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An ill wind blows over Church of England’s windfarm proposals

As the Church of England considers planting yet more lucrative wind turbines on its land, parishioners are banding together to halt the eco-bishops

Are windfarms God’s gift or the devil’s work? It’s a topic which is being ever more hotly debated within the Church of England.

Only last month, as revealed in The Daily Telegraph, parishioners in North Devon fought off an attempt by the Bishop of Exeter to erect 75-ft tall turbines on diocesan land next to three small villages. Now campaigners in the North are banding together to resist another suddenly announced scheme on land partly owned by the Diocese of Bradford. It’s no wonder, perhaps that these locals fear the Church is shifting from a spiritual to an environmental agenda. So will the CoE be re-branded EcO, preaching about saving the planet rather than souls? The campaigners’ worries are based on a passage of text from XY Associates, the consultants to the Bishop of Exeter’s scheme, describing the North Devon initiative as a “proof of concept” project.

Bob Barfoot, North Devon chairman of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, has warned that: “The Church of England has clearly been considering this kind of initiative in all 44 of its dioceses.” Now, it seems that his prophecy has come to pass, with the news that up to five wind turbines, each 400-ft tall, are being proposed at Killington, in Cumbria, halfway between the towns of Kendal and Sedbergh – all with the blessing of the Diocese of Bradford, which owns part of the land.

The diocese maintains that the normal consultation process is being observed, but the complaints of the anti-turbine campaigners at Killington echo those of their counterparts in North Devon. They cite a lack of openness, allied to a somewhat saintly high-handedness. There’s also the suspicion that the Church is motivated not so much by a desire to lighten its carbon footprint, as to reap the financial harvest that windfarms generate, by selling electricity to the National Grid.

“The first we heard of the Killington scheme was when the firm working on the project [Banks Renewables] announced they were holding a public exhibition to launch the project on April 18,” says Tanya Hoare, a long-standing member of the Friends of Eden, Lakeland and Lunesdale Scenery (Fells).

“Yet we have discovered correspondence which shows that there have been plans for a windfarm on this site for some years.” A letter from an Otley-based firm of land agents confirms that the first approaches concerning wind turbines were made in 2007.

“This site is a gateway both to the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales,” says Mrs Hoare. “Instead of the iconic view towards The Howgills, hikers and walkers will have a socking great windfarm to look at. It’s going to affect the whole countryside and that’s what we object to. The Church may own the land, but they don’t own the landscape.”

One big difference from North Devon, though, is that while ramblers will have an uninterrupted view of the turbines, the turbines will be visible from just two houses, because they will be right next to junction 37 of the M6.

That’s not the point, says Fells president Dr Mike Hall. “What we’re fighting is a systematic industrialisation of the countryside,” he insists. “There is a five-turbine installation at Lambrigg, about three quarters of a kilometre away, and another six-turbine scheme has just been approved at Armistead, four and a half kilometres away.”

This latter scheme was fought all the way to the High Court by Fells, which cited among their concerns the fact that the Bank Renewables developers were handing out “community benefits funds” to the villages that would be most affected. These included a £20,000 grant for upgrading tennis courts behind Old Hutton Primary School, plus £67,000 to the parish council to complete a footpath.

Similar handouts are now available to people living near the proposed Killington windfarm. “We have awarded over £1.8 million in grants that have benefited over 80,000 people,” announced a leaflet given out at the exhibition. “These could include improvements to community buildings; funding towards training, apprenticeships and job creation; improvements to your local broadband network and tackling fuel poverty by installing energy efficiency. We’d like to hear from you.”

All of which sounds to the anti-windfarmers like a means of oiling the turbine propellers before they’ve got the go-ahead. They are also uneasy about the amount of money they claim the Killington project could generate: as much as £2.8 million profit per year.

The Church of England maintains that despite its stated aim of cutting 60 per cent of its carbon emissions by 2050, it is not putting pressure on bishops to plant turbines across the land, either for monetary or environmental gain.

“The Church is encouraging its members and communities to look at ways of reducing their carbon footprint,” says spokesman Arun Kataria. “But it is up to them to decide what is the most appropriate method. A parish or diocese might like to suggest the use of low-energy lightbulbs, or it might like to suggest something else. Nor is anyone advising them on how to go about consultation; if parishes have read the Telegraph article about what happened in North Devon, they’ll have drawn their own conclusions about what a stir a planning application can cause.”

That said, there are plenty of voices within the Church which believe that causing an eco-stir is a sacred duty. Admittedly, some parishes are content to put photovoltaic panels on top of their church (the traditional west-east configuration lends itself particularly well to solar power generation). Others, like Dalehead Church, in the Forest of Bowland (also within the Bradford diocese), confine their wind-turbine-installing to their own roof.

“Not many churches can say they’re powered by wind as well as the Holy Spirit,” declares Dalehead’s vicar, the Reverend Mark Russell-Smith.

At the same time, other Christian organisations feel bolder measures are needed. The Christian Ecology Link spokesman Tony Emerson said: “I hope Exeter keeps up its pioneering role and helps the Church to put its commitment to Creation into practice. That has to involve shouldering its share of the shift to renewable energy.”

Some groups go further; Operation Noah is working for the “complete decarbonisation of the British economy by 2030”. “The UK is historically responsible for climate change, because we started all this mess with the Industrial Revolution,” says Operation Noah’s Ruth Jarman. “When it comes to windfarms, yes, the Church has a duty to love its immediate neighbours, but it also has a duty to look after our global neighbours, too. To us, a wind turbine is a positive sign that something is being done to redress climate change. We see not something bad, but a beacon of hope.”

This view has not made much headway among communities in the shadow of either a proposed, or existing, windfarm. Of particular annoyance to the Killington campaigners has been the presentation of ecologically themed vestments to the Bishop of Newcastle by the Christian organisation Eco-Congregation; among the images embroidered on the Rt Rev Martin Wharton’s stole is that of a wind turbine.

“Fairtrade yes, recycling yes, WaterAid yes, green footprints OK, bees definitely, butterflies why not,” says a Fells circular. “But wind turbines – no!”