Little Dunham substation plan will be decided by ministers

A defiant Norfolk village's battle to stop a huge electricity substation being built in their community will be jointly decided by two government ministers – with potentially conflicting loyalties.

The surprise announcement was made at the start of a two-day planning hearing regarding Warwick Energy's controversial plan to connect its proposed �1.3bn Dudgeon wind farm to the National Grid on land south of Little Dunham, near Swaffham.

The plan was rejected by Breckland Council in October following a vociferous opposition campaign, but subsequently appealed by the green energy company.

As he opened the informal appeal hearing this morning, planning inspector Christopher Frost said he had received a call yesterday telling him the decision had been taken out of his hands, and would instead be jointly made by the respective secretaries of state for climate change and communities.

The news was greeted with groans among the 60 villagers who packed Great Dunham village hall to hear the public debate.

But campaigners and developers said they were unsure how the decision would be affected, as the two ministers' portfolios would appear to set them on opposite sides of the debate – with one trying to empower small communities through the Localism Bill, and the other charged with championing the UK's efforts to meet renewable energy targets.

Simon Fowler, chairman of Little Dunham Parish Council, said: 'It certainly took us by surprise, and I think you could tell that by the reaction of the whole room.

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'In a way I suppose it is a tribute to the enormity of the proposal that it will be considered at that level, but we just have to rely on the two secretaries of state to act in our best interests, as well as in the best interest of government policy.'

The outline plans include four converter buildings, measuring 70m long by 25m wide and 15m high. The 43-acre site would include 20 acres of landscaping and screening.

Mr Frost, who will make recommendations to the ministers, said: 'The main issue to consider is whether the visual consequences of the proposed development, including the mitigation measures, would be consistent with maintaining the aesthetic quality of the surrounding rural landscape, taking into account the contribution the facility would make towards the utilisation of renewable energy.'

Much of the first day of the hearing was spent on site visits, with Mr Frost taken on a tour of viewpoints 6km away near Holme Hale, from where opponents said the substation would be visible on a ridge across the Wissey Valley.

Paul Gardner, who helped form the Little Dunham Action Group to fight the proposals, said: 'The issue is the size of the 43-acre site, located on the highest land in Breckland and with buildings which are two or three times the size of local houses.

'The feeling in the village is one of frustration, verging on anger, that we are in this situation when we have been campaigning from the outset that this is the wrong place for a development of this size – and Breckland Council rejected it on that basis. You can see by the turnout at this hearing that the threat of a substation is really starting to affect people's lives.'

Mark Petterson, project director for Warwick Energy, said: 'We obviously feel, as the planning officers did, that the landscape impacts are acceptable. The key thing is for the inspector to look at the site and make his own judgements as to whether they are right or not.

'The screening will take some time to mature and become effective, but most of the viewpoints will be fully screened in due course. You may be able to see it from a couple of very unusual viewpoints, but not from the houses or the roadside.'

On the last-minute change of decision-making jurisdiction, Mr Petterson said: 'This is a nationally-important wind farm so I think it would have been more of a surprise if it was not decided by the ministers.'

Any villagers wishing to speak about the proposed substation can do so when the hearing resumes at 9.30am on Wednesday (8th). After that, more detailed arguments for and against the proposals will be heard.

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