Huge new wind farms could be built in the North-East with residents losing any “meaningful” role in the planning process.
Critics fear local communities in areas like Northumberland and County Durham could be shut out of the process after the Government announced it will set the national planning strategy for major infrastructure projects – handing over the final decision on whether schemes go-ahead to an unelected commission.
Large-scale wind farms, motorways, power stations, airports and incinerators will be included in the new national framework covering the next 10 to 25 years.
An independent panel of experts – including planners, lawyers and environmentalists – will determine major schemes.
Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly told MPs the current system was slow and expensive and damaging because it delayed vital transport and energy schemes.
She insisted people would be consulted from the setting of national policy and through the planning process, with the commission listening to local concerns and allowing “open-floor” debates.
And there will be a new legal duty on developers to consult with the public and key groups such as environmental groups and heritage experts, while free access to planning advice will be expanded. But campaigners warned it could become easier to build large wind farms, while Friends of the Earth warned people could lose any “meaningful” role in the planning process.
Northumberland farmer Andrew Joicey, who lives in area proposed for wind turbines, stressed the need to listen to local concerns and questioned whether the overhaul was to do with getting approval for new nuclear power stations.
He added: “A by-product of the planning process will be that probably a lot more wind power stations will get through, although they produce by comparison very little power.”
Marina Pacheco, head of planning at the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), said the proposals would make it easier for big projects to get the green light. He said: “This could potentially make it easier to put up wind turbines in sensitive areas. There will be less chance for local people to be involved if there is a national policy statement. It would be very difficult for a local person to be engaged in that top-end consultation.”
North-East business chiefs gave a cautious welcome. CBI assistant regional director Liz Smith said Government support to ensure councils gave more weight to economic development through the planning system is vital for development.
A spokeswoman for Ms Kelly’s department confirmed the role of the independent commission, adding it was expected to receive between 10 and 25 applications a year.
By William Green
22 May 2007