The Defence Secretary’s concern about electricity pylons marching across his Somerset constituency is shared by many who fear for the future of the countryside.
Congratulations to Liam Fox. He wins the Nicholas Ridley Memorial Prize for Nimbyism. The Defence Secretary has written to his Cabinet colleague Chris Huhne objecting to plans that would see columns of new electricity pylons marching across the countryside in his Somerset constituency. Dr Fox argues that the 150ft structures will be an eyesore and will unnecessarily damage some of the country’s most attractive areas. Similar power lines are planned in Suffolk, Kent, Cumbria, north Wales and the Scottish Highlands, to transmit electricity from the new generation of nuclear power stations and from the wind farms now popping up around the country.
Most people, I suspect, will agree with Dr Fox. Certainly most of his constituents will, which is important for his re-election chances. But can someone explain how his concern for the pristine beauty of the north Somerset landscape differs from the equally strong antipathy felt in other rural areas towards the Government’s plans to build new houses on greenfield sites?
It is this apparent contradiction that brought Nicholas Ridley’s name to mind. In the late 1980s, he was environment secretary in the Thatcher government and was keen to see several new towns built in the south of England to tackle housing shortages. Indeed, it was he who imported the word Nimby – an American acronym for Not in My Back Yard – into the British political lexicon. In a speech defending his building policy, Ridley said: “Our English countryside is one of the most heavily man-made habitats in Europe. To make it into a green museum would be to belie its whole history.”
He was right to observe that the English countryside was no longer the bucolic Eden evoked by John Clare or Constable; but that, surely, was the principal reason why people who lived there did not want it despoiled any further. And it is not only rural dwellers who are fearful for its future. Those of us who live in the cities want to be able to visit a countryside that still looks like one and does not resemble an extension of the suburbs. So it did Ridley’s case no good at all when it transpired that he had himself objected to a housing development close to the rectory he owned in the Cotswolds. It turned out that he was a Nimby, too.
Equally, it does not look good for the Coalition, which is urging everyone else to accept new houses and wind farms, when Cabinet ministers break ranks because the proposed development affects their own constituents. But what else are they to do? They are in Parliament to represent the interests of their voters. Which is why Dr Fox is not alone. Cheryl Gillan, the Welsh Secretary, is implacably opposed to plans to build the High Speed 2 train link through her Buckinghamshire constituency and might even resign if it goes ahead. And you can be sure that the ranks of Cabinet Nimbys will grow as the implications of the Government’s new planning policy become clear. This introduces a new presumption in favour of development – and has triggered a bitter row between the Government and organisations such as the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England. But even Greg Clark – the minister who has somewhat intemperately accused those who want to preserve their towns and villages “in aspic” of “nihilistic selfishness” – might find it hard to hold the line if builders eye up his Tunbridge Wells seat for 5,000 new homes.
The essential nature of Nimbyism is to support a national policy – for instance green energy or more houses – while insisting that the consequences should be felt by other people. The Cabinet is collectively wedded to Mr Huhne’s absurd and irrational targets for renewable electricity generation: these are backed by generous grants (or bribes), which is why so many wind turbines are springing up. But since the power has to be transmitted and the turbines connected to the National Grid, an inevitable by-product will be more pylons spreading far beyond the wind farms themselves. In mid-Wales, for instance, a plan for dozens of wind farms will necessitate a 100-mile network of pylons 150ft high. What is now a wilderness will resemble a gigantic sub-station.
So Dr Fox is right to be worried about more of these monstrosities also cluttering up the views of the Mendips. His problem is that we need the electricity and the National Grid is legally obliged to provide it. But why not lay the power lines under the ground or on the sea floor? The National Grid says this is too expensive but Dr Fox points to research suggesting that over the longer term it is more cost effective while also preserving the landscape. As he says in his letter: “If we are to have credible green credentials then the decision needs to be taken on more than short-term economics ignoring the environmental impact in the longer term.”
Well, hear, hear to that. And it is an approach that should guide the Government in all its policies towards the environment – including the controversial new planning presumption that has causing such consternation. Those ministers who think people worried about the impact of housing on their villages and rural surroundings are “nihilists” should explain why they are any different from Dr Fox. They, too, concede that new homes are needed – but question why they are not being built on brownfield sites close to existing towns insead of ruining the countryside. Yes, they may be Nimbies – but who else is going to protect and preserve what we have left? Dr Fox should be proud to be one.