Am Bratach No. 239
Highland Council's planning service is being described as "out on a limb" by wind energy companies which claim that its approach to turbine noise is harsher than anywhere else in the country.
Andy Miller, a planning specialist for Icon Wind Power, argues that many crofters and farmers are frustrated by the stringent planning criteria, which rule out many wind power proposals that would succeed elsewhere. "At the moment, Highland Council is out on a limb in the UK. They have adopted the most onerous planning conditions for wind turbines in the country."
Mr Miller added: "The main issue we have is the massive fuel poverty in the Highlands, where fuel oil for heating can cost up to £4,000 a year. With these kinds of prices, the payback on an electric heating system can be as little as eight months. The main benefit is that people can essentially fix their electrical costs for the next 20-plus years. Given the recently announced 20% increases in baseline electricity costs by the main suppliers, to have that level of cost certainty is a massive financial gain. But people are being denied this chance by Highland Council."
The Scottish Government has set targets to increase wind energy production and there are financial incentives "feed-in tariffs" which offer people who connect a wind turbine to the national electricity grid an attractive rate for any surplus electricity they generate. As feed-in tariffs are likely to be reduced in future, both developers and people keen to reduce their fuel bills want to get started and see contracts signed while the tariffs are at their current levels. There is thus a real sense of urgency.
Rob Gibson MSP is responding to the industry's anger by campaigning for Highland Council's planners to be more lenient towards micro and small wind turbines. He said: "The feed-in tariff was introduced in April 2010 to encourage wind power developments, and now, almost eighteen months since the opportunity arose, Highland Council is just gearing up with its guidance and advice for how planners should handle applications for wind turbines.
"One of the problems was that, for more than a year Highland Council was using the same measures for impact of wind power for micro-turbines as for industrial schemes, but confusing small scale developments with huge commercial schemes muddies the waters. The planners end up effectively acting as advocates for those people who are opponents of wind power in any form."
The key issue, in order for a wind development not to have a negative impact on the amenity of other people, is the distance to the nearest neighbour. The Assynt Crofters Trust's application for a micro-turbine in Stoer was turned down on this basis.
"In Highland the minimum
distance is roughly double anywhere else," said Mr Miller.
"In Moray, it could be as little as 340 metres, but in Highland
[sic] we are regularly told 800 metres or more. Why is it that
people's amenity should be so much different here?"
Furthermore, the noise level at this speed must not exceed forty decibels, which is the sound level in a quiet library. A normal conversation between two people is around 60db. A tree in a Force 8 gale would be considerably noisier.
Malcolm Macleod, the council's new head of planning, argues that the lack of consistency on noise is the government's fault. He said: "Environmental health officers are currently seeking to establish, in conjunction with other local authorities, a consensus of approach across Scotland with regard to this in the absence of national guidelines. It is disappointing that when the permitted development rights for micro-renewables were being considered there was no accompanying guidance to advise on noise standards. While we are satisfied that the council's own advice note is reasonable and robust, should consideration be given by Scottish Government to producing guidance to clarify the assessment of noise and the prescribed levels for micro renewables then we would welcome such a move and the opportunity to contribute to this."
Andy Miller believes that the socio-economic implications of the council's hard line on planning are significant. "We want to establish a local network of haulage contractors, groundwork contractors, maintenance engineers and so on, so that the money stays in the area. There could be a real renewables boom in this part of Scotland, so Highland Council's policy is having a direct, negative economic impact. Socio-economic benefits should represent a fundamental material consideration, with noise impact not considered in isolation."
Mr Gibson said: "Lots of people are trying to take advantage of the opportunity of wind energy but they're being thwarted. Many farmers, crofters and smallholders are looking for a reliable source of power and income that could help to substitute in future for income from subsidies."
The council's development plans team is now setting out new guidance on wind power developments. They have produced a draft of the guidance, which was out for consultation until June 2011, and they are currently deciding how to respond to the comments received.
Mr Miller said: "I hope Highland Council will sit up and take notice of public opinion. There are a lot of disgruntled people who feel like they are missing out."
David Cowie, principal planner in the Highland Council development plans team, said: "A report on the consultation will be considered by the planning environment and development committee in November. Then there will be another period of consultation." He anticipates that the guidance will finally be completed by Easter 2012, to coincide with adoption of the overall Highland development plan.
Meanwhile, planners base their decisions on various documents, including the draft guidance that went for consultation earlier this year, the structure plan and any relevant local plans, the draft Highland development plan and the Highland renewable energy strategy. David Cowie said: "Planning officers at the moment have to look at quite a lot of documents and decide how much weight to give to different factors." This is presumably the reason why there is considerable variation in how the various plans are interpreted by different planning officers.
David Cowie said: "Historically where we've come from is lots of different local plans, but we're moving towards fewer documents with more consistency, so irrespective of where the planner is working they'll take a consistent approach. We are doing work on planning guidance for micro- and small-scale wind power developments at the moment, and we're intending to bring a draft report to the planning committee meeting on September 21. It will be put out for consultation after that."
Part of the new guidance will
be to explain which developments do not need planning permission
at all. Some small wind turbines (such as a single, domestic,
free-standing turbine, within the curtilage of a dwelling house,
at least 100 metres from the curtilage of another dwelling, not
within certain types of sensitive area, etc) could fall under
"General Permitted Development Rights". David Cowie
said: "Anyone wishing to develop a turbine should check
first with their local planning office to find out what procedures
need to be followed."