As more and more of our precious British landscape is disfigured and by wind farm developments, many of us may wonder how planning authorities can justify some of the decisions that they are taking. On what evidence are they deciding that an important part of our heritage should be sacrificed?The outcomes of planning applications for wind farms largely depend on images that predict what the development would look like. These are produced by photographing the proposed site and then creating a photomontage by superimposing representations of the turbines. There is an old adage that the camera never lies, but this seems not to apply to visual impact assessments. If you want to minimise the visual impact of an elephant in your garden, it is quite easy to do so by photographing it with a wide-angle lens that shows as much background as possible and a very small elephant.
Someone kindly sent me a fascinating document called The Visual Issue that I might not otherwise have seen. It is a detailed, closely reasoned, and very well written critique of the way in which photomontages are used by developers to predict what proposed wind turbine developments might look like. I say ‘might’, because even this scrupulously fair-minded paper cannot disguise the extent to which plausible, but misleading, visual representations are used for this purpose.
The two images below illustrate this problem dramatically. They were both taken from the same viewpoint, using a standard lens, and demonstrate the shrinking technique employed by developers, although these are simulated images and not pictures of a real wind farm .
Courtesy of Alan Macdonald, http://www.thevisualissue.com/
Clearly the visual impact of the turbines is quite different. In the upper picture they seem quite inconspicuous, small and far away. In the lower one they dominate the landscape and the viewer in a way that is almost threatening. They also seem much nearer although a telephoto lens has not been used.
Alan Macdonald, author of The Visual Issue, is an architect who, for the last 15 years, has specialised in preparing images for clients to use in planning applications, initially in the Far East, but more recently in Scotland. When small rural communities in the Highlands approached him because they were concerned that developers were submitting misleading photomontage for visual impact assessments, he was astonished by what he discovered.
It seemed to have become accepted practice for developers to assemble a number of images into a panoramic view so that, although each one was obtained in the approved way, by using a standard lens, the final effect was indistinguishable from that of using a wide-angle lens, which would have been unacceptable. To overcome any objections that this questionable practice might attract, they claimed that their photomontages were credible representations provided that they were viewed from precisely the right distance. They also argued that any representations not using the same technique did not conform to ‘best practice’. As a result, planning authorities were routinely dismissing alternative images submitted by those who challenged the plausibility of these panoramas, as inadmissible. The developers had created a situation where their own flawed methodology had become ‘best practice’.
In spite of his experience in this field, Macdonald had not come across the stipulation of a critical viewing distance before, and nor had any colleagues, either in the UK or in other parts of the world, heard of it either. Further research revealed that the distance stipulated was typically about 25cm (10″ approx.). This created a number of very obvious problems. How many people can accurately estimate 25cm?. How many people will stand this close to a picture displayed on a wall or table or even hold a document inn their hands at that distance from their eyes? For many older people it would be impossible to focus at this distance. And why was it acceptable to apply standards to the preparation of photomontages for wind farm visual assessments that were unheard of anywhere else in the world, where single image representations were the norm?
Planning decisions on wind farms largely depend on the evidence provided by images. If neither the planning authority nor the communities that are most likely to be affected have access to accurate predictions of what is likely to happen to the landscape, then the decision-making process is subverted; consultation with the communities that are most likely to be affected becomes a sham.
At the moment there are at least 200 planning applications for wind farms pending in Scotland alone, and the size of turbines is steadily increasing. A new generation will be 150m high (nearly 500 ft), the size of large skyscrapers that would make a conspicuous new landmark even in a major city where such structures are already common. It is essential that those who will decide on planning permission, and others who wish to make representations during this process, should have a clear idea what their visual impact will be. If there are well-established methods for doing this, which are used in other parts of the world, then why should things be different in Scotland? Much of Visual Issues is devoted to answering this question and some of the background unearthed by Macdonald in the course of his research points to the triumph of vested interests over common sense and fairness.
As far back as 2001, Scottish National Heritage was aware that there was a problem with visual impact assessments. They commissioned an independent investigation from a leading academic that was scathing about the procedures that were being used. In his view the photomontages being used by developers, and accepted by the planners, ‘failed to capture any semblance of realism, and under-represented the true visual effect’. Sadly he died soon after submitting his report, and before he could oversee the implementation of his recommendations. Scottish National Heritage took no further action at this time and little has changed since then.
It is not difficult to see why SNH may have been content to let the matter rest there. As Macdonald says:
If a Sutherland crofter can have his planning approval repealed for making a misleading statement in a planning application, why should the windfarm industry be exempt? If a developer is similarly found to have provided misleading information either in the form of a visual statement or a written statement, then planning permission should be automatically repealed. If the windfarm has already been built, then the developer should submit for retrospective planning permission in the same way as any other applicant.
An admission that past practices were flawed would open the way to numerous decisions being challenged. Inconvenient as this may be, it is no justification for ignoring the problem and allowing future decisions to be taken on the basis of equally misleading visual impact assessments.
Alan Macdonald makes his position quite clear in his introduction to:
This document does not question whether we should be developing windfarms or should not be developing windfarms, or even whether they look good on a landscape or are a visual intrusion on the landscape. We are simply addressing the methodology used by the windfarm industry, who in our opinion, have been using misleading methods for the last 11 years whilst seeking to obtain planning permission.
Having had more than 15 years experience in producing visualisations for planning applications, both here and in other parts of the world, what we see happening throughout Scotland and the rest of the UK is a method of visual presentation which brings our profession into disrepute. After many years of fighting for fairer standards, something has to be done because of the growing public perception that photomontage is unreliable.
He is not an anti-wind campaigner nor, so far as I know, is he a global warming sceptic. He most certainly is a dedicated and conscientious professional who must have committed considerable time and effort to researching, analysing and articulating his concerns. At a time when the rare, fragile and quite irreplaceable beauty of the Highland landscape is being transformed by intrusive industrial developments it is essential that the planning system should be seen to be beyond reproach. This is not the case at present, as the evidence contained in The Visual Issue makes very clear. What fair-minded person could deny communities that might see their surroundings transformed beyond recognition the right to scrutinise visual impact assessments that are free from bias?
The last time that the landscape of the Highlands was altered so radically was a century and a half ago, when sheep replaced the old black cattle and tens of thousands of crofters were displaced and dispossessed. It would be an exaggeration to suggest that the human misery caused by building wind farms will be on the same scale, but there is a similarity with the Clearances that is disturbing. Once again outside interests are being permitted to pillage the Highlands with the enthusiastic connivence of lowlanders, and both are showing scant regard for the wishes and well-being of the small and vulnerable communities that will be most directly affected.
Let us hope that Alan Macdonald will find support for his efforts to bring integrity and professionalism back to the planning process. For all those who are concerned about the proliferation of wind farms The Visual Issue is an eye-opening ‘must read’.