The Welsh wind industry has warned of a “two tier” planning system that would see smaller renewable energy projects running into difficulties, while the process is improved for large installations.
Under the government’s Planning Bill, currently moving through the House of Lords, the final planning decision will be taken by a panel of independent experts called the Infrastructure Planning Commission.
This would be instead of the Secretary of State for industry taking the decision under the Electricity Act.
But, smaller projects could see final appeals decided by local authorities under the revised planning rules – as the government seeks to reinforce local democracy’s role in the planning system.
Speaking at the BWEA Cymru conference in Cardiff yesterday, Vincent Kane, Chairman of event sponsors Windpower Wales, said: “There is a danger that the Planning Bill refers only to projects of 50MW and above, leading to a two-tier planning system. We need to ensure projects of less than 50MW get a similar treatment.”
“Designed to delay”
Mr Kane described the Planning Bill’s proposals for local authorities to handle planning appeals for smaller projects – rather than the Independent Planning Commission – as “designed to delay”.
“We accept local democracy arguments that local authorities should be on site to inspect the project and make sure it ticks all the boxes,” he said. “But it is extremely frustrating when some councillors decide they don’t like wind farms, for no reason but a personal prejudice.”
“Renewable energy has to be the way forward, as part of a new approach. I mean, they could be saying ‘I don’t like abattoirs, but I like my steak rare’ – instead, it’s ‘I don’t like wind farms, but I like my television on.'”
Mr Kane’s company has recently secured planning permission for its first wind project, along with partners Brenig Wind Ltd, a 16-turbine development in Denbighshire that should generate 40MW from 2012.
Speaking at the conference held at the St David’s Hotel in Cardiff Bay, Mr Kane also stressed the need for wind developers to engage with local communities early in the process of planning new developments.
Mr Kane said: “Our industry is not labour intensive but it is socially intensive – wherever there are wind farms, there are people. The consent of the people is essential for a fine exemplary wind farm. Every house has to be knocked – we have to convince every household.
“We have to win, but we need to take people seriously, and we need to start early,” Mr Kane added.
Mr Kane said landowners were keen on the long-term rental of their fields for wind, but recommended setting up some kind of community benefit fund to get other neighbours on side.
Windpower Wales is already offering householders and businesses in the community near its proposed installation the chance to buy shares, to give them a sense of ownership and direct benefit from the project. Around 50 have taken up the offer so far.
The plea for early consultation was backed by Dr Maggie Hill, a regional manager for the Countryside Council for Wales, which gives advice and information to developers and consultants concerning developments like wind farms.
“Early consultation does help us to reduce risks in planning your project,” Dr Hill said. “We welcome early engagement – those who keep us updated on where you are will keep us on side. However, it’s not us holding this up most of the time.”
Dr Hill went on to warn of rushed planning applications failing to include all necessary information, including insufficient surveys that sometimes fail to map sensitive areas like peat bogs.
Offering feedback to wind developers in the audience, she suggested that photomontages should not be designed to minimise the apparent visual impact, saying: “We would like to see environmental impact statements that accept there is going to be an impact.
“Using vertically challenged photographers standing behind a fence is no good – get rid of the foreground clutter – do you really admire a view from behind a shed?”
Dr Hill also urged developers to cooperate with adjacent developments, and to ensure they take account of cumulative impacts from locating wind farms near to other projects.
10 July 2008