Row over proposed wind turbine policy for Northumberland

Picture c/o PixabayPicture c/o Pixabay
Picture c/o Pixabay
Opponents have called for the ‘flawed’ and ‘unsound’ policy on wind turbines in the Northumberland Local Plan to be scrapped.

Gregory Jones QC, representing the Northumberland and Newcastle Society, said it ‘should be struck out’, during a hearing as part of the independent examination of the key document.

Kevin Tipple, a senior planning officer at Northumberland County Council, conceded there was some work to do, but added: “We do feel the approach is sound.”

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However, Mr Jones said that ‘make do and mend is not acceptable’, before planning inspector Stephen Normington concluded: “I will keep my powder dry until the council has decided what it wants to do.”

Mr Normington is covering the section of the plan dealing with minerals, waste and renewable energy, while Susan Heywood has been covering the rest of the examination, which is due to be concluded later this month.

The role of the inspectors is to decide whether the plan, which was submitted to the Government last May, is sound and complies with all the relevant legal requirements.

This row over the turbines policy has been brewing since early versions of the framework.

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In August 2018, we reported that campaigners were critical of the council’s approach, which designates vast swathes of Northumberland as suitable for wind-turbine development, albeit these areas would only be a starting point and applications would have to meet other requirements.

The plans states: ‘Potentially suitable areas are identified across relatively large parts of Northumberland for smaller wind turbines with a height of less than 25 metres and 26 to 40 metres in height.’

Rob Murfin, the council’s director of planning, told the hearing: “Areas of potential are different to allocations where the presumption is that housing would go ahead. This is saying that some areas are no-go areas.”

The council also admitted that its mapping was based on an initial landscape sensitivity assessment and had not been taken much further than this, with the understanding that any developer would need to address issues such as landscape capacity and cumulative impact as part of an application.

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But Mr Normington said: “The plan is not clear about how far this goes. There are limitations in this that are not adequately explained at this stage.”

Beyond this though, the society’s assertion is that the authority’s approach is not supported by national policy or guidance, which uses the phrase ‘suitable’, not ‘potentially suitable’.

In addition, its case – as set out by David Biesterfield, who is also a parish councillor in Eglingham – is that the involvement of local people must be part of the process to determine landscape value in the first place and that has not happened. “It’s not an optional extra, it’s fundamental,” Mr Jones added.

David Manley QC, for the council, pointed out guidance says at the plan-making stage, councils must listen to those who may be affected, which is evidenced through the ‘hundreds and hundreds’ of responses to the consultations it held.

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Mr Murfin added: “Listening is not the same as automatically taking on board what’s said. Listening does not necessarily read across directly to change.”

But Mr Biesterfield claimed that Mr Manley had ‘wholly missed the point; we had no input into the landscape assessment work’. “In terms of listening, the perception of local people is that the council has closed its ears,” he added.

At the end of the debate, when asked by the inspector for its position, the council’s view was that its approach remained sound.

“It’s important to understand how the mapping is used alongside the policy criteria,” Mr Tipple said.

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Mr Manley added: “We need to make it plain that there’s limitations in the evidence base and make it clear that when an application comes in, it will have to deal with landscape impact, capacity and value as well as cumulative impact.”

But Mr Jones said: “We are at fundamental odds that cannot be dealt with by explanatory text. Our solution would be, unfortunately, to wind this policy back and re-engage.”

During the discussions, the inspector also asked the council about criticism from the industry that new technology was not being considered, as there are only very limited areas – most of which already windfarms – where turbines over 40 metres are possible.

Plus, Mr Normington questioned the planners on how they proposed to measure or define the community backing which is required to be demonstrated before a turbine application can be considered acceptable – although he agreed that this was a problem passed down from the national policy, which provides no definition or explanation.

Other energy sources

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Coal is also addressed in the plan and was discussed during the two days of minerals and energy hearings.

Stewart Provan, from Banks Mining, pointed out that the country continues to use coal – 11 million tonnes in 2018.

Around five to six million of this was by industry and he said that while overall usage was going down, this figure had been stable for a number of years.

Explaining that the country is ‘extremely reliant’ on imports from the likes of Australia and Russia, he added: “Therefore it (coal extraction) can help the country meet its carbon budgets.”

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There was some discussion about how the council had interpreted a footnote in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which Mr Provan claimed simply means that coal has to be decided on a site-by-site basis.

But Mr Normington stated that there was a ‘mismatch between the footnote and the council modification’.