England’s doughty army of conservationists and fogeys, young and old, have rarely been so agitated. And with good reason. Next week the High Court considers a case that will have a large bearing on how the English landscape looks for the rest of our lives.
It’s about a wind farm, of course. But at stake is a lot more than whether four turbines, each higher than St Paul’s Cathedral, are erected in a field in Northamptonshire. The planning inspector’s decision last year to approve the building of Barnwell Manor wind farm is regarded by English Heritage and the National Trust as so perverse, so harmful to a quintessential English landscape including several heritage gems, so likely to set a precedent that could lead to turbines spoiling the most cherished vistas, that – in a rare show of solidarity – both bodies have joined with East Northamptonshire District Council to appeal against the verdict.
To read the inspector’s judgment is certainly startling. You suddenly realise what sort of mindset the heritage bodies are up against when they try to protect fine landscapes from the hordes of turbines set to sweep across the land – more than 10,000 by 2015, if the energy companies have their way.
He acknowledges the beauties of the countryside in which the turbines would be imposed. He could hardly not. It contains Grade I listed monuments and houses, and Lowick’s 15th-century St Peter’s Church with its superb tower (“a forest of pinnacles topped by golden weathervanes,” as Simon Jenkins aptly describes it in England’s Thousand Best Churches), as well as the National Trust’s Lyveden New Bield, which the inspector himself calls “probably the finest surviving example of an Elizabethan garden”, with a significance “of the highest magnitude”.
The inspector accepts that the views to and from these historic sites would be utterly dominated by the turbines. But the argument he deploys time and again to justify his decision is that a “reasonable observer” would not be “confused” by the juxtaposition of historic buildings with 21st-century turbines. Thus the turbines “would not erode from an understanding or appreciation of the significance of the heritage assets”. And in the case of Lyveden New Bield, he adds, “it is not altogether clear” whether the designer “considered views out of the garden to be of any particular significance”.
Well, of course it isn’t “altogether clear”. We can’t ring up Sir Thomas Tresham and ask him if he cared about the landscape round his estate, because he died in 1605. Nor can we deny that “reasonable observers” can tell the difference between a turbine and an old church. But that’s the conservationists’ point. It’s the very incongruity of these massive turbines, and the aesthetic disruption caused to much-loved landscapes, that upsets people. Yet the planning inspectorate seems blind to such aesthetic considerations, and deaf to the furore in local communities (so much for the Coalition’s vaunted “localism” policy). Or else it believes that Government targets for renewable energy so outweigh aesthetic and social factors that even the lovely vistas round Lyveden New Bield aren’t protected.
Should they be? That’s what the High Court must decide.
So far it hasn’t been a great year for wind turbines. Two fell down last month – the wind was too strong. And most Tories are rebelling against their leader’s fervour for them. (How fascinating that David Cameron’s father-in-law, like many wealthy landowners, has reaped hundreds of thousands of pounds a year from subsidised turbines on his estate.)
I like renewable energy in principle, but hate the bullying way in which these foreign-owned companies are plonking turbines over Cornwall, the Lake District and other landscapes I love. I hope the High Court takes some of the wind out of their sails, albeit in one small corner of Northamptonshire.