Blustery conditions: conflicting priorities in wind farm planning decisions

by Laura Dobie

The recent decision by the Secretary of State to refuse planning permission for Spring Farm Ridge wind farm brings into focus the tension between government policy and targets on renewable energy, and opponents of these schemes who are concerned about the possible negative effects of renewable energy developments, in particular on the environment.

Government policy on renewable energy

The UK government “is committed to supporting renewable energy as part of a diverse, low-carbon and secure energy mix.” (DECC, 2012, p.4), and recognises the contribution that renewables can make to energy security, the decarbonisation of the economy and sustainable growth. It has a target set out in the 2009 EU Renewable Energy Directive to deliver 15% of the UK’s energy demand from renewable sources by 2020, and it is anticipated that renewables will play a key role in the UK’s energy mix in subsequent decades.

The most recent update to the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s Renewable Energy Roadmap suggests that the UK is making good progress against this target, although it acknowledges that the siting of certain renewable energy projects has caused concern. It recommended that greater numbers of communities should be actively involved in small-scale renewable energy projects and emphasised the importance of ensuring that communities are properly engaged with, and can see the benefits of, renewable energy developments.

Public opposition to wind farm projects

While wind turbine developments can offer a range of community benefits, wind farms have faced considerable opposition from local residents and other stakeholders concerned with environmental and other costs of such developments, particularly their visual impact: optimal sites for developments tend to be in rural, coastal and remote locations in which the natural environment is prized.

While there has been much debate around nimbyism, with suggestions that people tend to favour wind power until schemes intrude upon their local areas, developments may well have an impact at the individual level: a recent study has found that operational wind farm developments reduce house prices in areas in which turbines are visible, in comparison with locations where they are not visible.

In its campaign against a wind farm development, Allt Duine, on the edge of the Cairngorms National Park, the Save the Monadhliath Mountains group has highlighted the potential impact of the scheme on the landscape and wildlife, and also on tourism: the development could have negative effects on the amenity of the area for those who visit the Cairngorms for leisure. While renewable energy schemes can create new jobs in communities, they could also have a negative effect on another major employment sector in rural areas.

It is clear that there are competing interests at stake in the siting and construction of wind farms: the need for a greater proportion of renewable energy in the UK’s energy mix, and the need to protect our natural landscape and heritage assets. The job creation potential of such schemes must also be weighed against the possible adverse impact on the tourism sector.

The Spring Farm Ridge Development

On 22nd December 2014 the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government refused planning permission for a commercial scale wind farm, Spring Farm Ridge, between Greatworth and Helmdon in Northamptonshire, overturning the recommendation of the Inspector.

He acknowledged that all communities have a duty to help to drive up the use and supply of green energy, but that this does not mean that the requirement for renewable energy will automatically take precedence over the environmental protection and planning concerns of local communities.

While the Secretary of State agreed with the Inspector that the benefits and disadvantages of the proposal were finely balanced, he disagreed with the Inspector as to where the balance should lie. The proposal would not accord with the Development Plan and, although there were some material considerations which counted in favour of the proposal, including the renewable energy benefits, the Secretary of State did not consider those benefits to be sufficient to outweigh the likely negative effects of the development, notably identified harm to heritage assets, as well as to the character and visual amenity of the area.

This decision highlights the competing environmental priorities and stakeholder interests which are at play in proposals for new renewable energy developments, and the challenges in determining whether renewable energy benefits should override the negative environmental impacts of these schemes in planning decisions. Perhaps there is a need for greater community engagement and careful consideration of the siting of such developments in relation to the natural environment in order to gain wider public acceptance for such schemes and to improve their chances of approval in the future.

Further reading

Some resources may only be available to Idox Information Service members.

Recovered appeal: land at Spring Farm Ridge, land to the north of Welsh Lane between Greatworth and Helmdon (ref 2165035, 22 December 2014) (2014). Department for Communities and Local Government

Gone with the wind: valuing the visual impacts of wind turbines through house prices (2014). Spatial Economics Research Centre

Renewable Energy Roadmap Update 2013 (2013). Department of Energy and Climate Change

Renewable Energy Roadmap Update 2012 (2012). Department of Energy and Climate Change

Breathing space (natural landscape protection and wind energy development), IN Holyrood, (Renewables No 6 Winter 2013 supplement), pp32-33

Wind trap (opposition to wind farms in Scotland, IN Urban Realm, Vol 3 No 12 Winter 2012, pp87-89,91

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