The vexed question of wind turbines

A Withiel community action group has been formed to tackle the issue of wind turbines in the parish, following a Parish Council meeting to which more than 50 members of the public came to register profound objections to new turbine developments.

Withiel cannot be said not to have ‘done its bit’ on wind power, having had one of the early wind farms, E:On’s St Breock Down development, on one of the area’s most prominent hills since 1994. But the new wave of turbines are different beasts. Attracted by generous feed-in tariffs, landowners are being encouraged to apply for one or two turbines, and many are finding it hard to resist.

Four developments have been applied for in the Parish and more are in the pipeline. It seems likely that the pattern will be repeated across the county, leading to “measles” development on exposed fields and hills. It is feared that hundreds of landowners may take advantage of the subsidies.

The action group was formed after the November meeting of the Parish Council at which two applications were discussed and rejected. These were for turbine towers 110 feet high, topped by rotors 60 feet across. The meeting, on Tuesday November 2, was somewhat strained as the Chairman of the Parish Council, John Piper, is one of those to have applied for planning permission for a turbine. He stood down while the planning applications were discussed and Richard Thomas took the chair, but the situation illustrates the potential this issue has to fracture the community. No-one has done more for this community than John Piper, yet now he is brought into conflict with his neighbours.

At the previous Parish Council meeting, two more applications were looked for – one at Trevidgeowe and another on land east of Hendra. The Trevidgeowe tower, for a 100kW turbine twice as powerful as those applied for elsewhere, has been withdrawn, but the Hendra tower is still active.

This is possibly the most socially divisive issue we have ever faced. It was said that these turbines would leave a legacy of bitterness that would last longer than the turbines themselves. Opinion was polarised between those who will get the subsidies, and those who will pay them.

Local County Councillor Mick Martin warned the village that Withiel was up against big money, backed by central government policy.


Saving the planet?

There was no claim that landowners are building turbines for the greater good, in order to “save the planet”. The feed-in tariffs are so generous that they are effectively being bribed to build them. At the meeting it was said that it was a lot to ask of our neighbours that they forego a substantial free handout, but that was the truth of the matter.

The true value of these turbines to society, it was said, had to could not be gauged without taking into account that damage they do to the environment and the degradation of amenity. In terms of power production they barely registered – they were a highly-visible fig-leaf to cover a lack of substantial action on global warming.

The ‘rated power’ figures given for them were described as “little more than a fraud on the public”. Some wind farms operated at around 25 percent of ‘rated power’. On that basis, the eleven turbines of the E:On development would produce enough power for about 600 homes. But that, too, was said to be misleading. Homes are relatively small users of power. The foundation of our prosperity was industries which took off their power at 300,000 volts, and their supply had to be assured. The example was given of one company with a single, relatively small plant which had an electricity bill of £70,000 a month. If we carpeted the entire country with windmills, they would not make a realistic contribution to the industrial requirement of the country.

Furthermore, the cost of wind generation had to include the back-up power stations which needed to be kept running to take over when the wind dropped. Even if turbines could cover the land and stretch far out to sea it wouldn’t remove the need for a single power station, as they would have to be kept ‘turning and burning’ ready to accelerate to meet demand.


Degradation of amenity

A number of points were made about the impact of the turbines on the landscape. Firstly, it was not possible to consider them in isolation. The cumulative effect had to be looked at. The first two applications in Withiel parish, from John Piper and John Drake, face each other across the Wadebridge road. To treat them as separate developments was not tenable.

It was considered by planners that Withiel parish was already compromised by the fact that the National Grid marches across it. This was seen as equally specious reasoning; the burying of the grid has been mooted for good reason and is profoundly to be hoped for, and in any case, one assault does not make the victim fair game for the next.

It was pointed out that because of the Core Plan, it had been impossible to build anything in Withiel for something like 25 years – even getting a porch erected was bordering on the impossible. How do we square that with building metal towers in every prominent place?


The imperatives

The area’s county councillor, Mick Martin, attended the meeting and said that while he remained neutral, he would obviously offer advice where it was requested. He warned the residents that they were up against powerful opposition. The British Government had to meet carbon reduction targets set by Europe, and wind power was the line of least resistance, needing little technology and being available off the shelf from China, America and elsewhere. It was becoming big business, backed by serious money, especially in Cornwall which was already one of the biggest producers of wind energy.

In his opinion, it was self-evident that the cumulative impact of these planning applications, and those which are to come, had to be considered in the round.

He warned that in stating their opinions, residents had to be aware of what were deemed by the planning authorities to be legitimate grounds for objection, and what were not.


Compromise and contribution?

It was said that while the value of wind turbines may primarily be for propaganda, a strategy which simply said ‘no’ to all further turbine developments was not one that was likely to succeed. It was thought that a planned approach in which the community joined together to agree a system whereby it could shoulder its share of the renewable energy burden, but where the advantages accrued to the community rather than to a small number of landowners, should be defined. It did not necessarily have to rest on wind power; solar power would be a component, and Cornwall was blessed with enormous geothermal power potential.


The planning applications

The parish councillors discussed the individual planning applications in detail. Mike Biddick asked whether the power produced was being used on the farms. Applicant John Drake said the power was routed through his farm, with the surplus going to the National Grid. In the case of John Piper’s application, it was noted that this had been reduced from two towers to one. It would be built 240 metres from Higher Bosneives and 40 metres from the Saints Way. Its production was destined for the National Grid. John Drake’s two turbines were similar in size and would be built overlooking two houses. The Parish Council decided to oppose these planning applications on several grounds – the fact that they impinged on unassociated houses, the fact that the cumulative effect of these and other likely applications had not been properly considered, and the fact that a co-ordinated plan was required for dealing with them. An application for a 50kW solar farm of panels 2.6 metres high is also to be opposed.


The community action group

After the Parish Council meeting the members of the public who had attended stayed on to discuss how to proceed. They constituted themselves into a Withiel Community Action Group. It was agreed to take a four-cornered approach to the subject.

  1. Approach MP Dan Rogerson to ensure that central government was aware of the concerns about, and the likely consequences of, the current policy.
  2. Establish the legitimate grounds on which objections may be made in order to assist residents in framing responses to the planning department of the County Council.
  3. Seek through Councillor Mick Martin a hiatus on all such wind turbine planning applications until a co-ordinated strategy to control their proliferation has been established at county and national level.
  4. Research and establish a community-based alternative energy project.

It is also intended to seek publicity in local newspapers, to seek the advice and assistance of the Council to Protect Rural England, and to forge connections with the Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network.

*To see how to object, go to the home page and read ‘Planning considerations’