In addition to assessing perceptions of the planning and related governance system through direct interview questions and focus group discussion, we also used questions relating to perceptions of the level of communication by public bodies on the planning proposal. Between 2004 and 2007, the proportion of people approving of related communication by Torridge District Council and Winkleigh Parish Council rose from 5 to 22 per cent and from 34 to 67 per cent, respectively. Approval of communication by the Regional Development Agency (RDA) and Devon County Council (DCC), whose officers respectively promoted and supported the proposal, remained low, at 2 per cent of respondents in 2004 and 5 per cent in 2007 for the RDA, and at 2 per cent in 2004 and 9 per cent in 2007 for DCC.
In this case, the planning and governance context strongly compounded the community’s frustration. Although a more consultative set of procedures would have mitigated this, it would certainly not have led to local approval of the planning application as it stood. What a more consultative set of procedures might have achieved, however, is an alternative and locally acceptable siting of the power plant in another part of southwestern England, or possibly a smaller version with fuel requirements that would be less likely to suppress smaller bioenergy plants regionally (a concern raised by the Planning Authority). In terms of the European Directive on Environmental Impact Assessment, point 3 of Article 5 of Directive 85/337/EEC as amended by Directive 97/11/EEC requires:
‘an outline of the main alternatives studied by the developer and an indication of the main reasons for his choice, taking into account the environmental effects’.
In the UK this is expressed through the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Regulations 1999 (Schedule 4, Part 2, 2). Regarding alternative sites, the Environmental Statement (ES) for WINBEG states that five sites in Devon were examined by the developer during the evolution of the bioenergy project that became WINBEG. The ES emphasizes two criteria for choice of site: proximity to a suitable power line and to an adequate catchment area for fuel; and cites Winkleigh as being in a good position for both, compared with other sites (Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick & Co, 2004). However, the relative value of the site options may well have been different with a power plant of a much smaller capacity, or an otherwise different proposal. A much smaller proposal would also have increased the number of site options. Once a project of WINBEG’s nature was determined upon (i. e. relatively large-scale electricity supply), the site options would have narrowed considerably.
The role of the RDA was important in this case, as the developer could not have proceeded with the proposal without the RDA’s financial support in terms of land purchase and payment for the technical studies (including the EIA). As such, the RDA became a key focus for objection. Local people felt that neither the Regional Assembly nor the non-executive board of the RDA represented their interests. Although there were formal lines of accountability between RDA officials, its board, the regional government office, DTI and other government departments, complemented by a scrutiny role then performed by the Regional Assembly, local people still felt disempowered and excluded from the process. Indeed, our correspondence and discussion with the RDA revealed a distinct scepticism regarding the practicality of, and justification for, increased dialogue with local people on renewable energy planning, and an understandable preference for dealing with the smaller number of political representatives.