May 19, 2015

Northumberland campaigners ‘cautiously’ welcome new energy secretary’s windfarm pledge

By Kate Proctor | The Journal | 18 May 2015 |

Windfarm campaign groups could veto new developments after the Government pledged a change in planning law.

Giving her first interview since becoming new Conservative energy secretary, Amber Rudd said she wants to put the “local community back in charge” and ban subsidies being paid out to new onshore turbine operators.

Yet anti-windfarm campaigners in Northumberland, which is subject to several plans, are “cautiously optimistic” over her pledge made in the Sunday Times, and want new consultation promises to be truely meaningful as residents views have so far been “completely ignored”.

Nine turbines each over 400 feet tall are currently planned at a site at Ditchburn near Eglingham.

Miss Rudd, who takes over from ousted Lib Dem Ed Davey, said legislation will be included in the Queen’s speech later this month.

Current planning rules will also be overhauled and Miss Rudd she’d pressured her team to make it a priority.

She said: “It will mean no more onshore wind farm subsidies and no more onshore windfarms without local community support. “Local planning authorities combined with no new subsidies will be put local people in charge… there will be a much more accountable democratic process.”

The detail of how the new-look local community consultation model is yet to be clarified, as residents are already able to write in and have their letters of objections or support noted and the parish council are also able to have a say – although their views do not bind the local authority.

The new rules are expected to include a greater weighting towards the views of the community when it comes to a local authority planning committee making its final decision.

Cornhill farmer Andrew Joicey, who has previously challenged wind-farm applications in Northumberland and is a member of the Save Our Unspoilt Landscape group, said: “We’ve heard promises like this before so we are cautiously optimistic.

“There have been cases in Northumberland where there have been 1,000 objections to a wind farm planning application and still it’s been recommended for approval by offiers.

“You would think 1,000 people objecting would be clear enough and the parish council should have a greater say, however the key is what do the Government mean when they say ‘local’. Who do you canvas? Do you do a ballot of an area? How do you define the ‘local community’ to consult with?”

Mr Joicey said until the current system where communities are offered large sums of money by wind farm companies for developing community assets, it will be difficult to encourage people not informed on the “economics of windfarms” to oppose them.

Don Brownlow, who runs the website Windbyte, which tracks new developments in Northumberland, said the Government’s pledge to ban subsidies which are paid to windfarm operators producing certain levels of electricity could conflict with reforms already due to be made in 2017 to the Renewables Obligation.

Electricity companies must source a proportion of their energy supply from renewable resources under the obligation agreement which runs out in 2017. The new structure will introduce supply based contracts, which are perceived to involve less generous subsidies.

However, those already with permission to build a windfarm in place, can expect to continue receiving money under the old system for up to 25 years.

Mr Brownlow said: “The problem with the current system is that it encourages people to build windfarms and encourages a huge number of turbines, even in low wind areas.”

On greater consultation with local communities, he added: “The devil will be in the detail in this. You can’t make a judgement until you know what the Government calls ‘local’. What the Government regard as local level will be county level, so I doubt a parish council objection would have the slightest effect.

“It’s fact that people’s views are being discounted.”

Councillor Alan Hepple, policy board member responsible for planning, Northumberland County Council, said: “We will have to see the detail of the new law and how it may impact on the planning process, but we would welcome proposals which require developers to consult more effectively and to take better account of local views when putting together schemes for wind energy in Northumberland.”

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