Since 2009 Allerdale council has spent more than £140,000 defending three high profile wind farm planning appeals which it subsequently lost, despite huge public opposition.
The decisions of Government planning inspectors to overturn locally made decisions, informed by a wealth of public concern, has left some people questioning whether it is worth residents campaigning against proposals that they fear could spoil their communities.
Last month, Solway councillor Jim Lister refused to vote on plans for a wind monitoring mast at Mealsgate near Aspatria – thought to be the precursor to a wind farm application – amid concern that to vote for it would go against the villagers’ wishes while voting against it was likely to lead to a costly appeal.
Leading politicians, however, have urged West Cumbrian residents not to be disheartened.
They say that local views are imperative to democracy and that, as the Government moves further towards the principle of ‘localism’, it will have to start giving them greater weight.
Workington MP Tony Cunningham said: “If you don’t fight they’ll walk all over you. If the Government really does believe in localism, as it claims to, then it really needs to listen.”
Planning applications for wind turbines are dealt with by Allerdale council like any other plan for development, with nearby residents among those consulted and all material planning issues – matters such as visual impact, effects on wildlife and health concerns rather than personal feelings – considered alongside any benefits.
They differ, however, both in terms of the strength of public opinion they generate, often through a combination of their reported inefficiency and their impact on the Cumbrian landscape, and the fact that renewable energy is one area in which the Government sees development as being of national significance, weighing public opinion against the wider benefit of providing power for the country.
This balance, according to Allerdale council’s strategic manager for business Jill Elliott, poses some difficulty for the public.
She said: “Central government believes that in most cases generating energy is the overriding thing, and local concerns need to be set aside to allow the generation of energy in all but exceptional circumstances.
“I think in general local people don’t understand that. They don’t see why it shouldn’t be them as a local community who have the final say in whether a wind farm is or isn’t built.”
The message from the Government in recent months seems to have been one of overruling public concern.
Plans for the Hellrigg wind farm at Parkhead Farm, Silloth, were passed at an appeal which cost the council £66,202.14 in planning and advocacy costs, despite 1,080 letters of objection.
The planning appeal for Hill Farm at Tallentire, near Cockermouth, which attracted 1,570 objection letters, cost the council £38,083.19 and, despite 1,850 letters against a planned wind farm at Warwick Hill Farm, Westnewton, near Aspatria, it was permitted at appeal, costing the council £39,282.40.
Approval at appeal is not a foregone conclusion for wind farm developers, however, and in September last year a planning inspector upheld Allerdale council’s decision to refuse permission for a turbine alongside a proposed new dwelling at Beech Hill, Oughterside, near Aspatria, when concerns about potential noise and harm to bats were raised.
Cumbria County Council leader Eddie Martin is a staunch campaigner against the imposition of wind farms on West Cumbria and has written many letters to ministers, calling for the public to have a greater say in planning decisions and for the true efficiency of wind power and the financial subsidies paid to developers to be fully appreciated.
He said he would urge anyone concerned about a planned wind farm to do what they could to fight it.
Coun Martin said: “These things descend on us like a swarm of locusts and eat up our countryside. We must continue to fight. We must not be demoralised.
“If local communities don’t want wind farms then if localism is to work and local communities are genuinely to be taken account of and planning is to be more than a cosmetic exercise, eventually the Government must sit up and take notice. My message to the community is to fight with all you have got.”
Mr Cunningham said: “Planning policy should, if it’s at all possible, mirror what local people want, and if that’s fairly obvious then it should happen.
“We have done more than our bit for low carbon energy. The Government should listen and accept that. It’s demeaning the environment in which we live and it’s potentially damaging to the tourist community which we are trying to better in West Cumbria.
“The Government prides itself in localism. It’s always worth fighting. In my view the campaigners have right on their side.”
Allerdale council is looking at its local planning policies to see if they can be altered to remain in line with national policy but help locally control where wind farms go.
Local views are not the top concern for everyone, however.
Jill Perry, of Bullgill, Green Party member and Friends of the Earth campaigner, said: “There are times when global issues like climate change have to take precedence over local issues, like views, and it is right that in rural areas not of particular landscape value wind turbines can be built. Planning is not an issue over which local areas ever have or can hold veto.”
Coun Michael Heaslip, Allerdale council’s executive member for locality working, said that although the Localism Bill will include a lot of opportunities for the Government to overrule local decisions, local views should count.
He said: “Whitehall doesn’t always win; they had to back down over forests, and there’s a growing campaign against nationally imposed planning policies which always favour the developer irrespective of local considerations and the views of local people. If enough people object, and shout loud enough, they will eventually get heard.”
Coun Peter Bales, Allerdale council’s development panel chairman, said the cost of the planning process should not be the main consideration with wind farm applications.
He said “If it costs £1million it’s worth it because it’s democracy.”
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