Judge Gives Energy Firms the Right to Build Wind Farms 350 Metres from Homes

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Energy firms will be allowed to build giant wind turbines just 350 metres from residential areas after a crucial ruling by a High Court judge.

Minimum distance unlawful

The judge decided that a council’s attempt to impose a minimum distance of 1.2km (three quarters of a mile) between wind farms and people’s homes was unlawful, in a test case that could have far-reaching consequences for national planning laws.

Milton Keynes Borough Council in Buckinghamshire tried to prevent the wind energy firm RWE Npower Renewables Limited from erecting 125 metre high turbines less than 1,217 metres from homes after it put in planning applications for two wind farms in the borough.  RWE took the council to court, arguing that the “emerging policy” of imposing a sliding scale of minimum distances, based on the height of turbines, contradicted its existing local development plan, which recommends a minimum distance of 350 meters.  RWE argued that the new policy would “sterilise” the borough for wind farms because so few sites would comply with it and feared that the policy would set a national precedent.

Energy trump card

Judge John Howells QC agreed with RWE in a High Court judgement which is likely to be used as a trump card by energy firms whenever councils object to wind farms being built too close to homes.

Acknowledging that “wind turbines generate passionate argument as well as energy,” the judge said there was “no objective justification” for the proximity restrictions, regardless of actual noise or visual impact.  Judge Howells emphasised that it was not his task to consider the benefits, or otherwise, of wind turbines but went on to uphold RWE’s judicial review challenge to the changes the council had sought to introduce via a “supplementary planning document.”

He ruled that the council’s stance was “plainly in conflict” with established local policy.  It gave rise to a situation where the same proposal would be granted planning consent under the adopted development plan for the area but refused it under the emerging policy.

Other arguments put forward by RWE – including that the council’s stance conflicted with national renewable energy policies – were dismissed by the judge.  Milton Keynes will now, nevertheless, be forced to make crucial amendments to its policy.

Policy changes

The policy sought to give residents a potentially crucial say in wind farm proposals close to their homes.  It also laid down minimum distances between turbines and bridleways, public footpaths and high pressure fuel lines.

RWE had earlier argued that the council’s policy shift had effectively left only tiny portions of the Milton Keynes area available for wind farm developments that are needed to meet national and regional renewable energy targets. It expressed concern that, if approved by the court, the emerging policy would be adopted by other local authorities across the country.

The company has two turbine projects in the council’s area in the pipeline – at Nun Wood and Orchard Way – but the council has opposed both on residential amenity grounds. RWE argued that the emerging policy directly contradicted the local development plan which is “permissive” of wind farms, in line with government policy.

Councils beware

Cllr Andrew Geary, Leader of Milton Keynes Borough Council said: “It is rather ironic that the council already had separation distances in place within policy and the supplementary planning document was quashed as a result of this point alone.  Had we had no policy we would have won.  Any authority that doesn’t have a separation distance in policy should sit up and take notice of this judgement.

Distance still under review

The siting of wind farms has become a key source of tension between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in the Coalition. The Lib Dems are in favour of more onshore wind farms to meet green energy targets, but Tory ministers including Nick Boles, the Planning Minister, have argued that residents’ objections should be taken into account.  Mr Boles has suggested in the past that a minimum distance of 1.4 miles between turbines and housing – suggested by Lincolnshire County Council – might be appropriate in some areas.

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