The final part of the public inquiry into Ecotricity’s appeal against North Dorset District Council’s refusal of planning permission for four giant wind turbines on land near Silton, on the borders of Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire, was the closing submissions of both parties, and of the “Rule 6” third parties – in this case Save Our Silton, an objectors group of local residents, and the Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
[It would have been possible for groups supporting the application to have been treated as Rule 6 parties, but none had registered interest prior to the inquiry. All this information is available in a simple and accessible document on www.planningportal.gov.uk/uploads/pins/taking-part_planning-inquiry.pdf]
Complex details, simple issues
Richard Burden, for the AONB, told inspector Neil Pope that although the details were complex, the issues were relatively simple – “the landscape, cultural heritage and visual impacts, together with the impacts on on the amenity of residents, versus the non-fossil fuel contributions to the nation’s energy demand.”
The elevated location would mean that the turbines would break the skyline above the limestone ridge and would be silhouetted in many views.
The turbines would be “incongruous, industrial interventions in unspoilt rural views as well as contrasting with the landscape character of the (Blackmore) Vale.”
Referring to the recently published National Planning Policy Framework, Mr Burden said it seemed clear that economic gains should not be given blanket priority over social or environmental gains.
“The development would not comply with the core planing principles, as it would not ‘enhance and improve the places in which people live their lives’ “, he said. “Nor does it recognise the intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside or conserve and enhance the natural environment.”
Planning authorities had adopted policies that supported renewable energy generation by technologies that integrate with landscape character, are neither visual intrusive or harmful to wildlife and are of an appropriate scale, said Mr Burden.
“The locality seems to be being asked to suffer in a number of tangible ways in return for generalised, unseen and ethereal benefits. They would lead to significant diminution of the character of a the area.”
Richard Kimblin, for SOS, said that a target set in Kyoto was being translated to Silton.
“Without any appropriate assessment of relative environmental capacity, a tranquil and historic place is at risk of radical change and consequent harm.”
Local people embraced renewable energy technologies, clearly evidenced by their support for a large solar array near the appeal site.
The scale of the turbines would radically change the landscape character. Ecotricity had made “an unfortunate attempt to paint the locality as developed landscape,” by photographing any man-made structure such as a telegraph pole or rugby goalpost.
He mentioned the impact on the residential amenities of Valhalla, and the harm to the two holiday businesses close to the site. Whistley Farm, which offers holiday chalets, was set up for people to have an “away from it all” experience. At Slait Farm the proposed turbines would “tower over” the tree screening. The turbines would make Whistley and Slait less attractive places to live, and much less attractive to visitors. Mentions of the impact of wind farms on tourism in other areas was irrelevant in the assessment of the impact on THESE businesses, he said, relying on case studies rather than the courtesy of addressing specifics. The significance of the Grade I Listed Silton Church had been belittled.
In terms of the new policy framework, the Ecotricity proposal did not “enhance or enrich” and was therefore not sustainable.
Harm outweighs limited benefits
North Dorset District Council members had voted against their planning officers’ recommendation to grant permission for the turbines at a special meeting in July 2009.
Peter Wadsley, representing NDDC, told last week’s inquiry that the council unhesitatingly submitted that the appeal should be dismissed because of the impact on the character and visual amenities of the surrounding landscape, the impact on three listed buildings and the living conditions of a number of nearby residents.
Harm caused by a proposed development had to be balanced against its benefits.
There was no dispute that the impacts of wind farms on the landscape were adverse, and it was a question of the extent of harm they would cause. “If the impacts of the development are acceptable, the appeal succeeds. If they are not, it fails,” said Mr Wadsley. No conditions could do anything to screen the turbines or dilute their impact, which he described as “stark and brutal”.
The farm would not generate anywhere near its notional capacity, he said. No reliable wind speed forecast had been provided. The appellants relied on national data.
“Since there has been an anemometry mast on site, it might be assumed that better, site-specific data is available.”
Government targets for the provision of renewable energy would be made up from a mixture of technologies, and too much emphasis was put on on-shore wind provision.
Rural England is going to change
The final submission came from David Hardy, for Ecotricity.
Elected members (and the MP) had placed undue weight on the views of a vocal minority of opponents, he said. NDDC’s professional planning officers had advised granting “a scheme which would make a real and material contribution in and excellent location.”
Objectors’ expert witnesses had “conjured up all sorts of weird and wonderful interpretations, inferences and implications in an attempt to avoid the obvious,” he said.
The NPPF included an expressly stated presumption in favour of granting planning permission (for renewable energy schemes). “It does not mean pay lip service to it and then carry on as if nothing has happened. There will have to be a sea change in public opinion and public acceptance right across England. If renewable targets are going to be met, the face of rural England is going to change,” he said.
Landscape was not sacrosanct. The Government had entered into a legally binding agreement about the provision of renewable energy by 2020.
“The greater the shortfall against target, the greater the weight that should be attached to the benefits of a renewable energy scheme, and conversely the greater degree of harm to interests of acknowledged importance that can be countenanced. The separation between what is a private interest and what should be protected in the public interest is tolerably clear.”
Mr Hardy quoted several recent inquiry and subsequent High Court appeal decisions, supporting Ecotricity’s case, assuring the inquiry that planning conditions could cover the relevant concerns on noise, traffic disturbance, light flicker and other aspects of the development.
The inspector’s decision will be announced by 19th November, and posted on the Inspectorate website’s planning portal.
Next week, there will be a sketch by our reporter looking at the conduct of this inquiry.
A statement by Energise Stur supporting the wind turbine proposal has been submitted to the inspector, and is published on the BVM website www.thisisdorset.co.uk
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