Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat energy secretary, has taken legal advice to have his Conservative deputy stripped of his responsibilities for green energy policy in an increasingly bitter coalition battle over wind farms.
Davey appealed to David Cameron over comments made by John Hayes, the energy minister, who is a firm opponent of onshore wind power.
The fallout comes as Britain’s onshore wind-farm industry is under threat from councils using new planning rules to block the construction of thousands of turbines.
Earlier this month Hayes insisted no more wind farms beyond those already planned would be built. “Job done … end of story,” he said.
Last night it emerged that after the prime minister failed to take action Davey consulted lawyers in an attempt to have Hayes stripped of his responsibility for green energy policy.
He argued that Hayes’s continued presence in the job risked leaving the department’s decisions vulnerable to judicial review at a time when the government was trying to create “certainty” for energy investors.
“When he made his statements against coalition policy, I did think there was a question mark whether he should even continue to have responsibility for renewable energy deployment,” Davey said last night.
“I asked the legal department here whether there was a danger John had prejudiced himself because he had made these statements, and they said there was a danger.”
Hayes was moved to the department by Cameron in the September reshuffle. Within a month of his appointment the minister infuriated his Lib Dem boss by saying: “We can no longer have wind turbines imposed on communities.”
“I can’t single-handedly build a new Jerusalem but I can protect our green and pleasant land.”
Last night a spokeswoman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) admitted there were “some differences over some areas of policy” between the two.
She said Davey “has made it clear that policy on onshore wind has not changed” and that the ministers are “working together on this in the national interest.”
Meanwhile, councils are threatening to use planning rules to block new turbines. The biggest green energy generator says it will be forced to abandon future planning applications for onshore wind farms if it fails in a legal challenge against the councils.
Milton Keynes, Stratfordon-Avon, Cherwell, in Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Staffordshire councils are using the rules to create “separation zones” around wind farms. These ban new turbines within up to 2km (1¼ miles) of homes. If replicated across Britain, this would mean less than 1% of the country could be used for them.
RWE Npower Renewables, Britain’s biggest investor in green energy, has launched a High Court judicial review against Milton Keynes, whose 1km separation zone was one of the first to take effect.
Wayne Cranstone, of RWE, said: “If we lose … then other councils could introduce similar policies. We would have to withdraw many of our planning applications and rule out applications in areas with such bans. As a European utility, we would have to rethink our whole investment policy and consider putting our money elsewhere. It would affect the whole industry and block investment and jobs.”
The case will be a key test of government planning policy and of the coalition. It will pitch the Tories’ localism agenda, championed by Eric Pickles, the local government secretary, against the low-carbon energy policies pushed by Davey.
Almost all the councils that have created or proposed the separation zones are Conservative-controlled.
Andrew Geary, the leader of Milton Keynes council, has confirmed that he discussed his plans for a separation zone a year ago with Pickles, who was strongly supportive.
Geary said: “One wind farm has been built near the town and there are three more in planning. The collective visual impact from the first farm is huge. If the rest were built, there would be nowhere out of sight of turbines. We have had a huge reaction from local people with most against and very few in favour.”
In Stratford, Warwickshire, councillors are preparing similar action. A proposal for 700-metre (2,297ft) separation zones went to public consultation. Most respondents said this was too small, so the council will propose expanding them.
Chris Saint, leader of the council, said: “If we did not see a single wind turbine in Stratford, we would be grateful. We simply don’t want our upland countryside ruined by large wind farms. We are going to suggest substantially increasing the proposed 700-metre separation zone to 1.5km.”
Wilthire county council has gone further. Its draft “core strategy”, awaiting approval by the government’s planning inspectorate, has proposed separation zones of 2km for turbines up to 150 metres high and 3km for anything taller.
South Cambridgeshire district council has brought in a 2km separation zone while others considering similar moves include Rutland, Staffordshire, Lincolnshire and Northumberland county councils. Cherwell district council has suggested a minimum of 800 metres.
South Kesteven, in Lincolnshire, has proposed a 2km “search area” around any proposed wind-farm site, where prospective developers must prove turbines will not generate disturbance or visual intrusion.
For firms such as RWE such trends are alarming. It has 25 onshore farms and plans for up to 100 more across Britain.
In its judicial review, RWE will ask a judge to overturn Milton Keynes council’s blanket ban on wind farms being built within 2km of homes. It will argue that such a ban goes much further than the government’s changes to the planning system intended and applications should be considered case by case.
The Department for Communities and Local Government said: “We are not aware that any councils have policies on fixed separation distances for wind farms in their adopted local plan, and any draft plans are subject to public examination and must be found ‘sound’ to be adopted.”
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