Containing British Blight

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Europe's windiest country has a renewables policy which should provide a dynamic market for wind turbines. That policy, however, harbours the germs of a disease which is eating away at the foundations of the market and at the government's aim to shift to cleaner electricity. British planning blight is spreading like the plague (pages 34-39). Most people, from government ministers, to a majority of the public, to the struggling local sub-contractor for a wind project, agree that something must be done. But what?

Environment minister Michael Meacher seems to be at somewhat of a loss. Two months ago he visited Denmark, apparently in search of inspiration. But as Meacher no doubt discovered, transferring the experience of one country to the reality of another is not easy. Unlike Britain, Denmark is flat and spartan where it is windy -- and far from crowded. People cluster in towns and cities and country rambles are not a national pastime. This all makes devising planning policies for wind development a good deal easier. Neither does Denmark have to cope with a renewables policy which encourages developers to head for the windiest and most profitable sites. These often prove to be in areas of cherished scenic isolation, a recipe for trouble.

Planning and public perception are two sides of the same coin. Create a link between the benefits of a new building work and those affected by it, and half the battle is won. Nobody welcomes a motorway, a hospital, or a pig farm at the end of the garden, but a fast link to the metropolis can push up house prices in a country area, nearby medical help is a luxury -- and even a succulent home grown pork chop has its attractions. The advantages of electricity generating plant are a lot harder to get a fix on, especially if they are attached to a controversial new technology with a confused economic pedigree and doubtful sounding long term benefits.

Wind power is indeed a special case. It needs special regulations aimed at closing the gap between the perception of wind energy as a "good thing," and the acceptance of wind plant as a feature of the landscape. Planning is a local matter for local people, but their interests must not generally be given precedence over national policy on matters like defence and energy supply. The potential for head on collision here is clearly huge, but it can be averted. Think globally, act locally. Here is the first point for government action. Each local authority must be asked to make its contribution to the national energy aim. The second point for action is to make sure the British planning system's in-built safeguard against NIMBYism is working for wind. The edicts of a specific guidance note on wind plant planning are not being adhered to by government planning inspectors dealing with appeals against planning refusals. This must change. Third, the government must provide an antibody to the germ in its renewables policy, perhaps by making it competitively advantageous to develop lower wind speed sites.

The wind industry has a part to play too. Its environmental roots have encouraged a thick and bright green growth of foliage, almost a disguise. Too often the public has felt duped into envisioning fairy tale wind "parks" in the countryside. The reality has been an abrupt awakening. Wind power stations are not parks. They are a form of agricultural industry. As such they are subject to planning laws and regulations. With this in mind, the uproar from the Danish wind lobby this summer over the publication of a series of pamphlets outlining citizens' rights in the planning process, seems decidedly hypocritical. The cause of the lobby's fury? The inclusion of a pamphlet on wind turbines in a series which otherwise dwelt on such evils as motorways, railways, industrial buildings -- and pig farms.

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