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As the tide turns on wind farms in Northumberland, we look at what is causing the wind of change

You don’t have to go back too far to a time when you couldn’t open The Journal without reading about residents Northumberland begging for mercy from an onslaught of wind turbines.

People in the county adopted a siege mentality as figures time and again proved that they were being made to live with more wind farms than elsewhere in the country. Planning application after planning application seemed to be nodded through despite their desperate pleas.

Indeed new figures from Northumberland County Council show that the authority has approved 80 out of 98 wind related proposals in the last three years.

In 2012, Dr James Lunn, who was involved in a fight to halt plans for generators near his Fenrother home, not far from Morpeth, said: “We need both a national and Northumberland policy to protect settlements, because we can’t rely on the county council planning department to protect us.

“They seem to believe there is no upper limit for the number of wind farms that can be considered.”

Back to the present and the wind of change seems to have blown through the whole vexed issue on onshore wind.

Only recently proposals for wind turbines at Dr Lunn’s village, at a site close to the Duddo Stone Circle and Flodden battlefield have been rejected or approvals quashed.

And the brakes are being applied by the Government, namely the Department of Communities and Local Government.

Another scheme at Rayburn Lake has also been recommended for refusal by council officers although a decision has been deferred.

But what is behind the turning tide? Is it a recognition that Northumberland has had enough as residents would argue?

Or is it as a growing number of commentators in the industry believe, politics at play?

Many believe that the DCLG and its boss Eric Pickles is acting out of a desire to appease rank and file Conservative voters, who rightly or wrongly are associated with an anti-wind stance.

The minister created the new planning guidance, so sought by Dr Lunn, which decreed that the importance of renewable energy should not automatically override the views of communities.

Mr Pickles himself issued the final say on appeal decisions – including Fenrother and the Flodden scheme – in order to ensure that guidance was being followed.

Those behind the wind farms are becoming used to disappointment.

Jennifer Webber, spokesman for RenewableUK, the self proclaimed voice of wind energy, said: “The vast majority of people in the North East support more onshore wind with polling last year finding that three quarters of people in the North East would support more wind farms in the area they live.

“Polling consistently shows that people are in favour of onshore wind, so it’s unfortunate that the secretary of state for communities and local government is trying to block schemes, based on a misguided belief that such an approach will be popular with voters.

“Each megawatt of installed onshore wind brings in £100,000 of income to the local community over its lifetime, and it’s a shame communities are missing out on this.”

The organisation’s claims about the popularity of wind will no doubt surprise its opponents in the wide open spaces of the North East.

The claim that Mr Pickles is seeking to appease his voters is disputed by one Conservative in Northumberland.

County councillor for Longhorsley Glen Sanderson, who was a vocal opponent of the Fenrother scheme, said: “I think that would be far from the truth, it is not just Conservative voters who feel strongly about the impact that wind farms have on our very sensitive parts of the country.

“It is not just Conservatives, it is visitors to our county and people who enjoy the beauty around them.

“It is not a political point at all.”

The councillor believes, not unsurprisingly, that his minister, has accepted the argument often made in Northumberland that the perceived desecration of the countryside must stop.

“It is a question of getting to grips with reality and understanding we only have one beautiful countryside and that government has a duty of ensuring that natural beauty is preserved.

“The government have listened to the people, not just Conservative voters.”

Dr Lunn feels the government is partially motivated by the desire to “win votes.” Yet he also believes the wind of change is inspired by acknowledgement that turbines are not benefiting the environment or the economy.

“I think there is a current nail in the coffin for large scale onshore wind farms both at local level and at national level.

“Both for political reasons in winning votes but also for the sheer fact is it not helping the country’s economy.

“Wind power was sold on the fact it was sustainable for the environment but it does not provide sustainable communities if not everyone likes it.

“It does not provide a sustainable economy if not everyone can afford it.

“It is no longer a sustainable green form of energy. Regardless of which political party is in power they can not argue it is a sustainable way to take the country forward.”

Dr Lunn does not fear a revival in the wind industry under a different government.

“I am not particularly concerned, it is seen as a vote winning policy. These things take five years from start to finish, regardless of who wins the next election you have got to look five years into the future.”

The Labour party has indicated it would allow decisions on planning applications to be made at local level if elected, hitting out at the Conservatives for allowing so many decisions to be made by the government.

The party believes this “reverse localism” could come back to bite Northumberland in the fracking debate.

Scott Dickinson, a party county councillor in Northumberland and parliamentary candidate for Berwick, said: “I’m uncomfortable that a Conservative secretary of state is making decisions about what’s best for North Northumberland rather than local people.

“Northumberland Conservatives seem to be happy to allow ‘reverse localism’ but I’m worried that this is a precursor to the ‘fracking debate.’

“If a secretary of state is intervening to halt planning applications for wind farms then what happens when communities want to stop ‘fracking’ in their backyard when its government policy to support ‘fracking’?

“Will he intervene to overrule local concerns.”

Coun Sanderson however argued the government has shown it will listen to local people on wind and would similarly do so with fracking.

“You just need to go back to a recent one in Fenrother where thousands of people were prepared to put their names against that proposal.

“If the same thing happened in Northumberland about fracking, I think the government would be forced to consider their position on that as well.

“I am absolutely convinced that localism has a part to play in all planning matters and I think the government has shown they have listened in their change of line on onshore wind farms.

“Otherwise they can not be a directly responsible government.”

In addition to the potential for fracking, Dr Lunn believes the loss of momentum could see an increase in applications for solar power, with a preliminary application for 160 acres at Bellingham already lodged.

Yet he believes wind will remain in the mix through small projects of one or two generators and domestic farm turbines, which he feels will became even more prevalent as doubts grow among landowners over large schemes.