The view from the cliff at Burton-upon-Stather in North Lincolnshire is a favourite among locals. Taking in the curve of the River Trent, it opens out onto a flood plain, before continuing east towards the North Sea.
This moody rural scene was beautifully captured in a 1924 oil painting entitled The Smug And Silver Trent by Sir John Arnesby Brown – an eminent artist of the day – and remains little changed today.
Soon, however, the picture, which was recently on display at No 10 Downing Street, may need updating – because it looks likely that the landscape is all set to change, the rural vista interrupted with the whirling blades and unsightly support structures of an array of giant wind turbines.
Which is ironic, considering the countryside in question is owned by the Prime Minister’s father-in-law, Sir Reginald Sheffield, the father of Samantha Cameron.
It is Sir Reginald who has given his consent for seven 400ft tall wind-turbines to be erected at Flixborough Grange. Eight turbines are already up and running at Bagmoor Farm nearby, which is also owned by Sir Reginald, who possesses around 3,000 acres in these parts.
Sir Reginald’s plans do not only stem from environmentalist concerns, though. His enthusiasm is seen by some to be due, at least in part, to the considerable ‘rent’ he receives in return for allowing the turbines on his property.
By his own estimate, he already receives almost £350,000 a year for the eight turbines at Bagmoor, which was constructed in 2009. That means he is earning nearly £1,000 every single day on the back of the turbines.
That figure will almost certainly double if the council approves planning permission for the latest turbine scheme at Flixborough Grange, since he gets paid according to the amount of electricity generated.
And who is paying out for this? In one sense, the public – via a levy on electricity bills. On average, householders pay an extra £85 per year in ‘green’ taxes, and the wind farm levy – part of the Feed-in Tariffs scheme introduced by the Labour Government in 2009 in a drive to encourage ‘green’ energy – accounts for about £9.50 of that.
Not much in the grand scheme of things, admittedly, but local campaigners question why any of us should have to pay a single penny towards a project which they say will disfigure the countryside.
The result is akin to a peasants’ revolt in an area that the Sheffields have presided over for more than four centuries.
The Normanby Hall estate, close to the villages of Normanby and Burton-upon-Stather, has been in the family since 1590. The estate mansion, Normanby Hall, was built in the 1800s and the Sheffields resided there until 50 years ago when they had to hand it over to the local council to pay death duties.
Since then, the main Sheffield residence has been the nearby Grade II-listed Thealby Hall, where Samantha Cameron and her sister Emily grew up with their parents, Sir Reginald and Annabel, until they divorced when the girls were still only children.
Sir Reginald continues to live there with his second wife, Victoria, with whom he has two daughters and a son while their mother Annabel has also remarried, to Lord Astor, and is styled Viscountess Astor.
Sir Reginald also has a second splendid pile, Sutton Park, an 18th-century mansion in North Yorkshire, as well as a third house in fashionable Notting Hill, West London.
Sutton Park is rented out for weddings and Sir Reginald makes millions each year from his land and various ventures.
The balance sheet for his company, Normanby Estate Holdings, for the year ending March 31, 2011, shows that the company made a profit of £4.2 million, with total shareholder funds (the value of the shareholders’ interest) of £5.6 million and more than £1 million in the bank. The firm acts as a holding company for Normanby Estate Company, which has £2.4 million in capital and reserves. Another of his businesses, Norinco Ltd, has £1.4 million in capital and reserves.
Sir Reginald, then, is not short of a few bob. And happily for him, the wind turbines provide him with a way of making a good deal more.
The turbines scheme at Flixborough Grange is a joint venture between two companies, Wind Prospect and RidgeWind. RidgeWind is majority-owned by investment funds managed by the private equity firm, HgCapital and the company proposes to rent the land from Sir Reginald. But while he may be relishing the thought of doubling his turbine income, there is almost universal opposition to the scheme locally.
To date, planning permission has been refused by the council three times and once at appeal, but that hasn’t deterred Sir Reginald and his developers, who have now lodged another appeal.
The deadline for objections was last Thursday and a planning inspector will make the decision.
Locals claim 65-year-old Sir Reginald appears indifferent to their concern that the turbines will spoil the landscape. But so far they have been more successful with their appeals to the planning authorities.
The first appeal was won on unusual grounds. Living close to the proposed site are ten-year-old autistic twins, Lewis and Ross Glathorne. The boys’ parents attested that the boys have ‘a fixation with spinning objects’ and would be adversely affected by the turbines.
Since that last appeal, however, the Glathornes have withdrawn their objections after the developers, RidgeWind, agreed it will help the Glathornes make alterations to their home, as well as plant trees to reduce visibility of the turbines.
If this is not sufficient, the company has agreed to pay for ‘their relocation, if this is deemed necessary by them’. But that hasn’t allayed the health worries cited by other protesters, such as concerns over so-called Wind Turbine Syndrome – based on a theory that wind turbines generate low ‘infrasound’ – low frequency noise not detectable by the human ear that is alleged to cause a range of physical sensations such as tinnitus, headaches, sleeplessness and anxiety.
Steve Fuller, an engineer, runs the protest group, Burton Against Turbines, which has fought the Flixborough scheme every step of the way. ‘There’s a feeling that this area is carrying the burden of the march of the wind turbines. We already have 130 of them within a 10 km radius due to go up and another 50 at the consultation or appeal stage.
‘We have tried to work out a solution with Sir Reginald over his seven planned turbines at Flixborough Grange, to see if there is any way he can pull out of the scheme, but it has got us nowhere.’
That doesn’t surprise many locals, who mutter that Sir Reginald is an old-school aristocrat who brooks little dissent. Certainly, the battle over the turbines is not the first clash between Sir Reginald and the villagers. A few years ago, there was a spot of bother over a lime tree in Normanby village.
Bernard Regan, a former Labour councillor who is involved in the campaign against the wind turbines, recalls his ‘run-in’ with Reggie, as he is known to locals.
‘It was a pretty tree, but Reggie got the idea that it was diseased and wanted to chop it down,’ he says. ‘No one else wanted the tree chopped down so there was a bit of a battle over it. Reggie got in an arboriculturist to look at it and so did I on behalf of the villagers.
‘Reggie’s man said it was defective, ours said there was nothing wrong with it. Then one day the daughter of the man who had first complained about Reggie’s decision to chop it down went out and sat under the tree with her baby.
‘At that moment, Reggie came past and became rather cross and ordered one of his farm workers to get a tractor and rope and literally pull the thing down once the woman was out of the way. In the event that didn’t happen, but Reggie got his way in the end and had the tree chopped down.’ That was after Sir Reginald produced documents showing that he owned the tree and the council conceded it was his.
Petty disputes, perhaps, of the sort that are not uncommon with any large landholder.
It is the battle over the turbines, however, that has united many locals in opposition. So are their objections fair? When the windfarm dispute was reported in the Spectator magazine, Sir Reginald wrote a letter to the editor correcting a number of inaccuracies.
‘I quite realise that many people do not like wind turbines, but the planning permission for the turbines at Bagmoor had very little local opposition and was passed by North Lincolnshire’s planning committee without recourse to a planning enquiry,’ he wrote.
Contacted by the Mail, Sir Reginald said he was unable to discuss the wind turbine controversy. ‘I have spoken to my solicitor and he tells me there is a clause in my agreement with Wind Prospect forbidding me from speaking to the Press.
As for the tree, he said: ‘With regard to the lime tree, it was condemned and had to be cut down. The estate was ordered to cut it down by North Lincolnshire Council. It was overhanging.’
For their part, local objectors say that while they are not opposed to wind power in principle, the additional turbines will simply be too much in too beautiful an area.
Bernard Regan, who fought and lost the battle of the lime tree with Sir Reginald, says: ‘The scenery at the Flixborough Grange site is arguably among the most beautiful in North Lincolnshire. The vista inspired the artist Sir John Arnesby Brown enough to paint the scene.’
And, of course, the whole efficacy of wind turbines also continues to be debated. If there is no wind, you have to resort to conventional power. If there’s too much wind, they have to be switched off.
But to Sir Reginald Sheffield, those tall, strange structures with their whooshing blades, are a pleasing sight indeed. Especially since it’s not just electricity they’re generating . . .
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