The outburst last week of the energy minister John Hayes focused attention on the actual benefits of wind farms. To most, wind turbines are proof that we are doing something about climate change yet, as a new book by Dieter Helm, The Carbon Crunch, suggests, they have little impact on global temperatures because of China and India's increasing use of coal to drive their industrial growth, which we support with the purchase of cheap goods.
When the Conservative MP Oliver Letwin toured his West Dorset constituency last June, he was moved to describe the landscape for his website. “As I make my way on this gloriously sunny morning, dictating this article, I am reminded of the enormous responsibility placed upon us to be good stewards of this treasure and to hand it on undefiled to succeeding generations.”
Dictating, mind you, not writing. Nothing wrong in that: after all, he’s a busy politician. But when you’re writing, you have more time to reflect and if the thoughtful Letwin had been at his desk, he would surely have paused to ask himself whether the coalition could lay claim to such stewardship.
The answer is that it can’t. Like the Labour administration, the coalition has shown little regard for “this treasure” and no understanding that Britain’s landscape is a finite resource that is slowly being depleted with each new government’s plans for growth, jobs, housing, infrastructure and saving humanity from climate change. The truth is that ministers and civil servants do not give a damn about the countryside or its shrinking wonders.
That’s the only explanation for the failure of two governments to act on ash dieback, the fungus that has caused Denmark to lose 90% of its ash trees and has now got more than a foothold in England. Naturally, they’re now all jumping up and down in Whitehall, with a faintly ridiculous Cobra meeting last week and an announcement of accelerated tests of a treatment, which may stop the spread of Chalara fungus, but this crisis has been a long time coming. Labour did nothing to stop the import of timber and infected trees in 2009, while the coalition’s response has been late, complacent and dilatory. We stop rabies at the border and the importation from outside the EU of seeds, bulbs, dairy products, cooked meats and a host of items that may bring disease into the country, because these things can directly affect people and their pets. But when it came to bringing in five million ash saplings, we simply dropped our guard. Until last week, an American college professor coming to Britain to give a lecture had a tougher time getting into the country than a diseased ash tree.
The spin from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is that wind-borne spores are the cause. We will never know, but the response when the disease was identified nine months ago was amazingly sloppy and the resultant cull of dead wood could be usefully extended to Defra, which obviously has no idea what to do, apart from suggesting we wash ourselves, children and dogs after a walk. One wonders what Defra plans to do about birds, which fly from tree to tree without a thought for fungal hygiene.
Others have written about the discreet beauty of ash, its useful properties and the punctuation and shape it gives to the landscape, so I am not going to dwell too much on what we stand to lose.
Better to focus on the negligence and hostility that characterise the attitude of all governments to the British landscape, which ultimately, I believe, is responsible for the failure to act on Chalara and informs so many other areas of policy. Politicians pretend to draw strength from nature, but their actions tell another story, one that is littered with phone masts, wind farms and expensive and often unnecessary road schemes.
Lest you misunderstand me, this is not simply about aesthetics but, rather, treating the landscape as an equal, not a slave.
The self-delusion of our rulers is almost comic. At this moment, the government is considering a relaxation of planning laws to allow phone companies to put phone masts in conservation areas more easily by cutting the period for public consultation. The big four companies say the expansion of the 4G network will not be achieved unless they get their way, so it’s likely they will. But this is obviously nothing new – energy companies are allowed to overrun local opposition to wind farms and politicians sweep aside objections to new road schemes.
The problem is that there’s no one in government speaking up for, or acting on behalf of, the thing we still, in a reflexive way, think of as an eternal benefit of being born here.
Outside Westminster, the Campaign to Protect Rural England does its best to warn us of new depredations. Last week, it published a troubling survey of 191 road schemes planned in England and Wales at a cost of £30bn. This will be partly funded by local transport boards, packed full of business people whose aim is to develop more and more of the countryside.
Plans include the northern and western Durham bypasses across green belt valleys (£160m); the Hereford bypass through the Wye Valley area of outstanding natural beauty (£157m); expansion of A303 in the Blackdown Hills AONB (£567m); and countless bypasses and roads driven into the country to open up greenfield sites for development. They will have an impact on 39 sites of special scientific interest, three natural reserves, 54 ancient woodland sites and 234 wildlife sites.
Roads cause more traffic, not less, and they bring with them the promise of further destruction and grim, peripheral sprawl. Is this the right way to go, if you are not thinking entirely in terms of growth and profit? I doubt it. The problem is that intelligent reasoning and concern for the irreplaceable are absent from almost all these planning issues.
The outburst last week of the energy minister John Hayes focused attention on the actual benefits of wind farms. To most, wind turbines are proof that we are doing something about climate change yet, as a new book by Dieter Helm, The Carbon Crunch, suggests, they have little impact on global temperatures because of China and India’s increasing use of coal to drive their industrial growth, which we support with the purchase of cheap goods.
Helm’s argument is that while we have lowered our emissions, we have increased our carbon consumption, the key measure, by buying all these products.
I don’t mind Oliver Letwin bumbling around his constituency like a giddy country midwife, but as we watch the ash reduced to ashes, let’s not forget that we, not politicians, are the only effective stewards of this land and if we want it to survive we make sacrifices. We don’t buy all this crap from China; we don’t allow our cities to haemorrhage light and heat; we don’t allow ourselves to believe that wind turbines are going to save the planet; and we don’t import trees that can and should be grown here.
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