The future of wind energy has hit the headlines with questions over the amounts of subsidy, economic value and technical efficiency raising doubts over levels of future investment in the industry. The chairman of the National Trust was widely quoted as describing wind turbines as a menace to the countryside.
This is a timely debate in Cornwall. The council is preparing its core strategy, the planning document that will shape Cornwall for the next 20 years, and a key element is the provision of renewable energy.
The council’s preferred option is to see an eightfold increase in the installed capacity of renewable energy from current levels, almost half of which could come from wind energy.
To reach this target will require a significant increase in the number and size of wind turbines in the county and the question of where these turbines should be located will almost certainly divide opinion.
Across the UK nearly half of all planning applications for onshore wind turbines were refused in 2010, up from a third the previous year, suggesting that opposition to this form of development is hardening.
This is despite a national policy to increase the amount of renewable energy produced in the country to both mitigate the effects of climate change and provide security of supply.
The response to this trend in Cornwall has been to raise awareness of national renewable energy targets among members of council planning committees, yet much of the opposition to wind turbines comes from a more local concern about their impact on the landscape.
This is more than a question of personal taste and the physical appearance of the turbines themselves; it’s about determining the impact of development on the character of the Cornish landscape.
Much of Cornwall’s landscape is characterised by a sense of remoteness, undeveloped skylines, intricate field patterns, small-scale features and high scenic quality (more than a third of the county is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). It is these characteristics that are threatened by a proliferation of wind turbines – tall, vertical features that break skylines, increase the perceived human influence on the landscape, introduce movement into remote places and compete with landmark features.
Striking a balance between the need for renewable energy and adverse impact on the landscape is the challenge, and meeting it needs well-informed decision-making.
The importance of the landscape to the people of Cornwall, to the county’s economy and to its many visitors is well known, but perhaps the landscape itself is not sufficiently understood.
Attention to renewable energy targets does not help determine whether the development is in the right place.
Planning committees should be encouraged to understand more about what it is that makes the Cornish landscape special.
Tools have been developed to help in this, in particular landscape assessment and the means of determining the capacity of the landscape to accommodate wind and other renewable energy developments.
These are in place now, but filed among the technical documents used to help inform the core strategy and other planning documents.
There is a need to take this information out of the realm of the specialist and the professionals and make it truly accessible to the public whose landscape is impacted upon and to the committee members who will decide whether or not to grant planning permission for these controversial developments over the next two decades.
For more information on this environment series visit the website www.cornwall-aonb.gov.uk
For more on the wind turbine debate, see pages 34 and 35.
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