March 29, 2015

‘Inspector Blight’s’ arrival puts the wind up locals over turbine

By Patrick Phelvin | Western Morning News | March 29, 2015 |

His reputation for approving controversial planning applications has earned him the nickname Inspector Blight, and now Mid Devon campaigners fear his intervention could spell the end of their fight against a 35m turbine.

Paul Griffiths, who was recently criticised by senior judges because of his interpretation of planning law, visited Philham Farm, near Chawleigh, last week.

Mid Devon District Council has twice turned down plans for the 111ft (34m) mast and English Heritage has voiced serious concerns about its effect.

But locals believe the arrival of Mr Griffiths – who once held the record for passing more than 90 per cent of turbine appeals – could tip the balance.

A local action group turned out in force as Mr Griffiths conducted a site visit at the proposed location of the 50-kilowatt (kW) turbine.

The Planning Inspectorate has vigorously denied any bias, insisting the statistic is a result of the random allocation of cases and pointing out that over the past year Mr Griffiths’ performance has moved closer to the norm.

A member of the local landscape group said opponents of the renewable energy scheme were “quite upset” at the inspector’s appointment.

“He is the only one with a reputation that follows him,” added the man, who did not wish to be named. “The council refused it twice and it went to appeal last year but it all seems to be for nothing. The character and heritage of the landscape is at risk due to the fact they have chosen this chap.”

Two applications were refused by the planning committee, in 2012 and 2013. Councillors voted to refuse on the grounds it would harm the landscape character and the visual amenity of the area.

English Heritage, which judged the turbine would “potentially affect the setting of several designated heritage assets”, and the council’s own conservation officer both raised objections to the scheme.

There are said to be historic buildings dating back to the time of William the Conqueror and a survey of the area has identified 36 listed buildings and two scheduled ancient monuments within 2.5km of the application site.

Applicant and fourth generation organic dairy farmer Adam Westaway says his energy bills had trebled since 2001 and insists the wind energy is needed for early morning – “when solar panels don’t work effectively”.

Mr Griffiths blew in on campaigners’ radar in December 2013 when research showed he approved turbine developments in 19 of the 22 cases he had heard since May 2009 – an 86 per cent rate as opposed to the national total of 56 per cent.

Campaigners say since 2006 his approval rate for small turbines is 90 per cent compared to the average, which is 36 per cent. The Planning Inspectorate said out of 27 turbine cases in the past year Mr Griffiths had allowed 17 and dismissed 10.

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

Judges overturned his approval of a plan to place four 75m turbines close to an Elizabethan lodge on land in Northamptonshire belonging to the Duke of Gloucester.

A Planning Inspectorate spokesman said that decision clarified 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,” he said. “Inspectors judge cases on their merits, based on facts and evidence.”

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