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Wind farms: ‘Inspector Blight’ criticised by senior judges

A planning official nicknamed “Inspector Blight” for the number of wind farms he has approved has been criticised by senior judges over his reasoning.

The Court of Appeal suggested that Paul Griffiths’ “flawed” methodology meant that the more “obviously modern” and “large scale” a wind development, the more likely that it would be given the go-ahead next to a historic site.

The criticism follows vociferous complaints by campaigners and several MPs about Mr Griffiths’ decisions. The inspector has granted the vast majority of wind developments he has considered in the last four years, overturning rulings by local councils.

It came in a judgment which dismissed a ruling by Mr Griffiths that four 400ft-high turbines could be built by an Elizabethan lodge on land in Northamptonshire belonging to the Duke of Gloucester, the Queen’s cousin.

Chris Heaton-Harris, a Conservative MP, said the judgment should result in Mr Griffiths’ suspension. He has previously accused the inspector of “ignoring” local opinion by approving plans for a wind farm in his constituency at the site of the Battle of Naseby, the decisive clash of the civil war.

“Anyone who reads the judgment in this case will understand why huge swathes of the country have massive concerns about how Mr Griffiths has been interpreting planning law,” he said.

“If ever there was a case for an inspector to be suspended and retrained this would be it.”

The rebuke by senior judges of Mr Griffiths’s decision is likely to be claimed by campaigners as confirmation of their beliefs that he has failed to apply the protections given in planning guidance to historic sites and stately homes from development.

An analysis in December disclosed that he had allowed turbines to be built in 19 of the 22 cases he had heard since May 2009.

The scheme on the Duke of Gloucester’s land was to be built a mile from Lyveden New Bield, a Grade I listed unfinished Elizabethan lodge with a moated garden. English Heritage had warned that the effect of the turbines on the landscape would be “appalling”.

Mr Griffiths overruled East Northamptonshire Council’s decision to refuse planning permission, but his ruling was quashed by the High Court.

West Coast Energy, the developer behind the scheme, appealed against the High Court decision but last month three judges refused the appeal.

In his written judgment Lord Justice Maurice Kay, vice president of the civil division of the Appeal Court, said the inspector appeared not to have addressed concerns by conservatists that the lodge’s setting would be “seriously harmed” by the turbines.

A key element of Mr Griffiths’ decision was that any “reasonable observer” would know that a wind farm was a “modern addition to the landscape” which was separate from any historic sites nearby. Turbines would therefore not prevent people from “an understanding, appreciation or interpretation” of the site, so could not cause it “substantial harm”, he wrote.

However, in last month’s judgment, also signed by Lord Justice Sullivan and Lady Justice Rafferty, Lord Justice Kay said he “found some difficulty” understanding Mr Griffiths’ reasoning.

The relevant planning guidance “nowhere suggests” that the decision about whether a development will cause “substantial harm” to the setting of a historic site can be based on Mr Griffiths’ logic about its distinction from the landscape, the judge added.

He continued: “Applying the inspector’s approach, the more obviously modern, large scale and functional the imposition on the landscape forming part of the setting of a heritage asset, the less harm there would be to that setting because the ‘reasonable observer’ would be less likely to be confused about the origins and purpose of the new and the old.”

A Planning Inspectorate spokesman said: “This decision clarifies the law on the specific legal meaning of ‘special regard’ in relation to the setting of a listed building and all inspectors have now been advised accordingly.

“Mr Griffiths is a highly experienced inspector, and neither his impartiality nor his competence have been put in question by the court.”