An unelected quango could approve new wind farms across the region with residents having little say, it was last night claimed.
Hexham MP Peter Atkinson said the ability of residents to challenge wind farms would be “hugely diminished” after the Government proposed sharply increasing powers of an unelected planning commission.
Planning applications are currently decided by local councils or can be “called in” by ministers and be subject to public inquiries. But under a new Planning Bill, wind farm schemes with capacity to generate more than 50 megawatts of power would be decided by an infrastructure planning commission (IPC).
And ministers yesterday tabled an amendment that could “cluster” together separate wind farm applications for IPC approval, even if they produce less than 50 megawatts. The Government said there would be public consultation in developing new national policy planning statements, which the IPC will have to consider. The IPC would carry out public consultation over schemes of “national significance”, it added.
But Tory MP Peter Atkinson questioned how three current wind farm applications in Northumberland would have been treated under the proposed system, which will not be retrospective and not be established until 2009.
The schemes at Green Rigg Fell near Birtley, on the Ray Estate, and at Kirkwhelpington in the Tyne Valley could see 59 turbines built and are being considered in a public inquiry – with ministers making a ruling later this year after the hearing ends. “If they put in multi-applications and they were directed to the new commission and because the Government has said its policy is to increase renewable energy and have new wind farms, the opportunity of local people to oppose them would be hugely diminished,” said Mr Atkinson.
Anti-wind campaigner Geoff O’Connell, an independent councillor on Berwick Council, branded the changes as “nothing less than an opportunity for windfalls for Government placemen and a return to the rotten boroughs”.
Npower Renewables, which is behind plans for a major Northumberland wind farm, said residents and councils would continue to be heavily involved – with interested parties dealing with the IPC rather than the Government.
It is seeking permission to erect 18 turbines, 125m high, at Middlemoor, North Charlton, near Alnwick, that could generate up to 75 megawatts.
A public inquiry took place last November, with a report due to be considered by the Government – with a decision possible towards the end of the year.
John Ainslie, the firm’s head of consents, said it would be good to make the planning process more transparent and efficient with nobody benefiting from the existing slow system. He added developers would be formally required to consult more with local people before submitting plans to the IPC, which his company already does as a responsible business.
Local Government Minister John Healey said the Government could direct the IPC to consider “clusters” of projects and to take account of their cumulative effect.
by William Green
3 June 2008
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