This report sets out the key conclusions and recommendations of the Committee for the Environment on its inquiry into wind energy, and the evidence considered by the Committee which led to those conclusions.
The terms of reference for the inquiry were:
- To assess the adequacy of PPS18 and related supplementary guidance in regulating proposals for wind turbines on a consistent and strategic basis, with due regard for emerging technologies and independent environmental impact assessment;
- To compare the perceived impact of wind turbine noise and separation distances with other jurisdictions and other forms of renewable energy development; and
- To review the extent of engagement by wind energy providers with local communities and to ascertain how this engagement may best be promoted. …
Key conclusions and recommendations
The Committee came to the following conclusions and recommendations after due consideration of the evidence before it.
The first term of reference relates primarily to the adequacy, or otherwise, of Planning Policy Statement 18 (PPS 18). The current policy is set out in PPS 18, with a slightly different approach proposed in the draft Single Strategic Planning Policy (i) to remove the significant weighting of wider environmental, economic and social benefits considerations, and (ii) to urge a cautious approach to the siting of turbines in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) or other designated landscapes. …
The Committee found that many submissions to the inquiry focused on perceived inadequacies of current planning procedures. Members expressed concerns that there may not be adequate consideration of the cumulative impact of turbines, but they recognised that balancing individual applications against cumulative effect is a wider issue across planning. The Committee recommends that procedures should be put in place so that a saturation point is clearly defined, rather than being a judgement call of individual planning officials.
The Committee considered the present situation in Northern Ireland where local councils have to devote finite resources to the investigation of noise complaints made against wind turbines. This contrasts with other areas of the UK where the developer is required to undertake investigation of any complaints and to demonstrate compliance with noise limits. The Committee therefore recommends that the standard conditions which were developed by the Institute of Acoustics, and which have been endorsed in Scotland, England and Wales, should be routinely attached to planning consents in Northern Ireland. …
Wind turbine noise and separation distance
The second term of reference of the inquiry focuses on wind turbine noise and separation distances from dwellings. This has been the most emotive aspect of the inquiry as many submissions detail the adverse impact perceived noise from wind turbines is having on the respondents’ day to day lives. From the evidence put before the Committee, it seems apparent that current guidelines in respect of permissible levels of noise are no longer adequate and that the research evidence available has increased significantly since 1997. The Committee therefore recommends that the Department should review the use of the ETSU-97 guidelines on an urgent basis, with a view to adopting more modern and robust guidance for measurement of wind turbine noise, with particular reference to current guidelines from the World Health Organisation.
The Committee was also concerned that there does not appear to be continuous long-term monitoring of noise from wind farms, either by developers or by the relevant public sector organisations. If such information were available it would introduce an objective measure of the noise output of turbines, as opposed to the projected noise impact produced by a desk-top exercise as part of the application process. This would provide both developers and planners with factual evidence and a useful assessment measure for future applications. The Committee recommends that the Department should bear responsibility for ensuring that arrangements be put in place for on-going long-term monitoring of wind turbine noise.
Following on from this, the Committee has heard evidence from local residents who are concerned about potentially harmful low-frequency noise emitting from wind turbines. The Committee is not in a position to determine the scientific basis for such information, but members believe that it warrants further investigation. The Committee therefore recommends that the Department, working with local universities, should commission independent research to measure and determine the impact of low-frequency noise on those residents living in close proximity to individual turbines and wind farms in Northern Ireland.
The Committee is aware that PPS 18 advises that a separation (or setback) distance of 500m, or 10 times rotor diameter, will generally apply to the siting of wind developments, but there is no indication given in the policy whether this is in relation to noise or to visual amenity. The Committee’s specialist advisor has indicted that, due to local topography, linear distance is less important than the robust actual measurement of noise, but it is obviously very relevant to the aspect of visual amenity. There are no generally agreed separation distances in other jurisdictions and the lack of prescription has given rise to a great deal of criticism from respondents.
The Committee has considered whether the current degree of flexibility should continue to be available to planners in assessing applications, but agreed instead that a minimum setback distance should now be determined by the Department. The Committee recommends that the Department, taking into account constraints on the availability and suitability of land for the generation of wind energy, should specify a minimum separation distance between wind turbines and dwellings. …
The final term of reference for the inquiry relates to the extent of engagement by wind energy providers with local communities and the promotion of such engagement. The Committee found that, although the wind industry is aware of the vital importance of engagement and is moving towards a more robust standardised approach (as exemplified by the recent publication of the NIRIG Community Best Practice Guidance 2014), many residents still feel marginalised in the whole process of siting wind developments near their homes.
The Committee believes that the views of the community must be given consideration by both planners and developers. Community concerns regarding visual amenity, noise and health, and the impact on house prices, are often not given due regard; and community groups trying to investigate or object to applications find the process resource-intensive and not transparent. This should not be seen as a mere box-ticking exercise – the views of residents need to be listened to, considered and, if possible, changes made to take account of these views. It is not just about preparing reports: there is a need to act on the findings.
The Committee believes that there should be timely and early engagement with communities. It recommends that the use of a community engagement toolkit should be made mandatory, as a useful measure of independence, and the list of statutory consultees should be widened to reflect all users of the countryside. …
The possible devaluation of homes, where wind developments have been sited in close proximity to existing dwellings, has been a contentious issue. While the Committee has been presented with emerging and contradictory research evidence on this, it believes that a scattered rural population – both those who have lived in the area for generations and those who have chosen to live in quiet scenic locations – has some cause for grievance. The Committee therefore recommends that the developer gives consideration to providing compensation where there is clear and compelling evidence of a significant drop in house value directly relating to the siting of a wind development. …
Download “Report on the Committee of the Environment’s Inquiry into Wind Energy”:
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Volume 4 (79 MB) 
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Volume 7 (100 MB)