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Monday, October 04, 2004

Tory absences threaten Scarweather debate

Tomorrow the Assembly will decide if it wishes to debate and vote on whether the off-shore wind farm at Scarweather, a few miles from Porthcawl, will go ahead. The history of this debate is long and complex but essentially it goes like this:

United Utilities applied to build 30 turbines, each over 440 feet tall, just over 3 miles from Sker Point. The turbines will occupy an area of four square miles. They chose to seek planning permission for this development through the little used Public Works Act. This meant that although the scheme will produce more than 50mw of electricity its future will be determined by the Welsh Assembly rather than the Dti.

The Assembly Government, faced with a huge public controversy just before the 2003 elections, appointed a planning inspector and determined that a public enquiry should be held. This took place over a period of three to four weeks in November 2003. At the end of this enquiry the inspector recommended that the application be refused as ‘the visual impact of a windfarm in the specific location of this proposal would be so prominent, when viewed from Porthcawl and its immediate area, that … the harmful effects on this view are sufficient to outweigh the benefits …’ The effect on Porthcawl, he said, would be ‘real and significant’.

His recommendation was then referred to a four person planning sub-committee, who overruled him and granted permission on the grounds that the ‘significant and harmful’ visual impact of the scheme would be outweighed by the ‘significant benefits arising from the development in terms of the production of renewable energy’. The committee gave no details as to what these benefits would be, but admitted that they had not visited the site.

It now falls to the Minister to make the order under the Transport and Works Act. She has given notice that she intends to do that but ten Assembly Members, including myself, have submitted a motion that the matter should be determined by the full Assembly instead. The debate on Tuesday is to decide whether that procedural motion is to be approved or not. If it is then a full debate will take place later this year, following which all 60 Assembly members will vote on the order. If the motion is defeated then the Minister will make the order herself and no further discussion or votes will be possible.

Tory AM, Alun Cairns, who has organised this motion, wrote in his column in the Glamorgan Gazette this week that the odds have been stacked against the success of the procedural motion as the debate has been timetabled to take place during the Conservative Party Conference. This means that many of the signatories to the motion will be be absent. He alleged, as have others, that this was a deliberate act by the Government to undermine the protestors' case.

We must be clear though as to why this has happened. Alun's assertion that "the Assembly Minister tabled this (the motion) in the full knowledge that some Conservative AMs would be absent on Tuesday" is disingenuous to say the least. The reason these AMs will be absent is because they will be at their Party Conference in Bournemouth. Two weeks previously the Assembly reconvened for its autumn term in the middle of the Liberal Democrat Conference. All six Liberal Democrat AMs made the effort to travel back to ensure that they were there at the start of the first session and they then stayed in Cardiff for the week. That is what we are paid to do. Perhaps the Conservatives can learn from that example.

Secondly, I am aware that an offer was made to defer the debate on the Scarweather motion until the week after the Conservative Conference. All that the Tories had to do was to agree to fill the allotted slot with another Conservative motion due to be discussed the following week. They turned down this offer.

So, if the motion to debate Scarweather is lost due to absentee Conservative votes then they only have themselves to blame. They may be able to live with that but the verdict of those fighting this development may not be so kind.

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