There is no room for more wind turbines on the uplands of Britain. There are too many lobbyists fighting for money. Thursday’s mild government U-turn on turbines may upset grant-soaked landowners, but is a lifeline to countryside campaigners. They have come to see David Cameron’s planning ministers as akin to the pepper-spraying militia battling to build over Istanbul’s Gezi Park.
The government had to climb down. The British countryside is facing little short of visual disaster. “Plans” to increase the present 2,000 onshore wind turbines to treble that number were blown apart when farmers realised they could get an average £40,000 a year in grants and tariffs per turbine, plus “compensation” even when the wind did not blow. Some landowners have realised £40m-£60m from just letting their land be used. This has become a far greater racket even than the Common Market subsidies of 30 years ago – and entirely the creation of the British Treasury.
The landscape effect is hard to imagine. An inquiry opened this week in Welshpool into 800 turbines, many the height of the London Eye, covering 600 square miles of the Welsh hills in Powys. This lovely country was denied protected status by pressure from the same landowners who will now make millions from the turbines. The footprint would render most of the Cambrian uplands a linear industrial park, with associated quarries, roads and infrastructure.
Equally staggering is an application this month for 240 giant turbines to form a visual wall in the middle of the Bristol Channel between Exmoor and the Gower peninsular. No other civilised nation would allow such desecration of its loveliest estuary. None of these schemes generate as much reliable energy as a single power station.
Yet the terms of Thursday’s U-turn show alarming value judgment by ministers. Nowhere did anything suggest the motive was a concern for what turbines are doing to the landscape. There was no mention of scenery, conservation, amenity, let alone beauty. It was lethal feedback from rural MPs that led Cameron merely to promise an initial block on turbines to local communities. As if to cancel it out, the Treasury will increase fivefold the sum to be paid by energy contractors to those communities if they give permission for turbines to go ahead. People must, in effect, forgo improved services if they choose to value their visual environment.
For the last half of the 20th century British planning ordered the countryside with some success. Europe’s most densely populated country (after the Netherlands) has allowed cities to expand, and delivered housing estates, power stations and a transport network. Yet it has also maintained distinct boundaries between town and mostly untrammelled country. The contrast with uncontrolled rural development, as in Ireland and Portugal, is glaring.
This protective planning has long been popular. At the time of the Olympics, poll after poll ranked “the English countryside” with the royal family, the armed forces, Shakespeare and the NHS as symbols of national pride. National parks and green belts are fiercely loved.
None the less the Labour government and now the coalition have dismantled structured planning in favour of a network of development targets and incentives. Some are well-directed, such as towards farmland stewardship. Most have encouraged development not through land-use planning, but through building more or less anywhere developers want to, outside a few “designated” zones such as national parks.
Impelled largely by the property lobbies, the change has succeeded only in inflaming the planning system. With no prior certainty of permission, developers are at the mercy of litigation and government inspectors. The ironic result has been less development not more. Eric Pickles, the planning minister, recently had to overrule his own inspector to allow a development of 350 houses in fields outside Salford, rather than on brownfield land in the city. Even the rate of turbine approval has begun to turn down. “Non-planning” does not free the system but clogs it up.
Wind turbines are not inherently ugly, any more than are cooling towers, pylons or motorways. But setting is all. The impact on Britain’s relatively intimate landscape of these giant waving gibbets, many twice the size of Nelson’s Column, is hard to grasp until they are erected and in motion. They tower over the Northumbrian coast, over Bodmin Moor and north Devon, over Dumfries and Argyllshire, over the Cambrian mountains, even over the delicate Vale of White Horse in Berkshire. None show any consideration for their surroundings, except to dominate. Turbines are erected wherever a landowner has the gall to snub his neighbour, hire a smart lawyer and schmooze an inspector.
In my experience most supporters of turbines change their mind when they actually see them. I cannot believe Cameron would be happy if the villagers of Ellesborough took his bribe and put turbines on the Chilterns above Chequers. These things are not just in someone’s “back yard”, they are in the back yards of all Britain. The gulf has never been so wide between the rural landscape and the perception of it by ministers and commentators, who mostly live in London and holiday abroad.
Of course energy must be generated somehow. Wherever we stand in the climate change debate, few can deny a priority to lower carbon emissions. This means a landscape vulnerable to greener power stations, tidal barrages, solar fields, fracking rigs, even turbines. Each has its gains and costs, but by far the highest environment cost is imposed by turbines, for a trivial diminution in global warming.
Ministers appear to believe that turbines should go anywhere local people want them. They have no national plan for them. There is no definition of what the energy minister Michael Fallon calls “inappropriate siting”. There is nothing to stop turbines marching over every hill and valley in the land, anywhere a landowner is ready and a parish is ready to take the government’s shilling.
The defence of the countryside shifts to local veto, with a fiscal incentive to approval. We must hope local people show a nobler vision than their masters, who seem unable to articulate social values beyond making or disbursing money. This outlook is shown in policy on town and country planning, heritage, support for the arts, even the school curriculum. Britain’s delightful landscapes are not this government’s business. Where money talks, beauty is silent.
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