A huge wind farm off the Norfolk coast has been given the go-ahead, after business and energy secretary Kwasi Kwarteng granted it permission.
Swedish energy giant Vattenfall was told that it would be granted a development consent order for its Norfolk Boreas wind farm, 50 miles offshore.
That has been hailed as an economic boost for Norfolk, creating jobs, boosting businesses and placing the region at the forefront of the burgeoning renewable energy sector.
But it will also bring disruption to communities and went against the recommendation of the Planning Inspectorate, who had said permission should not be granted.
The inspectorate had said: “Of greatest concern to the examining authority is the adverse effects of the proposed development on a range of nationally and internationally designated marine biodiversity, marine biological environment and offshore ecological assets.
“The level of harm resulting from adverse effects of the proposed development on benthic ecology and offshore ornithology is considered to warrant substantial weight against the making of the order.”
The inspector highlighted concerns over loss of reefs, whether sandbanks would recover from cable installation and birds such as gannet, kittiwake and gulls colliding with turbines.
The inspectorate also gave “medium” weight against making the order because of the impact on traffic and transport and on the landscape.
But Mr Kwarteng decided the benefits from the development, including the contribution it would make towards meeting the national need for energy, outweighed those concerns.
The letter granting the development order stated: “For the reasons given in this letter, the secretary of state considers that there is a strong case for granting development consent for the Norfolk Boreas Offshore Wind Farm.
“Given the national need for the development, as set out in the relevant National Policy Statements, the secretary of state does not believe that this is outweighed by the development’s substantial adverse impacts, as mitigated by the proposed terms of the order.
“The secretary of state has therefore, in the light of information received following receipt of the examining authority’s report, decided not to follow the recommendation not to make the order and instead to make the order granting development consent.”
What will it mean?
Vattenfall says the Boreas wind farm – and a second scheme called Vanguard – could power more than 3.9 million homes in the United Kingdom.
However, the projects are controversial, with concerns over the impact on the Norfolk countryside caused by the construction of multiple substations and the trenches which will need to be dug for cables.
The Boreas scheme would consist of between 90 and 156 turbines, up to 350 metres tall.
The cable route would travel almost 40 miles, from Happisburgh to an expanded substation at Necton.
Danielle Lane, country manager for Vattenfall said: “This decision is a win for Norfolk and a win for the climate.
“It means a multi-billion investment in the UK which will keep the East of England at the forefront of the green energy revolution.
“There will be a wealth of supply chain opportunities for companies, as well high skilled green jobs, coming directly to Norfolk.
“This project, alongside its sister project Norfolk Vanguard will be a world leading example of what well-coordinated energy delivery looks like, whilst making sure that low cost renewable energy is produced for UK consumers.
“We look forward to start work in the New Year with local communities, UK suppliers and our partners in Norfolk to bring this project to fruition and unlock its huge potential.”
The company has previously pledged a £15m community fund for community projects in the county.
Ms Lane acknowledged that the laying of the cable route and the construction of the expanded substation would be disruptive.
She said: “We recognise that and we have done extensive consultation in the area. We are very familiar with the route which we want to take.
“We will do everything we can to minimise disruption. This will be for two or three years of a 50 year project and we really want to make it as easy as we can for everyone.”
She said the company had made the “big” decision to put the cables underground, rather than on pylons and that trees would help to screen the substation.
On the environmental concerns raised, she said the height of the turbines had been increased to make them less of a risk to birds.
She said Vattenfall was looking at the detail of extra mitigation requested as part of the granting of the order.
Businesses welcome jobs boost
The green light was hailed by the East of England Energy Group (EEEGR) , which represents companies involved in the energy sector.
Chairman Martin Dronfield said: “The decision taken by the secretary of state to grant permission for the Vattenfall’s massive offshore wind development to proceed off the coast of the East of England is the very best news for our region and indeed for the wider fight against climate change.
“It will bring new jobs to the region, both for our young people and also for our existing workforce transitioning from other sectors.
“It will bring investment to our region as the supply chain clusters around the projects delivery hubs, and our ports are developed and it will leave a lasting legacy in our regions for generations to come.
“EEEGR recognises the disruption that the development will cause in some areas of our region and applauds the efforts of Vattenfall to mitigate this disruption to peoples lives and to the local environment.
“Of course EEEGR also recognises that the effects cannot be completely removed and that there will be a price to pay to achieve the project goals.
“As such we continue to support the efforts of the government’s Offshore Transmission Network Review to find a lasting solution to the effects of the current radial system of connecting wind farms to the National Grid.”
Simon Gray, executive director of policy and external affairs, said: “This is a fantastic decision for our climate, for jobs, for the future of green energy, for our ports and for the supply chain and skills providers that will supply the equipment and skills to allow these wind farms to generate clean energy for decades to come.
“Whilst we understand the concerns of protestors to the cable routes and sub stations, this decision had to go ahead to meet the governments commitment to the production of 40GW of offshore wind energy by 2030.
“We can now work on developing the technology and changes to legislation that will eventually develop the offshore infrastructure to allow for the potential construction of some form of offshore grid.”
MP calls for disruption to be minimised
Duncan Baker, North Norfolk MP, said he was not surprised by the decision.
The Conservative MP said: “The expectation was that Vattenfall would get their permission due to the timetable we know the government is working to on its decarbonisation plans.
“As an MP for the area it will now be my job to absolutely make sure that if Norfolk Vanguard is also given permission, then both wind farms are deemed pathfinder projects so we can have as much co-ordination and as little disruption as possible to the communities that are going to be affected.”
Mr Baker said it would be crucial to make sure the affected communities benefited from the £15m Norfolk Zone Community Benefit Fund pledged by Vattenfall.
He said he and other MPs would continue to push for a transition to an offshore transition network.
Dave Mole, chairman of Happisburgh Parish Council, said he felt it was “inevitable” permission would be granted.
Mr Mole said: “There are people in the village who are sceptical and think that there will be damage, because it is a delicate and vulnerable area. Our cliffs are soft clay and sand.”
Mr Mole said he hoped Vattenfall would pay for sea defences to slow coastal erosion in the village, as part of the £15m community fund.
He added: “We also hope the disruption of the construction will not affect our holiday trade.
“If roads have to be closed and there’s lights and noise it could create quite a lot of chaos. We hope Vattenfall is sympathetic to our little village economy.”
What happens next?
There is no right of appeal to the order, but, potentially, opponents could seek a judicial review in the High Court – which would need to challenge the legality of the decision.
Vattenfall also needs to secure the actual contract with the government to provide the power – which happens through a bidding round called the Contracts for Difference process.
That would happen in 2021/22 and, in the meantime, hoping for a successful outcome, Vattenfall would continue with pre-construction work, detailed design and procurement.
Onshore work, including laying cables in up to four trenches of 1.5m wide and 1.5m deep in the 45 metre wide corridor running from Happisburgh to Necton, would get started in 2023.
Offshore work would start in 2025, with the first power coming through in the mid to late 2020s.
A decision on Vattenfall’s Norfolk Vanguard wind farm has yet to be made.
The development consent order for the that scheme was withdrawn and is being re-determined, following a successful legal challenge by former RAF pilot Raymond Pearce.
Norfolk is keen to position itself at the forefront of the wind farm sector – and little wonder.
The country needs more energy – and Norfolk is in a prime position for that electricity to be brought ashore, connected to the grid and used to power millions of homes.
The renewables sector has the potential to create jobs, during construction and during maintenance of wind farms.
However, this does come at a cost. There will be disruption for a number of years as the cables are put in, with places such as Cawston, Oulton and Necton set for increased traffic from lorries.
There are also environmental impacts. The planning inspectorate was so concerned about those that it recommended consent not be given.
The secretary of state’s view? That the country’s energy needs – and climate change – outweigh that.
Vattenfall will need to mitigate for the environmental effects – and must also do what it can to minimise impact on Norfolk’s communities when work commences.
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