Communities opposing wind farms were dealt a blow today as a court rejected an attempt to designate a minimum distance from homes.
The High Court ruled on the side on energy giant RWE Npower whose green division is trying to build two controversial wind farms close to residential areas.
In a case feared to have implications across Britain, Milton Keynes Borough Council tried to impose a limit of three quarters of a mile between turbines and homes, but was overruled.
Leader of the council Andrew Geary said it was acting ‘in the best interests of the residents’ and warned other authorities opposing wind farms to ‘sit up and take notice of today’s judgement.
The policy would have handed residents a potentially crucial say in wind farm proposals close to their homes, laying down minimum distances between turbines over 25metres tall and homes.
Tory MPs who have seen an upsurge in opposition to huge turbines blighting rural areas, have long called for a legal limit on the distance from homes to be enforced to empower local residents.
They say it would reduce local opposition, and point to the fact that Denmark – which generates far more of its energy from wind than the UK, has a legal separation distance of 1.25miles for large turbines.
But in a test case, Deputy High Court judge John Howell QC yesterday ruled that the proposal to increase the separation distance from 350metres to 1,200metres was unlawful.
Judge Howell acknowledged that ‘wind turbines generate passionate argument as well as energy’, but said there was ‘no justification’ for a restriction on grounds of noise or visual impact.
RWE’s lawyers argued that the council’s policy shift had effectively left only tiny portions of the Milton Keynes area available for wind farm developments that are needed to meet national and regional renewable energy targets.
And they expressed concerns that, if approved by the court, the new policy would be adopted by other local authorities across the country.
However campaigners were advised the ruling may boost anti-wind farm campaigns elsewhere as the judge did not rule against separation distances– but rejected this one on a technicality.
Chris Heaton-Harris, MP for neighbouring Daventry in the East Midlands, said: ‘When I saw this I hit the roof, as local residents should be able to have a say on how far wind farms are sited from their homes, we do live in a democracy.
‘But the experts poring over this, say this ruling establishes for the first time that separation distances are legal, so it may actually not be a disaster, and I and others will be pushing to establish this precedent in a law.’
The row began two years ago when parish councillors in the area called for a review of the planning rules on wind farms, as applications to build them had spiked and their size had increased.
A council document states: ‘A review was requested because the size of wind turbines has increased significantly since publication of local and national policy. The primary planning concerns raised were visual amenity, noise, health and safety.’
In 2011, a local inspector gave the green light for 12 turbines between three villages at Nunn Wood despite a six year campaign against it, and acknowledging they would blight the area.
But the decision was appealed and a decision set to be made in June. Another five turbines have been proposed at Haversham, also by RWE and will be heard in July.
The judge ruled against for the council on three out of four grounds, and against them on just one – to increase the separation distance from 350metres, as it would breach other planning rules.
However he rejected arguments from RWE that the council’s stance conflicted with national renewable energy policies, he said it was lawful to have separation distances, and agreed that distances between the turbines and footpaths and bridleways could be enforced by the council.
Cllr Andrew Geary, Leader of the Council said it was ‘rather ironic’ that they had lost the case for the distance from homes, on the grounds that unlike most councils, they already have a policy on it.
He said: ‘Any authority that doesn’t have a separation distance in policy should sit up and take notice of today’s judgement. I have no doubt the action the council has taken is in the best interest of the residents of Milton Keynes and we will be looking at how we move forward.’
Environmental campaigners welcomed the decision. Friends of the Earth’s Milton Keynes campaigner, Rebecca McKinney, added: ‘The council’s attempts to introduce a buffer zone would have made most of the area a no-go location for wind turbines.
‘Many local communities are embracing wind projects – seeing them as a clean, green alternative to expensive imports of gas. Wind power is a key part of the mix of renewable energy that we need to see grow in the UK if we want a chance to avoid catastrophic climate change.’