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The benefits of offshore wind farm industries to coastal communities

Submitted by on 23 Nov 2010 – 11:53

By Brian White, Director of Regeneration and Economic Development, Thanet District Council

The case of Thanet

The links between national energy policy and local government may not immediately be apparent.  For local communities which host coal fields, power stations and nuclear installations, they take a keen interest in the relationship between the socio-economic benefits of employment and environmental impacts, helping those local authorities to become engaged in national energy policy.

The position was similar with the advent of wind generated power, although initially there was one difference. The first wave of proposals and planning applications all concerned land based development. Public opposition was common and usually concerned the visual impact of turbines in the rural landscape. However, a second factor was the perception that the onshore industry produced very little economic social benefit to local communities.

The offshore industry overcomes this criticism.  Thanet, in particular the Port of Ramsgate, provides a good example of how this has been achieved. The benefits of the offshore industry have been recognised and welcomed by the local community.

Currently, six miles off the coast of East Kent, Vattenfall is completing the appropriately named Thanet Offshore Wind Farm.  At this moment in time, it is the largest offshore wind farm in the world.  Early next year construction will start on London Array, an even larger wind farm that will be located in the outer Thames Estuary.  Vattenfall has already started construction on its new impressive, operational headquarters at the Port and, subject to confirmation, London Array is due to start work on its base later this year.  The structures, and ancillary marine works, including new pontoons, will become part of the Port Estate.

Both major new inward investors to East Kent chose Ramsgate as an operational base because of the short journey time between the Port and their respective offshore sites. Thanet District Council, which owns the Port, already embarked on a strategy of diversification. Previously the Port had been heavily reliant on cross channel ferry business, with four crossings to Ostend each day.  Whilst this still remains very important, the council wanted to introduce additional port activity, jobs and investment. The offshore wind energy industry was an ideal fit.

Because operation of the offshore wind farms requires daily visits by service boats, it generates regular income for the Port. With mariners and technicians needed, there is assured related employment for perhaps the next three generations. This is excellent news for the coastal district of Thanet, where unemployment of 6.2% is twice the South East average. Not only is the local community pleased to be associated with a new green industry, but the remarkable amount of scientific, marine research which led to these two developments, may eventually unlock new sustainable technologies in the marine environment. This should produce more local employment with possibly increased levels of technical training.

This good news story all began more than five years ago. When first contacted by agents acting for the industry, the council encouraged public engagement with local people at the earliest possible time. Agents produced photo–montages showing how the Thanet Wind Farm would be visible on the seaward horizon and these were displayed across the district in meeting rooms and parish halls.  Scarcely any objections were raised regarding visual impact, with the people in Thanet used to seeing busy shipping lanes with vessels approaching and leaving the Port of London. There was also genuine interest in environmental friendly energy production.

At a very early stage, the offshore wind farm industry recognised the need to include the local fishing industry in its business planning. The fleet at Ramsgate comprises some 47 inshore vessels. Protection of local fishing stocks and improved harbour facilities are important to local fishermen. The industry listened to these concerns and has shown that its activities can, and do, complement the fishing industry.

Ramsgate is an attractive harbour, surrounded by listed buildings in one of the largest Conservation Areas in the South East. Residents and visitors alike enjoy the vibrant marina, regular visits from historic tall ships and the annual sailing regatta, Ramsgate Week. However, the impressive modern Sea Jack and support vessels used by Vattenfall to construct Thanet Offshore have been equally welcome. It is also hoped that much of London Array will be constructed from the Port, bringing more revenue and employment to the town.

Better still, it is believed that routine maintenance of offshore wind farms will lead manufacturers to locate repair facilities at the Port, as this will be more cost effective than shipping components back to the place of manufacture. Obviously, this would bring further jobs and skill training to the people of Thanet.

The decline of British coastal towns, and the related unemployment, health and social problems are all well documented. Thanet, until the middle ages an island, has experienced more than its share of difficulties. Poor communication links inland to the major economic hubs in the South East have been a root cause.  Major national and regional investments supported by Kent County Council and SEEDA have been effective, though ironically, it is now maritime development, looking out to sea, that will provide significant new local jobs.