Report on the Committee’s Inquiry into Wind Energy

Session: 2014/2015

Date: 29 January 2015

Reference: NIA 226/11-16

ISBN: 978-0-339-60553-4

Mandate Number: Mandate 2011/16 Seventh Report

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Executive Summary

1.This report sets out the key conclusions and recommendations of the Committee for the Environment on its inquiry into wind energy, and the evidence considered by the Committee which led to those conclusions.

2.The terms of reference for the inquiry were:

a.To assess the adequacy of PPS18 and related supplementary guidance in regulating proposals for wind turbines on a consistent and strategic basis, with due regard for emerging technologies and independent environmental impact assessment;

b.To compare the perceived impact of wind turbine noise and separation distances with other jurisdictions and other forms of renewable energy development; and

c.To review the extent of engagement by wind energy providers with local communities and to ascertain how this engagement may best be promoted.

3.The Committee is fully mindful and supportive of the requirement to promote renewable energy, and to meet the Executive’s Programme for Government target for 2011- 2015 which includes a commitment to achieve 20% of electricity consumption from renewable sources by 2015. This inquiry, however, arose in response to the concerns of local residents who have questioned the way in which this target is being achieved through what they believe to be an over-reliance on wind energy.

4.The Committee put out a formal call for evidence on its agreed terms of reference and received a large volume of submissions from a wide range of stakeholders; the issues raised in submissions were followed up with oral evidence sessions on specific aspects of the inquiry. In addition, the Committee appointed a specialist acoustician to provide clarification on technical issues and carried out a fact-finding visit to a wind farm site.

5.The Committee has considered this evidence and has agreed its conclusions and recommendations which are set out in detail in the following section of this report. The Committee has made a number of recommendations to the Department of the Environment, primarily relating to the need for a more strategic approach in the Department’s consideration of planning applications for wind developments, and, in particular, the development of closer liaison between planners at local council level and Strategic Planning Division.

6.The Committee also calls for the ‘economic considerations’ criterion for assessing applications to be clearly defined in relation to renewable energy in the Strategic Planning Policy Statement (SPPS), and for the effectiveness of PPS 18 to be reviewed by the Department to guide future policy and guidance to planners.

7.The Committee found that there were areas where planning procedures could be refined and improved, so that more detailed applications for turbines are submitted; and that planning conditions attached to successful applications should put the onus on developers to demonstrate compliance with noise limits, rather than the burden of investigation of complaints being the responsibility of local councils.

8.The Committee has concluded that the Department also needs to put procedures in place to clearly define when the concentration of wind farms sited in an area reaches saturation point, and to specify how planners should address such a situation. The Department should also review the guidelines for neighbour notification in the case of planning applications for wind turbines, with a view to extending the distance from the current 90m radius.

9.While the Committee has not made any specific recommendation for planners to take into account any potential adverse impact of wind turbines on the physical or psychological health of those living nearby, the Committee concluded that any significant evidence of such an impact should be given serious consideration in assessing an application for the siting of a wind turbine.

10.The issue of wind turbine noise was the most contentious aspect of the inquiry. The wind industry is of the view that the current guidelines (ETSU-97) are adequate for regulating noise limits, but other stakeholders overwhelmingly cited this as their most pressing area of concern. After considering the evidence from its specialist advisor, the Committee agreed that the use of the ETSU-97 guidelines should be reviewed on an urgent basis by the Department and that more appropriate guidance should be put in place.

11.The Committee has also recommended that the Department should establish procedures for monitoring wind turbine noise on an on-going basis and should work to establish independent research evidence on the long-term impact of this noise.

12.The issue of the separation distance of wind turbines from dwellings was carefully considered by the Committee. Although it appears that this distance relates more to visual amenity than to restriction of the noise impact, the Committee has recommended that the Department should specify a minimum separation distance, rather than simply advising that 500m will generally apply, as is currently the situation.

13.During the course of its inquiry the Committee has received assurances from developers and the Department that wind turbines are generally a safe form of technology, but the recent collapse of a turbine in Tyrone has led to a recommendation that any lessons learned from the investigation which is currently on-going should be implemented as soon as possible.

14.The Committee has also made a number of very specific recommendations, which are detailed in paragraphs 37 – 39, in relation to the wind industry’s need to engage with local communities. The Committee recognises that the industry has already made efforts to progress its engagement with local residents, but it has been evident to this Committee throughout the inquiry that people living near to operational or proposed wind developments do not believe that they have been adequately informed or their views heard.

15.Consequently, the Committee has made recommendations which it hopes will promote a more inclusive approach, and thereby result in a more meaningful and real form of engagement, to address the concerns of the communities whose approach to the Committee gave rise to this inquiry.

Key conclusions and recommendations

16.The Committee came to the following conclusions and recommendations after due consideration of the evidence before it.

Strategic Approach

17.The first term of reference relates primarily to the adequacy, or otherwise, of Planning Policy Statement 18 (PPS 18). The current policy is set out in PPS 18, with a slightly different approach proposed in the draft Single Strategic Planning Policy (i) to remove the significant weighting of wider environmental, economic and social benefits considerations, and (ii) to urge a cautious approach to the siting of turbines in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) or other designated landscapes.

18.The Committee considered whether a strategic approach that advocated zoning, or the identification of most appropriate locations for wind turbines, would be effective. However, it was agreed that it was now too late for introducing zoning in Northern Ireland as some areas, notably West Tyrone, had already reached saturation point in terms of the number of wind developments either operational or planned for the region.

19.The Committee identified a clear need for closer liaison between Strategic Planning Division and local councils to ensure a joined-up approach and more cohesive planning for both wind farms and individual turbines. This should be a natural outcome from the development over the next two years of Local Development Plans for each of the council areas; it should also involve all the relevant central government departments – DETI, DARD and DRD, as well as DOE - and should reflect the aims of the Regional Development Strategy and the Strategic Energy Framework.

20.The Committee expressed some concern that the term ‘economic considerations’, which is used in PPS 18 and has been retained in the draft SPPS, has not been clearly defined and it would urge the Department to do so. The Committee acknowledges that some economic impacts may be intangible, but believes that planning applications submitted by developers need to be very specific about what the measurable economic outcomes of the project will be, so that it is clear whether or not these have been delivered.

21.The Committee also agreed that there should be an audit carried out by the Department of the effectiveness of PPS 18 in determining both the environmental and economic outputs of wind energy. The Committee believes that this exercise would be useful not only in establishing the effectiveness of PPS 18 but also in determining future policy and practice.

Planning processes

22.The Committee found that many submissions to the inquiry focused on perceived inadequacies of current planning procedures. Members expressed concerns that there may not be adequate consideration of the cumulative impact of turbines, but they recognised that balancing individual applications against cumulative effect is a wider issue across planning. The Committee recommends that procedures should be put in place so that a saturation point is clearly defined, rather than being a judgement call of individual planning officials.

23.The Committee considered the present situation in Northern Ireland where local councils have to devote finite resources to the investigation of noise complaints made against wind turbines. This contrasts with other areas of the UK where the developer is required to undertake investigation of any complaints and to demonstrate compliance with noise limits. The Committee therefore recommends that the standard conditions which were developed by the Institute of Acoustics, and which have been endorsed in Scotland, England and Wales, should be routinely attached to planning consents in Northern Ireland.

24.The Committee has considered the desirability of a planning application for connection to the grid being assessed at the same time as the wind turbine application, instead of subsequently, as is currently the case. This would provide the Department with a more accurate record of viable applications as a significant number of single developments do not proceed when the cost and practical difficulty of connection to the grid is investigated by the applicant. The Committee therefore recommends that planning applications for connection to the grid should be assessed at the same time as the turbine application.

25.The information provided on generic planning application forms often lacks specific detail, so that members of the public are not clear what exactly is being proposed. The Committee recommends that a separate application form, designed specifically for wind turbines, should be used by planning service; since there may be evidence that older machines are noisier, the make, model and age of the proposed turbine should also be recorded on the planning application form.

26.Until the introduction of the Planning Act 2011, the notification of neighbours of relevant planning applications has been at the discretion of planners. The requirement to notify neighbours is now mandatory, but only applies to those who occupy buildings on neighbouring land within 90 m of the boundary of the application site. The Committee believes that this level of notification is inadequate for the latest wind turbines, which may exceed 110m in height and have a much greater impact in open countryside than in an urban environment. The Committee recommends that the Department should review the distance for neighbour notification in the case of wind turbine planning applications with a view to extending it beyond the current 90m radius.

27.The Committee understands that, although planning applications for wind turbines are generally accompanied by Environmental Impact Assessments, these focus mainly on the ecological features of the site, and although they should include an assessment of the impact on the population in terms of noise, public safety, employment/economic benefit, residential amenity, appropriate separation distances and shadow flicker, there is no specific reference to the physical or psychological health of those living nearby. While the Committee accepts that it would be very difficult to quantify this, any evidence indicative of serious possible detriment to either of these two aspects should be carefully considered by planners.

Wind turbine noise and separation distance

28.The second term of reference of the inquiry focuses on wind turbine noise and separation distances from dwellings. This has been the most emotive aspect of the inquiry as many submissions detail the adverse impact perceived noise from wind turbines is having on the respondents’ day to day lives. From the evidence put before the Committee, it seems apparent that current guidelines in respect of permissible levels of noise are no longer adequate and that the research evidence available has increased significantly since 1997. The Committee therefore recommends that the Department should review the use of the ETSU-97 guidelines on an urgent basis, with a view to adopting more modern and robust guidance for measurement of wind turbine noise, with particular reference to current guidelines from the World Health Organisation.

29.The Committee was also concerned that there does not appear to be continuous long-term monitoring of noise from wind farms, either by developers or by the relevant public sector organisations. If such information were available it would introduce an objective measure of the noise output of turbines, as opposed to the projected noise impact produced by a desk-top exercise as part of the application process. This would provide both developers and planners with factual evidence and a useful assessment measure for future applications. The Committee recommends that the Department should bear responsibility for ensuring that arrangements be put in place for on-going long-term monitoring of wind turbine noise.

30.Following on from this, the Committee has heard evidence from local residents who are concerned about potentially harmful low-frequency noise emitting from wind turbines. The Committee is not in a position to determine the scientific basis for such information, but members believe that it warrants further investigation. The Committee therefore recommends that the Department, working with local universities, should commission independent research to measure and determine the impact of low-frequency noise on those residents living in close proximity to individual turbines and wind farms in Northern Ireland.

31.The Committee is aware that PPS 18 advises that a separation (or setback) distance of 500m, or 10 times rotor diameter, will generally apply to the siting of wind developments, but there is no indication given in the policy whether this is in relation to noise or to visual amenity. The Committee’s specialist advisor has indicted that, due to local topography, linear distance is less important than the robust actual measurement of noise, but it is obviously very relevant to the aspect of visual amenity. There are no generally agreed separation distances in other jurisdictions and the lack of prescription has given rise to a great deal of criticism from respondents.

32.The Committee has considered whether the current degree of flexibility should continue to be available to planners in assessing applications, but agreed instead that a minimum setback distance should now be determined by the Department. The Committee recommends that the Department, taking into account constraints on the availability and suitability of land for the generation of wind energy, should specify a minimum separation distance between wind turbines and dwellings.

33.The Committee has not taken evidence specifically on the development of other forms of renewable energy, but it believes that it may be beneficial in the longer term to develop a greater mix of renewables to meet carbon emission targets, rather than to place such heavy reliance solely on energy generated from wind turbines.

34.During the course of the inquiry the Committee has been assured by the wind industry that turbines are a safe form of technology, with instances of physical damage caused by turbines occurring only rarely. Committee members saw at first hand the level of computer-controlled monitoring relating to a wind farm which allows for remote monitoring of the operation of the machinery. However, a recent incident in West Tyrone when a wind turbine collapsed, scattering debris across the surrounding area, has given the Committee cause for concern. The Committee therefore recommends that the investigation of the incident should be concluded as swiftly as possible, both by the owners of the wind development and the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland, and that any lessons learned should be implemented as soon as possible.

Community engagement

35.The final term of reference for the inquiry relates to the extent of engagement by wind energy providers with local communities and the promotion of such engagement. The Committee found that, although the wind industry is aware of the vital importance of engagement and is moving towards a more robust standardised approach (as exemplified by the recent publication of the NIRIG Community Best Practice Guidance 2014), many residents still feel marginalised in the whole process of siting wind developments near their homes.

36.The Committee believes that the views of the community must be given consideration by both planners and developers. Community concerns regarding visual amenity, noise and health, and the impact on house prices, are often not given due regard; and community groups trying to investigate or object to applications find the process resource-intensive and not transparent. This should not be seen as a mere box-ticking exercise - the views of residents need to be listened to, considered and, if possible, changes made to take account of these views. It is not just about preparing reports: there is a need to act on the findings.

37.The Committee believes that there should be timely and early engagement with communities. It recommends that the use of a community engagement toolkit should be made mandatory, as a useful measure of independence, and the list of statutory consultees should be widened to reflect all users of the countryside.

38.The Committee also recommends that, as part of the pre-application consultation process, independent community engagement reports should be prepared; and that written acknowledgement from residents that they had been adequately informed about the proposed development should be prepared and retained as a record of consultation.

39.In order to promote dissemination of information more appropriately, the Committee recommends that information events should be properly organised discussion sessions, not just exhibitions, with opportunities for residents to have their questions answered. The Committee found that the role of community liaison officers who are appointed by developers could be vital in assuring this exchange of information and views.

40.The Committee also considered how the issue of financial incentives – known as community benefits – may be used to promote community engagement. There was broad support from all stakeholders for these schemes, and, while the Committee acknowledges that payments are currently made by the wind industry on a voluntary basis, the Committee recommends that the level of community benefits payable should be set at government level and that these should be made a condition of planning permission.

41.The Committee also recommends that a Community Benefits register, similar to the one in Scotland, should be set up as a public record of all types of benefit arising from wind developments. The Committee believes that this would enhance transparency and accountability, as well as providing a means of monitoring and assessing the effectiveness of the schemes.

42.The Committee found that it was reasonable and appropriate that community benefits should be allocated proportionately to those most closely impacted by the siting of wind developments, particularly where these take the form of reduced electricity tariffs for those living close by. The Committee understands that this has already been happening in some areas and calls for the standardisation of this approach on a wider basis.

43.The possible devaluation of homes, where wind developments have been sited in close proximity to existing dwellings, has been a contentious issue. While the Committee has been presented with emerging and contradictory research evidence on this, it believes that a scattered rural population – both those who have lived in the area for generations and those who have chosen to live in quiet scenic locations – has some cause for grievance. The Committee therefore recommends that the developer gives consideration to providing compensation where there is clear and compelling evidence of a significant drop in house value directly relating to the siting of a wind development.

44.The Committee also considered the relevance of wind farm co-operatives in promoting community engagement, particularly where such co-operatives are supported by government either in a financial or advisory role. The Committee agreed that this may be a useful approach and recommends that it should be explored as a further means of strengthening community ownership of renewable energy.

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