United Kingdom

United Kingdom

UK focus: Wind fails to make friends

The planning system in England and Wales has been blamed for keeping the UK's rate of wind development low.

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But could developers do more to help themselves?

Wind power developers despair of the UK planning system. In many ways, it is easy to sympathise. Applications are rejected by councillors - local politicians - for almost every reason imaginable, 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 are frivolous or misinformed reasons. But do they do all they can to further their cause? Perhaps not. House builders and retailers normally employ public relations teams to consult the public and win local support for their planned projects before councillors consider them. These consultants say it remains fairly rare to be asked to work for a wind developer. This lack of communication can make it easier for opponents of wind to gain councillors' attention than for developers.

Winning hearts and minds

Gemma Grimes, planning adviser to the British Wind Energy Association (Bwea), says: "Local authority planning officers 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 win public support.

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 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 that 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 the wind industry that it should just be given planning permission for asking, and that doesn't happen."

In July, North Dorset District Council rejected Ecotricity's bid to build six 120-metre 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 takes an extremely brave councillor to stand up and support a wind farm."

Ecotricity's exasperated managing director Dale Vince says: "Two-thirds of all wind projects are refused by councils at the planning stage, yet 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," he complains. "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 council 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."

Hostile councils

That is the crux of the problem. Research by Roberts' company suggests 80% of the UK 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.

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