One of the more tawdry innovations of modern politics has been the ever-increasing use of obfuscation, a deliberate attempt by politicians and their spin doctors to persuade the public that they are doing one thing when in fact they are doing exactly the opposite.
A good example of this is the so-called “public consultation” over 2,500 post office closures, which – as former Labour minister Kate Hoey has admitted – is a “total sham” because the list of branches due for the chop was agreed behind closed doors months ago.
Over recent years, many of us have leaned a wary ear towards most public announcements, trying to discern the background noise of real intent, but in my long career I have never heard a statement quite as startling as this: “It was easier to penetrate a gang of international drug smugglers in Hong Kong than it is to find out exactly what is going on in the attempt to build a giant wind farm in Craven.”
That would be as easy to dismiss as hyperbole if it did not come from the mouth of retired Hong Kong police chief Christopher Emmett, who did spend much of his career pursuing drug barons and seizing huge hauls of heroin.
When Chris and his wife Stephanie left the former colony on its handover to China, they searched for a picture postcard retirement home in the peace and quiet of the English countryside.
Now, their rural idyll is threatened by the prospect of five or six of the highest wind turbines ever to be built in Britain a couple of miles from their home at East Marton, in the triangle between two of England’s busiest tourist traffic routes, the A65 and the A59.
Make no mistake, these machines are giants: over 400 feet tall and – should they get planning permission – they will stand on top of a hill already 600 feet above sea level.
They will be plainly visible from as far away as Penyghent to the north, Malham Tarn to the east, Pendle Hill to the south and across the Forest of Bowland to the west – four of the most beautiful landscapes in England.
Put simply, Chris and dozens of his neighbours wonder why they are necessary in such a sensitive area when Gordon Brown recently announced a series of enormous projects to build a series of such wind farms offshore. This will allow Britain to produce its target of carbon-free electricity – as laid down by the bureaucrats of the European Union in Brussels.
Chris is an active member of the newly formed Friends of Craven Landscape (FCL) and his wife is secretary. He has spent the six months since the plans were announced using his detection skills, combing the internet for every scrap of information he can uncover about wind turbines and British and EU planning laws.
The result: “I am as confused now as when I started. On the surface, this has nothing to do with Government: it is just a straightforward business deal between the landowners and the German energy company that wants to build the windfarm. But there seems to be pressure coming all the way down the line from the EU and Whitehall.
“Craven District Council, which will have to say yea or nay to the planning application, is acting very professionally and with great sympathy – but councillors have been left stuck between a rock and a very hard place.”
I have written before about this quandary when, 15 years ago, Sir Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher’s fiery ex-press secretary, led a campaign against a rash of windfarms being built around his home town of Todmorden on the other side of the Pennines.
He told me then that any politician who gave planning permission for a massive extension of windfarms would be responsible for the “worst environmental disaster of the 20th century”. At the time, there were big Government subsidies to windfarm operators. In year one, they covered virtually all the set-up costs, but the handouts were then reduced by 10 per cent a year until they ran out after a decade.
Although I was never able to prove this, several people I spoke to believed that, when those 10 years were over, operators would stop work. In other words, they were wanted for farm subsidies more than the wind.
I asked Chris Emmett if this curious anomaly still existed and he replied: “No – the Government no longer pays direct subsidies to the operators. But they demand that the electricity utilities take a growing percentage of their supply from wind power. That is expensive – but the cost goes straight on to your electricity bill.”
At the moment, that hidden subsidy is running at some £250 million a year and will grow every year until 2015.
As always, it is the customer who ends up paying the bill – but this, of course, has nothing to do with the Government. To me, this sounds like obfuscation as an art form.
By John Sheard
3 April 2008
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