We know all about life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness, but what of beauty? This week hundreds of marchers have converged on Cardiff from the west Midlands and mid-Wales in a desperate bid to halt what, on any showing, is an aesthetic travesty. By what right?
The protested plan, which has seen the Welsh marches in uproar for six months, is to erect 800 more wind turbines across the Cambrian Mountains and build a 100-mile network of 150ft pylons over the Powys hills, down the upper Severn valley into Shropshire. It will turn the largest wilderness area of Britain outside a national park into hundreds of square miles of power station. There is no market demand for this and the electricity generated will be less than one conventional power station. It is all political. The entire project is financed by the taxpayer in grants and by a compulsory levy on electricity bills.
One thing I know about the green energy debate is that it brings out the worst in everyone, especially landowners and lobbyists wallowing in government money. To the Treasury, wind farms are like aircraft carriers, cash-eating machines pampered so ministers can walk tall at international conferences. Villages are being bribed with £20,000 a year in pocket money if they support permission for local turbines. Farmers can retire to the Bahamas on the amortised value of a wind-farm cluster. The British Wind Energy Association (now euphemised as RenewableUK) has 550 corporate members who shared £1bn in subsidy last year. The press treats it as a research source, when it is a lobbyist.
Just 19 giant turbines outside Swansea are planned to generate £12m a year for the Duke of Beaufort’s estate, of which £7m is direct subsidy. This is repeated across the British landscape. Then in April came the absurdity of Scottish landowners being given almost £1m in compensation for not supplying wind power to an overloaded grid for just one night. It indicates what happens when an artificial market is created by a political whim, in this case that the UK should generate “15% of power from renewables” with no concern for cost. That cost is budgeted to be a staggering £100bn in grants and price levies by 2020. These sums are way out of proportion to any conceivable public good.
The Welsh assembly’s 2005 decision to designate the Cambrian mountains a “strategic area for wind-farm clusters” was an environmental disaster, shaking the faith of champions of devolution. It reinforces the sad canard that the Welsh have an ear for beauty but not an eye for it, and are not up to guarding their own environment. Alex Salmond’s desire to make Scottish wind the power house of Europe equally suggests that, whatever his vision for his nation, it does not embrace a landscape aesthetic. Swathes of British countryside are being sacrificed to save the Chinese from having to close even one coal-burning power station.
For the time being I defer to the pleas of Dieter Helm, Oxford professor of energy economics, that even within the context of climate change the debate has been distorted by the sheer scale of subsidy. To Helm we should devote the money now going on high-profile, low-output carbon-substitutes to a switch from dirty coal to cleaner gas. It yields a far higher “green return” than wind. Most of Europe has this message and is scaling back on wind. To wreck the fragile landscape – and seascape – of Britain when the future more probably lies in gas, sun and waves seems idiotic.
Yet for all this, it does not answer the question of pylons. The distribution of electric power continues to require transmission. Even if wind-obsessed Chris Huhne and George Osborne were out of the fray, linking power stations to the grid requires lines. As long as technology seems unable to transmit electricity underground efficiently, and as long as contractors quote wild sums for line burial, the cost remains high. The National Grid puts it at 10 times the cost of going overhead, though it suits it to exaggerate. American industry estimates are just twice to three times more for underground, with less vulnerability to storms and other accidents.
Such friends of the power industry as Jonathon Porritt and George Monbiot claim to find turbines and pylons beauteous objects that enhance the natural environment. I am glad they are not in charge of Snowdon, the Wye Valley or Hampstead Heath. But I doubt if either would think Constable’s Haywain would benefit from a few pylons in the background, which is reportedly what Huhne has in mind for Dedham Vale. His latest gimmick is a competition to build a more fetching pylon, which is like getting the Royal College of Art to redesign Golgotha.
As long as there are people who see no beauty in nature, those who oppose them must do better than just cry “philistine”. I see no objection to nimbyism, since if we do not love and protect our own spaces, no one else will. But such protection requires a common aesthetic, in which statements about beauty are not ridiculed by politicians and lobbyists. It requires specifying the delight in a view, a hill, a coast, a valley and pleading with others to see it too. Indeed it requires more than that. Since spoiling nature makes money for someone, monetary value must be ascribed to preserving it.
This a tough call. There is no government agency championing landscape value outside national parks. A campaign is being waged by a coalition of Huhne’s energy department, the wind generators and the National Grid to relax planning controls on turbines and overhead power lines. Last month the power regulator, Ofgem, revealed it had been told by Huhne to give no price incentives to put cables underground. He has also ended the 50-year-old stipulation that overhead power lines should, if possible, “avoid altogether major areas of high amenity value”. Clearly under the cosh of the industry, he is biased for pylons.
The beauty that is enshrined in museums and galleries, architecture, art and design is widely acknowledged and considered a fit charge on the state. The beauty that is enshrined in nature is not, other than in some farm subsidies, and is perpetually under threat. The Welsh turbines are a reckless tearing up of a carbon reservoir at public expense, pending the development of other forms of power generation. The least those hoping to profit from this vandalism can do is put the related power lines underground.
This costs money. But then it costs money to generate electricity from wind, paid for by taxpayers in grants to the rich and through the renewables levy on fuel bills. If we are to be taxed to avoid uncertain future damage to the planet, why not be taxed to avoid certain present damage? At roughly £25m a mile – which is surely exorbitant – the grounding of the Severn valley cables would be just one year’s profit to the National Grid. I’m sure its shareholders can stand the strain. They are doing very well from the rest of us at present. They can take a one-year hit in the simple cause of beauty.
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