Sadly, my favourite Exeter library has moved away
Devon's historic cathedral city lies about 15 miles to the south-east of the village were I live; once a month or thereabouts an appointment somewhere close to the city centre obliges me to drive there. Often I find myself with an hour or so to kill while my opticians are fitting a new lens, or my wife is visiting her dentist. For some this would offer an excuse for a little retail therapy, a chance to contemplate the grandeur of the cathedral, or a visit to the recently refurbished Royal Albert Memorial Museum on Queen Street. For me there was no better place in Exeter City Centre to spend these precious interludes than the reading room of the Westcountry Studies Library on Castle Street, a mere stone's throw from the Harlequin Centre car park.
There, reassuringly, I would find waiting patiently for me in their usual place my favourite classic works on Devon and its history. Many of the books on display in this reference library are not yet available on the internet, despite being out of copyright. Two that come to mind are the sturdy Kohler and Coombes facsimile reprints of Richard Polwhele's three volume History of Devonshire and Frances Rose-Troup's The Western Rebellion of 1549. Another delight for me was having access to the complete bound set of the Transactions of the Devonshire Association and the other learned journals covering Devon and Cornwall.
On one such trip to Exeter in January of this year I arrived at the entrance of the Westcountry Studies Library fully expecting to spend a pleasant half-hour browsing in the reading room. Imagine my dismay on finding that it was no longer there, usurped as the temporary home for the Central Library which was to be housed in a grand new building on its old site. The WSL has left the city centre, but has not been decommissioned; it has decamped to the Devon Records Office to form part of a new entity branded The Devon Heritage Centre. The Records Office site is in Sowton Business Park, three miles to the east of Exeter City Centre, near the M5 Motorway - hardly the most convenient place to get to when time is short. In case you wondered, I have driven out to the Records Office from the city centre: on each of my two visits the journey taking me through the congested roads of Heavitree took about thirty minutes there and back.
I may decide to visit the Westcountry Study Library reading room in its new surroundings one day, but not until the improvements outweigh the inconvenience of getting there.
What would be most welcome is for Devon Heritage Services to provide online access to digitized versions of the Record Office material and the rarer out-of-print texts from the WSL, preferably using a subscription model rather than a charge per download as with the National Archives website. Charging a modest subscription for access to the digital archive opens up the possibility of Devon Library Services users getting free access via their library card number (as can be done currently with the online Oxford English Dictionary and other resources).
An end to wind farm madness?
In an April 25th report in the North Devon Journal, the Conservative MP for Torridge and West Devon Geoffrey Cox dropped a strong hint that a change in the government's approach to onshore wind farm development was in the offing.
Whether the argument was about the award of punitive costs against local authorities who appeal against turbine planning applications, an issue of particular concern to Mr Cox, or represents a more fundamental change in government policy towards onshore wind turbines remains to be seen.
Whatever the outcome, I fear it will come much too late to save the Den Brook Valley from disfigurement.
The proposed site of the Den Brook Valley wind farm, comprising nine 120m turbines, is in my neck of the woods and I've tried to follow the twists and turns in the protracted progression of the planning application through the various appeal stages. The process seemed to have concluded in favour of RES, the developer, by the time the BBC aired the Wind Farm Wars documentary series in the summer of 2011. This featured some of the more prominent participants holding forth in the sometimes bitter standoff between the factions for and against this wind farm. Now, two years on, work has not even begun on preparing the site. The latest hiatus has been brought about by RES making a formal application to vary the noise condition which was imposed by the Court of Appeal when upholding the planning permission. This follows RES's discovery that the Amplitude Modulation limits laid down by the High Court are exceeded even in locations where there are no wind farms!
Meanwhile, rural communities are facing another 'green energy' blight: the increasing number of planning applications for massive solar farms across the country following lower than anticipated cuts to government subsidies for solar farm installers. Devon is in the developer's sights now; earlier this year Juwi Renewable Energy submitted an application to install 23,500 solar panels on a 45 acre farmland site at Morebath, near Dulverton. The locals were not impressed. As many as 418 individual objections were raised.
Locals may block onshore wind farms, supposedly
Today we learned that there was some substance to MP Geoffrey Cox's claim that the government was planning a "real change" to the planning process for onshore wind farm developments (see previous journal entry). In future the views of the local population will be regarded as paramount in determining the outcome of planning applications for the installation of new turbines, rather than the government's green energy goals. As a sop to the Lib Dems, the greener coalition partner, energy companies granted planning permission for wind farms will be required to contribute five times more to the local community than the current norm. This may be used to subsidise the electricity bills of those living in the vicinity of the turbines. RES, the Den Brook Valley developer, is piloting such a scheme for the Bryn Llywelyn Wind Farm in which residents living within 3½ kilometres of the turbines receive an annual electricity discount for the lifetime of the wind farm, regardless of their energy supplier.
As with any such sweeping change, the devil will be in the details: how will local opinion be canvassed, and how will be the planning appeals process be 'managed' to ensure the outcome reflects local opinion? There have been several wind farm proposals, including Den Brook Valley, where the local council rejected the planning application only to have this decision overturned on appeal. Until we see this new planning guidance in operation I remain sceptical. The precedent of the coalition's 2011 Localism Act is not encouraging. This was intended to empower local decision making, but appears to have had little or no effect on the outcome of planning applications for wind farms.
Regrettably the new planning regime has come too late to spare the Den Brook Valley: the Housing and Local Government Minister Mark Prisk told Parliament that the new rules will not apply to wind farm developments for which planning permission has already been granted.
... or maybe not
Initial indications are that my scepticism was warranted. A Telegraph article entitled "communities are still powerless to stop wind farms" points out that approval has been granted for 9 out of 14 wind farm proposals opposed by local communities since the new guidelines were announced.
In one instance the Planning Inspectorate overrode on appeal the attempt by the local council to exercise the will of the community and block a wind farm proposal, trotting out the usual mantra that the benefits of wind energy outweighed the "moderate levels of harm to landscape and visual amenity", and that Eric Pickles's new guidelines had not actually changed national policy.