The spread of wind turbines across the Westcountry has slowed in the wake of Government guidelines designed to prevent council decisions being routinely overturned on appeal, the Western Morning News has found.
Communities secretary Eric Pickles introduced the policy steer for planners last summer in a bid to quell a growing backlash against the proliferation of renewable energy schemes, seen as electorally damaging in the Tory rural heartland.
The so-called “Pickles effect” appears to have swung the balance back in favour of communities, with a 31% drop in the number of successful appeals by developers since the new rules took effect.
The drop in decisions being overturned in Devon and Cornwall from 75% to 44% – compared to a smaller dip from 54% to 48% nationally – has been welcomed, but campaigners say there has been “no let-up” in the number of schemes landing on planners’ desks.
The apparent reduction comes after the biggest offshore scheme planned in the region to date – the 240-turbine Atlantic Array – was scrapped in November, followed last month by the announcement by Community Windpower that the Government’s “shifting” position on renewables had forced it to abandon plans for sixteen 426ft (130m) turbines on land at Davidstow in North Cornwall.
Steve Crowther, the Devon-based national chairman of
the UK Independence Party (UKIP), who also led the Slay the Array campaign, said large schemes were “in retreat” as the “political wind” was now against them.
“The Government has run out of patience with the sector and is giving out negative signals,” he said.
“This back-pedalling on the wind rush is welcome, and better late than never. The subsidy-driven wind bonanza is clearly now waning, with the withdrawal of several large schemes, and it’s vital that the rash of small scheme and individual turbine applications is also curtailed before the countryside is littered with them.”
Against a backdrop of growing rural unrest at the apparent ease with which developers were winning consent against strong local opposition, Mr Pickles produced his new planning practice guidance for renewable and low carbon energy on July 29 last year.
The Secretary of State also called in dozens of multiple turbine “wind farm” applications, including a scheme beside a nature reserve at West Huntspill, Somerset, for five 414ft towers, on which a ruling is still pending.
By the end of October, when the Department of Communities and Local Government said the guidance would begin to take effect on appeals, turbines were being predicted to outnumber historic church spires at iconic landmarks in the Westcountry.
The 100 or so turbines were set to soar to more than 600 over the life of this Parliament – 200 were either approved and un-built or waiting for consent, with a further 200 subject to screening operations.
During the year to October 2013, 25 out of 33 appeals to the Planning Inspectorate after councils refused planning permission in the two counties were successful, figures obtained by the WMN show.
However, in the three months since the new planning guidance began to filter through the decisions, just eight out of 18 appeals were won against local authorities. For the rest of England during 2013, 92 out of 170 appeal decisions were allowed, whereas from October last year to this week, the number was 59 out of a total of 122.
Bob Barfoot, a spokesman for the Campaign to Protect Rural England, who has a detailed knowledge of the planning process through his work with local opposition groups, said the outcome of appeals still “very much relies” on each inspector.
“Some are notable in being independent minded and taking each case on its merits, but with others it is often a foregone conclusion that they will allow a renewable energy appeal,” he said.
His colleague, the chairman of Torridge CPRE, Penny Mills, said it was “too early to judge” and, with one to two years of projects still in the pipeline, the “true scale is not yet apparent”.
“What we have noticed is that some decisions are taking longer at appeal – there is a huge backlog at councils and no let-up in applications being submitted,” she said.
“We wonder if the whole concept of an individual planning inspector is the right way to decide these applications
“It is just one inspector’s judgment, not even a panel reaching a majority decision, they don’t live in the area or with the consequences either way, so you have to wonder how democratic the process is.”
The Planning Inspectorate insists inspectors are rigorously trained and totally impartial when deciding an appeal.
“Inspectors are appointed to hear wind farm appeals for their experience, skill and judgement and will always take account of current guidance,” a spokesman said.
“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.”
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