Decision day for Norfolk wind energy plan

Decision day has arrived for a battling village in Norfolk's heartland, which has fought tooth and nail to protect its rural idyll from an energy company's substation plans. But could similar conflicts lie ahead for other communities as the rush for green power gathers pace? CHRIS HILL reports.

A year ago, no-one in the quiet Norfolk community of Little Dunham could quite imagine the battle which lay ahead.

And 20 miles from the coast, their eventual opponent would seem equally unlikely – a green energy firm planning an offshore wind farm in the North Sea.

So it came as quite a shock when the unsuspecting villagers were told they lived next door to the prime location for Warwick Energy's planned Dudgeon wind farm to be connected to the National Grid.

The company's application for a huge substation at the village, near Swaffham, galvanised the Little Dunham Action Group (LDAG) into life and has generated 200 letters of objection and 1,500 signatures on a protest petition.

The main fear is the potential effect on the rural landscape, with up to four planned convertor buildings each measuring 15m in height with a 70m by 25m footprint – and the transformers only 300m from the nearest homes.

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And, after almost 12 months of vociferous campaigning and lobbying, the application is finally due to be decided later today by Breckland Council's development control committee.

Energy company bosses stand by their assertions that Little Dunham is the most suitable site out of 112 considered for development and that any landscape issues would be mitigated by planting a 20-acre expanse of woodland to screen the substation from the village.

Those findings have been endorsed by statutory consultees – with no formal objections raised by Natural England or the Environment Agency – and Breckland's planning officers have recommended the scheme should be approved.

Nevertheless, councillors face the difficult decision of whether to accept the view of the experts, or listen to the impassioned pleas from villagers and refuse the scheme – which could result in an expensive appeal.

LDAG campaigner Paul Gardner has lived in the village for 11 years.

'Everybody who lives in the village is here because they enjoy this beautiful rural environment,' he said. 'Then suddenly out of the blue here we are fighting a developer who has no interest other than making profit.

'The key point is you cannot build something two or three times the size of a house over an area the size of Wembley Stadium without damaging the landscape.

'At a community level the impact could be devastating. People I know are deeply upset about it and want to move, so it has the potential to ruin a community as well as a village.

'It is so desperately unfair that Little Dunham has to bear the brunt of this for the sake of green energy. I support the need for wind power but I find it abhorrent that the only alternative seems to be to ruin our village.'

Mr Gardner said he had been assured that the potential cost of a defending any resulting appeal would not influence committee members to approve the plan, and urged them to heed the village's concerns.

'We will present the committee with sound policy, community and environmental reasons why this should be rejected, and we will ask them to make their decision based on that,' he said.

Mark Petterson, Warwick Energy's project manager for the Dudgeon wind farm, agreed the decision must be made on facts, but said the documented reports were in favour of the development.

'The planning process is a fact-based process, whether there are 20 objectors or 2,000,' he said. 'If we have not done our job right and found the right site, then it should be turned down. But the planning officers have done a very thorough job and none of the expert stakeholders are objecting – and those people are not shy in coming forward if they don't like what we are proposing.

'It is the right location, because it can be fully screened and the screening will be effective.

'The planning committee is there to look at the facts and the facts indicate that this is the right site. If we had proposed this somewhere else we would have all the same arguments from another community, except then we would not be able to say that we had the most appropriate site – because that site is at Little Dunham.'

Another criticism of the plans is that the substation is designed to be large enough to cope with a 'speculative' future expansion of the Dudgeon wind farm which has yet to win consent.

But Mr Petterson said the eventual size of the project did not alter Little Dunham's position as the best substation site, as it would need to connect to the 400kV power lines which run between Norwich and King's Lynn – even if the wind farm stayed at the 168 turbines already agreed.

A huge turnout is expected for today's meeting, where the council has taken the unusual step of allowing each side to display presentation boards, while Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman has also agreed to speak on behalf of the protesters.

Mr Freeman said he wanted to ensure that a precedent was not set which could force 'innappropriate' energy developments on similar rural communities.

'While I do not as an MP generally get involved in the detail of planning applications, this one raises serious issues with huge significance for Norfolk,' he said.

'It is wrong for national offshore infrastructure to be dealt with through this process. If we, as a nation, are going to pursue offshore energy at the rate currently envisaged we must have some national policy guidance for bringing that energy onshore efficiently and appropriately.

'Warwick Energy's outline application – which leaves much of the important detail open – is an inappropriate mechanism for the council to approve a development with such enormous consequences.

'If we are not careful we risk sending a message to developers that lazy applications stand a good chance of being approved in Norfolk because the local councils do not have the resources to resist them.'

The wind energy industry continues to generate community-spirited opposition throughout East Anglia.

Earlier this month, more than 430 parishioners in Hickling, near Stalham, voted in a parish poll on whether they wanted an 80ft turbine built as part of an �800,000 scheme for a new village hall. The poll recorded 247 against the turbine and 186 for it.

A campaign group named Creakes Action for Protecting the Environment (Cape) has been founded to battle the cumulative effects of three separate developments near Fakenham.

Renewable Energy Systems has submitted plans to construct six 400ft turbines on farmland between Stanhoe and South Creake – a few miles from Syderstone, where Eon plans five turbines, and Docking, where West Coast Energy plans another seven.

And in Waveney, a campaign group called HALT is opposing Stamford Renewables' plans to build three clusters of three turbines in Ringsfield and Barsham, which are due for a decision on October 25.

In 2007, a wind farm controversy led to tragedy when farmer Richard Herbert, one of a consortium of landowners wanting to build turbines at Marshland St James, near King's Lynn, drowned himself after protests about the proposals mounted.