,000 per year in capacity market subsidies. This is money given to agree to exist during the period, and any operational revenue is on top of that.
Plutus Energy boast of a goal of running nine STOR power stations around the country, many with 15 year contracts. Therefore, a site like Feeder Road would be expected to gain the company many millions in government subsidies over its lifespan.
“This is a subsidy cash machine for them,” Yates comments. “Their profits are more important than our kids.”