Tuesday, 17 January 2012

What is the point

of Broad Areas of Search?

A few years ago, when I heard that South Ayrhsire Council in common with other local authorities had published Broad Areas of Search for large scale wind farm development, I thought it made sense. After all, we have equivalent areas for other types of development, so why not for wind farms? At the time, I thought that if someone was lucky enough to own a piece of land in such an area, it would immediately have risen in value after the announcement since it was clear that wind farm development was going to increase. Of course, that assumption was based upon the presumption that the broad areas of search would actually be utilised. How wrong can you be? You can probably tell I am not a land speculator - I don't think I would be very good at it.

Looking at my map, 64 out of the 173 wind turbines built or consented are located in broad areas of search. These 64 turbines represent just 37% of the installed and consented machinery. If all the turbines plotted on my map (excluding the green and blue ones) were built, that utilisation would increase in absolute terms to 80 - out of 479. Those 80 turbines would then represent just 17.8% of the installed and consented machinery. Vast swathes of South Ayrshire's Broad Areas of Search would remain empty. So, just why are they there? What is their function?

Paragraph 46 of the Ayrshire Joint Structure Plan has the following to say about the broad areas of search: "To guide wind farm development in a manner that maintains landscape and biodiversity value and safeguards the operational needs of Glasgow and Glasgow Prestwick Airports, two areas of search for large-scale wind farm development have therefore been identified. Outside these two areas wind energy proposals will be judged against the criteria established in Policy ECON 7."

Moving onto ECON 7, paragraph A states: In the Areas of Search proposals for large and small scale wind farm development will be supported subject to specific proposals satisfactorily addressing all other material considerations. It seems then that the broad areas of search have been established to accommodate wind farms. Unfortunately, it seems that this accommodation is not exclusive. Paragraph F of the same policy statement reads: "Proposals affecting Sensitive Landscape Character Areas shall satisfactorily address any impacts on the particular interest that the designation is intended to protect but the designation shall not unreasonably restrict the overall ability of the plan area to contribute to national targets."

So, on the one hand the Broad Areas of Search are where wind farm development is intended to be 'encouraged', but paragraph f of ECON 7 of the Ayrshire Joint Structure plan ensures there is a convenient get out clause for Sensitive Landscape Character Areas. How can you quantify "unreasonably restrict" for heavens sake? And the situation is far worse for areas that don't have the luxury of a Sensitive Landscape Character Area designation. For these areas, paragraph e of ECON 7 offers the following protection: Outside the Areas of Search: all windfarm proposals will be assessed against the following constraints, any positive or adverse effects on them and how the latter can be overcome or minimised:
  1. Historic environment;
  2. Areas designated for their regional and local
    natural heritage value;
  3. Tourism and recreational interests;
  4. Communities;
  5. Buffer zones;
  6. 6) Aviation and defence interests;
  7. Broadcasting installations.

and that's it. The issue is that the Ayrshire Joint Structure plan provides little enforceable protection against wind farm development for virtually any areas of land at all. So, whilst South Ayrshire's planners may recommend rejection of a particular proposal essentially because it isn't located in a Broad Area of Search, the developers can appeal any subsequent negative ruling by the regulatory panel. And given the policy statements quoted above, it is very easy to see how regulatory panel decisions can be overturned upon conclusion of the appeal process.

Ordinarily, the possible cost of appealing regulatory panel decisions tended to make developers think hard about the ramifications of losing the appeal, after all if they lost they would likely incur all legal costs - from both sides. Such financial risk is difficult to manage and plan for, so some developers give up at this point. However, some don't. The spectre of a large bill for unsuccessfully challenging a planning decision has in the past tended to act as a sort of sanity check. Unfortunately, the Scottish Government doesn't like this. They have recently launched a 'consultation' looking at ways of changing the Scottish legal system. One of the outcomes of this change could be the reduction in liability for such unsuccessful challenges - to just £5,000.

So, the Ayrshire Joint Structure Plan in actual fact ensures Broad Areas of Search are not worth the paper they are printed on - and the legal system may well shortly be changed so that the only reasonable disincentive to challenging an 'inconvenient' planning decision is removed - or at least, very tightly constrained. So again I ask - what is the point of the Broad Areas of Search? To me, they serve little practical value and in reality only provide a false sense security in terms of protection from wind farm development.