Renewable hope: 10 lessons after a planning committee considers wind turbines

It was a long and often rough road which led to a special meeting of the South Norfolk Planning Committee on Wednesday 8th December to decide whether three wind turbines should be erected on the land between the villages of Dickleburgh, Rushall, Pulham St Mary and Pulham Market. Three and a half years ago, an energy company announced plans to build a development. They withdrew after 18 months, but were quickly replaced by another  company who put in plans that were modified but essentially the same.

The planning meeting was an epic. After four hours, during which arguments for and against were expressed, the ten councillors, Conservative and Liberal Democrat, voted unanimously to reject the application. The council’s planning officer had opposed it on the grounds of its impact on the local landscape and its closeness to the homes of residents but other concerns – about noise, about the effect on local biodiversity, about safety  – were also aired, and played their part in the final decision.

It is an emotive issue, wind. Most sane people recognise the pressing, urgent need for renewable energy at a time when fossil fuels are dwindling, demands for  energy in the developing world are increasing and the planet is getting warmer. On the other hand, global  concern is meaningless unless it takes account of local environments. In this case, precious, uncluttered landscape on the doorstep of four thriving villages would have been sacrificed.

Out of concern for the local Waveney Valley countryside, its people and wildlife, an action group called 4Villages opposing the development on the grounds that the harm on the ground outweighed the small energy benefit was set up in 2007. I was, and am,  part of that group.

The matter is far from resolved even now. It is possible that the developers will take their case to appeal before the Planning Inspectorate, although, in the view  of many, they would be unwise to do so after the unanimous decision of the planning committee.

At this point, though, we have a brief moment of respite. After three and a half years of being in the crossfire of local, national and global issues, involving impassioned feelings on both sides and the beleaguered and ever changing planning system of Great Britain, a few lessons have been learned from our campaign.

1. Put your trust in local democracy. Horror stories are told about indifferent planning officers, clueless councillors, and unreliable experts but, in the end their duty is to consider the factual specifics of the case, not emotional generalisations. Maybe we were lucky but, in the case of south Norfolk and the application for Upper Vaunces Wind Farm, our experience of the way the system works has been wholly positive. The planning officer made sensible judgements in an often charged atmosphere. The level of knowledge and understanding on the planning committee was impressive. We hope that they would appreciate what really was at stake, and our faith was justified.

 2. Work with the planning officer.  What is true with any application is particularly relevant with wind turbine plans: nagging, bullying, teasing or boring the council’s  officer is entirely counter-productive. If you believe that the development is wrong-headed, you need to provide the evidence to support the case. Sometimes it may seem as if you are doing his or her job for them, but you are not. You are helping reach the right decision.

3. An ounce of reason is worth a pound of emotion. People feel passionately about the landscape, about the shape of the little bit of countryside where they live. An assault on that  – by business interests, by activists with no particular knowledge of, not interest in, the local specifics – can feel personal and traumatic. At a planning committee, none of that matters – and indeed, keening voices of rage will count against you. On your action committee, you need calm specialists, nerds, fact-hounds, not hysterical hand-wringers. Study carefully the rulings of the Planning Inspectorate at appeals – for many, that is where the final decision is made.

 4. Keep it local. You will quickly become obsessed by the arcane debates which surround wind energy: onshore v. offshore, renewable obligation certificates, low amplitude modulation, ETSU-97 noise guidelines, load factors, birds and bat mortalities – the list could go on. It is useful to know the big arguments but they will not convince the planning committee – indeed, they are outside its remit for discussion. Your case needs to be based entirely on detailed local considerations.

 5. You will be unpopular. A huge emotional groundswell supports any renewable energy project. People, rightly concerned about climate change, often think in slogans – or not at all. You will become, through some weird, unquestioning process, an enemy of the planet, responsible for the lights going out in a few years’ time, a traitor to your children and grandchildren, selfish, thoughtless. The only way to respond to these charges (which can be quite nasty) is to be specific. Few people, apart from extreme energy fundamentalists, believe that turbines should be erected wherever a developer and landowner happen to choose. You are simply arguing that their choice in this case is wrong and inappropriate.

 6. Quangos and national bodies will let you down. Because of the huge pressure, from government downwards, to support the push for renewable energy, bodies which will be consulted – Natural England, English Heritage, the RSPB and others – will turn themselves inside out in their efforts to give your development the green light. In our case, the RSPB switched positions, advised the developers that they should “discourage” breeding birds, had their advice as to when construction should take place entirely ignored – and still managed to support the proposal. In the end, it was the planning officer who expressed deep concern about biodiversity, while the RSPB and Natural England nodded it through – a very odd state of affairs.

 7. Keep in touch with other action groups across the country. There is a great deal of communal expertise when it comes to renewable energy and its impact on the landscape. The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England is useful and well-informed, as is the Renewable Energy Foundation.

 8. Do not assume that the developers are experts. It may be their jobs and their investment, but very often these companies get things wrong – they do not, after all, know the area in the detail which you do. The expertise and commitment of local people should not be under-estimated.

 9. No egos. It is a tough and stressful business. If your action group is full of people determined to pursue their own ends, or to be in the limelight, you will be picked off like plump pheasants. At the centre of your campaign, you need grounded, bright, committed people who do not see what they are doing as part of a personal crusade. There will be disagreements and disappointments along the way but, at all times, unity and the greater good should come first.

 10. Be positive. Renewable energy, of the right kind and in the right place, is a great hope for mankind and the future. Setting your face against it is silly and counter-productive. Remember that what you are arguing for  – the landscape, wildlife, the joy of living, or visiting, open countryside and passing it down to future generations  – are not small things, luxuries, whatever the politicians may like to argue. They are essential for the welfare and happiness of the planet. Environmentalism begins with a concern for own  your back yard.