United Kingdom

United Kingdom

New twist in bitter permitting battle -- Advertising standards breached

"Untruthful," "exaggerated," and "misleading" is the verdict levelled by the UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) against a leaflet by opponents of a proposed wind farm in west Norfolk. But just days after its ruling, the ASA withdrew its adjudication, saying it should not have investigated the case in the first place. The ASA debacle is just the latest episode in one of the most bitter and precedent setting wind farm battles the UK has ever seen.

"Untruthful," "exaggerated," and "misleading" is the verdict levelled by the UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) against a leaflet by opponents of a proposed wind farm in west Norfolk. But just days after its ruling, the ASA withdrew its adjudication, saying it should not have investigated the case in the first place. The ASA debacle is just the latest episode in one of the most bitter and precedent setting wind farm battles the UK has ever seen.

The leaflet, distributed by protest group Fenland Landscape Against Turbines (FLAT) had urged residents of a west Norfolk village to vote in a parish poll in October 2007 against a proposed wind farm at Marshland St James. The ASA was forced to backtrack from its findings after a local councillor and objector to the wind farm pointed out that the poll constituted a legal referendum. "The ASA does not have a remit to adjudicate on political advertising," says the ASA's Olivia Campbell. That is up to the Electoral Commission, she adds.

Investigation

The ASA had spent six months investigating the case after developer Marshland Wind Farm Ltd challenged five specific claims in the leaflet. Before it withdrew its ruling, the ASA had upheld all five complaints. FLAT had alleged that the wind farm would lower house prices so much that homes would be worthless; lives could be ruined by noise and disturbance; wind turbines are not efficient; the wind farm would surround the village; and developers get huge subsidies and landowners would receive between £8000 and £15,000 per year per turbine.

The ASA ruled that all five claims breached the advertising code of practice on grounds of truthfulness and in three cases were unsubstantiated and could mislead. Bruce Pittingale, a consultant for Marshland Wind Farm, comments: "Although the ASA has now ruled that the FLAT leaflet falls outside its jurisdiction, the fact remains that the information was found to be and still is exaggerated, misleading and untruthful." He adds that the ASA claims to have acted in good faith throughout. "And we believe that it has."

The Marshland project, which is being developed by German company Notus, is slated for up to 19 Enercon turbines, also from Germany, planned in the flat fenland landscape of north-west Norfolk. The site is owned by a number of local farmers, who have found the project hindered by fair means and foul since the beginning. An 85 metre anemometer mast at the site was brought down by vandals and the farmers have been subjected to abuse from locals and threatening letters. As the level of opposition escalated, some of the farmers pulled out in 2007, leaving seven involved today.

Suicide

The battle escalated into tragedy last year, when one of the farmers, Richard Herbert, committed suicide. He had became depressed at the level of opposition to the plans. The 47-year-old father of three strapped on a weight and drowned himself in the Middle Level Drain, a local water course.

At the inquest, coroner William Armstrong commented: "He was in a dilemma. He wanted to support this scheme, but he was very, very worried about the opposition and people he thought were his friends were turning against him," according to local press reports. Armstrong recorded a verdict of suicide while suffering from extreme anxiety and agitated depression.

Herbert's wife remains involved with the project, even though her husband's brother, Rod Herbert, another of the farmers involved, has had bricks thrown through his windows, his Mercedes 4x4 set on fire, and an aeroplane based at an airfield he owns set alight. Property of another farmer was also subjected to an arson attack. FLAT distances itself from the violence; it condemns the vandalism and claims to run a peaceful and legal campaign.

Despite the hostility, Notus held local consultations and exhibitions in nearby villages earlier this year. Feelings ran high at some of the public meetings to discuss the plans. One had to be postponed after the developers received a number of threats. "We could not guarantee the safety of the general public or of our staff," says Pittingale.

Notus is working towards applying for planning consent, though Pittingale is unable to say when the company will be ready to lodge an application.

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