The threat posed to Northumberland’s landscape, heritage and rural communities by wind farm development is possibly the biggest planning challenge the county has faced in modern times, it has been claimed.
Leading conservation group, the Northumberland and Newcastle Society, says it is deeply concerned about the proliferation of wind farms in the county.
It is calling on the county council to take the threat seriously, and put in place “rigorous and carefully considered planning protection” in a new policy blueprint on wind energy.
The Society has strongly criticised background studies and documents which are being used by the council in drawing up its core strategy policy, which will help councillors make decisions on plans for more wind turbines.
It says 120 turbines have already been built or approved in Northumberland – more than any other English county – a further 21 have been applied for, and almost 150 are at the pre-application stage.
The Society’s Northumberland Environmental Policy Group (NEPG) has singled out the council’s Renewable, Low-Carbon Energy Generation and Energy Efficiency Study for its lack of objectivity. The study claims the county has technical capacity for 17,020 megawatts of wind generation – which is equivalent to more than 6,000 turbines.
There are currently only 3,000 onshore turbines operating in the whole of the UK.
The NEPG has also criticised the study’s approach to protecting the landscape against future wind farm development. The group says: “Apart from excluding nationally designated landscapes, such as the National Park, this study ignores landscape or visual issues. Where landscape, heritage or residential amenity issues are mentioned, they are seen as challenges to delivery of wind turbines, rather than constraints or assets to be protected.”
It also claims that cumulative factors are ignored by the study, and says local opposition to wind farm development is seen as an obstacle to be overcome by early engagement and education.
The Society – which commissioned consultants in planning, landscape and health to provide expert analysis of the county council’s studies – has put forward its own alternative policy on wind farm development. This includes:
Excluding turbines from the most sensitive parts of the county, or within certain distances from their boundaries, such as the National Park, areas of outstanding natural beauty and the green belt.
The refusal of applications which would harm principal views of the Cheviot or Simonside Hills, or which would adversely affect landscape character or visual amenity.
Fixed separation distances between houses and turbines, depending on their height, and fixed setback distances from designated tourist routes, footpaths, and bridleways.
Refusal of applications which adversely affect the setting of heritage assets or recognised nature conservation features, and which would harm local tourism or recreation.
Yesterday Bill Short of Kirkwhelpington, a member of the society’s policy group, said there was serious concern that the council was using evidence submitted by companies which were either wind farm developers or gained a large proportion of their income from developers.
He said: “It is utter madness for anyone to say that Northumberland has the capacity for 17,000 megawatts of wind power. That is more than the Government says is the national need, and shows a complete lack of sensible assessment.”
A council spokesman said the study estimated Northumberland’s potential renewable energy resources, and identified factors which would need to considered when assessing applications.
He said: “The study focussed on the delivery of renewable energy, and therefore factors such as landscape, heritage and residential amenity are considered barriers to development.
“It identifies that the potential technical capacity is 17,020mw of installed capacity, which has been estimated from a desk-based analysis reflecting the availability of the wind resource, and key constraints such as environmental designations. The study acknowledges that social, economic and environmental impacts will determine the suitability of sites in planning terms, and that it is ‘unlikely to be practical, viable or even desirable to exploit the resource fully’.”
He said visual impact on the landscape and the cumulative impact of turbines would be used in assessing all applications.
This should ensure that only “acceptable” applications would be approved, significantly reducing the technical capacity to something which is acceptable in planning terms.
“The council welcomes the comments submitted by the Northumberland and Newcastle Society and looks forward to working with stakeholders in developing policies which support the delivery of renewable energy in a way which is compatible with the county’s communities and its most valued landscapes,” he added.
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