After almost five years of being on the front line of a battle surrounding a proposed wind farm, I have begun to feel not unlike a turbine myself – buffeted by winds from different directions, turning wearily and often to little effect.
During that campaign, I have seen how one part of our national energy policy works on the ground. For all the doubts cast on the effectiveness of wind energy, and the arguments made over the impact of onshore turbines on landscapes and communities, the rush to develop has, if anything, accelerated.
In 2008, as the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England revealed this week, there were in England 685 giant turbines completed, in construction or awaiting approval. By the start of 2012, the number was 3,442, and applications made by March this year brought the number to 4,100. More and more often, inappropriate sites are selected, the CPRE report says. “Communities feel increasingly powerless in the face of speculative applications from big, well-funded developers.”
Will these warnings be heeded? Almost certainly not. The enemy of good policy and fairness, in this case, is boredom. A vast and powerful industry has, with a certain cool daring, presented itself as if it were some sort of warm-hearted green charity, and has characterised anyone with reservations over individual sites as self-interested. The media and the public have, on the whole, bought it.
The case in which I have been involved will soon be concluded, but it has left me disenchanted. Last week, to take the latest example, Renewable UK, the trade body representing energy companies, proudly announced that, in a survey, 66 per cent of Britons were in favour of wind energy. Its boss, Maria McCaffery, has expressed her surprise that those who live in the country support it, too.
Why the surprise? If I were asked whether I was generally in favour of wind power as part of the energy mix, I would be cheerfully part of the majority. Only when you poll those whose daily lives would be affected about specific plans does a survey make any sense. Then there was McCaffery’s bizarre claim, on the Today programme, that only “tiny, tiny little parcels” of the English landscape are vulnerable to the plans of developers. A single glance at her own organisation’s map of proposed developments gives the lie to that absurd claim.
This disingenuousness is reflected at a local level. When developers conduct an environmental survey, they are not seeking to assess whether the site is suitable or not. The process is skewed from the start. Every test of noise, wildlife, impact on landscape, houses and churches, is designed, selected and presented with one aim in mind – to get it through planning.
Then there is the nastiness. Almost the most shocking part of my exposure to the tactics of wind farm developers has been the attitude of those pursuing their business interests towards those who would be affected by them. It starts with weary indifference, a refusal to attend meetings, attempts to discredit opponents.
Those speaking against a development are accused of selfishness; sacrifices, it is said, have to made by the few for the greater good. It is a somewhat one-sided argument. Ordinary people are required to make a sacrifice in their own lives and health while multinationals can increase their profits and a wealthy landowner – David Cameron’s father-in-law, for example – can make millions in return for no work at all.
In the case of the development of which I have experience, the local planning officers and council have behaved with integrity and good sense but – step aside, localism – it will not be the council or local people who make the final decision, but a planning inspector. I am hoping she will attend to the specific issues involved rather than listen to generalised, often slanted arguments. Or would that be selfish of me?