As someone who would be very happy never to hear the words “wind” and “farm” in the same sentence ever again, I have been watching the four-part BBC series Windfarm Wars somewhat begrudgingly. Over the past seven years, I have argued in my Independent column that, while renewable energy and less wasteful consumption are urgent priorities, that is excuse for vandalising the countryside and blighting lives by putting giant wind turbines in the wrong places.
Four years ago, these concerns became more personal and pressing. There are currently proposals to build three turbines the height of the London Eye a little over a kilometre in the open countryside from where I am sitting, and another three, in the same line of vision, about two kilometres beyond.
All the same, I am watching Windfarm Wars, groaning as familiar tricks are played, and knackered old clichés are trotted out. Although there was more than a hint of editorial tilt in the way the programme has been set up, the series is informative, scrupulous and quite often rather moving. According to its series producer, Jeremy Gibson, what was planned as one-off documentary has, much to the credit of the BBC, been pursued to the bitter end – this war has lasted from 2004 to the present.
There are many who prefer to think of the environment in easy global terms, rather than in trickier specifics, who have fallen for the line – pushed by politicians, vested interests and unthinking greens – that anyone who argues for the protection of landscape where they live is, by his or her nature, selfish and irresponsible.
Those of us who believe that turbines should be sited where they do not ruin the landscape, transform the character of an area or impact upon people’s quality are arguing that to get the big environmental problems right, it is important not to trash the precious, finite small environment that the British countryside offers, nor blight the lives of those who choose to live there.
Windfarm Wars provides a sense of what lies the great battle between local and the global, and, between the lines, points up the bias against conservation. Here is a semi-insider’s guide to what to look out for:
1. Beware of a directorial finger on the scales of judgment. In the first episode, when the plan to put ten giant turbines in the beautiful valley of Den Brook on the edge of Dartmoor National Park was presumably seen as a straightforward matter, there was a jauntiness to the direction. Objectors, with the exception of one acceptably green couple, were presented as middle-class and faintly ludicrous. The developer, a large and powerful multinational energy company called RES, was represented by a busy-mum local called Sarah Ruffle, who was filmed visiting concerned locals and who burst into tears now and then.
The farmer was portrayed a salt-of-the earth environmentalist and guardian of the land. When the local planning committee were filmed, facetious local-yokel music was played.
When a local man stood in front of some turbines and was appalled, quite justifiably, by the noise they made – caused by the turbine gear-boxes and the altogether nastier low amplitude modulation – a voice-over quickly (and unconvincingly) reassured the viewer that the sound had been amplified by the TV camera’s microphone.
2. Look out for what you are not being told. Fly-on-the-wall documentaries have to be selective and, in Windfarm Wars, it tends to be the inconvenient truths about money and business practices which are glossed over.
How much was the farmer being paid? That remained a secret. The commentary suggested that he “might become a millionaire”, an absurd underestimate. The payment of landowners is reported to be in the area of £20-25,000 per turbine, increasing over the 25 years. With four turbines on his land, the farmer will, for no effort and no risk, will become a very wealthy man if the development goes ahead.
How much does the energy company stand to make? Again, there was no evidence there. In the first two episodes, the energy company RES played its part in the cover-up business, withholding crucial noise data.
3. Watch how gradually the truth will emerge. A couple chosen by the BBC as one of the focuses of the development have become increasingly important to the story. They must have seemed like something of a pushover at first. Environmentally aware, keen to live a modest, non-consumerist lifestyle, they were said to have invested all they had in a small isolated house which would be just over a kilometre away from the turbines. The more they discovered about what was going to happen – notably the danger of noise – and the more they saw the way the application was being pushed, the greater their concerns.
By the end of the second episode, they represent well the real face of opposition – not selfish, nor money-led, but concerned that something precious, something which they had devoted their own lives to, would be lost. The shot of their faces, as they became aware of the impact of the noise and look of the turbines on the daily (and nightly) lives made for heart-breaking television.
As the series has unfolded, the easy assumptions presented the first programme have been relentlessly undermined. The farmer, every time he speaks, reveals himself to be motivated not by environment but by his own financial interest and truculent disregard for his neighbours.
The energy firm has become less cosy and friendly, more steely and corporate, with every episode.
No doubte, viewers will be polarised by Windfarm Wars. To some, it will be a triumphant blow against nimbyism. To others – like me – the proposal that an uncluttered valley in Devon is a suitable spot for industrialisation will seem increasingly bizarre and scandalous.
The idea advanced by those who support central government’s heavy bias in favour of wind farm developments is that the landscape of Den Brook, and many others like it, should be sacrificed in return for the benefit (dubious in terms of the energy produced) for the nation. People who cherish their landscape are assumed to be motivated not by love of the countryside or any kind of idealism, but by selfishness. It is they who should pay the price while landowners and large businesses reap huge subsidised profits.
It a strange and sorry business.
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