On 5 June, seven wind farm planning appeals were recovered by the secretary of state, meaning that he, rather than a planning inspector, will rule on them. This is usually done in cases where the development is of strategic importance, has significant implications for national policy or raises novel issues.
Records from online appeals search service Compass, a sister product to Planning, show that only 19 onshore wind applications have previously been decided in this way. Examples include a case in which three wind farm applications in the same locality were taken in to be decided together, and another in which the wind farm would have been visible from the Lake District National Park.
The timing of the announcements in relation to the appeal process has been questioned by lawyers representing wind farm developers. They say it is normal practice for the secretary of state to decide to take over a decision soon after an appeal has been registered by PINS, but this intervention took place when inquiries for two of the appeals had already been completed, and inquiries for two more were in progress.
On 6 June, Pickles made a planning policy announcement on onshore wind, which said that the need for renewable energy would not override views of local people and concerns over landscape and heritage. Some commentators have questioned how significant a change the announcement represents, saying the planning system is already designed to take these factors into account.
Paul Maile, partner at Eversheds, said: "The timing with the announcement of redressing balance between need and impacts of projects would suggest an effort by the secretary of state to impose his will via decision-making rather than change of policy."
Angus Evers, partner at SJ Berwin, said: "This doesn't seem to have happened in other sectors such as waste to energy, where applications are equally controversial."
All but one of the projects lie in a Conservative constituency or constituencies (see map). The other is in the constituency of Labour MP Jamie Reed and lies just outside the Lake District National Park. MPs for the Conservative areas in question include John Hayes, MP for South Holland and the Deepings, who, during his time as energy minister, said the country was "peppered" with wind farms and that "enough is enough".
All of the Tory MPs have actively lobbied against the wind farms in question, writing letters of objection or speaking at the public inquiry.
It is not unusual for MPs to support communities in opposing all kinds of applications, but it would be unusual for the secretary of state to take over the decision purely on that basis, Maile said.
Wind farm developer RES development project manager John Knight said the company had been given little information about why its Turncole project had been chosen, but speculated that it could be because there were already other wind farms nearby. "It's obviously a political statement. What he's trying to say, I don't know," he said.
Shaun Spiers, chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said he welcomed Pickles' intervention, saying it was "consistently following through" his announcement. But he said the government should be clearer about what renewable technology should be pursued and where. "They're unwilling to do that because they've abolished regional planning and resorted to localism. They're willing the ends without willing the means."
Planning contacted the Department for Communities and Local Government to ask why the secretary of state had recovered so many appeals at once, but had not received a response by the time of going to press.
Eric's in-tray: wind farm appeals recovered on 5 june
1. Turncole 12.6MW
Constituency: Maldon, John Whittingdale, Con. Inquiry closed 8 May. Refused by Maldon District Council in May 2012 on the grounds of visual impact.
2. Treading 15MW
South Holland and the Deepings, John Hayes, Con; North East Cambridgeshire, Stephen Barclay, Con. Inquiry closed 7 May. Refused by Fenland and South Holland District Councils in 2011 against officer recommendation.
3. Weddicar Rigg 12MW
Copeland, Jamie Reed, Lab.
Proposed location is Frizington, outside Lake District National Park. Copeland Council refused twice against officer recommendation on grounds of visual impact. Inquiry due to start 7 July.
4. Asfordby 20.7MW
Rutland and Melton, Alun Duncan, Con.
Inquiry currently adjourned. Refused by Melton Borough Council July 2010, citing inappropriate location.
5. Nun Wood 21.6-36MW
Milton Keynes North, Mark Lancaster, Con; Bedford and Kempston, Richard Fuller, Con; Wellingborough, Peter Bone, Con. Inquiry began 11 June. Granted planning permission 2011 after public inquiry. Decision quashed after legal challenge by Milton Keynes Council.
6. Orchard Way 15MW
Milton Keynes North, Mark Lancaster, Con. Inquiry opens 23 July. Appeal is on the grounds of non-determination by Milton Keynes Council. Original application submitted September 2011.
7. Orby 11.7MW
Louth and Horncastle, Peter Tapsell, Con. Inquiry is due to be re-run after sudden death of the inspector in April. Date to be confirmed.
[This article was amended on 2 July - the number of wind farm cases previously recovered by the secretary of state on appeal is 19, not 26. The latter figure includes the seven new cases announced in June).