Booker's Notebook May 28 2006
Henceforth, all objections are overruled
An ever-increasing number of people can remember those moments of shock when they realised the scale of the devastation that Tony Blair's Government is wreaking on the foundations of our democracy and the rule of law.
For me, such a moment came last week when I read the report of a Government inspector giving the go-ahead to a giant wind turbine on the Mendip hills in Somerset, where I live. It made clear just how ruthlessly the Government will ram through its wind energy programme, regardless of planning rules or the wishes of local communities.
I was personally involved, as chairman of the local group that led the opposition, in the battle against this 335-foot structure, which will be visible for 20 miles and dominate a broad expanse of upland, near an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Our campaign won widespread support, including that of Prof David Bellamy.
What was particularly startling about the decision by David Lavender, the inspector appointed by the former Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, was the reason he gave for overturning Mendip district council's unanimous rejection of a turbine on this site.
He admitted that it would be in breach of planning rules, including our statutorily approved local development plan. He conceded that it would adversely affect the protected landscape and the lives of residents living nearby.
But all this must be ignored for just one reason: because the Government is committed to a (hopelessly unrealistic) EU target - that 10 per cent of our energy should be generated from renewables by 2010 - and because our county is short of its own, centrally imposed target.
The only document Mr Lavender could cite to support his ruling was a planning policy statement, known as PPS22, issued by Mr Prescott to promote renewable energy (and never approved by Parliament). Yet this document makes clear that normal planning considerations cannot be ignored, particularly those designed to protect valued landscape.
It was noticeable that Mr Lavender was dismissive of any evidence which conflicted with Government policy. In particular he made little attempt to answer the submissions that the developers' claims for the output and environmental benefits of the turbine had overstated official Government figures by as much as 250 per cent.
Yet only seven years ago this same inspector had turned down another, much larger wind turbine proposal in the north of England, on the grounds that its "contribution to energy generation needs" would be "insignificant and unreliable"; that its "pollution savings" would be "small and uncertain"; and that he could find nothing to persuade him "that the desirability of exploiting a clean, renewable energy resource at this prominent skyline site" should outweigh "other important policy considerations, which include avoiding damage to attractive areas of landscape."
Since all these points apply even more forcibly to the Mendips, one wonders what has led Mr Lavender to this apparent reversal of his views.
The implications of this decision for those who are fighting turbine proposals on the basis of planning law and scientific argument are highly disturbing. If inspectors are now to ensure that central Government diktats override everything else, there is no expert counter-argument that cannot be swept aside.
The inspector could have reached his decision without leaving London, and would have saved everyone much time if he had made this clear from the start. For our democracy and the rule of law, the implications are alarming.
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