Decision by Sine?ad Lynch, a Reporter appointed by the Scottish Ministers
- Planning appeal reference: PPA-250-2212
- Site address: Land at Little Raith Farm, Gleniston, Auchtertool, Fife KA5 0AX
- Appeal by WK Extension Project Ltd against the failure by Fife Council to determine a planning application within the statutory period
- Application for planning permission dated 18 July 2014
- The development proposed: Erection of six wind turbines with a maximum blade tip height of 126.5 metres and associated infrastructure
- Date of site visit by Reporter: 28 April 2015
- Date of appeal decision: 1 July 2015
I dismiss the appeal and refuse planning permission.
1. I am required to determine this appeal in accordance with the development plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise. In this instance, the development plan comprises the approved SESplan Strategic Development Plan (2013) and the adopted Mid- Fife Local Plan (2012).
2. Having regard to the provisions of the development plan, the main issues in this appeal are landscape / visual impact and residential impact, including cumulative impacts. Other material considerations in this appeal are national renewable energy targets, national planning policy, economic impact and education, noise, shadow and flare flicker and airport radar systems.
3. The appeal site is located in Fife, to the south of Lochgelly and the south east of Cowdenbeath. The A92 forms the northern boundary of the site. The western boundary is comprised of the A909 Cowdenbeath to Burntisland road. To the south is the Fife Ethylene and NGL plant at Mossmorran, and to the east is Loch Gelly. The appeal site is currently used for grazing.
4. The existing Little Raith Wind Farm lies adjacent to the proposed development. It consists of 9 operational turbines, each measuring 125 metres to blade tip. There are 2 rows of turbines running east to west, with a single turbine on the eastern boundary. Access to the operational site is taken from the A909 and the proposed access to the additional turbines would be taken from the existing access.
5. The appeal proposal is to extend the existing wind farm at Little Raith with the addition of 6 turbines measuring 126.5 metres to blade tip, with a total combined output of 19.2 megawatts from the proposed additional turbines. The turbines would be operational for a period of 25 years, with a further period for decommissioning. The associated infrastructure includes a substation and control building, internal access roads, meteorological masts, and an education centre for public use. In addition there would be a temporary construction compound and storage compound, both of which would be removed post-construction.
6. An Environmental Impact Assessment, an Environmental Statement and Habitat Management Plan were submitted by the appellant as part of the application, in addition to other supporting material.
Consultations and representations
7. In the council’s report prepared for the Fife Central and West Planning committees, 324 letters of objection were recorded and 16 letters of support. Lochgelly and Cowdenbeath Community Councils both maintain objections to the proposed development. A further 9 parties made written submissions during the appeal process. The appellant notes some 511 submissions during the planning application period including petitions, of which, they state, 216 are expressions of support.
8. There were a number of concerns, objections and comments made by the various external and internal consultees, and these will be addressed under the appropriate issues in this notice.
9. SESplan recognises at Policy 10 that local plans should promote the use of renewable energy and encourage development that will contribute towards achieving national renewable energy targets. This policy reflects national planning policy which gives general support to onshore wind development and which seek to guide developments to areas with potential for wind energy.
10. Policy I1 – Renewable Energy of the adopted Mid-Fife Local Plan 2012 (Local Plan) supports proposals for renewable energy provided that there is not significant impact on local communities, the built environment and other uses and activities, employment opportunities are provided, particularly rural diversification, and use is made of brownfield land wherever possible.
11. The Local Plan also sets out that any wind energy proposals will be assessed against the Fife Council Wind Energy Supplementary Planning Guidance (SPG), which was adopted in 2013. The SPG identifies areas of search and the factors to be considered in the determination of applications for proposed wind farms. It pre-dates Scottish Planning Policy 2014 (SPP), and the SPG identifies different areas of constraint for wind energy development in Fife. The area within which the appeal site falls within is identified on the area of search diagram in the SPG as an “area where acceptable cumulative impacts have been reached” and which has significant protection and least landscape capacity. The SPG classifies any turbines over 100m as very large and provides detail of the capacity of different landscape types for different sizes of turbine. The appeal site is identified as being within the Lowland Loch Basin. Within this area, there is no capacity identified in the SPG for very large (or large) turbines. The SPG states that given the existing wind turbines in this landscape that any further wind energy development should be limited to well- separated medium sized turbines.
12. In addition to wind energy – specific policies, there are a number of policies in the Local Plan which address general development in the countryside. Policy E1 – Development outwith Town and Village Envelopes sets out that proposals will only be permitted when they are in accordance with Local Plan Policies E15 to E29.
13. In addition to national and local planning policy, the European Renewables Directive places an obligation on the United Kingdom to generate 15% of its total energy requirement from renewable energy by 2020. In addition, the Scottish Government’s current targets (2013) are for the equivalent of 50% of Scotland’s own electricity consumption to be generated by renewable sources by 2015 and 100% by 2020. The Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 also sets a target for an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 over the 1990 baseline, with an interim target of a 42% reduction by 2020.
14. The Scottish Government’s ‘National Planning Framework 3’ (2014) states that renewable projects can make a valuable contribution but that their effects need to be carefully managed.
15. Scottish Government document ‘Scottish Planning Policy’ (SPP) (2014) states that wind farms should be supported in locations where the technology can operate efficiently, and where environmental and cumulative impacts can be satisfactorily addressed. It also states that the design and location of any wind farm development should reflect the scale and character of the landscape, and that the location of turbines should be considered carefully to ensure that landscape and visual impact is minimised. Planning authorities are required to set out in the development plan a spatial framework identifying those areas that are likely to be most appropriate for onshore wind farms. An area not exceeding 2km is commended for community separation around cities, town and villages. The approach set out in Table 1 of SPP would place the appeal site in Group 2: Areas of Significant Protection. Wind energy proposals in such areas require to be assessed against the considerations set out in paragraph 169 of SPP. The merits of individual proposals are to be carefully considered against the full range of environmental, community, and cumulative impacts (SPP paragraph 163).
16. The appellant carried out a Landscape and Visual Impact Assessment (LVIA), which was included in the ES. The landscape character of the appeal site is identified as being “Lowland Hills and Valleys”, as set out in the Fife Landscape Character Assessment study 1999. The identified landscape characteristics for this area are medium / large scale open landscapes, rolling and undulating topography with linear and geometric field patterns. The LVIA concluded that there would be moderate adverse, and thus significant effects, on the landscape resource of the development site itself. The appellant considers that the presence of the existing wind farm and the Mossmorran complex to the south limit the potential impact of the proposed additional turbines on the wider landscape, as they contend that the landscape is currently industrial and capable of absorbing similar development.
17. The design process has, from the outset, aimed to prevent and / or reduce any impact on the landscape, according to the planning statement submitted with the appeal. However, the appellant’s submissions also acknowledge that there will be a limited number of significant landscape impacts arising from the development.
18. The council considers the SPG specifically addresses the lowland hills and valleys of Cowdenbeath / Glenrothes / Kirkcaldy and that it states that larger wind turbines can be accommodated, but not large wind farms or extended clusters of turbines.
19. Information on existing and consented turbines within a 5 kilometre buffer zone of the proposed development has been provided by the council. The council considers that this number of existing and consented turbines means that the assessment of capacity for turbines as set out in the SPG has been reached in this area, and that there is no capacity for additional or extended large turbines or turbine clusters in the Cowdenbeath / Glenrothes / Kirkcaldy landscape.
20. From my site visit, I concur that the proposed additional turbines would have a detrimental impact on the landscape character of the area. I consider that the extended wind farm would become the prevailing landscape feature in the local lowland hills and valleys area, and would result in an adverse change to the existing character of the area. The existing wind farm at Little Raith is generally perceived with the backdrop of the Mossmorran plant, as a discrete and confined landscape feature in an otherwise open landscape. The additional turbines would extend the encroachment into the open landscape to the north and west of the existing development. I agree with the council that should the proposed development proceed, the local landscape would change from a landscape “with wind turbines” to a “wind turbine landscape” as set out in SPG, eroding the open characteristics of the landscape. The appellant’s argument that the landscape is already industrial and therefore the impact of the additional turbines is less significant is not supported. The effect of the proposal would be to make the industrial character of the existing and proposed energy related development at and in the vicinity of the appeal site the prevailing character of the local landscape, to the detriment of the existing character which is predominantly open and undulating, with wind turbines and energy facilities.
21. The appellant considers that a number of viewpoints would experience significant visual effects as a consequence of the development, but that the assessment as set out in the ES concludes that such effects are acceptable and have mitigating circumstances.
22. The council suggests that the extended wind farm would be read as a single wind farm, in conjunction with the existing adjacent cluster of turbines at Mossmorran and Goat Quarry. It considers that the impact would be most detrimental from the viewpoints located
on the southern edges of Lochgelly and Cowdenbeath.
23. During the appeal process, a procedure notice was issued to the appellant, seeking additional information regarding the potential impact on the Lochgelly Strategic Land Allocation, and site LGY001 which is a candidate site for housing in the emerging Fifeplan Local Development Plan (LDP). These sites had not been assessed as part of the ES.
24. Having visited each of the locations and surrounding areas, I agree with the appellant that viewpoints 1, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15 would experience a minimal impact on their visual environment. While the turbines would be visible to varying degrees from each of the viewpoints, I find that the potential visual impact would be acceptable.
25. At viewpoint 2, Watters Crescent in Lochgelly, all of the additional proposed turbines would be visible. The proposed turbines would be in the forefront of the view to the south and be located approximately 850 metres from the houses on Watters Crescent. I agree that there would be a major visual impact on the existing residential properties, not just at the identified viewpoint but from those residential homes with views towards the appeal site on the southern slopes of Lochgelly,
26. Viewpoint 4 is on the minor road to the north-east of the proposed extension. The turbines would be prominent on the skyline, and would infill the horizontal view plane, particularly to the north. There would be a significant impact on road users from this viewpoint, although it would be experienced for a relatively short time interval and only by those road users.
27. Viewpoint 5 is from open ground at the rear of homes on Park Street, Cowdenbeath. The proposed turbines would infill the view to the extent that the view would be dominated by wind turbines, at a distance of some 850 metres. There would be a major detrimental impact on these residential properties, not just on homes in Park Street but also from the homes on streets to the south of Broad Street (B981) and those homes on the streets to the east and west of the A909, with views to the south towards the appeal site.
28. The appellant has submitted additional information regarding the sites at Lochgelly, and concludes that the presence of the existing turbines at Little Raith wind farm and the Mossmorran complex limit the potential for an adverse visual impact on these sites. The council considers that the sites would experience a significant adverse visual impact from the additional turbines. Having visited each site, I agree with the council, and conclude there would be a major visual impact on the south facing slopes of the Lochgelly Strategic Land Allocation and on LDP housing candidate site LGY001. The proximity of the proposed turbines would dominate the views to the south from residential homes to an unacceptable degree.
29. SPG recommends that consideration be given to other wind energy developments within a 30 kilometre radius of proposals.
30. The ES considered the existing, consented and projects in application stage wind energy projects in the study area, and concluded that while there would be some intensification of visibility, it would be limited in landscape and visual terms.
31. The council considers that the additional turbines would have an unacceptable cumulative impact, particularly on the settlements of Cowdenbeath and Lochgelly.
32. From my site visit, I agree that the cumulative impact on road users would be acceptable, as from the M90, the A92 and the minor roads in the area, the landscape and visual impacts would be minimal and experienced over relatively short distances.
33. However, the cumulative impact on the existing and proposed residential areas to the south of both Lochgelly and Cowdenbeath would, I find, be significantly adverse. The proximity and size of the proposed turbines would increase the existing impact on visual amenity to an unacceptable extent, and negatively alter the existing landscape context and character, contrary to criterion (a) of Local Plan Policy I1.
Noise, shadow and flare flicker impact
34. The noise assessment as submitted as part of the ES is considered to follow the procedure as set out in ETSU-R-97, and concluded that the noise levels generated by the extension of the wind farm, including the existing turbines, would be within acceptable limits. Council’s Public Protection officers agree with the conclusions of the noise report and have no objections. I conclude that there would be no adverse impact arising from noise generated by the proposed development.
35. The appellant and the council consider that in the context of the overall proposal, the potential impact arising from shadow flicker is minor and could be mitigated against with appropriate conditions of consent. I concur that there would be minimal adverse impact arising from shadow flicker from the proposed development, should appropriate conditions be imposed on any consent.
36. In addition to shadow flicker, the issue of flare flicker has been addressed by the ES. It has been assessed in the same manner as shadow flicker, and concludes that under
30 properties may be affected by flare flicker from the flares at the Fife Ethylene and NGL plant which is at Mossmorran, to the south of the appeal site. The plant at Mossmorran flares less than 1% of the year, and the potential flare may happen at night. Both the appellant and the council consider that the impact, if it occurs, would be minimal, and I concur.
37. The concentration of benzene and the potential increase that might occur with the installation of the 6 additional turbines is an issue of concern for some of those making objections to the proposal. The existing wind farm at Little Raith has been carrying out a benzene monitoring programme from 2011, which concluded in 2013 that benzene concentrations in Cowdenbeath and Lochgelly were below the Scottish Air Quality Objective before and after the installation of the wind farm. Concentrations of benzene have not increased since the installation of the wind farm, and at 2013 concentrations were below typical rural outdoor locations. The council agrees with the findings of the benzene monitoring report. The concern expressed by the community in relation to benzene is a valid planning matter, but I have no evidence before me to indicate that the proposed additional turbines would have an adverse impact on benzene levels in the locality.
Economic impact and education
38. The appellant estimates that approximately 45 full time equivalent jobs would be created during the construction phase, and approximately 10 full time equivalent jobs annually, including all aspects of the associated supply chain, which may or may not be local. The proposed development also incorporates a small single storey building for use as an education centre, intended to facilitate visits from schools and Fife College. There would be a short term positive economic impact during construction, but a relatively minor economic impact over the longer term. The proposal would provide limited employment opportunities but would not diversify the rural economy, as the site is currently used for grazing. The ES concludes there would be a minimal impact on tourism and I have no reason to disagree.
39. The assessment of the historic environment in the ES extended to a 15 kilometre radius, including Raith Park near Kirkcaldy and Edinburgh’s New Town. There are no historical assets within or immediately adjacent to the appeal site. The ES concluded that there would be little impact upon the historical environment. Historic Scotland agree with the conclusions of the ES and have not objected to the proposed development. The council’s Archaeologist agrees that a watching brief should form part of any permission granted.
Roads and traffic and access
40. The existing and proposed operation would be accessed from the A909.
The potential impact on traffic and transport was assessed by the appellant in the ES at Chapter 10, and concluded that any such impacts arising from the construction, operation and decommissioning of the wind farm extension would be minimal. Transport Scotland agreed that the potential impact would be minimal but advised that any consent granted should be subject to standard conditions regarding abnormal loads. The council’s transportation department agree with the mitigation measures as set out in the ES, and have suggested a number of conditions to be imposed should consent be granted.
41. There is a core path running east to west through the site, and a proposed core path to run north to south. The appeal proposal would not impact on either path.
42. I agree with the conclusions of the ES that impacts on roads, traffic and access would be minimal and acceptable.
Ecology and Habitats
43. Chapters 7 and 8 of the ES address issues of habitat and ornithology. Mitigation measures and enhancement options are proposed as part of the development. Scottish Natural Heritage and the officers of the council agree with the conclusions of the ES and have suggested a number of conditions to implement the proposed mitigation and enhancement measures. I agree that the proposed conditions would adequately address issues of habitat and ornithology.
Airport radar systems
44. The appellant engaged with Edinburgh Airport, as the ES identified that the airport fell within the recommended consultation distance from the proposed turbines.
45. The consultation reply from Edinburgh Airport to the planning application stated an objection to the windfarm proposal as the turbines would be expected to be visible on the radar at the airport where they would appear to the air traffic controllers as clutter on the radar screen. There would be a significant risk of mis-identification with real aircraft radar returns, resulting in a detrimental effect on the operations of air traffic control.
46. The appellant has suggested a number of options for mitigation measures to address the radar issue at Edinburgh Airport, including their preferred solution of a Thruput Midas / Radix system. However, that system has been rejected by National Air Traffic Services (NATS) as the development proposed is considered too large for that mitigation solution.
47. Edinburgh Airport clarified that it is maintaining the objection to the proposed development and suggest that a Terma Radar system is currently being investigated by another developer. The airport considers that such a system may mitigate the proposed development, and may be available within 3 years. The airport also agrees that a suspensive condition could be acceptable.
48. However, as the potential acceptable solution to radar clutter is from another party who appears not to be in any way associated with the proposed development, and as the potential solution to the issue is not under the control of the appellant and / or operator of the turbines, I am unable to conclude that there is a satisfactory solution before me to this important issue. The airport say it will only accept solutions approved by NATS, and the appellants’ preferred solution has been rejected by NATS. The mitigation which may be available may not be installed at the airport for 3 years. On the basis of the above, I have to conclude that the proposed development could potentially be a risk to aviation safety, specifically to the operation of air traffic control at Edinburgh Airport.
49. I consider that the proposal would give rise to significant landscape and visual impacts, including cumulative impacts, and could pose a risk to aviation safety, which I have identified above. I therefore conclude that the proposed development is contrary to the terms of Local Plan Policy I1, specifically criterion (a), as it would have an adverse impact on the natural environment and the local communities of Lochgelly and Cowdenbeath.
50. The proposal would be expected to generate up to 19.2MW of electricity. SPP is generally supportive of wind energy proposals, and this proposal would contribute towards meeting Scottish Government renewable energy objectives. On balance, I consider that this modest contribution to renewable energy supplies does not justify non-compliance with the other relevant considerations as set out at paragraph 169 of SPP, in this instance being cumulative impacts, landscape and visual impacts, impact on communities and impact on aviation.
51. I therefore conclude, for the reasons set out above, that the proposed development does not accord overall with the relevant provisions of the development plan and that there are no material considerations which would justify granting planning permission. I have considered all the other matters raised, but there are none which would lead me to alter my conclusions.