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Planning inspectors accused of favouring wind farms

Planning authorities have been accused of “blatantly ignoring” guidance on wind farm developments as figures showed that they approved the overwhelming majority of schemes.

The independent Planning Inspectorate has given the go-ahead to nine out of the last 14 wind turbine plans it has considered.

They included turbines in Areas of Outstanding Beauty. All had been heavily opposed locally and attracted official opposition from bodies including English Heritage.

Some were approved because inspectors ruled that the “imperatives” of addressing “the effects of climate change” outweighed objections.

Campaigners said that the inspectorate appeared to be flying in the face not just of local sentiment but of guidance issued by Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, which senior Conservatives had billed as a “bomb proof set of safeguards” from excessive wind farm development.

The Planning Inspectorate deals with appeals against councils’ planning decisions, using guidelines set down by ministers, but analysis by The Sunday Telegraph of its decisions since the guidance was outlined at the beginning of June shows that only five schemes were refused.

Those approved included three 410ft turbines in Southoe, Cambs, and single turbine schemes in Golant, Cornwall; North Weald, Essex; and Leek, Staffs.

The scale on which the inspectorate has approved turbines appears to fly in the face of a claim by David Cameron last week that there was “limited potential” for further onshore wind farm development in Britain.

There is mounting controversy over subsidies paid to wind farm developers, which are ultimately added to household bills and are estimated by the Renewable Energy Foundation to cost consumers more than £1billion a year.

There have also been claims that promises of “green” jobs created by the industry are failing to materialise, with only a small proportion of turbines and their associated equipment being manufactured in Britain.

Glyn Davies, a Conservative MP who is fighting several wind farm proposals in Wales, said: “It is discouraging and disappointing that the inspectorate are carrying on as if nothing has happened.

“We want local people to have a say over what happens in their area and it just seems completely outrageous that the Planning Inspectorate are ignoring local democracy and carrying on regardless.”

The inspectorate is currently considering more than 200 turbine proposals throughout the country, including smaller domestic schemes.

Campaigners against wind farms said the body should be reined in and warned that if its pattern of approvals continued, the effect of 150 new schemes would be to spread turbines into previously unspoilt areas.

Neville Thomas QC, of the National Opposition to Windfarms campaign group, said: “While the details of the ministerial statement in June were not cast in stone, the message was very clear and it is equally clear that its message has been blatantly ignored by planning officers.

“This is both grossly unfair and deeply confusing to residents who are living with the spectre of wind turbines destroying the area in which they live – and in some cases their very happiness and livelihoods. They must now feel that their feelings and opinions count for nothing.”

The Planning Inspectorate exists to make decisions on contentious developments in England. It is effectively a hearing of last resort for developers who have had their plans refused, or community groups which want to stop proposals approved by their local councils.

Analysis of their approvals using Planning magazine’s Compass database of appeals shows that in all but one of the cases inspectors said they had taken the guidance from Mr Pickles into account when making their decisions.

The minister outlined the guidance in a parliamentary written statement on June 6 which said green energy targets should not automatically override the planning concerns of local communities.

“Decisions should take into account the cumulative impact of wind turbines and properly reflect the increasing impact on the landscape and local amenity as the number of turbines in the area increases,” he added.

The move followed a warning last year by 100 MPs that it was becoming “impossible” to beat wind farm applications because inspectors were allowing renewable energy targets to trump planning concerns.

The National Planning Policy Framework introduced by the Coalition last year requires planning authorities to promote “sustainable development”, including renewable energy, in decisions.

Mr Pickles wrote to Sir Michael Pitt, the chief executive of the Planning Inspectorate, asking for his statement to be passed on to planning inspectors so they would use the new principles in all ongoing and future decisions.

But since then nine appeals have been allowed, each overturning the local council decision.

Questions were raised over whether Mr Pickles’s guidance, which was published formally on July 29, had been too loosely worded to have the effect he desired.

One barrister who has worked on dozens of wind farm appeals said: “It certainly does not indicate any significant policy change and the guidance is extremely light in content.”

The barrister said it was a helpful development that the guidance warns that wind turbines within the setting of listed buildings and other heritage features could cause them “substantial harm”, but added: “The rest of it is extremely anodyne … and makes no such changes as were anticipated following Mr Pickles’s earlier announcement.”

Mr Pickles can choose to call in plans, but exercises the power in only a small proportion of cases. He recently called in seven schemes, but has yet to rule on them.

A Planning Inspectorate spokesman said: “Inspectors are appointed to hear wind farm appeals for their experience, skill and judgment. Every case is judged on its merits and on the evidence placed before the inspector, who is required to give sound reasons for his judgment in each decision.

“Inspectors will always remain impartial when deciding an appeal. They are rigorously trained to ensure that they develop and maintain the skills and awareness of current guidance and policies necessary to undertake the work they are given.”

A DCLG spokesman said: “In the planning process, emerging policy has little weight until it is published in its final form. The final practice guidance was only published on July 29, and will only have been a significant influence on planning appeals after that date.

“Indeed, planning appeals typically take three to six months, so the appeals before July 29 will have been based on the practice before the ministerial statement.”

Maf Smith, deputy chief executive of RenewableUK, the wind industry’s trade body, welcomed the figures, saying each scheme brought significant economic benefits to local communities.