The Cabinet has been warned of significant costs if future wind energy plans cannot proceed, with Ministers now intending to relax planning rules for developers.
The Minister for Housing, Darragh O’Brien, brought plans to Cabinet on Tuesday which would see amendments to planning laws to give developers of wind farms greater flexibility in their planning applications. Sources said that Ministers were warned that if the laws were not updated there would likely be significant indirect costs to the State and potential increased costs for energy consumers.
Failure to meet EU renewable energy targets would also have a cost, according to information given to Ministers, and the indirect cost of not allowing for new flexibilities in terms of planning laws could be significant, the meeting was told.
Last year the High Court overturned planning permission granted to a subsidiary of Bord Na Mona for a wind farm development in Co Longford. The judge quashed the permission on grounds including that the planning application did not contain the level of detail required to allow the board grant permission.
The High Court judgment had significant implications for the obligations of applicants for permission for wind farm developments. The permission was overturned by Mr Justice Humphreys due to the lack of detail of the actual design of the wind turbines in the planning application. The turbine heights and blade lengths were expressed in terms of the maximum rather than the actual proposed dimensions.
Mr O’Brien now plans to bring amendments to planning laws which would see an applicant, who wants greater flexibility, given the right to request a pre-application meeting with the planning authority or board. This would be to receive an opinion about whether the application for permission could be made on a flexible basis.
The applicant would have to supply documentation to the planning authority or the board before the meeting setting out what details will not be confirmed at the time of the planning application and the circumstances why the application should be made before those details are confirmed.
After the meeting the planning authority or board will give an opinion about whether they think it is appropriate for the application to be made on a flexible basis. If a flexible planning permission is given a condition will be attached to the grant of permission asking the developer to confirm the actual details of the development prior to commencement of that part of the site.
There are concerns in Government that the wind energy sector needs greater certainty in light of the recent court judgment, which was taken by environmentalist Peter Sweetman. He described the judgment “as the most important decision in Irish law that I have had”.
The case related to a proposed 24-turbine wind farm which, if constructed to its maximum dimensions, would be the joint tallest structures in Ireland with a tip height of 185m.
Mr Justice Humphreys said the effect of the lack of detail was equivalent to seeking planning permission for a house “on the basis it could be anything from a one-storey bungalow to a 10-storey mansion”.