Tuesday, 1st July 2008
Developers must fund windfarm objectors
One of the most significant problems we face when addressing the issue of a wind farm proposal is the current system designed to assess the potential impact that such a development may have on both the land and local community. The existing Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Directive gives the developer the responsibility of conducting the assessment and then gives the local authorities the task of evaluating these findings. Given that the UK has a considerable number of scientific experts with the ability to provide information relevant to the potential impact, it seems incongruous that the onus of assessing impact lies to such a great extent with the wind farm's developer. After having invested a great deal of time and money into a potential project, there is a clear tendency for developers to present Environmental Impact Statements that come down in favour of the development, based on the evidence of their own experts (for whom, all-too often, the American author, Upton Sinclair’s observation appears to be relevant, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.").
To make things worse, the local authorities themselves often lack the essential scientific expertise to determine any potential project as damaging or counter-productive. Consequently, local authorities rely heavily on the relevant official bodies to make specialist observations about the development proposal on their behalf. However, these official bodies are currently handling large numbers of wind farm cases. This workload raises the question of their capacity to manage any particular case comprehensively and within the planning timescales involved.
Establishing the likely impacts of a windfarm development is generally an expensive process. Responsibility for the EIA process is thus placed on the developer because normally the developer has access to the necessary levels of funding for such work. Unfortunately many EIAs produced by developers are woefully inadequate. In such cases, the people most directly affected by the potential impacts – i.e. the local community - can rarely afford to present their own view of the potential impacts. This means that the people most affected by a development have the smallest voice in the planning process. This unfair balance built into the EIA procedure really ought to be addressed. Local communities cannot compete financially with developers. This is particularly so with local rural communities, the very places where developers want to construct wind farms. The information guiding the decision-making process – and thus the power driving this process - currently lies with city investors, big developers and the local authorities, the very people who won't be directly affected by the proposals.
So what is the solution? Local communities, it seems, need to be given a stronger voice in the assessment of any development which would significantly affect their local area. Indeed there is an EU Directive that says as much (the Aarhus Directive).
It seems that some form of fund should be provided which can be used by the local community to create their own EIA if necessary. This would guarantee further examination of assessments already carried out by local developers to ensure a full investigation of any proposed development. A supplementary or alternative assessment carried out by a local community might include reviewing the EIA information, several days’ field work, collating the field data, writing the report and even appearing as an Expert Witness at a Public Inquiry. It might involve investigations into potential peatland impacts, but it may also be necessary to consider the site's archaeology, water quality, noise and ornithology.
However, if such work were to be supported from public funds it could consume significant amounts of public money. The funds could instead be created through a bond given from the developer to the local authority at the start of the project, in much the same way as a bond is often a condition of planning in respect of any restoration work required at the end of the working life of a development. This new ‘local community bond’ could instead be applied to the initial planning application, and made available to local communities to undetake their own impact work, if they felt it to be necessary. If the community is content with the developer’s EIA, the bond would then be returned to the developer on grant of planning consent. The size of the bond could be based on both the physical scale of the development and also the anticipated economic scale of the proposal as a whole.
Not only would this enable the local community to contribute in an active way to any development proposal. It also has the added benefit of encouraging developers to research thoroughly the implications of such proposals in the first place, and thus produce good EIA documents which local councils, local people and official bodies would be happy to accept without further investigation. This would encourage a win-win situation whereby developers produce high quality EIA documents and local communities feel content that the documents considered by the planning authorities adequately represent their concerns. In so doing, it also therefore has the potential to reduce the current time-consuming, costly and conflict-ridden system presently in place, while actively helping to involve those those who at the moment feel disenfranchised by the planning process.