Society supports ‘coherent and balanced’ windfarm policy

Middlemoor windfarm, just north of Alnwick.
Middlemoor windfarm, just north of Alnwick.
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The organisation established to protect the county’s landscape has set out its views on windfarm development in Northumberland following the Government’s announcement about changes to energy policy.

Earlier this month it was announced that the Government intends to end new public subsidies for onshore windfarms by legislating to close the Renewables Obligation across Great Britain to new onshore wind-generating stations from April 1, 2016.

Plus, the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) had already announced measures in the Queen’s Speech to change the law to give local communities the final say on onshore windfarm applications.

Today, the Northumberland and Newcastle Society, founded in 1924, released a statement explaining its stance and welcoming the changes proposed by the Government.

Statement in full:

Introduction

The Society supports the need for a coherent and balanced UK energy policy aimed at securing the UK’s energy needs and mitigating the effects of climate change. It recognises that wind energy, including onshore wind, has a role to play. However, that role has been fulfilled and, indeed, over-played.

As the Society has long argued, the time has come to redress the balance because the political interference in both energy markets and the planning system unduly favoring onshore wind has lead to harmful and unjustified impacts on landscape and heritage assets and the communities that value and rely on them.

It is that imbalance that the Government’s changes announced on June 18 seek to address. The Society welcomes and supports them.

That imbalance, encouraged by the £4billion in subsidies received by onshore wind developers since 2002, has lead to enormous pressure for turbine development which, as the Government has correctly recognised, means that ‘we now have enough onshore wind in the pipeline, to be subsidised by bill-payers through the Renewable Obligation or Contracts for Difference, for onshore wind to play a significant part in meeting our renewable energy commitments’. Nowhere is that statement truer than in Northumberland.

To allow or encourage, unabated, more onshore wind development would be to: Lead to a substantial over-shoot of the electricity component of the UK’s 2020 European Union Renewables Directive target for renewable energy. The subsidies required to fund that overshoot would exceed the Treasury’s Levy Control Framework limit of £7.6billion per year by approximately £1.5billion per year; leave valued landscape and heritage assets at severe and unjustified risk adding to the pressure that under-siege communities have faced for more than a decade; distract attention from more reliable forms of renewable energy; leave electricity consumers exposed to ill-directed subsidies.

In circumstances where Northumberland has made a greater contribution to renewable energy targets than any other English county, the Society hopes that the June 18 subsidy and planning policy changes will send a clear message to predatory developers to withdraw from their assault on Northumberland and that Northumberland County Council will adopt and apply the Government’s new guidance to robustly resist further planning applications for turbine development, save in the most exceptional circumstances. As the new guidance makes clear, the views of local communities must be respected.

Policy detail

Subsidies: This technical area is too complex to deal with in detail in this statement although the Society has sufficient expertise to monitor its progress. In short, any as yet unauthorised onshore wind proposals, even before the June 18 announcements, would have been unlikely to benefit from the Renewable Obligation subsidies because those subsidies were, in any event, to come to an end in 2017. Such schemes were unlikely to be operational by then.

It remains unclear how the replacement subsidy scheme, Contracts for Difference (CfDs), will be curtailed, but the DECC announcement strongly suggests they will be. It is hoped that the Feed in Tariff, (FiT, the other scheme through which renewable-energy generation is subsidised) will also be urgently and sensibly reviewed. This should lead to investment in more acceptable and productive technologies.

Planning: The relevant passage from the new planning guidance is set out below – do local people have the final say on windfarm applications?

The Written Ministerial Statement made on June 18 is quite clear that when considering applications for wind energy development, local planning authorities should (subject to the transitional arrangement) only grant planning permission if: The development site is in an area identified as suitable for wind energy development in a Local or Neighbourhood Plan; and, following consultation, it can be demonstrated that the planning impacts identified by affected local communities have been fully addressed and therefore the proposal has their backing.

Whether the proposal has the backing of the affected local community is a planning judgement for the local planning authority.

The Society welcomes this guidance, but there remain concerns as to its application by Northumberland County Council (NCC).

In particular, the council will need to confirm that no policy currently exists in any Local or Neighbourhood Plan identifying any areas as suitable for wind energy development. An examination of extant and indeed emerging policies appears to support that view noting the extent of windfarm development that the county’s landscapes and communities have had imposed on them, often contrary to the council’s own appraisal and local objection.

The Society is also concerned to ensure that in re-appraising its emerging Core Strategy policies, the council properly reflects the change in emphasis that the June 18 announcements require.

Pending the emergence of the council’s new Core Strategy and supporting Supplementary Planning Guidance (SPG), the Society suggests that NCC should make clear that all undecided ‘wind’ applications will be likely to be recommended for refusal because, regardless of the issue of the ‘backing’ of ‘local communities’, the county currently has no ‘area[s] identified as suitable for wind energy development [by any] Local or Neighbourhood Plan’. This might curtail the planning blight and community stress for so long induced by pro-wind bias in both subsidy and planning terms, a bias exacerbated in Northumberland by weak, local planning policies.

Finally, it will be vitally important to establish the parameters of the ‘planning judgment’ to be applied in the assessment of whether a proposal ‘has the backing of the affected local community’. Windfarm developers are likely to seek to broaden the definition of ‘community’ to dissipate the strength of opposition within those communities most directly affected. In the Society’s view, to allow them to do so would be disingenuous.

Conclusion

It is early days and the county remains under enormous pressure from ‘big wind’. The Society will monitor the implementation of the new planning guidance and the changes to onshore wind subsidies and it will continue to engage in the planning process. In the latter context, its aim is to ensure that renewable energy policies are rational, balanced and reflective of new Government policy.