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Wind Fails to Make Friends
Wind Power Monthly – October 2009

The planning system in England and Wales has been blamed for keeping the UK's rate of wind development low. But could developers do more to help themselves? By Mark Smulian

Wind power developers despair of the UK planning system. In many ways it is easy to sympathise. Applications rejected by councillors - local politicians - on every ground from visual intrusion to real or imaginary affects on birds.

Local councils decide applications initially. If they say "no", the developer may appeal to the Planning Inspectorate, a body that advises government ministers - a long and costly option with no guarantee of success.

Developers clearly get angry when projects are rejected for what they think frivolous or misinformed reasons. But do they do all they can to help themselves? Perhaps not. Housebuilders and retailers normally employ public relations teams to consult the public and win local support for major projects before councillors consider them. These consultants say it remains comparatively rare to be asked to work for a wind power developer.

This lack of communication can make it easier for opponents of wind power to gain councillors' attention than for developers.

Gemma Grimes, planning adviser to the British Wind Energy Association, says: "Local authority planners are mostly quite receptive and now have climate change adaptation as part of their remit. The problem is more with councillors who will turn down wind farms, even when planning officers' advice is to allow them, because constituents make claims about visual intrusion and noise."

BWEA, she adds, hopes to employ an officer to revive its 'Embrace' campaign to try to win over the public.

Bernice Roberts, principal environmental planner at planning consultancy Landmark Practice, who has helped wind developers win three applications in the Bristol area, agrees that specialist community engagement is needed. "Our advice to developers is to make sure all the information wind developers give is accurate and defensible," she says.

"That sounds like common sense, but we find they think that just because they are 'green' and virtuous they ought to get planning permission just for the asking." Roberts points out that a section of the public supports wind power, because of concerns about climate change, and she feels the industry should do more to harness their goodwill. "You get a lot of wind developers who don't talk to stakeholders early enough," she says. "Yet they need to know what the local problems are."

"I asked at one training session how many had, and only two hands went up. It is no good thinking that any planner will see wind power as some moral priority." Robin Hutchinson, a director of the Green Brain consultancy, says conventional energy generators, are more sophisticated in how they deal with the public, and wind is having to catch up with that.

"There is a feeling in that industry that it should just be given planning permission for asking, and that doesn't happen."

In July, North Dorset District Council in July rejected Ecotricity's bid to build six 120m turbines at Silton. A six-hour meeting, ironically interrupted by a power cut, saw 300 objectors attend. Faced with that, councillors unanimously rejected the project. Roberts comments: "In a case like North Dorset it take an extremely brave councillor to stand up and support a wind farm."

Ecotrcity's exasperated managing director Dale Vince says: "Two thirds of all wind projects are refused by councils at the planning stage, and two thirds of all appeals are upheld by the government. So a lot of bad decisions are being overturned - eventually.

"Councils are not up to the job, on the whole. Their actions have resulted in years of unnecessary delays, cost council tax payers tens of thousands of pounds, and prevented the generation of millions of kilowatt hours of renewable electricity."

Vince, who is considering a revised application, wants decisions on wind power installations made at national level. But North Dorset's leader Peter Webb disagrees: "People who choose to live in a place like North Dorset do so because it is a quiet rural setting and when you have people who want to put in a very visual intrusion, and perhaps affect the value of their property, it seems unjust to them," he says.

"We have got to develop economic alternative sources of energy. But they can be better placed than in the south of England, which is densely populated." That is the crux of the problem. Research by Roberts' company suggests 80% of the public support wind power, but only 30% want it generated near their home.

One extreme was East Northamptonshire Council's attempt at a near-blanket ban on turbines in its area's rural north. A planning inspector told the council to rethink this, despite admitting the policy enjoyed wide public support. An East Northamptonshire spokeswoman says: "In the most cases, wind farm proposals lead to substantial local opposition. The need for wind turbines to be prominent in order to maximise their efficiency and capacity inevitably means that these often impact upon rural landscapes with open aspects."

In April, Enertrag lost a legal battle to build six turbines at Guestwick, in Norfolk. These had been rejected both by Broadland District Council and a planning inspector. The company then won a court order requiring reconsideration, but a second inspector also rejected the scheme and the company tried unsuccessfully to persuade England's High Court to order yet further consideration. Enertrag UK's manager of projects David Lindley has made five planning applications. Only one has been successful, at North Pickerham, also in Norfolk. He says: "The problem with the planning system is that at a local level decisions are political. But once things get to a planning inspector the decisions are all technical. I think where a wind farm is big enough to sell power to National Grid it should be decided by the government on an inspector's advice, it's too important nationally to be left to local decision."

Councils would resist any attempt to reduce their powers over turbines, which makes it hard to see how enough can be built in the UK to meet renewable generation objectives unless the industry does a better job of winning over public opinion.

The north-south divide

Any topic as contentious as the siting of wind power is bound to be the subject of claim and counter-claim. One that periodically surfaces is that planning permission is in fact being given for ample amounts of turbines if one aggregates the UK total, and that the government target of 14gw from the sector by 2020 will therefore be met without great difficulty.

This irks the BWEA because the planning problem is at its worst in England, the most populous of the four countries in the union and where its members most wish to build. Eight-four per cent of the UK population lives in England, and all but a handful of the nation's major cities are located within its boarders.

It therefore make sense to site turbines as near as possible to where this demand is, rather than in distant locations from which it is less efficient to draw power, not least because the National Grid was designed to transmit power to outlying regions, not from them.

According to the BWEA, in 2008 there were applications made to build 53 wind farms in England with a total capacity of 602.2mw, and just 22 in Scotland but with 764.4mw capacity. Wales and Northern Ireland had 11 submissions each, totalling 459mw.

Actual planning permission was granted for 29 projects each in England and Scotland last year, but the 1,601mw capacity granted in Scotland totalled more than three times England's 471mw.

There were 27 planning refusals in England for projects that would have generated 292mw and only nine refusals in Scotland, but the latter would have given 1,065mw. "The problem is that to hit the target the rest of the capacity needed must come from England because there are now fewer available sites in Scotland," says BWEA communications director Charles Anglin.

"And it is in England that we are getting a 50% rejection rate on planning applications from councils."