‘It’s undistinguished.” Bill Driver pronounces his verdict on the Northamptonshire countryside that is spread out in front of us from our elevated vantage point on the outskirts of the market town of Oundle in the east of the county.
It seems a bit harsh as judgments go, especially on the lips of one who lives here. The brightly coloured fields of oilseed rape may not be to everyone’s taste, and the local limestone of the houses is a bit harsher on the eye than its equivalent in the Cotswolds, but this is gently rolling farmland, with small ridges topped by the trees that once made up the royal hunting ground of Rockingham Forest. It is the quintessential English rural landscape, slow to change, with an overwhelming sense of space and the occasional church spire peeping up on the horizon.
“No, you’re missing my point,” Driver interrupts. He is the local spokesman for the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). “What I mean is that it’s not distinguished by hills or any significant features. My wife’s from Yorkshire and she says that here the countryside is ‘neither summit nor nowt’. That’s why the steeples stand out. Anything would in this landscape. And that’s why Northants is called ‘the county of squires and spires’.”
Or used to be. The CPRE has now given it a new name – “the wind farm capital of England”. Because this undistinguished slice of the south Midlands lacks the sort of national designations that bring with them special protection – National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Green Belt – it is seeing a rush of planning applications to site wind farms. And 125-metre turbines will definitely stand out on this uncrowded horizon.
If all the schemes under consideration go ahead, the CPRE estimates that the county, though it makes up only 10 per cent of the East Midlands, will single-handedly meet the region’s target for renewable energy. “And the oddest thing of all,” says Driver, “is that Northamptonshire has one of the lowest wind speeds in the country.”
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There are applications for 53 turbines at various stages of the planning process in Northamptonshire, according to the CPRE, out of a total of 94 that industry bodies estimate for the whole country. No wonder this landlocked, usually sleepy corner of England – its lack of big towns and airports adds to the attraction for wind farm developers – is feeling victimised. And it is fighting back.
I’m standing with Driver and Martin Bradshaw, regional manager for the National Trust, at its property at Lyveden New Bield. We are outside the shell of an elaborate, cross-shaped banqueting hall-cum-summer house, started by Sir Thomas Tresham in the early 1600s but never completed, after his son and heir disgraced the family by his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot. It is Grade I listed, as are its extraordinary Elizabethan gardens of spiral mounts, terracing and canals, considered the best surviving examples of their kind in Britain.
Despite this pedigree – and Northants, notes Bradshaw, championing the county where he was born and brought up, has the country’s highest density of historic houses per head of the population – Lyveden New Bield will soon have a rival after 500 years of dominating this landscape. Less than a mile away, on land belonging to the Queen’s cousin, the Duke of Gloucester, the Barnwell Manor Wind Farm wants to erect four giant turbines.
Bradshaw guides us to the centre of the peerless garden and points out a spindly mobile telephone mast on the skyline. “That is where the turbines will be, only much taller and much bigger,” he says. It will be impossible for any visitor to Lyveden to miss them. Planning law protects historic sites from nearby developments that spoil the setting, and so in January 2011, East Northamptonshire council rejected the plans. But in March of this year a planning inspector overturned that decision on appeal.
That has prompted the National Trust to join forces with the local authority and English Heritage (of which the Duke of Gloucester is a former deputy chairman) in what it describes as a “landmark” challenge in the High Court. As well as its particular concerns for Lyveden, it is worried about the implications for all Grade I listed sites in the face of the push to develop onshore wind energy – with the number of turbines estimated to triple to 10,000 by the end of the decade.
So the question that is being raised in rural Northamptonshire is not whether wind turbines are a good idea – they are here to stay as part of our national landscape, like them or loathe them, and the National Trust has supported their presence on other properties in its custodianship. What is at stake is the vexed issue of where exactly they should be sited.
The writer Bill Bryson, president of CPRE, warned recently that inappropriate siting of turbines risks turning people against wind energy. “It is that word ‘appropriate’ that is important here,” says Mark Bradshaw. “Our appeal is on a point of law and is about the application of the ‘test of harm’ – what harm the plans will have on a Grade I listed monument.”
That was a judgment the planning inspector considered in his written response. He acknowledged the “cultural value” of Lyveden as a site of “national, if not international, significance”, and accepted that the wind turbines would be a “distraction” for visitors to the 500-year-old gardens. But when set against the requirement to increase renewable energy to meet the target of 15 per cent by 2020, he concluded that the harm done was not enough to stop it going ahead.
The National Trust wants that individual judgment tested by a judge. Bradshaw can point to a spate of other appeals in the region where different inspectors have reached the opposite judgment because of the presence of Grade 1 listed buildings nearby. So there is a lack of clarity.
And that reliance on the verdict of one person, appointed by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, appears to make a nonsense of Whitehall’s trumpeting of the “localism” agenda. In the case of Lyveden, national needs have been allowed to trump local feelings.
The same is true of Northamptonshire generally. Wind farm sites at Bozeat, Kelmarsh, Boddington, Yelvertoft and Watford Lodge have all been reprieved by inspectors – a total of 23 turbines – against the wishes of the local planning authorities. Only one appeal by developers against the council’s decision – at Harrington – has been turned down.
But isn’t this just another case of not-in-my-backyard? “There is always a bit of that in any protest,” accepts Bill Driver of CPRE. “The proposals have divided people locally. Some, for instance, say they like the look of a wind turbine. But the real problem here is the lack of wind. This wind farm, and others proposed for Northamptonshire, is not economically viable because there isn’t enough wind to generate much electricity. What is making it happen is the very high level of subsidy given to onshore wind.”
A case of speculative developers, then? “Well, I’d say it is not so much the developers,” says Driver, “as the local landowners who have hit upon wind farms because they can see there is just so much money to be made out of the current subsidy regime in an undistinguished county where there aren’t many of the usual obstacles to putting them up.”