Council criticised over site visit ‘shambles’
13:25 21 November 2012
An inspector calls – but Torridge planning officers turn up 40 minutes late to one wind turbine appeal and miss the other completely.
TORRIDGE District Council has come under fire for failing to defend its own decisions on wind turbine developments.
Officers from the council twice failed to turn up to site visits with Government planning inspectors in the space of three weeks.
The applications – one for a 46-metre-high turbine at Huxhill Farm and another for a 25-metre turbine at Higher Huxhill Farm, both near Gammaton Cross on the outskirts of Bideford – were refused planning permission by the council in the summer.
The decisions have since been appealed by both applicants and site visits arranged to allow inspectors from Bristol to see the locations before deciding whether to uphold the appeals.
On October 9, a site visit at Huxhill Farm went ahead 40 minutes late after a member of the public walked up a hill to phone the council’s planning office and inform them of the visit.
The council said it ‘knew nothing’ about the visit but eventually sent an officer to join the planning inspector, as well as the appellant, agent and around six objectors, who are now anxiously awaiting a decision by the inspector.
Then on October 31, a similar inspection at Higher Huxhill Farm was abandoned by an inspector after an officer from the council failed to turn up at all.
This time the inspector tried to raise the council herself but nobody answered the phone so she abandoned the meeting. A visit has since been re-scheduled for November 30.
“We thought they’d learned their lesson after the first visit but then the same thing happened three weeks later,” said objector Patrick Smith, who lives around 600 metres from both sites.
“I felt highly embarrassed for the inspector, who came a long way to take the site visit.
“We have done everything we can under difficult circumstances to oppose this application; we have to be realistic, and are not hopeful, but all we wanted was an orderly site visit to take place.
“It is an appalling indictment of Torridge District Council planning who are supposed to be defending the plans committee’s refusal of this application.”
In an email to Mr Smith, Kate Little, the council’s head of planning, blamed the non-attendance on an ‘administrative error’.
She said: “This is a matter of human error and not a systems failure. The council would never deliberately miss a site visit or seek to delay it and we will be apologising to the appellant and the inspector who do have the right to expect us to turn up.”
Council leader Councillor Barry Parsons said: “It’s disappointing there has been an oversight but we will aim to make sure nothing like this happens again.”
It is not the first time that the Huxhill Farm application has caused controversy. In July, the district council was criticised for its ‘heavy handed’ approach after fielding police and security guards to manage crowds at a planning meeting at Riverbank House.
Mr Smith said he had made a formal complaint to the district council about the planning department and was considering making a complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman.
He said: “It all comes down to their poor communication system. Letters are not acknowledged and phone calls are not answered.”
“The council is failing to mount a ‘robust’ defence of its own decisions; if these turbines get built you won’t see trees in Torridge for turbines,” he added.
“We’re going to be stuck with these things for the next 25-30 years – I think they are targeting Torridge because it’s a soft touch.”
Cllr Barry Parsons said: “The plans committee at Torridge always determines applications on their own merit and although wind turbine applications can be controversial each brings its own individual elements to be considered.
“Decisions made are based on planning considerations and are often a balancing act with the sustainable energy benefits being weighed up against environmental impact.
“Plans committee members often have a difficult job but are trained to understand the implications and approve or refuse applications based on the information presented to them.”