Approval for wind farms flies in face of minister's pledge to listen
Two-thirds of the most recent planning appeals by wind turbine firms have been upheld by inspectors, despite Conservative claims that communities would have more power to block schemes.
In nine out of the last 14 cases considered, council refusal was overturned – including plans for two small masts beside an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) in Cornwall.
Campaigners said that the planning inspectorate appeared to be flying in the face of local sentiment and guidance issued by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles which was billed by senior Tories as a "bomb proof set of safeguards" from excessive development.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has described the revised policy advice as a "small step" but said it had detected a "hardening of attitudes" in the approach of councils to unpopular schemes.
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Bob Barfoot, spokesman for the CPRE in Devon, said the snapshot of 14 projects was too small a sample to draw any definitive conclusion, but pointed out that the appeal rate of 64% was "worse than before".
"I cannot see that it is making any difference – nothing has improved," he said, adding: "The recent changes are small steps but they are going to reduce confidence among investors – it could be that the Prime Minister may be talking about new policy deterring new schemes."
Analysis of Planning Inspectorate decisions since the guidance was outlined at the beginning of June shows that in only five schemes were refusals upheld.
Of the nine turbine decisions overturned, some were in AONBs, all had been heavily opposed locally and attracted official opposition from bodies including the CPRE and English Heritage.
Some were approved because inspectors ruled the "imperatives" of addressing "the effects of climate change" outweighed objections.
The Cornish scheme, for two 50ft masts generating 20kW each at South Torfrey Farm, Golant, was opposed by the council's AONB unit and English Heritage.
Nevertheless, the inspector, Anthony Thickett, said he didn't consider the towers would have an impact on the character and appearance of the Cornwall AONB. Nor did he feel they would impact on the setting of heritage assets at St Sampson's Church and Lanherriot Farmhouse.
He said he had "given careful consideration to the recent ministerial statement" but concluded that the "public benefits arising from the renewable energy generated outweighs the less-than- substantial harm".
The inspectorate is currently considering more than 200 turbine proposals throughout the country. Campaigners fear that if its pattern of approvals continued, the effect of 150 new schemes would be to spread turbines into previously unspoilt areas.
Neville Thomas QC, of the National Opposition to Windfarms campaign group, said: "While the details of the ministerial statement in June were not cast in stone, the message was very clear and it is equally clear that its message has been blatantly ignored by planning officers."
A Planning Inspectorate spokesman said inspectors were "rigorously trained" on policy.
"Every case is judged on its merits and on the evidence placed before the inspector, who is required to give sound reasons for his judgment in each decision."
A DCLG spokesman said the guidance had not yet had an effect. "Planning appeals typically take three to six months, so the appeals before July 29 will have been based on the practice before the ministerial statement," he added.
Turbine would have 'detrimental effect on MoD air traffic control'
Defence officials have objected to a planned wind turbine in South Devon, saying it will affect military radar.
They claim the 284ft (86.5m) turbine in Ermington would cause “unacceptable interference” with air operations around Plymouth, eight miles away.
South Hams District Council (SHDC), which received the objection, will make a decision later this year after the parish council also objected.
Developer REG Windpower, which operates 12 wind farms around the UK, is planning a single turbine at Luson Farm near Ermington. But the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said in the letter to SHDC that the radar at HMS Cambridge in Plymouth, which oversees flights by military aircraft in and out of Plymouth, would be affected.
It said: “Wind turbines have been shown to have detrimental affects on the performance of MoD air traffic control and range control radars.
“These include the desensitisation of radar in the vicinity of turbines and the creation of ‘false’ aircraft returns which air traffic controllers must treat as real.”