A planning vacuum could leave the most beautiful areas of upper Teesdale open to wind farms, protestors fear.
Up until now the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) has been protected by a document called the Regional Spatial Strategy.
But the Government is in the process of axing the policy and instead it will be up to local councils to determine which areas are protected from major development.
However, chiefs at Durham County Council have admitted that it will be two years before their replacement strategy, the Durham Plan, is finalised.
They say there may be a “policy vacuum” – and residents fear it will mean wind farm developers will look to parts of Teesdale previously off limits.
The council has also revealed several wind energy companies have made approaches about building turbines in the AONB but were told they would be unlikely to get approval.
Ged Lawson, landscape architect for Durham County Council, said some of these developers may again look to the upper dale.
Mr Lawson said: “The issue for the future will be what is the policy for the AONB. We have always been able to point out the spatial strategy to developers but we’re not going to be able to do that.
“With regards to the policy vacuum, we are trying to maintain our present policy. Most of the expressions of interest about building turbines in the AONB we didn’t think were too serious, but there were some from one or two by big companies.
“There may be one or two that come forward again.
“The Government has said it will protect plans in the regional spatial strategy for one year but that leaves another year without a policy until the Durham Plan is finished.”
Mr Lawson, who was speaking at Scarth Hall, Staindrop, during a meeting to discuss wind farms in Teesdale, said the AONB was England’s last wilderness and a “very sensitive landscape”.
He the council was working urgently to come up with an interim solution.
Mr Lawson also said the situation “may” not be as critical as some people fear.
However, an all-party Select Committee at the House of Commons has also warned about the possibility of a planning vacuum in the UK.
The committee chairman Clive Betts said: “We did not pass judgement on the merits of regional spatial strategies, but we are concerned about the hiatus created by their intended abolition.”
However, the MPs were worried about the vacuum leading to fewer major developments – not the other way round.
About 60 residents attended the wind farm meeting in Staindrop after concerns were raised about planning applications in the dale.
Two wind farm proposals are currently on the table – one at Hamsterley and another smaller-scale development at Punder Gill, on the road to Reeth.
The meeting heard that if all the planning applications in the pipeline were approved, County Durham would be generating three times more wind energy than national targets.
Resident Joanna Tate, from Middleton-in-Teesdale, said: “We’re heading in the direction to supply the whole country all in the name of making money.”
Other residents asked why County Durham was being targeted while places like the Yorkshire Dales weren’t.
Dale resident Simon Owens was worried that wind farms would put off tourists in Teesdale.
He said: “If there will be some sort of constraints on the AONB, will there be on the rest of Teesdale?
“Most places to stay – B&Bs and cottages – are outside the AONB and if we want to compete with the Lakes and the Dales, then I’m concerned about the landscape that people come here to enjoy.”
Council planning officers said they had resisted a number of interested developers who wanted wind farms in the Barnard Castle area but warned that “it was likely that pressure would continue in the near future”.
Other people at the meeting, which was organised by Teesdale Action Partnership, said there should be a greater distance between wind farms and houses. Council officials said they were looking into this.
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