Sir Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher’s pugnacious press secretary, was dubbed the ‘Rottweiler’ for his notorious ferocity towards off-message journalists. Now his temper is directed at one of Labour’s flagship policies: wind energy.
As vice-president of the highly organised pressure group Country Guardian, Ingham is on a mission to take on anyone who dares to submit a planning application to site wind turbines. His aim is to ensure that Tony Blair does not meet his pledge that wind power will be used to provide electricity to one in six households by 2010. The Prime Minister’s ambitious plan to provide 10 per cent of the country’s electricity through renewable sources was heralded as a major breakthrough by green groups.
But while Ingham claims his primary concern is to protect the rural landscape, he retains intimate links with Britain’s nuclear lobby – a bitter adversary of wind power.
Ingham’s critics allege he is acting as an agent of the powerful nuclear lobby, which is bent on sabotaging a rival industry backed by Blair. He denies the claim and points out he has never hidden his links to the nuclear industry, but his crusade in blocking or delaying dozens of projects around Britain has now become a real obstacle for the Government.
When Ingham left the Tory government he became a paid consultant to the British nuclear group BNFL. Although he no longer works directly for it, he is a director of an organisation called the Supporters of Nuclear Energy alongside Sir Christopher Harding, the former chairman of BNFL. Its business address is the Westminster headquarters of the British Nuclear Energy Society, a body set up to promote nuclear power and linked to all the main figures in the nuclear industry, from BNFL to British Energy, the company which runs most of the country’s nuclear power stations.
Country Guardian, which was founded in 1991, claims credit for defeating many large-scale wind farms or causing multi-million pound delays to proposed sites, but a spokeswoman denies it has any links to the nuclear industry. One of its key victories has been over the controversial £55 million development at Winash, on the boundary of the Lake District National Park. Turbines 400ft high – some of the largest ever proposed in mainland Britain – were to sit on a high ridge above the M6 at Tebay. Despite securing approval from planning officers, the scheme was defeated by local opposition and the case has gone to appeal, an expensive, lengthy delay for developers.
Sources at Country Guardian claim that they have stopped or postponed up to 89 per cent of planned wind farms in some years. Ingham has been credited with personally thwarting 80 per cent of applications. His group is currently trying to crush a plan by the Duke of Beaufort to site turbines on land he owns north of Swansea.
Another of the hundreds of campaign groups linked to Country Guardian is the recently formed Thorne Dis trict Wind Farm action group near Doncaster, which says plans for 28 turbines on nearby moors could be harmful to their health and would threaten wildlife.
Ingham claimed he was committed to defeating the Government’s plans, but denied that this had anything to do with his support of the nuclear industry. ‘I oppose wind farms because they destroy the landscape of our countryside, not because I am an agent of the nuclear industry,’ he said. ‘Secondly, they are useless. They don’t generate electricity when the wind blows less than 55mph.’
A spokesman for the British Wind Energy Association dismissed Ingham’s objections as ‘ill-informed rubbish’ and described him as ‘barmy Berny’. The association claims Ingham is losing the battle, as fewer than a third of all applications are refused planning permission.
Yet such has been the impact of Ingham’s crusade that the Department of Trade and Industry is trying to reverse what it claims is the misinformation being put out by groups such as his, and has launched an operation called ‘Only Natural’ to lobby planners and investors. Energy Minister Stephen Timms is meeting investors tomorrow to convince them to back wind power, which he claims will create 20,000 jobs.
So far 86 wind farms have been built, with another 22 scheduled for this year. A further 20 wind farms are at a preliminary stage.
Britain’s wind farm output consists of 2,500 turbines – each generating enough electricity to make 170 million cups of tea a year.