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United Kingdom

ARE THE HURDLES GETTING HIGHER?

Is it really so difficult to get wind developments past Britain's planners? The recent crop of planning refusals would suggest so. But of the 67 schemes with contracts under the latest round of support, the large majority have so far not been determined. Of the 18 contracts that have been decided upon, 11 have consent while only seven have been refused. Developers are becoming more sensitive to planning and the British Wind Energy Association's Best Practice Guidelines should help avoid projects likely to whip up opposition.

As one wind project after another falls victim to the UK planning process, a question inevitably springs to mind -- is it really so difficult to get wind developments past Britain's planners? The most recent casualty, a proposal for three turbines at Lowick Beacon in Cumbria, was the type of scheme which could be held up as a model. A small-scale development put forward by local people with sound green credentials, support from environmental groups and with profits to be ploughed back into the local environment. If a planning authority can high-handedly dismiss Lowick Beacon, what hope is there for a fair hearing for UK wind energy?

The recent crop of refusals would seem to indicate that the tide of planning decisions has indeed turned against wind energy. The Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales has reaffirmed its commitment to oppose all proposed wind farms in Wales. Anti-wind farm campaigner Country Guardian, whose letters appear in newspapers the length of the country, is also busily lobbying local authorities. Moreover, as every planned wind development these days automatically generates its very own opposition group is it any wonder that locally elected representatives sitting on planning committees are swayed by all this clamour? After all, they are only human -- their advisers too, as electricity company SWALEC discovered. Its application for 41 turbines was turned down after a presentation by the authority planning officer which the utility angrily describes as impassioned and "emotional."

Not so bad

But before we dismiss the British planning system as irrevocably set against wind, let us look again. If we examine the 67 schemes that won contracts under the latest round of support in Britain, we find that the large majority of projects have either so far not been determined by the local authority or they have not even applied yet for planning permission. And of the 18 contracts that have been decided upon, 11 have consent while only seven have been refused. Of course it is still early days, and the government has stated clearly that it expects only half of contracted renewable projects to clear all obstacles to commissioning. Most people in the British wind industry will also recall Energy Minister Tim Eggar's words of 18 months ago when -- apparently trying to placate objectors -- he predicted that only 20 or so wind farms would result from the third round of the Non Fossil Fuel Obligation, NFFO-3.

In all probability, however, Eggar may have greatly underestimated the number of wind schemes that will eventually be realised. Thanks to the five year development period allowed by NFFO-3, developers are not under as much pressure to complete projects quickly as they were in previous NFFO rounds. They have a generous breathing space to enable full local consultation and dissemination of information. In addition, the British Wind Energy Association's own Best Practice Guidelines show the standards it expects of its members. So there are no excuses for a repetition of the industry's past mistakes in over-hasty and insensitive development.

Signs are that developers like Manweb are heeding the concerns of local people. But how much better it would be if they took local views into account much earlier in the planning process -- while preparing a planning application rather than after it has been submitted and has stirred up such controversy. Some companies, though, are playing it according to the rulebook with promising results. More are nowadays taking their time to keep local communities fully informed, particularly in the early stages of development. And press reports indicate that National Wind Power's practice of arranging visits for local planning committees -- and even members of the local community -- to existing wind farms has led to a softening of attitudes towards wind. As NWP's Peter Musgrove rightly comments: "There is no substitute for people being able to see and hear a wind farm for themselves." Whether all this translates into the vital letter of planning consent remains to be seen.

How much should we read into the column inches devoted to Country Guardian's views or the implacable opposition of Welsh countryside groups? At the end of the day, CPRW and their ilk do themselves no good by condemning all wind farms. By removing themselves from any credible debate they are marginalising their voice. Contrast their approach with that of the Council for the Protection of Rural England. The CPRE values wind's contribution towards an environmentally sustainable energy future. To expect a countryside group to support all wind projects would be naive. The CPRE judges all schemes on their individual merits. But by seeking to influence the ways in which renewables are developed, it could prove to be a valuable ally or, in the case of some developers, an opponent to be reckoned with.

As for Country Guardian, its most effective arena of operation is at the local level. And it is there, through each individual developer, that the industry must deploy its resources to counter a stream of misinformation that finds its target most efficiently where there is a vacuum of any other kind of information. It is at the local level that the industry must press home its most powerful message. That if we do not use the means at our disposal to stem the effects of pollution and climate change, then what will become tomorrow of the landscapes that we are so busily defending today.

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