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As the Government plans to cut wind farm subsidies, Victoria Moore visits the Norfolk villagers who saved their community from towering turbines.
Although she has a gentle voice and a delicate, birdlike appearance that seem well-suited to a bridge drive or jam-making competition, it would be a mistake to underestimate Shirley Weymouth as she rattles around the lanes of Norfolk in her tiny Fiat Panda. Even before arriving in the village of Hemsby, just north of Great Yarmouth, I realise I am being organised.
“I can’t see you first thing because I’m having my hair done,” she says briskly. “Now, where are we going to meet? Go to the post office and ask Liz to tell you the way to the Doves, John and Molly. I’ll make a few phone calls and we’ll all see you there. And you must speak to Maria. She’s a landscape gardener and she’s done such a lot.”
Crikey. Something tells me this was not the reception that Sea & Land Power & Energy Ltd (SLP) bargained for when they planned to erect four enormous wind turbines in this quiet parish.
Uproar is not quite the word for it. Diligent persistence, perhaps. Either way, local opposition to the proposed wind farm – “I object to them being called farms,” says John Dove, “because it sounds agricultural and they’re not” – was so determined that SLP’s application was initially rejected by Great Yarmouth Council in 2009 on the grounds that it would have an adverse impact on the landscape character and that it was close to a Broadland conservation area.
As anyone who has ever struggled against the might of a corporate planning application will know, that is rarely the end of the story.
But last week Hemsby was quietly celebrating (with tea and biscuits) after SLP’s appeal was rejected in the High Court. In a landmark judgment, Mrs Justice Lang ruled that the Coalition government’s renewable energy targets should not take precedence over the right of the village to preserve their landscape.
Together with the news that the Chancellor, George Osborne, wants to cut government subsidies of onshore wind farms by 25 per cent, the decision represents real hope for those resisting planning applications for wind turbines in their area.
“It is a relief,” says John Dove, a rather serious-looking pop artist who still likes to DJ, as we all settle down around his kitchen table to chat about how the villagers won their battle.
“They were going to be huge. They would have gone at the top of a gentle rise just over there, behind our house, and they were going to be just a few metres lower than the London Eye when that was taken into account. The original proposals were for each turbine to be 125m high – the London Eye is 140m – though that was later lowered to 105m. It’s still enormous. They were going to be the biggest structures in Norfolk.”
The fightback started with a simple petition. Liz Church, whose family have been village postmasters for five generations, put one in the post office and more than 1,000 signatures were collected.
“There are about 2,800 people in Hemsby on the electoral roll,” says Shirley, beadily.
The toy boxes of all the children in the village were raided for Lego bricks so that scale models could be built of the proposed turbines and their vast 90m blade-spans, “because they are quite cute, when they do their presentations, at how they show the difference in height between, say, a house and a turbine,” says John. “But on our models you could really see it.”
He produced a leaflet, with “A BLOT ON THE LANDSCAPE” written at the top in big capital letters, setting out some of his objections. “There are already lines and lines of wind turbines in our area,” it says. “Forty-one in all… Many of our favourite walks have wind turbines silhouetted against the sunset or waving away like robotic sentries. We have more than our fair share.”
Is the objection simply aesthetic, then? “No,” he says vehemently. “We are not nimbies. You can’t put your finger on any one thing. There are 30 or 40 reasons. Landscape. Being on the edge of the Broads at Ormesby, which is being considered as a World Heritage Site. The fact that there are thought to be more species of animals here than in any other area of England.”
Now Maria Ellis chips in. “We’re not opposed to turbines as renewable energy sources,” she says. “We’re against overdevelopment. I spend a lot of time outside because I’m a gardener. I often hear the wind moaning through the ones already there. But we have them to the east, north and west. The south is the only skyline we’ve got. Then you’ve got to think about the huge cubes of concrete they sink into the ground that will be there forever. Each of those bases would need 240 concrete lorries, coming through the village. The narrow lanes of the village.”
One of the big turning points came when Maria had to address a meeting of the Development Control Committee in Great Yarmouth.
“You can speak for up to five minutes, so long as you let the chairman know in advance,” says Shirley. “So we did. I was furious because Maria was late. And then she didn’t have any papers with her.”
“I thought somebody else would have them,” explains Maria. “I was very nervous, I’d never spoken in public before.”
“But she was fabulous,” says Shirley.
“She just spoke honestly and from the heart about her own home on the edge of the site and how it would affect all the people she knew,” says John.
It was really tenacity and a steadfast refusal to be worn down that swung it for Hemsby, though. SLP produced an Environmental Statement the thickness of a telephone directory. I bet they didn’t expect anyone to bother to get all the way through it.
“I did,” says Maria, eyes gleaming. “I read it all day.”
In their reams of literature, she found one vital piece of information, buried among pages of mind-numbing bureaucracy – the fact that the proposed site for one turbine passed through a probable Bronze Age round barrow.
Then there were the letters. “Myself and a lady called Karen Barnes had already been round the village with the petition,” says Maria. “But we went again, with an envelope with a blank sheet of paper in it. We dropped it off, asked for comments for the planning department and said we’d pick it up the next morning. And on every doorstep we’d look around and say, ‘You can put it behind that pot,’ or ‘Pop it under that mat and we’ll come tomorrow and get it.’ We ended up with carrier bags full.”
It certainly beats the identical, templated letters of disapproval that most campaigns supply. John Dove managed to find time away from his sculpture, screen-printing and punk and reggae music to put together an entire 50-page booklet. “I thought it should stand up against the size of the SLP’s,” he explains. Rather than add her name to his epistle, his wife Molly wrote her own submission.
And as for Shirley, scary-smart in her very tidy make-up and I-mean-business blue jacket. Her decades of experience in local politics, as a parish clerk and borough councillor, meant she really knew her way around the rulebook.
“Of course, she had to remain in the background because of her position as a councillor,” says John Dove. “But when they held public meetings and SLP tried to bore everyone to death with endless slides and presentations, she would make sure people didn’t go home until after they had voted.”
It has been a real war of attrition. “They do try to tire you out with all the appeals,” says Maria. And, of course, SLP have money and expertise, resources and a slickness that you’d think this lot would have struggled to overcome.
“Don’t forget to mention Charles Reynolds, the borough councillor who chaired the development control committee when it refused the original application,” says Shirley. “Or our local MP Brandon Lewis, who was also very good.”
“I’d better go,” says Maria. “I’ve got a gosling in the car. Bruce the goose. And I think he’s eating all my flowers. I’ll come round to you later, Shirley, and plant your marigolds. They’ll go in well after all this rain.”
“Lovely,” says Shirley, “Though not at 2pm because I’m having sit‑down exercises then.”
And off they all go, back to a village life that will not, for the time being at least, be overshadowed by four towering turbines.
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