At the best of times, the planning process is a lumbering beast, beset with protocol, formality and enough technical jargon to merit its own dictionary.
A garden fence, a new garage or a whole housing estate can quickly become an epic battle.
It can split communities and pit neighbour against neighbour.
The fate of a development can be decided in minutes, or strung out over years, with deferrals, appeals and public inquiries.
But what happens when four major – and highly controversial – developments all fall in for decision at the same time?
On May 29, Berwick Borough Council planning committee will have to rule on three wind farm applications.
Moorsyde, near Allerdean, and Wandylaw, on the boundary with Alnwick District near North Charlton, have 10 turbines each, Barmoor, near Lowick, nine.
And plans for another 18, just over the boundary in Alnwick District, are already being scrutinised by the Department of Trade and Industry.
Because the bid, known as Middlemoor, will generate over 50 megawatts, the district council has been reduced to the role of “statutory consultee”, with the final decision likely to be taken by Government following a public inquiry.
But all four applications face substantial local opposition – Berwick Borough’s from Moorsyde Action Group and Soul (Save Our Unspoiled Landscape).
Facing them is a small but vocal core of pro-wind activists, known as We Want Wind at Moorsyde, who say the global benefits outweigh the local impact.
In Alnwick District farmer Robert Thorp is leading the fight, but he also has a direct interest at Wandylaw – technically in Berwick Borough, but next door to his farm.
“The wind farm planned in Alnwick District will be decided by the DTI,” says Mr Thorp.
“Wandylaw, however, will be decided by Berwick Borough Council – even though it will be so close to Middlemoor that the two combined will appear as a single cluster.
“It’s quite an incredible situation we’re facing.
“We say both should be decided at the same public inquiry, because of their proximity.”
For Alnwick District Council, however, the prospect of even a single major public hearing will not be greeted with much relish.
The council, as statutory consultee, objected to the Middlemoor scheme, on the grounds of its impact on the landscape.
As a result, the DTI is now obliged to hear all the evidence at a public inquiry, at enormous cost to the local taxpayer.
As well as appointing barristers, who can charge thousands of pounds per day, there is the huge amount of officer time preparing the council’s case.
Add to that the cost of a venue, the enormous amounts of printed material needed, officer time for appearing at the hearing, and the prospect of paying substantial costs to the developer if they win, and you have a real headache for the finance department.
For smaller applications, such as those in Berwick Borough, developers also have the chance of financial recourse if their bids are rejected.
If they win an appeal to reverse a council decision, there’s the very likely imposition of legal fees, expenses and compensation payable to the applicant. And for councils which dither in decision-making, there’s what is called “non-determination”, which can again leave them liable to costs incurred by the developer.
The wind farm companies, too, must grapple with the planning system.
Not least in actually finding a site considered “acceptable” for development, usually constrained within a local framework drafted at regional level.
Then they must apply to and negotiate with planning departments, hold public consultations and provide independent scoping reports on every minute detail.
Your Energy MD Richard Mardon, is behind the Moorsyde development.
During its two years in the planning system it has been scaled down from 27 turbines to 14, then 10, been the subject of multiple reports and surveys, subjected to intense scrutiny from objectors, deferred by councillors several times and faced legal challenges. Mr Mardon said: “Major projects like this should be determined within four months, so we have experienced a considerable delay.
“Some of this delay is understandable … but it is frustrating that, given our delays, other projects have caught up and the meeting in May will determine two other projects.
“There is still no reason that Berwick cannot determine all three at the same time and it is totally inappropriate for central government to get involved.”
But communities, councils and companies across the North can perhaps be assured of one thing.
They too can expect the same dilemmas, deliberations and determinations as those now experiencing the “wind-rush”.
By Robert Brooks, The Journal
27 April 2007
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