Campaigners fear for the future of local democracy after a Norfolk council admitted it could be priced out of fighting an appeal that holds the key to a huge offshore windfarm plan.
North Norfolk District Council (NNDC) could face a £100,000 bill to oppose the appeal that has been lodged by Warwick Energy, after the council rejected its plan for miles of underground cables for its Dudgeon windfarm.
But its members have been told that they do not have the money to fund the battle – nor the potential costs it could be liable for if the appeal was lost.
The cash dilemma could force NNDC to bring the plan back before members after they made their decision to turn down the plans last month.
The situation has sparked concerns among campaigners who are fighting Warwick Energy’s bid to build a sub-station for the windfarm on land at Little Dunham, near Dereham.
Peter Gardner, a member of Little Dunham Action Group, thought it would be “totally, totally” wrong if the cost implications forced NNDC to change its mind.
He said planning was a “democratic process, it can’t be governed by a local authority’s finance or lack of finance”.
“If it’s a democratic process and members reject it then the council is duty bound in my view to support that decision, whatever the cost,” he added.
The council’s planning committee went against officers’ recommendations in January when they threw out Warwick’s proposal to lay 28km of cable to power the 168-turbine windfarm off the coast at Cromer.
The green energy firm lodged an appeal, which is set to be heard during a six-day public enquiry in the spring.
But to fight its corner NNDC will have to stump up the estimated six-figure sum to bring in a team of experts as its officers cannot support the reasons for refusal, as they recommended the plans.
The authority could also be hit with the extra bill for costs, which Warwick could seek to claim if NNDC cannot produce evidence to “substantiate” its reasons for refusal.
The financial implications are set to be discussed at the authority’s full council meeting on Wednesday where 2012/13s budget is due to be passed.
Helen Eales, NNDC leader, said if members decide to set aside the money needed for the appeal the financial effects will be felt for years to come.
“It will affect the next year’s (budget) and the following year,” she added. “And £100,000 is equivalent to about 2.5pc on council tax so we’re very concerned of the effects this could have if the council decides we have to put the money aside.”
Cabinet member Trevor Ivory said the council was now in a “rare” position but it had faced a similar situation during the Sheringham Tesco planning saga.
In July 2008 NNDC went up against the supermarket giant at an inquiry after members went against officers’ recommendations and turned down an application. Independent experts represented the council and won, but the chain went on to submit new plans which were passed in 2010.
Warwick’s plans to lay cables from Weybourne to Great Ryburgh have been on the cards since July 2010, but been deferred several times to allow further discussions about the project including the power lines’ precise route and the impact they could have on tourism and agriculture.
When they were finally discussed last month an initial vote to pass them was turned down by a majority of 9:3. A proposal to turn them down – on landscape and agricultural economy grounds – was passed by 7:5.
Mr Ivory said planning members would not have considered any cost issues when making their decision, as their votes must be based on planning grounds.
He added: “The issue for full council (on Wednesday) is not in any way to question whether they made the right or wrong decision. The issue for council is…that the applicant has now lodged an appeal and that appeal is going to be a very expensive thing for us to defend.
“The estimate being given is £100,000 – that isn’t in our budget for next year.”
If full council decides not to set aside the cash the planning committee will have to decide how it wants to defend its position, which Mr Ivory said was the “fundamental” question.
The cable appeal is the second planning battle Warwick is facing as it is currently pushing through proposals in the high court to build a sub-station at Little Dunham, which would provide the turbines’ link to the National Grid, after plans to build the structure were turned down in 2010.
The firm has been given permission to lay 17km of cables in the Breckland district that would link the north Norfolk lines to the sub-station.
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