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Councillors refuse to budge on wind energy stance

Westmeath’s councillors are on a collision course with central government once again after refusing to budge on stringent planning policies relating to wind energy development.

At an eight-hour online meeting on Monday to agree the final amendments to the Draft Westmeath County Development Plan (2021-2027) (CDP), local representatives were adamant that they would not soften their stance on wind energy and bring it in line with national policy despite a number of submissions by the Office of the Public Regulator (OPR) and recommendations from the council’s Chief Executive Pat Gallagher.

The OPR recommended that councillors remove the policy objective on distances between wind turbines and houses, which requires that there be minimum setback of 500 metres to 2000 metres – depending on turbine height – between turbines and the nearest residence as it “ would severely restrict the potential for wind farm development in the county” and “be contrary to national policy and Ministerial guidance on wind energy development”.

The OPR also recommended that councillors amend a number of terms used in the plan that relate to wind energy. In particular, it wanted the phrase “industrial scale wind turbines” changed to “taller commercial wind turbines” and that the phrase “strictly direct large scale energy production projects” onto cutaway bogs be replaced by “encourage taller commercial wind turbines”.

Cllr Johnny Penrose set out his stall at the start of the meeting saying that he and his colleagues had worked on the CDP for the best part of a year and he is “very annoyed” by the recommendations made by the OPR on wind energy and other areas.

“The regulator doesn’t have to go before the people,” he said.

On the issue of setback distances, Cllr Denis Leonard said that it was important that the setback distances aren’t brought in line with national policy as they offer “protection” to local communities.

He also stressed that through solar power and other renewable forms of energy generation Westmeath could “do it’s bit without going into wind”, which is better suited to offshore or coastal sites.

Cllr Tom Farrell also voiced his opposition to the changes saying that it was important that the policy objective on setback distances first introduced in the previous CDP be brought forward.

Cllr Aoife Davitt said that if the OPR’s recommendation was approved by the councillors it would have a “huge impact” on local people.

Cathaoirleach Cllr Ken Glynn said that it was “pretty clear” from previous meetings that the majority of councillors were in agreement that the OPR’s recommendation on setback distances be rejected.

There was also widespread opposition to the OPR’s recommendation that councillors change the terms used relating to wind energy development.

While he acknowledged that the wind energy policies in the CDP are “contrary” to national guidelines, Cllr Andrew Duncan said that it was vital that none of the terminology used is altered.

He said that terms such as wind parks and wind farms are “designed to soften the blow” of the impact that these developments would have on communities. “Reality is reality,” he said.

Cllr Denis Leonard said that language used in the objectives is important as they are “very clear” and “clearly defined”.

“The word ‘taller’ is very ambiguous. Taller than who, what? So is ‘encourage’. You can encourage your staff to start work at 9am or you can strictly direct them to.

“You will have two very different outcomes depending on the language you use,” he said.

Cllr Leonard added that there were “nine or ten” forms of renewable energy that could be employed in Westmeath, but large scale wind energy was not one of them.

Cllr Ken Glynn said that the OPR’s recommendation on changing the terms was like a “back door entrance” for large scale wind developments down along the line.

The OPR also requested that the council indicates how the development plan will “contribute to meeting national renewable energy targets”.

The CE Pat Gallagher recommended that the plan includes the material amendment that the council will “work with key stakeholders to carry out an assessment of how the implementation of the Plan will contribute to realising overall national targets on renewable energy and climate change, and in particular wind energy production and the potential wind energy resource”.

Cllr Duncan said that he was “very nervous about calling wind developers stakeholders” and that the large number of solar energy farms granted planning in Westmeath in recent years showed that the county was committed to contributing to Ireland meeting its renewable energy targets.

“We have 815 acres granted planning permission for solar power. So any regulator who looks at Westmeath and says you are not doing your bit, that’s the answer.”

In 2014, Westmeath County Council was directed by the then Minister of State for Planning Jan O’Sullivan to bring the policies in its CDP that related to wind energy development in line with national guidelines.

It is expected that the council will receive a similar direction when the CDP plan is approved later this year.