You can smash a building, bomb a city, impoverish a nation and the world grants you a hearing. But break the twig of a British tree and hobgoblins will descend and destroy you. Thank goodness for that.
Britain this autumn is ablaze. The year’s eccentric climate has given us dying leaves of unprecedented splendour. Researching a book on English landscape, I travelled last week through the Midlands to the Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales. The golden beechwoods of the Chilterns gave way to the yellows and oranges of Cannock Chase, the purples of the Peak District and the ambers of the Calder, the Aire and the southern dales. England was never so beautiful. If the coalition is now presiding over the last rites of the open English countryside, it has at least granted it the loveliest of funerals.
The climax of my journey was a question posed by a Guardian reader. Which is the finer view, he asked: from Stanage Edge in the High Peak west towards Mam Tor, or from Mam Tor east to Stanage Edge? From each vantage point, black snow clouds dodged bright sun. Swirling light and shadow turned Hope Valley into a set for a Tolkien novel. The scene was of nature untrammelled, a palette of brilliant colours with hardly a sight of human habitation. The view from Mam Tor won.
How soon before these colours are gone and the horizon is lined with turbines, as now is the Peak’s northern rim, promoted unbelievably by the same Nick Clegg whose Sheffield constituency borders this paradise? During the last war artists such as John Piper and Sir William Russell Flint were commissioned by Whitehall to depict buildings at risk from bombing, creating the Recording Britain archive. A similar record is now urgently needed of the landscape.
In the news this week were two new threats to add to the government’s renewed eagerness to build in the country rather than towns. The first is the fungal disease threatening ash, and possibly others affecting larch and chestnut. The second is confusion over the coalition’s plan for onshore turbines to rise from some 3,000 today to 7,000-plus by the end of the decade. This constitutes nothing less than the mass industrialisation of the landscape.
The threat of ash dieback is mitigated by the vigour with which new trees regenerate in the British climate. The losses of the great storm of 1987, heart-breaking at the time, have been more than made good. Anyone must regret the loss of the ash, a serenely delicate adornment of woods and hedges, especially in favour of such bruisers as sycamore and poplar. But I am told ash does revive, unlike elm.
Trees also benefit from public affection. The wider countryside enjoys no such iconic status. In the recent debate over planning reforms developers were able to persuade ministers to favour rural against urban building, entirely because rural building was more profitable. Countryside was considered to have no intrinsic planning virtue outside the 15% of land designated as national park or natural beauty reserve. The concept did not arise.
Against wind farms there is not even that defence. They can go anywhere an inspector or a minister decides. Nowhere in Whitehall guidance on turbines is there any reference to natural or visual beauty. This is no surprise to a sector now drunk on public subsidy, but even its opponents feel they must avoid any reference to aesthetics. They talk of wind power’s cost and intermittency, its abuse of peat and extravagance of imported minerals, its forcing poor energy users to cross-subsidise rich landowners.
This week the energy minister John Hayes upset David Cameron by saying what he thought was Cameron’s view, attacking turbines not for their intrusion but for offending local opinion. Where does that leave the turbines strung across Oxfordshire’s Vale of White Horse? They have wrecked the finest view in Thames Valley.
A modern nation claiming some visual sensitivity would not build such colossal structures as now stride, or are about to stride, along the Northumbrian coast and across the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales, Snowdonia and the Cambrian mountains. Cornwall intends to saddle its visitors with a proposed 490 turbines, carpeting its fragile landscape. An astonishing wall of 279 turbines is about to rise smack down the middle of the Bristol Channel.
If that view is not sacred, what of Hampstead Heath or the white cliffs of Dover? This industry has no shame. Yet as Oxford University’s Dieter Helm says in his new book, The Carbon Crunch, the impact of this desecration on actual global warming is trivial.
The truth is we have lost the words to define or discuss the beauty of the landscape. We assume it is “anti-growth” and therefore a social cost, because green lobbyists say so to justify their subsidies. Whitehall maps each wind farm not as energy generated (let alone carbon saved) but as jobs temporarily created, as if it were a Trident submarine. The debate has become enslaved to the irrational logic of an inherited folly.
The coalition government’s visual legacy may yet be a British landscape littered with the carcasses of dying trees and great waving semaphores, their arms dipping into everlasting vats of public money. If so, it will be because no one dared utter the word beauty, for fear of being thought a wimp. See Mam Tor before it is too late.
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