Plans for huge wind farms across the Westcountry could be derailed by strong local opposition after ministers said some rural communities are "under siege".
The Government yesterday confirmed new guidance being issued to council planners, ordering them to take more account of local dissent, would apply to wind farm applications submitted to authorities but that had yet to receive approval.
Scores of wind farms across Devon and Cornwall are awaiting the go-ahead, including proposals for five 107-metre-high turbines at Harbour Cross near Bradworthy, North Devon, and a 100-metre-high five-turbine scheme in St Mawgan, North Cornwall. Both would be around twice the height of Nelson's Column.
The new edict, which came into force yesterday, will not apply retrospectively, meaning wind farms facing a High Court challenge will escape the crackdown.
One Tory MP said in the Commons yesterday the move, which is allied to offering residents living close to turbines more generous "sweeteners", would spell "the beginning of the end" of unwanted onshore wind turbines. Critics of wind farms in the Westcountry, which is home to around 100 wind turbines already, hailed the move as it will "restore sanity" amid claims developers had the upper hand over planning decisions. But one Liberal Democrat MP warned "the pendulum might swing too far the other way".
Conservative energy minister Michael Fallon told MPs: "Too many communities have felt under siege from wholly inappropriate applications, and this measure will now bring them much-needed and long-awaited relief."
Scores of wind farm proposals sit with Devon and Cornwall planning authorities awaiting approval, chiefly single-turbine applications, but also the big Harbour Cross turbines and the ones at Lower Denzell Farm near St Mawgan – where developer REG Windpower has submitted an identical application to one facing a High Court challenge.
Twenty turbines at Davidstow, North Cornwall, were refused against local outrage.
England's biggest onshore wind farm, Fullabrook near Ilfracombe, North Devon, went fully operational in 2012.
Geoffrey Cox, Conservative MP for Torridge and West Devon, who has pledged to oppose every new commercial application in his constituency, said: "I welcome the Government's decision.
"It will restore sanity to the wind turbine issue, restoring a proper balance between the local community and the gigantic wind farm developers.
"This represents a revolution in the presumption of planning applications."
Landscape campaigners in Devon believe the RWE Npower Renewables scheme to build nine 103-metre-high turbines at Batsworthy Cross on the edge of Exmoor may not have survived the Government's toughened rules.
They say the controversial plant, which survived a judicial review last month, could have failed to satisfy correctly applied guidelines to give weight to the effect on landscape and visual impact.
The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) gave a cautious welcome to the changes, which could signal "the end of onshore wind" power.
Phillip Bratby, a retired physicist who is also vice chairman of the CPRE in north Devon, said the move "appeared to be a step in the right direction". But he said increasing "bribes" to locals would divide communities between those blighted by turbines and others keen to secure extra cash for local projects.
The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has demanded a five-fold increase in what developers are expected to pay residents for allowing wind turbines in their local area. Some 10 turbines could see up to £400 cut from each household's bill.
Dr Bratby added: "It could be a political move as the Government know they are losing support in the countryside – they could be backing down and this could be the end of onshore wind. It appears to be a step in the right direction but so did the Localism Act, which didn't have any effect at all."
Chief executive of green energy body Regen SW, Merlin Hyman, who sits on the DECC advisory group, said: "These new government plans, if effectively implemented, can help ensure that communities are closely involved in and benefit from wind farm developments."
New guidelines on wind farm developments
New Government guidance to councils over onshore wind farms will insist:
Presumption: The need for renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protections and the planning concerns of local communities.
Wind farm clusters: Decisions should take into account the cumulative impact of wind turbines and properly reflect the increasing impact on the landscape and local amenity as the number of turbines in the area increases.
Visual impact: Local topography should be a factor in assessing whether wind turbines have a damaging impact on the landscape.
Heritage protection: Great care should be taken to ensure heritage assets are conserved in a manner appropriate to their significance, including the impact of proposals on views important to their setting.
Turbines seen by many as ‘a complete scam’
Wind turbines and wind farms may be regarded by many people as a “complete scam”, according to Environment Secretary Owen Paterson.
New rules that would transfer power to local people to decide whether individual applications went ahead, instead of the decision being left to planning officers, were to be welcomed, he said.
The new directive is likely to scupper scores of plans backlogged at Cornwall Council and Devon County Council, and halt the controversial proliferation of turbines springing up across the countryside.
Mr Paterson, speaking at the Royal Cornwall Show, said: “Turbines are regarded as a complete scam, but as of today we have given power to local communities to decide. The criteria is now that environment and landscape will have to be taken into consideration as well as the national energy requirement.”
Where a local community decided it was happy with an application there would be sufficient funding. The new rules are part of a package that would increase significantly grants to communities agreeing to host wind projects within their boundaries.
But, Mr Paterson insisted, the new rules applied for all those applications already in process of being considered.
He added: “I know there is huge unhappiness with some of these projects, both from what I hear nationally and from my own constituency in Shropshire. There are places where these projects are well prepared, the community wants it and it will be worthwhile. But in inland areas they are very often deeply unpopular.”
The new measures have been welcomed by conservation groups who have been combating plans for both individual turbines and wind farms. Caroline Hall, chairman of the East Moor Protection Group on Bodmin Moor, currently objecting to planning applications for turbines, said: “Changing the rules makes good sense as it’s time the views of local people were considered by planning authorities. Our countryside can be absolutely ruined by turbines sprouting up all over the place, often not directly attached to a farming business.”
Asked about rumours there might be a change through a statutory instrument to the controversial Hunting Act, allowing more than two hounds to pursue a fox towards guns, Mr Paterson said: “It’s within my powers to make changes within the Hunting Act and we are receiving significant ideas from people which we can analyse.” He would not comment further.