Proposals to build one of the West’s biggest wind farms on an ancient site left residents reeling when they were announced last year but protesters were able to breathe a sigh of relief when planning chiefs turned down the application.
But emotions were running high once again yesterday as the long-awaited planning inquiry into the refusal opened in Burnham-on-Sea – the result of which could either revolutionise renewable energy production in Somerset or destroy one of the county’s most historic villages, depending on your point of view.
Wind power company Ecotricity Ltd had its plans to build five turbines on land at the foot of Somerset Levels landmark Brent Knoll scuppered by Sedgemoor District Council last August. But the firm is hopeful that the eight-day inquiry will lead government-appointed planning inspector Robin Brookes to overturn the decision and allow them to proceed with the development.
However, Mr Brookes will have to be convinced that the benefits of the turbines outweigh the impact on the village and surrounding areas.
An expectant Princess Theatre in Burnham was the setting for the opening, with more than 60 members of the public in attendance.
The inquiry heard from Ecotricity barrister Marcus Trinick who argued that five 390ft triple-blade turbines at Inner Farm in Brent Marsh along with a substation would generate 10kW of electricity – enough to power more than 10,000 houses in the area.
He said: “This proposal has come forward as a direct response to the government’s policies on climate change and renewable energy.
“There are now challenging targets for renewable energy by 2010.
“At least with these challenges, one might expect that local planning authorities would have stepped up to the mark and sought to grant permission for commercial wind energy development. Regrettably, this has not been the case.”
Despite being firmly in support of clean energy, Sedgemoor District Council, Burnham and Highbridge Town Council and Brent Knoll Parish Council are united in their anger at the plans and are convinced that the development would shatter the tranquility of the village, damage its heritage and even put public safety at risk.
Speaking on behalf of Sedgemoor Council, Gavin Collitt said: “The council is not against renewable energy but against its impact on the residents of Brent Knoll and on the character of the area.
“The council believes there will be a serious impact on the visual amenity. It will cast a rhetorical shadow and a real shadow on the area.”
The council’s development control manager Christine Mills told the inquiry that meeting government targets was a regional challenge and not the sole responsibility of Sedgemoor.
She said: “When we talk about the Government’s renewable energy targets we are talking about national and regional involvement. It goes towards that target but it would not have a major input.
“The 10 per cent of energy production that is supposed to be renewable by 2010 may be achieved by the South West as a whole or even by Somerset but there is nothing to suggest that Sedgemoor would be able to meet this target. It is not a Sedgemoor target, it’s national.”
Ms Mills also said that there were other projects in the county set to significantly increase the production of green energy and demonstrate Somerset’s commitment to combating climate change.
She said: “There are two wind turbine schemes in progress in the area. One is at Hinkley Point where proposals have been submitted and one in the Mendips that will go ahead. The major project is the Severn Barrage.
“This has been referred to in a government White Paper and is a nationally important scheme. The council fully recognises the need for green energy but only where it is suitable.”
Almost 60 letters of objection have been submitted to the inquiry and local lobby group kNOll to Wind Farm has produced evidence to suggest the turbines would severely damage the area and create many problems.
Although Brent Knoll is not in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a case for the protection of its archaeological heritage and ancient sites will be put forward.
Detailed research carried out by archaeologist and historian Heather James has revealed that Brent Knoll’s history stretches back to the Bronze Age with a significant hill fort, Roman remains and Saxon sites peppering the area. She said: “Brent Knoll Iron Age hill fort is the most visible and ancient monument in Brent Marsh. It is a Scheduled Ancient Monument of national importance.”
The inquiry heard that several listed buildings in the area could be affected by the turbines and that the view of the landscape would be effectively ruined.
Tina Douglas, representing kNOll to Wind Farm, said: “Visitors are drawn to the area and enjoy the 360-degree aspect that they can see from the Knoll.
“It represents 2,500 years of man’s influence and cannot be recreated anywhere else.”
Safety issues have also caused concern among residents and protester Dr Janet Pascoe told the Western Daily Press that she fears the turbines could pose a threat to motorists and train drivers. She said: “It is a instinctive reaction for one’s eye to be drawn to moving objects and this will be no exception.
THE site is just minutes from the M5 and will be seen by drivers. It is potentially very dangerous and in my view, safety should be paramount.
“There are three unmanned level crossings on the train line in the area and train drivers will have the same problem. It is unfair to put people at risk in this way.” Yesterday, Ecotricity raised a proposal to scrap one of the turbines and build four instead. Mr Brookes can choose to approve the original or amended plan or reject both.
Ms Mills said that the reduced development would not affect the council’s objections and would only serve to compound the issue.
She explained: “The impact on the landscape is no different but there will be a fairly major reduction in production.”
The inquiry is expected to close next Wednesday. If given the go-ahead, the wind farm would be the biggest approved so far in the West outside Devon and Cornwall.
8 August 2007
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