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Wales rules out new coal mines and restricts fracking in favour of renewables

The Welsh Government has launched a renewed clean energy push as part of revamped planning rules which place an effective ban on new open cast coal miles and more stringent restrictions on fracking in Wales.

Published yesterday, the updated Planning Policy Wales places extraction and use of fossil fuels at the bottom of a new 'energy hierarchy' for planners to adhere to when considering the needs of a development. Demand reduction, efficiency, and renewables are all placed at the top of the official ranking.

In addition, it states that proposals for open cast coal mines "should not be permitted" in Wales, and that if in exceptional circumstances such proposals are put forward "they would need to demonstrate why they are needed in the context of climate change emissions reductions targets and for reasons of national energy security".

Moreover, onshore oil and gas extraction - including shale gas fracking - should be avoided, or it must be justified how such proposals "make a necessary contribution towards decarbonising the energy system", according to the document.

It adds that fossil fuels such as shale gas and coal "are not compatible" with Welsh climate targets.

The changes are to be supported by a new Notification Direction which will state the Welsh Government must be notified of any planning applications which local planning authorities intend to approve for new coal and petroleum developments.

In contrast the updated planning rules make a clear pitch for cleaner forms of energy and transport in Wales, requiring planning authorities to define areas where wind and solar developments will be permitted and set renewable energy targets.

It also estlablishes rules requiring new non-residential developments to have electric vehicle (EV) charging points on at least 10 per cent of available car parking spaces, in order to drive wider uptake of EVs, as well as emphasising the need for developments to be easily accessible by active forms of travel such as cycling and walking infrastructure.

As with energy, the document includes a new transport hierarchy, which places walking and cycling at the top, followed by public transport and ultra low emission vehicles, with other forms of private motor vehicles such as diesel and petrol cars at the bottom in terms of priority for planning authorities.

Lesley Griffiths, the Welsh Government's cabinet secretary for energy, planning and rural affairs, said it was "essential" for Wales to have a legacy of "well-designed, sustainable places which improve the lives of all".

"I want to make sure when planners and developers are formulating their plans and schemes, they think first and foremost about the people who will live there and how they will go about their everyday lives - something which doesn't always happen," she said. "This involves thinking about environmental, social, cultural as well as economic needs, including the impact on both mental and physical health, caused by new developments."

Green groups will be hoping the new planning regime provides a template for other authorities to follow.

A landmark decision by former Communities Secretary Sajid Javid earlier this year saw plans for a new open cast coal mine near Druridge Bay in Northumberland rejected over climate change concerns. But the decision was overturned on appeal in the High Court last month. The application will now go back to new Communities Secretary James Brokenshire to be re-assessed.

Friends of the Earth Cymru director Haf Elgar hailed yesterday's effective ban on new coal mines a "historic moment for Wales" and urged the UK government in Westminster to follow suit.

"This new policy is a positive sign that the Welsh Government is taking this threat seriously. Not only has Old King Coal has had his day - he is fast becoming a relic of history," she said. "People in Wales are proud that their country is taking the lead, and hope that other countries follow our example. The whole world must embrace a positive future of renewable energy and sustainable development to build a cleaner, safer future for us all."

The changes came alongside the announcement yesterday that two Welsh renewable energy projects have secured a total of £9.5m EU funding.

The first, a £14.4m 'generation storage consumption supply' scheme, will use battery technology to store and distribute renewable power to local businesses at sites in Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly, Rhondda Cynon Taff, Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire, bolstered by £9m EU support.

In addition, a community solar energy storage scheme in Swansea also secured £600,000 EU funding to supply electricity to up to 300 local customers, the Welsh Government said.

However, it is the planning reforms that are likely to have the bigger impact on the future direction of infrastructure development in Wales and provide further evidence of how planning guidance remains one of the most powerful levers available for climate policymakers. Businesses across the UK would be advised to take note of how demanding new green building standards and the tilting of planning guidance in favour of low carbon infrastructure has become a rallying point for environmental campaigners.

The question now is whether Wales' ambitious new plans will remain an anomaly or will become a template for the rest of the UK to follow.