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Communities are still powerless to stop wind farms

In June, the Government pledged to empower people to stop the spread of wind farms if they wanted to do so. Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, promised “local communities a greater say on planning, to give greater weight to the protection of landscape, heritage and local amenity”, and sent guidance to the independent Planning Inspectorate – officially published in July – to that effect. At the time, a senior Conservative described Mr Pickles’s guidelines as “a bombproof set of safeguards to protect the wishes of local people”. We expressed doubt as to how “bombproof” they really were. Sadly, our doubts appear to have been proved right.

Today we report that the Planning Inspectorate has approved nine out of 14 wind turbine proposals that were opposed by local people. Not only does this contradict the spirit of Mr Pickles’s guidelines but it also contradicts a statement made by David Cameron last week that there was “limited potential” for further wind farm development in Britain. The reverse seems to be true if objections to development are thrown out in so many cases.

What happened when TCI Renewables applied to build three 410ft-high turbines on farmland in Southoe, Cambridgeshire, is instructive. The proposals were blocked by Huntingdonshire district council under pressure from residents; the local MP warned that most of his constituents opposed the scheme. Yet the planning inspector granted an appeal against the decision on the grounds that the benefits of wind energy outweighed the “moderate levels of harm to landscape and visual amenity”. He said that Mr Pickles’s guidance had not actually changed national policy and that “there is consistent support for the deployment of renewable energy”. All of this flies in the face of Government claims that green energy targets will not be allowed to overrule people’s legitimate concerns about the impact of turbines upon their environment.

Everybody accepts that Britain has to do something to address shortfalls in energy production, but any proposal that poses serious risks to the countryside has to have proven economic benefits before it is given the green light. Wind farms simply do not pass that test. They are woefully inefficient, producing too little power when it is most needed, in the cold months, and too much power for our national grid to cope with in warmer weather. They do, however, rake in an astonishing amount in subsidies, out of all proportion to the small number of jobs that they create. According to the Renewable Energy Foundation, the industry is likely to be receiving £6  billion in consumer subsidies by 2020 if the Government is to meet its ambitious target of providing 15 per cent of the country’s needs with so-called green energy. We say “so-called” because it causes aesthetic pollution and often relies on back-up from non-renewable power sources when it fails to work at full capacity.

This further underlines the point that communities should have the right and the power to stop wind farm developments that they do not want. The Government has to add greater weight to its promise to let them fight their corner. One barrister familiar with wind farm appeals warns that the guidance Mr Pickles issued back in June is insufficient to that task and is “extremely light in content”. The least the Communities Secretary could do is pick up his pen and write a tougher set of guidelines – one that matches the spirit of the Government’s proclaimed commitment to local democracy.