Wind energy developers are celebrating today after the high court ruled that Milton Keynes Borough Council’s attempts to impose a ‘buffer zone’ for new wind farm projects were unlawful.
In what had been widely regarded as a crucial test case that could have established a precedent for councils around the country, Judge John Howells QC rejected the council’s attempts to change its local development plan to include new rules blocking the development of any large wind turbines within 1.2km of residential properties.
The high court case followed accusations by wind farm developer RWE Npower Renewables that two proposed wind farms in Buckinghamshire had been rejected by the council as a result of the “emerging policy” of new “buffer zones”, despite the proposals being in line with the established local policy that was “permissive” of wind farms that are located at least 350 metres away from homes.
Judge Howells stressed that he could not rule on the benefits of wind turbines, but he concluded that there was “no objective justification” for arbitrary proximity restrictions for new turbines, adding that the policy was “plainly in conflict” with established planning guidance.
Milton Keynes Council will now have to amend the policy, although crucially the ruling rejected RWE’s argument that the council’s stance was also unlawful because it conflicted with national renewable energy targets – a decision that could leave the door open for councils to place different restrictions on proposed renewable energy projects.
However, the decision will be widely welcomed by RWE and the wider renewables industry, which had warned that a ruling in favour of Milton Keynes would have effectively blocked all wind farm development in the region and could have prompted other councils to follow suit.
Dr Wayne Cranstone, RWE Npower Renewables onshore development and projects director, said the ruling established an important precedent.
“On the matter of buffer zone policies more generally, the judge concluded that national guidance ‘plainly indicates’ that local authorities should not have a policy that planning permission for a wind turbine should be refused if a minimum separation distance is not met,” he said in a statement.
He added that the company was keen to continue to work “in partnership” with Milton Keynes Council. “We remain committed to investing in renewable and sustainable energy solutions for Milton Keynes and the UK,” he said. “The investments we’re making bring economic benefits to areas hosting wind farms, create thousands of jobs across the country and assist in reducing the impact of climate change and increasing the security of energy supply.”
Maf Smith, deputy chief executive at trade association RenewableUK, said the decision would provide the wind industry with “the certainty it needs to get on with the job of generating more clean electricity for British homes”.
“RenewableUK strongly believes it’s inappropriate for councils to impose arbitrary limits on where renewable energy projects should be located,” he said in a statement. “Blanket bans and buffer zones are blunt instruments that take no account of local conditions. Each proposal should be examined on a case-by-case basis so that a well-balanced decision can be reached. As two-thirds of the British public consistently support wind energy, their views should be given due weight in the democratic process.”
His comments were echoed by Friends of the Earth planning campaigner Naomi Luhde-Thompson, who argued that the council’s “short-sighted plans” would have “dealt a significant blow to efforts to build a safe, clean and affordable energy system, not just in Milton Keynes but in other areas too”.
“Numerous wind farms across the UK already have community backing – if we give local people a financial stake in their success, they could be more popular still,” she said. “Ministers say the planning system should be used to tackle climate change – but more must be done to ensure local councils play their part in cutting emissions by reaping the benefits of clean British energy from the wind, waves and sun.”
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