Friday, October 24, 2008

High winds and hot air

Today we had a special meeting of Stockton's Planning Committee with just one item on the agenda. A big item, though, in more ways than one - the proposed wind farm on the borough boundary between Hilton and Seamer. The pre-application period for this was characterised by a deluge of correspondence from both the developer, telling us how much the country needs renewable energy, and by the opposition, telling us all the drawbacks of this site, that the developer didn't know what he was doing, that wind turbines are intrinsically dangerous, ugly pieces of machinery. There were public information meetings, well attended, and more letters to members of the planning committee. This continued of course after the application was submitted. So, with such a high level of public interest, a special meeting was convened rather than try to fit it into a regular agenda.
The afternoon started for the committee with a site visit. It was a beautiful day, clear and sunny. The wind was certainly strong enough to have generated a fair amount of electricity had the turbines been functioning. As it was, we stood in the middle of a field on a slight rise in the ground and admired the view over to the Cleveland Hills, Roseberry Topping standing proudly to the fore. To the North we could see as far as the wind turbines at Greatham near Hartlepool and then on the horizon were the ones near Seaham Harbour. We looked at where the proposed turbines would stand in this field and neighbouring ones, tried to gauge their height compared to the pylons already there and the recently erected wind monitoring mast, and tried to estimate whether the visual or noise impact on the housing we could see would be significant. As we travelled in the coach officers from the council were pointing out to us problems with access during the construction phase, where entrances might be sited and where difficulties might arise as well as possible ways to overcome them.
Then it was back to the Baptist Tabernacle for a warm cuppa before the meeting. A large number of people had come along to hear the debate, and many of them registered an interest in speaking - 10 objectors as well as a couple of supporters. The report from our planning officers was long and detailed, pointing out that government policy is in support of renewable energy but also pointing out that in this case there were serious concerns about the access especially for abnormal loads. The developer made no effort to address these concerns but simply reiterated the need for wind energy. The objectors raised lots of issues which had some relevance but weren't sufficient to refuse the application on. In the end it all came down to the fact that in order to get the turbines to the site there would need to be serious destruction of some old hedging and trees, a removal of the recently installed traffic calming in Hilton village, and some difficult manoevres on country roads. The committee couldn't see how these could be reinstated, especially when the lifespan of the turbines is only 25 years so there would need to be removal of at least some parts at that time and perhaps new bringing in. No time for a hedge to grow back to its 100 year old status! I felt sad that Stockton's first application for a wind farm had been brought in on such a poor site and said so in the committee. I really do think there must be places which are more easily accessible by the size of vehicle needed and I hope developers keep looking.

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