Two months ago my family and I finally moved out of the Big City and into paradise – a pretty rented cottage on a 2,500-acre estate in Northamptonshire with lakes, Capability Brown parkland, a 12th Century church, a ruined Elizabethan haunted house, an 18th Century walled garden and an ancient bluebell wood teeming with badgers, bats, deer and rare birds.
But what we didn’t know was that there was a snake in the garden: a planning application for an ugly 140ft wind turbine on the hill overlooking our new idyll.
The first I heard of it was when a woman called Sue accosted me at the Fawsley village fayre. ‘We’re so glad you’re here,’ she said. ‘Now you can help lead our fight against the wind turbine!’
Flattering though this was, I had to explain that I’m a troublemaker not an organiser. Sure, I could help out with an angry article, but if she wanted a leader she’d have to look elsewhere. Run a campaign? I can scarcely run a bath.
But from that moment on our paradise felt lost. Every time I went for a walk I couldn’t help glancing up at that hill, wondering how it would look when the wind turbine came. I thought of the sunrises it would blight, the low-frequency noise, the birds and bats it would slice and dice, and the hundreds of thousands of pounds going into the landowner’s pocket while the neighbours had their landscape ruined.
A fortnight ago, our worst fears came true. Sue emailed me to say the turbine had been recommended for approval by the planning officer. With only a week before the meeting when a decision would be made, we had left it too late. Only 12 people had written to object and planning approval was surely now a formality. ‘If only we’d put up more resistance earlier,’ said Sue.
At this point something in me snapped. There are things worth fighting for, and for me this was one of them. Come what may, the dragon must be slain.
What you don’t realise until you’ve fought one of these wind applications is just how grotesquely rigged the system is in favour of the developer.
Apply to your council’s planning department for a slightly bigger than normal conservatory and they’ll likely turn you down flat. On the other hand, propose to erect a noisy, gleaming white industrial wind turbine twice the height of the tallest oak tree . . .
Incredibly, it’s the developer (not the council) who gets to commission all the expert environmental, architectural, acoustic and ecological surveys assessing the proposed turbine’s impact. Is it any surprise that these surveys generally tend to find in favour of the person who has paid for them – of course there won’t be any noise, the bats will do fine, and the turbine will meld perfectly into the landscape.
Worse still, under current planning law, the presumption is in favour of renewable energy schemes. In other words, unless you can prove that the adverse effects of a turbine will ‘significantly and demonstrably’ outweigh its supposed carbon-reduction benefits, then the application is likely to be approved regardless of how strongly the local community objects.
This cruel injustice is spreading heartbreak, misery and fear across our land. The length of Britain – from the Stopit Meddon campaign in North Devon to once-wild and unspoilt Orrin in Ross-shire, Scotland – small groups are engaged in desperate battles to spare their cherished patch of the countryside from ruin.
All they want is peace. Instead, they’re having their nerves shredded, their spare time eaten up, and their savings exhausted in a frantic guerrilla war against ruthless, powerful developers with bottomless pockets and an insatiable appetite for the vast subsidies wind farms attract.
How to win against so mighty a foe? Simple. You have to call on the same reserves of courage, ingenuity, determination and raw cunning that in the past helped us see off the Spanish Armada, Napoleon’s navy and Hitler’s Luftwaffe. I’m not exaggerating. Truly, the Blitz spirit is alive and well in your nearest anti-wind-farm campaign group.
A few urgent phone calls later and our entire community was mobilised. From the lord of the manor to the lowliest tenant, from the village’s two resident hot-shot barristers to the former bass guitarist from Echo And The Bunnymen, from the children at the village school to the woodsman on the estate, everyone was determined to do their bit.
By the weekend before the hearing our position had changed from totally hopeless to not-entirely futile. Our crack team had spotted any number of serious flaws in the planning application. Nearly every conservation body going had raised objections, including English Heritage.
Quite why the planning officer had decided to override these objections – and in a protected landscape area too – was a mystery.
A mystery, it turned out, that the council’s planning committee found as baffling as we did. At a packed meeting – preceded by a demonstration by the village’s placard-wielding children – we were first astonished, then almost tearful with gratitude, as one by one the members of the planning committee at Daventry District Council stood up to say how appalled they were that such a blight was even being considered in an area so beautiful and unspoilt. They rejected the idea by nine votes to one.
I’d love to end the story at the glorious pub celebration where jubilant villagers – many of whom had never met until we were united through struggle – toasted the wisdom of those councillors and the power of local democracy. But sadly I can’t.
Since then I’ve heard the landowner is going to appeal against the decision and try to force through a wind turbine that no one (except him) wants and which will disfigure our neighbourhood.
Our community’s plight is by no means an unusual one.
Something has gone badly awry with both our energy policy and our planning laws. Is anyone at Westminster listening?
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