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Anti-pylon campaigners battle ‘industrialisation’ of rural Wales

Campaigners say plans for 30 miles of cables connecting 500 wind turbines will ruin the landscape and damage tourism

“I liken it to slashing a Stanley knife across the Mona Lisa,” said Jonathan Wilkinson, gazing across the lush meadows and hedges of the Vyrnwy valley. The gentle green of Powys is the least densely populated corner of Wales, uncluttered by anything other than small farms, a landscape that has remained unchanged for centuries.

This week the National Grid will announce a new substation and its preferred route for 30 miles of 400,000-volt cables that will connect more than 500 wind turbines planned for mid-Wales to the national electricity network in Shropshire. Whichever route is chosen, 46m-high pylons look likely to march down several unspoilt valleys, with the Vyrnwy, Banwy and the Severn most vulnerable.

Wilkinson, who tends 350 dairy cattle on land passed down from his grandfather, now has an arduous second job: he chairs Montgomeryshire Against Pylons, part of a growing grassroots revolt against onshore windfarms and their infrastructure. “It’s not just a windfarm, it’s industrialisation,” he said.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) last month announced a public inquiry into two windfarms in mid-Wales after Powys council – firmly in the grip of anti-pylon independents since the elections in May – voted against them. Four other vast mid-Wales schemes may be added to the inquiry. As well as the 400,000-volt line, the mid-Wales project also includes what campaigners fear will be “a spider’s web” of 26m pylons – well above the treeline – to link the windfarms to the new substation.

The flooding of Welsh valleys to provide water for English cities radicalised a generation and began the push for devolution. Now, many locals see a bitter irony in the Welsh assembly government’s support for windfarms that will generate electricity for England as well as Wales. In the countryside around Welshpool, dozens of home-made protest signs hang from gates and trees: in one a dragon breathes fire on to a pylon.

David Jones, the leader of Powys council and a sheep farmer, believes opposition to pylons is as strong as it was to proposals to flood more valleys in the 1950s to provide water for English cities. “If anything, the opposition today is more widespread,” he said.

A poll of more than 5,000 people by Welshpool town council found 81% were concerned about pylons. On the streets close to the cattle market – nicknamed Tahrir Square on account of the anti-pylon protests – I couldn’t find a single person who even grudgingly accepted the need for pylons and windfarms.

“They are destroying Montgomeryshire for the sake of what? Keeping advertising signs going in Birmingham and Manchester. That’s outrageous,” said Dave Field, who lives near Lake Vyrnwy, a valley flooded in the 1880s to provide water for Liverpool.

“It’s all part of ‘shit on the Welsh’ so you can carry on your way of living,” said Penny Ravenhill. “In London they have lots of escalators. Do you collect power from that? Why are the lights in your office blocks on all night long? Putting windmills everywhere will ruin the tourist industry, devalue houses and make people ill, and it won’t make anyone use any less power.” Like many, Ravenhill was keen to stress her support for renewable energy.

Anti-pylon protesters have organised the Sustainable Life festival – showcasing renewable technology – at Mathrafal, an ancient Druid seat of learning (and another place at risk from the pylons) to show they are not climate change deniers. Instead of “this amazing gigantic amount of money” spent subsiding wind power, the government should offer it to Montgomeryshire “saying: ‘Be inventive, generate your own power,'” said Ravenhill. “Councils could harness the power of the rivers, there could be heat exchange, solar and mini-turbines. Generations have had to scratch a living from the land. If you incentivise people to create power they could use it for their own benefit.”

There are several bitter ironies for the people of Powys. Despite devolution, key decisions will be made in Westminster – Decc decides the fate of any windfarm larger than 50MW (and most are much larger). And yet residents do not have recourse to useful powers given to communities in the Localism Act because these only apply in England.

Another irony is that it would have been far easier to block the proposed pylons had the region been designated an area of outstanding beauty. This was proposed several decades ago but was vigorously opposed by local farmers who feared it would inhibit their businesses.

Now it is the pylons that raise business concerns. Like many farmers, Philip Pryce has diversified, turning his second-generation farm into a landscaped holiday park popular with weekenders. One route could bring the pylons straight past their attraction. “It’s very concerning for us and tourism-related businesses in this area,” said Pryce.

There are also concerns about health and traffic: only two twisting single-carriageway main roads lead into the area; protesters estimate the installation of the mid-Wales turbines alone will generate 4,400 abnormal loads – blocking and damaging roads and requiring police escorts.

Gary Swaine depends on time-critical deliveries for his local nursery and fears construction traffic will jeopardise his business. He has sat on a liaison committee designed to involve local people in one windfarm but has been dismayed by the process. “I feel like I’m in Syria. I do, I really do. It’s all top-down, imposed on you,” he said. “It’s like we’re raging against the machine. There’s this massive industry employing the best media people putting out the voice that renewables are good and we’re just the small man fighting against this.”

After a year of activism, most people in Powys seem convinced that wind subsidies simply redistribute money from ordinary energy consumers to the very rich. Landowners stand to make a risk-free £40,000 per large turbine placed on their land.

As the environmentalist and Guardian columnist George Monbiot – a resident of mid-Wales – has argued, the simplest way to diffuse local anger would be to place cables underground.

According to Jeremy Lee, project manager for National Grid’s mid-Wales connection project, it has not yet been decided how much of the route, or which parts, could go underground. But he conceded it was highly unlikely the entire line would be placed underground – the total cost of “undergrounding” is £562m verses £178m for pylons.

“We have to be mindful of the costs. We can’t just throw money at this thing to make it easier for ourselves,” said Lee, arguing that higher costs would land on customers’ electricity bills. “It’s most likely it won’t be either all overground or underground but a mixture of the two.”

Many pylon refuseniks insist their opposition would not end even if cables were buried in beauty spots. While many environmental groups remain in favour of onshore wind, Montgomeryshire and Shropshire Wildlife Trusts have declared their opposition to the large-scale projects like those in mid-Wales. “The impact on the area’s wildlife could be devastating,” said the trusts in a joint statement last year, questioning the wisdom of treating wind power as the primary form of renewable energy and concentrating megafarms in areas far from demand. They also claimed that “mitigation measures” taken by wind developments to compensate for loss of species and habitats had been a “widespread failure” so far.

It will take at least three years in planning before work begins on the substation and cables in Powys. Ultimately, the future of the pylons and the fate of mid-Wales’ pre-industrial beauty lies with Decc – and any possible Treasury U-turn on the current subsidy regime for onshore wind.

“The solution to this is invariably political and it needs the whole subsidy regime to be reconsidered,” said Wilkinson. “We’re buying time, and that’s our greatest strength.”

At the National Grid, Lee said anti-pylon sentiment was “entirely rational” and promised the company would become much more visibly engaged with residents in the coming months. “Of course people want to preserve their own interests and the area they live in. I can understand that entirely. It’s important that the local community has a voice and we listen to it.”

For many locals like Swaine, pylons have completely transformed their view of large-scale wind power – and who benefits. “I started out fighting the pylons. I followed the pylon line and there’s these bloody great things at the end of them,” he said. “I want to be able to look over the Vyrnwy and Severn valleys and say: ‘Look boys, there are no pylons – we fought for that.’ It’s my legacy and it’s my responsibility to my children.”