Marshland St James is an isolated, functional, centre-less village, little more than a ribbon of houses along a country road surrounded by farms. In the far west of Norfolk, close to the borders with Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, it is a place that locals describe as “bandit country”. It is not a place you expect an issue of national importance to find its focus. But on Monday, just a few days before the government released its white paper on energy, a local farmer was found dead in a drainage canal close to his home. A statement from his family linked his death to a battle over wind farms that has torn the village apart.
Richard Herbert was one of a group of local landowners who had banded together with the intention of building 26 wind turbines in the area. Marshland St James would have been surrounded on three sides, and the proposals caused uproar. Rumours abound – denied by opponents of the proposed wind farm – that members of the consortium were intimidated, and earlier this month half of them withdrew from the project. But Herbert and six others remained, and the pressure may have tipped him over the edge.
His family put out a brief statement on Tuesday. “In recent months Richard’s health had created cause for concern,” they said, “and he had commenced treatment at the Fermoy centre, King’s Lynn [a mental health facility]. Anxieties relating to the decline of farming coupled with opposition to a wind turbine farm and personal matters are believed to be behind his recent out-of-character behaviour.” Locals in Marshland St James suggested yesterday that Herbert had felt himself caught between loyalty to the consortium, which includes two of his brothers, and increasing hostility within the community.
The battle in the village had already come to national attention. A fortnight ago, an 85 metre-high anemometer, a mast for measuring wind speeds put up by the would-be developers, was destroyed, causing damage worth an estimated £100,000. The mast’s steel supports were cut one night, in an operation that must have put the saboteur in considerable danger as the structure collapsed.
The bitterness and tragedy in Marshland St James are an extreme example of arguments that have been raging in other areas where wind farms have been sited or proposed. Last Friday, when a public meeting debated the proposals for Marshland St James, one of the speakers was Jane Davis, who has been waging her own media-savvy war against the eight-turbine wind farm built last year in the Lincolnshire village of Deeping St Nicholas.
This is another long ribbon of houses, this time running alongside the A16. It is reputed to be, at seven miles, the longest village in the UK – and is also perhaps one of the most soulless. There are just two people in the pub when I visit at lunchtime. The only things whirring in the village this sunny Tuesday afternoon are the windmills.
Jane and her farmer husband, Julian, claim that persistent noise from the wind farm is making their lives unbearable. Their case has featured in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, both of which put preserving the countryside above erecting 60-metre-plus turbines. She is in touch with others who claim to be suffering noise pollution, speaks to groups such as that in Marshland St James which oppose planning applications, has made a DVD setting out her case against them, and has debated the issue on Radio 4 with Alistair Darling, secretary of state for trade and industry.
When I ask her whether her battle against the wind farm has taken over her life, she gives a decisive “yes”. Then she pauses and her eyes fill with tears. Embarrassed, she turns her head away, takes off her glasses and rubs her reddened eyes. “We spend hours and hours doing this,” she says when she has recovered her composure. “It’s about awareness raising. We’ve gone down the legal route; we’ve spent more than £5,000 on that and didn’t get anywhere; people say if you had £30,000 you could go to [the court of] human rights because sleep deprivation is a form of torture, but that’s a hell of a gamble. Instead of that, we went to the press.”
Julian is starting to see the psychological danger signs. “We’ve got to get on with our lives again,” he says. “We’ve nearly spent a year on this now, and if we don’t watch it it’s going to become all-encompassing and we shall lose the rest of our lives. We’re getting to the point where we have to find a way of maintaining some pressure but not having it dominate everything.”
Naively, I had brought along a decibel counter. Surely, I thought, this noise pollution issue is easy to resolve. Stand right next to the turbines and it shows about 55 decibels, no more than an average ambient noise level; retreat 20 metres and it’s 45; from 400m, it’s 35 decibels, a distant whirring and rumbling, less prominent than the intermittent birdsong. So what on earth are the Davises complaining about when their farmhouse is twice that distance away?
“We didn’t oppose them when they first went up because we didn’t think there would be a problem,” says Julian, “but when they went up we very quickly realised what the problems were.” Those problems, he says, are a whooshing sound when the wind is blowing towards them or when the turbines combine to amplify the sound, and low-frequency soundwaves that cause vibrations and induce headaches and nausea. The problems are worse at night, when there is no other ambient noise, and have caused them to sleep elsewhere on many occasions over the past year.
“The worst we’ve had on the trot was three or four weeks last summer,” says Julian, “when we had ‘amplitude modulation’ [soundwaves varying as the blades turn] virtually every night. Then you can’t bear to be here in the evening; it’s just too noisy. You can hear it with the television on normal; you can hear, in the background, a thud, thud, thud as the turbines are turning outside. If you’ve got a point source of sound, you can shield yourself from it, but with these things it’s all engulfing – it comes from everywhere.”
Jane denies the charges of nimbyism usually levelled against those who live close to wind farms. “It’s not nimbyism,” she insists. “I had nothing against the way they look and support renewable energy. When anti-wind farm groups pop up and ask us to give a presentation about our experiences, we talk about the log we’ve kept and how many times we’ve been woken up at three o’clock and four o’clock in the morning, what sleep deprivation does to you in terms of damage to your health and the fact that our house is no longer worth anything. Those are the things we know and those are the things we comment on. If I’m asked outright, ‘What do you think of them visually?’, I say that now I don’t like them because they remind me of what I’ve lost – my home.”
Like Marshland St James, Deeping St Nicholas has been divided by the wind farm. The turbines stand on two farms, each of which receives an annual rental of £7,000 per turbine. One of those farmers, according to the antis, “keeps his head down”. The other, Nicholas Watts, an organic farmer and bird lover, is happy to take on the critics and proudly shows me round his bit of the wind farm. He is even setting up a cooperative to buy two of the turbines.
“We’re raping this world,” he says, “and we’ve got to try to do something about it. We got some flak when the planning application for these went in, and my wife said to me, ‘Do you think it’s really worth going on with this job?’ But now we’ve got them up, it is worth it. I didn’t do it for the money; I felt that I wanted to be producing some green energy. I replied by return when the developer wrote and asked if I was interested in having some turbines on my land.”
We stand beneath the turbines as Watts talks, and he is alert to every shift in the wind, listening and looking up as the turbines react. He reckons this is the future – that they will become more numerous and more efficient, and people had better get used to it. He accepts the Davises get occasional noise when the wind is at a certain level and blowing in their direction, but he implies that they have allowed themselves to become obsessed by what is really a minor problem. “It’s very unfortunate that it’s got to them like this,” he says.
Watts says that the Davises’ opposition to the turbines is not shared by the majority of people in Deeping St Nicholas, but they have some supporters. Local councillor Steve Williams, who lives 1,300m from the turbines, says they are noisy, unsightly and inefficient. He has grown his hedge to a height of around 20ft to block the view and mask the noise, but says the house still suffers from vibration. Even Watts admits that a local friend of 50 years’ standing now refuses to speak to him for championing the turbines.
Another local farmer, who preferred not to be named, says the proliferation of turbines is wrecking the look of the Fens, and echoes Williams’ point that they are inefficient in producing electricity and are only going up in such numbers because subsidies make them good investments for developers. He also says he has heard others in the village talk of possible sabotage of the turbines. A proposal to build a further 16 turbines on the other side of the road that runs through the village has upped the ante, and everyone accepts that the village is now warier of accepting a second wind farm.
In many places – and certainly in Deeping St Nicholas – those in favour of turbines, and of making money from their land, suggest that the antis tend to be incomers, retirees, busybodies with time on their hands, people with some mythical notion of an unchanging countryside. Developers make the same point. “Urban people move to the countryside because they have some idealised image of what the countryside offers,” says Colin Palmer, founder of leading independent wind farm developer Wind Prospect, “and for them wind turbines don’t fit that ideal. But they do fit farmers’ ideals, and they are the real custodians of the countryside. They see it as a useful form of diversification and it gives them a steady income.” Developers rent land from a farmer for 25 years – a guaranteed long-term underpinning of their farms – and in some cases farms would no longer be viable without income from turbine rentals.
“Farmers don’t see the countryside as fixed and stuck in aspic,” says Palmer, who was born in East Anglia. “The Fens have changed dramatically in the past 30 years. There has been huge change in the countryside, and it continues. But somehow there seems to be a view now of ‘We’ve got to fix it’ – somehow it’s right today, it wasn’t right in the past and it can’t change in the future.”
“One or two professional nimbies are selling the line that people’s homes are at risk, and that their value falls when a wind farm is built,” says Ian Robinson, an energy and climate change consultant working on the Marshland St James project. “But I could show them evidence that homes can actually rise in value when a wind farm is built.”
Herbert’s death has incensed Robinson. “I issued warnings at a public meeting five weeks ago; I said this was an accident waiting to happen and it got the best laugh of the night,” he says. “It was a very angry, disorganised rabble. We were told by the police not to attend a second public meeting last Friday; at least six people were told not to attend because our safety couldn’t be guaranteed.”
Robinson’s claim that the police warned him not to attend is questioned by Lyndon Mason, chairman of Fenland Landscape Against Turbines. Mason, a horticultural consultant who lives close to the site of the proposed wind farm, was too shocked yesterday to discuss what Herbert’s death means to the local campaign to stop the wind farm. “It’s too early to talk about the future. Richard was a well respected and valued family man who will be a greatly missed member of our small community. He was a good friend of several people in our organisation.” He refused to respond to Robinson’s allegations. “We are not going to get into a tit-for-tat slanging match,” he said. “Our thoughts are with the family.”
I met Mason last week in the wake of the destruction of the mast. He insisted then that his organisation had had nothing to do with the sabotage or with any harassment. “We have not been instigating people to threaten the consortium,” he told me. “I was accused by one of the consultants of condoning harassment of the landowners. As a result of that the police came to talk to me to find out if we were a legitimate organisation or a bunch of rabble rousers. They went away happy with what we had to say and with no evidence against us.”
He did, though, admit that the previous meeting, which Robinson and his colleague Bruce Pittingale attended, had been very heated. “Feelings are running very high,” Mason told me. “People are worried about noise pollution, general health issues, the impact on wildlife, how they change the way the countryside looks, and the effect on house prices. The great majority of people around here, whether they’ve been here 50 years, five years or five months in some cases, are opposed to a wind farm.”
Near the Cambridgeshire village of Warboys, 12 turbines stand imposingly close to the busy A141. The couple most directly affected are Lynn and Dale Harlock, who have a small house on a bridal path 700m from the turbines. They are a likeable couple who say the first they knew of the turbines was when the diggers arrived to start excavating the site. If that is true, it’s scandalous. The Harlocks complain of noise, of “shadow flicker” that occurs when the sun is low and a shadow from the rotating blades is cast on their home, and of interference with their television signal. “We don’t have many pleasures in life,” says Mrs Harlock sadly, “but our TV is one of them.”
When I mention the Harlocks’ claim to have heard nothing of the proposal to build a wind farm on their doorstep to Chris Tomlinson, director of programme strategy at the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA), the industry’s lobby group, he is both amazed and sceptical. All local views, he insists, are canvassed in what is a lengthy planning process. Tomlinson has a frustrated air when we meet at BWEA’s north London headquarters. He says onshore wind farms, the key to meeting official targets for renewable energy over the next 10 years, are being undermined by ill-informed local protest groups and a reluctance to speed up planning procedures.
“There are onshore wind projects that would generate eight gigawatts [of electricity] stuck in planning right now,” he says. That equates to 6% of the UK’s electricity supplies. If we are going to meet the targets, the government has to start getting its policy [to encourage renewable energy] out to local authorities. At the moment it’s not monitoring it and it’s not enforcing it. We have 40% of Europe’s wind resource in this country. We should be getting on with the job.”
Tomlinson insists that developers do stringent tests to ensure that local residents will not be unduly affected by noise. “Every site has to do noise assessments,” he says. “Every site has to take complaints seriously and mitigation measures will be taken where necessary.” He says wind farms are being subjected to misinformation from groups who are opposed to them in principle. “When the anti-turbine lobby gets wind of the fact that a planning application is going in, they distribute leaflets and promote the myths about wind energy. All of a sudden one’s going to get built half a mile or a mile away from your house and you get this propapanda about house prices or the effect on bird life, and it’s scary.”
There are 140 onshore wind farms in the UK today, and 1,839 wind turbines. Tomlinson accepts that saturation point will be reached at some point, but says 5,000 turbines would not be excessive, and that the older, smaller turbines can be replaced by far bigger and more efficient ones that will generate a lot more electricity. The government wants 20% of our energy to come from renewable sources by 2020, and, with the technology for offshore wind farms still in its infancy, it is the growth of onshore turbines that will determine whether that supposedly binding target will be met.
Researching wind farms is not easy. Just visiting five in three regions across England and Wales meant driving 1,300 miles. So far they have been built mostly at the extremities – in Scotland, central and north Wales, Cumbria, Northumberland, Cornwall and the Fens. Jane Davis has a theory about this. “We were told by someone who used to be an MD for a turbine manufacturing company that wind turbine developers target areas they regard as NGAs – naive, gullible and apathetic. He advised me to look carefully as I drove around the country to see which counties have wind farms and which do not. This has nothing to do with being near the coast – Germany, France, Denmark and Sweden have many inland turbines. It is to do with the ease of being able to push a planning application through. So the shire counties – perceived as being more affluent and educated – don’t appear to be targeted in the same way as small, isolated villages in rural locations.”
She may have a point. Bears Down, near Padstow, one of the first and largest wind farms in Cornwall, is in just the sort of location she says would appeal to a developer. There are a few very nice, expensive homes nearby in the village of Rumford, and Phoebe Lockett, who owns one of them, has led a well-organised and persistent campaign to have the turbines adjusted to reduce noise. But the only other dwellings directly affected are 14 permanent caravans on a site 500m from the nearest turbine. Lockett says that while the developers took her impeccably middle-class protests seriously, they seemed less willing to listen to the views of people who lived on the caravan site, even though they were closer to the wind farm.
Again, when I visited both Lockett’s and the caravan site, I could hear none of the whooshing of which they complained, nor feel the vibrations that one mobile-home owner said had made her exchange her metal caravan for a more absorbent wooden “park home”. But their reports are so strongly put and consistent that, even allowing for an element of the neurosis that the pros tend to allege, they must be based on something.
Amanda Harry, a GP based in Plymouth, has surveyed Bears Down, and says that more than 80% of people she has questioned who live close to wind farms in Cornwall complain of noise pollution and headaches. The advocates of wind power have rubbished her sample as too small to be meaningful and her methods as unscientific. “She asks people if they live near a wind farm and whether they suffer from headaches, and assumes the two are linked,” says one critic.
It would in any case be wrong to suggest that the wider local community is united against Bears Down. It is only those in the immediate vicinity – up to about 1,000m away – who criticise it. When I sampled opinion in the village of St Eval, a former RAF base about a mile and a half from the turbines, there was virtually no opposition, apart from a rider who said they spooked her horses. “People here don’t mind them,” says Brenda Bridges, who runs the local post office. “It’s only the people in the caravan park who are bothered.” One local man, a Royal Navy climatologist – some of the housing is still owned by the armed forces – went further. “There’s no noise here, and even if there was that would be acceptable in the larger scheme of things.”
The final stop on my windy whistlestop tour is at the controversial Cefn Croes development near Aberystwyth in mid-Wales – 39 turbines on a hillside 1,800ft up in a gloriously peaceful setting. There are no houses for miles around; no noise issues here. Instead, the argument is one of conservation: a green v green battle between those who argue that renewable energy sources must be developed at all costs and those who say that the destruction of this hillside (as well as the turbines, a network of roads have been built to allow access and low-level pylons erected to take the electricity to the national grid) was too high a price to pay.
Kaye Little, a retired radiologist who lives a few miles from Cefn Croes, has spent the past seven years opposing the development and says she finds the trip we make up the hillside to look at the site distressing – a sad symbol of a battle lost. “Back in the 1960s this whole area was on the cards for being designated as a national park,” she says. “You can see the landscape merits that. This place really shouldn’t have been touched. The peat has been damaged and the terrain opened up with new road networks. There are proposals now for many more turbines near here, and eventually the whole area will be overtaken by them. Already there are turbines at the head of almost every valley, and once the landscape is opened up, it can’t ever go back to being the way it was before.”
To Little, the windfarm is an alien presence that brings no work to Wales, apart from during the six-month construction phase, and has served only to destroy the landscape for the advantage of foreign companies. The site is currently owned by an Italian company and operated remotely from Germany. “What is the benefit for Wales?” asks Little. “A trickle of intermittent electricity that is more expensive than it would be by virtue of the public subsidy.”
Little used to be an active member of Friends of the Earth, but says the issue of wind farms has split the green lobby. “This has divided us from the Green party, Friends of the Earth and other so-called green groups who support wind power and say this is the way forward. It’s not green and it’s not the only way of generating renewable energy.”
How representative are Little’s views? Anne Bunton, who sits on the committee that decides how to spend the annual payment the local community receives from the wind farm (such community funds are invariably established when turbines are put up), says the antis were well organised, but in a minority. “There were more people for it than against it,” she says. “It brought employment to the area while it was going on; there’s still a bit of employment up there, and you can hardly see them. I don’t see what the problem is. All these people want electric and you’ve got to get it from somewhere: it’s clean, it’s ideal, and the best thing of all is that £58,000 a year is coming into the two parish councils in the area.”
The way wind farms divide communities is striking. Envy plays its part – if a farmer is receiving what can amount to substantial payments from developers in rentals, adjacent landowners are doubly distressed. They have their view affected and may get some noise pollution, and they have to put up with the knowledge that their neighbour is benefiting and they aren’t. There are also issues of ownership and power. Are landowners calling the shots? Are communities being properly consulted? Who should have the final say – parish council, district council, county council or central government? The latter, as in Deeping St Nicholas where the district council’s rejection of a wind farm was overturned on appeal, sometimes stands accused of riding roughshod over local wishes. But if decisions were devolved to local level, would nimbyism always win the day? In the recent council elections, Marshland St James’s sitting Labour councillor was defeated by David Markinson, a local farmer who stood on an anti-wind farm ticket.
Wind Prospect’s Colin Palmer acknowledges that this is a very good time to be a developer of wind farms. His company now has close to a hundred staff, and is increasingly looking to hang on to sites it develops, whereas in the past it has tended to sell them. The government’s ambitious targets for renewable energy have resulted in a range of incentives that have attracted investors to wind power.
The BWEA says those incentives are crucial to driving the industry forward, and they were left intact in yesterday’s white paper, despite suggestions they would be reduced. Opponents of wind power, however, claim they have distorted the market and led directly to the spate of protests that now surround proposed new wind farms. The background noise of claim and counter-claim far louder than anything I heard from any of the turbines I visited.
By Steven Moss
24 May 2007
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