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Council makes Fife windfarm mistake

Council planners rubber-stamped an application for a windfarm which should have been decided by a committee of councillors, The Courier can reveal.

Airvolution Energy got the go-ahead to erect two 100-metre high turbines next to a chemical plant near Cowdenbeath last year, but Fife Council has since admitted that officials should not have signed it off.

The error only came to light after a Lochgelly resident wrote to the local authority to complain about the lack of scrutiny by politicians.

In a letter of reply seen by The Courier, lead officer Mark Russell conceded that the planning application should have been put before Cowdenbeath Area Committee’s nine councillors for a decision.

The letter dated April 3, 2012, states: “The application should have gone to the appropriate area committee on this occasion given that part of the site in terms of the redline boundary relating to the application site is in the ownership of the council.

“The correct procedure should have been followed here. This has been brought to the case officer’s attention.

“I can assure you that this is a very rare occurrence as strict procedures are in place to ensure that this sort of thing does not happen.”

Councillor Willie Clarke, chairperson of Cowdenbeath Area Committee, called the decision “undemocratic”.

He said: “I’m very concerned that this decision was taken by council officers when quite clearly the application should have come before the committee. If there is any doubt at all, officers should check the regulations, particularly with windfarm applications. It’s a delicate subject and there is so much disagreement for and against them.”

The letter also reveals that the decision is now set in stone and councillors have no way of blocking it. “SINCE THE planning permission has been issued and is valid, the council cannot simply cancel it,” Mark Russell explained in his letter. “I am aware this will be disappointing to you, I can only apologise on behalf of the council for this oversight.”

The chairman of Communities Against Turbines Scotland, Susan Crosthwaite, said the error is “one of the worst examples CATS has come across.”

She added: “Like planning departments across Scotland, Fife planning is under-resourced to deal with the onslaught of turbine applications from subsidy-driven developers.

“It’s no surprise corners are cut when it comes to consulting local communities and councillors, or ensuring the potential impacts of a development receive expert scrutiny.”

Airvolution Energy has now submitted proposals to increase the height of the turbines to 125 metres.

It is understood this planning application will go before the area committee for a decision, but it is cold comfort for chairman Willie Clarke:

“We haven’t had the opportunity to provide input on the original application but, unfortunately we’re now saddled with it.

“I’m not saying council officers are riding roughshod over local democracy, however the decision should have been taken by people who are close to the community.

“That’s why we’re now talking about giving more power to area committees, and I’ve no doubt the second application to increase the height of the turbines will come before Cowdenbeath Area Committee to be scrutinised.”

Keith Winter, head of planning at Fife Council, said: “I would like to apologise for the mistake which was made.

“This application should have gone to the local area committee because the council owns and maintains a very small section of grass verge next to the site entrance.

“This oversight is a rare occurrence. If the council hadn’t owned this piece of verge it would have been a decision that would have been made by a council official.”

Councillor Alex Rowley, leader of Fife Council, added: “We know that the issue of wind turbines is a very sensitive one for people across Fife.

“As I highlighted at the recent Fife Council meeting we will be reviewing our policy on wind turbine applications.

“But as Keith has already outlined, this issue isn’t about wind turbines, it was a mistake made in the planning process and we will need to look into why it happened as a matter of urgency.

“In the meantime, we have also made a commitment to look at the role of both area and planning committees over the summer to give local people more of a say about what’s happening in their area.”

The Courier contacted Airvolution Energy for a comment but the company failed to respond.