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The turbine toffs cash in on wind farms

Guy David Innes-Ker, the 10th Duke of Roxburghe, represents one of Britain’s most powerful aristocratic dynasties.

Educated at Eton, Cambridge and Sandhurst he lives at Floors Castle, a turreted stately home in the Scottish Borders where Prince Charles wooed Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Andrew proposed to Sarah Ferguson.

His first wife was the sister of the Duke of Westminster and their eldest daughter Lady Rosie was once seen as a possible consort for Prince William.

Their son Lord Ted is the former flatmate of the Prince’s sister-in-law Pippa Middleton.

But it’s not all turrets and tiaras in the Duke’s fiefdom. He is also embroiled in a controversial development to site a 48-turbine wind farm on a grouse moor in the Lammermuir Hills between Edinburgh and Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Despite fierce local opposition construction is now under way and the Duke, who is already worth an estimated £70million, is set to earn more than £1.5million from the venture.

This makes him one of a growing number of aristocrats who have discovered that erecting a wind farm on their exposed acres is a massive earner.

They are paid by the energy companies that build the farms and those companies in turn receive huge government subsidies. By 2020 the government will be handing over £100million a year in rents to landowners simply for the right to erect turbines on their estates and it is estimated that each turbine generates an income of about £40,000 a year for the estate owner in question.

Those profiting or seeking to cash in include some very famous names. Earl Spencer, brother of the late Princess Diana, has been denounced as “avaricious” by some of his own tenants over his plans to build 13 giant turbines in the scenic Vale of Avon Dassett near his Althorp family seat in Northamptonshire.

Meanwhile the Queen’s first cousin the Duke of Gloucester has given West Coast Energy permission to erect four turbines on his own Northamptonshire estate that could generate £3million in rent over 25 years.

Angry locals have pointed out that the Duke himself lives 70 miles away in an apartment in Kensington Palace and will therefore be untroubled by the development. The National Trust has now joined forces with the local authority and English Heritage (of which the Duke is a former deputy chairman) in a High Court challenge to the deal.

And David Cameron’s father-in-law Sir Reginald Sheffield caused a furore last year after eight 400ft turbines were erected on his estate at Normanby Hall in Lincolnshire. In a letter to The Spectator magazine he denied owning the turbines and said his estate received a “modest income” from them, amounting to “less than one tenth of £3.5million”.

For most people the sum of £350,000 is not remotely modest. “Sir Reginald is of course perfectly within his rights to take this rent,” commented Clive Aslet, editor-at large of Country Life magazine.

“But the turbines have incensed the community. He’s also planning a second development at nearby Flixborough Grange, again in the face of fierce local protests. So one can’t help noticing an irony in his simultaneous strident opposition to an abattoir near Sutton Park, his other estate in Yorkshire, where he is wearing his concern for the village on his sleeve. What’s sauce for the goose is surely sauce for the gander.”

Other turbine toffs include the Duke of Beaufort (worth £120million) who is attempting to build 19 of them on land near Swansea, 100 miles away from his family seat at Badminton House, Gloucestershire. In his case the turbines are expected to generate nearly £300,000 for the Somerset Trust, which runs his estate, and a spokesman for the Duke has insisted that he will not gain personally from them.

The Earl of Moray is believed to be raking in nearly £2million a year from his 49-turbine wind farm in Perthshire while the Earl of Seafield, who is Britain’s seventh largest landowner, is expected to be paid about £120,000 a year from the wind turbines on his Banffshire estate.

The new rich are also taking their place in the “wind rush”. The latest figure bidding to build turbines on her piece of the British countryside is US-born Dame Marjorie Scardino, chief executive of publishing group Pearson and one of this country’s highest-paid female executives.

She and her husband want to erect two turbines in the grounds of their £2.5million home in Suffolk and have been accused of “riding roughshod” over neighbours’ concerns. Opponents who say the turbines will be eyesores point out that the Scardinos are not even on the electoral roll for the area and they are understood to spend most of their time in London or overseas.

The growing interest in wind farms on the part of Britain’s largest landowners is the result of the government’s subsidy system. Under a scheme created by New Labour, renewable energy generators can claim a certificate for each megawatt-hour of electricity produced. These can then be traded with other parties such as power companies. They often need to buy them to demonstrate they have met their renewable energy obligations.

Critics say these subsidies may be well-intended but have a distorting effect. Professor David Newbery, director of Cambridge University’s electricity policy research group, is a supporter of wind power but has called the scheme “bonkers”. “It is shovelling money towards people who have been lucky enough to get planning permission and it encourages the construction of wind farms in remote places where it is very expensive to connect to the national grid,” he has said.

Some aristocratic landowners including the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Northumberland have vocally denounced wind turbines as blots on the landscape. But it is no surprise that some of the largest estates, in windy landscapes where traditional agriculture is unlikely to flourish and the subsidies offer an unexpected windfall (pun intended), should belong to the nobility.

There are just over 3,000 wind turbines onshore in Britain and more than 500 offshore. But the Prime Minister has said they are “a cost effective and valuable part of the UK’s diverse energy mix” and in the next decade the onshore numbers could more than double. Those offshore could reach 5,000. The prospect horrifies opponents such as Sir Simon Jenkins, the former newspaper editor who now chairs the National Trust.

Last year he accused the Chancellor of the Exchequer of being in thrall to the turbine-builders, saying: “George Osborne is putty in the hands of the wind energy lobby. The most expensive energy on earth will require hundreds of millions of pounds of subsidy for turbine parks planned by the Dukes of Roxburghe, Gloucester and Beaufort and a bevy of earls, lords and knights.

Osborne’s onshore wind subsidies will enrich big landowners far more than Europe’s long-abused farm support.”

BACK in the Scottish Borders the energy company working with the Duke of Roxburghe insists that the wind farm won’t be as bad as its opponents assume. “

The site forms part of managed grouse moors and nestles between hills to the north and south,” North British Windpower says. “The area forms a natural bowl where the surrounding hills would keep the wind farm hidden
from communities.”

And a spokesman for Roxburghe Estates insists: “This is a sensitively sited and unobtrusive wind farm. The site already has electricity pylons on it and is discreet because of the terrain.” That, however, is unlikely to appease critics of the turbine toffs.