9. Wind 'farms' and the planning system
When the large-scale deployment of wind power started in the early 1990s it was initially subject to the same planning regulation as any development in open countryside.
In clarification, Minister for Planning Richard Caborn wrote in June 1998: "...wind energy developments are subject to exactly the same planning controls as any other form of development ... The government wants to encourage the development of clean and renewable energy where that is economically attractive and environmentally acceptable." (CG, 2000)
The Countryside Act 1968 imposed a responsibility to preserve the countryside and local government has become increasingly aware of the tourist and amenity value of unspoiled landscape. Local Development Plans consequently restricted industrial development to specific areas, usually those already industrialised which complicated matters for wind developers who usually targeted sites precluded by the local plan.
The only plausible "substantive material reasons" why restrictions should be set aside might be the reduction in fossil fuel pollution, but the reduction achieved by even the largest wind "farms" is so minuscule as to be in no sense substantive and this was often recognised by planners and PI inspectors.
This is precisely what British planning law was intended to achieve when it was battled for by brave and often lone campaigners in the 20th century.
By early 2000 the government had given licences for 2400 MW of wind power under the last three rounds of the Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation and the Scottish Renewables Obligation but only 200 MW had got through the planning process because well-informed planners and inspectors considered the environmental impacts too big and the clean energy benefits too small to allow the rest. The wind industry began to howl in frustration and demand that wind be given a fast track through the system.
Lurking in the background was government’s response to the 1994 Welsh Affairs Select Committee on Wind Energy. The Committee had advised that wind "farms" should be sited neither within Designated Areas nor where they would be clearly visible from such areas. Government rejected that ‘general presumption” as it “would effectively preclude development from the greater part of Wales.” From that view has grown the feeling that the wind power industry can force wind turbines onto almost any part of Britain.
Several other recommendations of the Select Committee were similarly rejected, with repercussions that echo to this day. The committee wrote: "We would be concerned if wind turbine towers became significantly taller than at present [c. 50 m!] and do not see any reason for the foreseeable future that they should." Government did not accept this and responded that it: - "... does not believe it to be advisable to rule out any particular form of structure or to impose limits on the maximum height of turbines.”
In response to the 'need' for fast-tracking, in 2000, government required all UK regions to prepare renewable energy assessments of their resources and set regional renewable energy production targets.
To ensure that the log-jam in the planning system should be broken, new planning advice guidance guidelines on planning for renewable energy have been imposed. In Scotland, National Planning Policy Guideline 6 (NPPG 6) was revised in 2000, England’s Planning Policy Statement 22 (PPS 22) was adopted in 2004 and Wales followed with Technical Advice Note 8 (TAN 8) a year later.
All of these documents are 'advisory' but presume in favour of renewable energy schemes in the absence of very strong arguments against particular schemes. In Scotland it has long been apparent that NPPG6 breached a dam and enormous numbers of projects are now under consideration and, following a few years later down the same route, England and Wales are on the way to becoming wind factories for no particularly good purpose.
Some provisions in these documents are disturbing to say the least. The Welsh TAN 8 ostensibly seeks to control wind deployment by confining it to a number of ‘strategic search areas’ (SSA) but careful reading reveals that outside these SSAs ‘weasel words’ may permit developments of less than 25 MW installed capacity. As of early 2006 there are only three wind ‘farms’ bigger than 25 MW in all Wales!
PPS 22 gives almost unlimited licence for onshore deployment of windpower: -
“The fact that a target has been reached should not be used in itself as a reason for refusing planning permission for further renewable energy projects.”
“The potential to generate substantial amounts of renewable energy from offshore projects should not be used as a justification to set lower targets for onshore projects.”
Prior to the adoption of PPS 22 in England, Yvette Cooper, MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the ODPM replied to the MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire, in response to an enquiry from the author of this article: -
“… decisions will continue to be made with due regard to planning policies and only after very careful consideration of all the relevant issues, such as, for example, the visual impact of the project and the views of the local population. I would also like to reassure your constituent that there is no intention to overrule the democratic processes in local planning.” (16 February 2004): -
The last sentence rests uneasily with the view of the Committee of Public Accounts (CPA 2005) that the DTI: -
“… has, therefore, worked with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister ...and in 2004, a new planning statement was issued. The statement seeks to… increase the proportion of applications for renewable sites which are approved.... The statement increases the chances of hitting the 2010 target, but only by reducing local communities’ influence on the planning process.”
Not content with the almost free rein that the planning advisory documents now provide it is apparent that the developers are also seeking to employ powers of Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) if they are baulked by dissident land-owners (Ofgem 2006).
Size of development - Section 36, Electricity Act
Many wind development applications are perhaps deliberately configured to exceed the 50 MW installed capacity threshold of s36 which transfers them from the Town & Country Planning Acts to the Electricity Act. Developments to be considered under s36 were originally intended to be large (100s to 1000s of MW), non-intermittent and of intrinsic strategic importance. Because of the intermittency of wind the effective threshold for such proposals is 15MW not 50MW. Many applications are now being manipulated so that upgrading to s36 capacity is easy – often by amalgamation of separate schemes (as happened at Cefn Croes in Wales). Applicants believe (probably correctly) that s36 gives an easier route to consent in cases where the LPA does not appear minded to recommend approval under the TCPA.
Objections and democracy
The ODPM wrote that “there is no intention to overrule the democratic processes” but within a year, the CPA (2005) considered that the process reduced “local communities’ influence on the planning process.”
What do the numbers tell us?
There are now almost always substantially more objections to wind power schemes than letters of support, despite the fact that the industry and green organisations have substantial financial support whereas the objectors are usually without resources.
A few examples will suffice.
In September 2001, Energy Minister Brian Wilson opened the Bears Down wind 'farm' in Cornwall despite 383 letters of objection and only 23 in support!
In mid-Wales’ Cambrian Mountains, the huge Cefn Croes wind ‘farm’ was approved by the Ceredigion County Council against 253 letters of objection and 586 signatures on a petition. This was balanced by 130 letters of support and 130 collected signatures. Most of the objections were local and most of the support from "away" and a large number of the latter were from the employees of Cambrian Energy, Bangor, builder of the turbine towers. So there was a substantial majority against, and the CCC Senior Planning Officer also advised refusal in a 124 page report.
The installed capacity of Cefn Croes was to be more than 50 MW which meant that it was automatically referred to DTI for consent under S36 of the Electricity Act 1989. The DTI received 1350 objections or calls for a public inquiry but on May 23 2002 the DTI announced the formal consent for Cefn Croes. The 1350 objections were ignored and several hundred carefully drafted letters of objection were never mentioned.
Another example of the undemocratic overthrow of public opinion was the Scarweather Sand offshore wind ‘farm’, close to Porthcawl in the Bristol Channel. Scarweather was subject to the first ever Public Inquiry in the UK off-shore proposal and taking into consideration the 3,100 letters of objection to the scheme balanced against just nine letters of support written to Welsh Assembly, the Inspector recommended refusal, saying: -
“The visual impact of a windfarm in the specific location of this proposal would be so prominent when viewed from Porthcawl and its immediate area that I consider that the harmful effects on this view are sufficient to outweigh the benefits of this particular proposal.”
However a Planning Decision Committee, made up of four Welsh Assembly members, disagreed with the Inspector’s conclusion and recommended that permission should be granted. Who were these four planning experts? One farmer, one ex-hospital manager and two teachers who it transpired had been given a couple of hours coaching in the relevant matters of planning (and hopefully electricity supply).
As more schemes have been railroaded through ‘due process’, so the degree of opposition has risen. A total of 6,131 objections to the proposed 600 MW wind ‘farm’ on Lewis were been received by the Scottish Executive by 20 December 2005, of which 4,573 came from locals. For every person from the islands who wrote to support the joint Amec-British Energy project, 269 people wrote to object (Press and Journal 20/12/05).
Windfarms and the Planning System.
Planning Policy Statement 22 - Renewable Energy.
Map of the English Regions. Re-organising Local Government in England by "Region" is a long term strategy for the Government to undermine local control of Planning.
Regional Development Agencies