Recently, I went running in some of the most beautiful countryside in Britain – and I discovered something so bizarre, so preposterous, that I thought I must have tumbled down a rabbit-hole and, like Alice, ended up in Wonderland.
Along with about 380 other competitors, I was taking part in the Alton Water Run, around a reservoir built in the 1970s in a landscape of ancient woodland and fields first recorded in the Domesday Book more than 900 years ago.
A valley was drowned to create Alton Water: 20 homes, two farms and the manor house. It was turned into an amenity at some cost.
And here’s where the madness starts.
On a big chunk of that precious, uniquely English countryside, a solar panel company called Hive Energy was proposing to build an energy plant, covering 95 acres with reflective photo-voltaic cells three metres high.
Hive Energy was talking about an area the size of 50 football pitches, planted with 72,000 plastic panels, turning what appears to be a randomly selected piece of Britain’s countryside into an industrial complex.
It’s hardly possible to imagine a bigger eyesore, or a more sensitive spot in which to dump it. It makes no sense to ruin such a lovely place. It is utterly Mad Hatterish.
As it happens, I have a home nearby, and as soon as I raised my voice in protest, people started accusing me of being a Nimby – a ‘Not In My Back Yard’ campaigner.
Well, I’m proud of my back yard, if that’s not too off-hand a way to describe the beauties of the Suffolk horizon. In fact, I don’t think of it as a yard at all: we call it ‘a garden’ in Britain.
I am proud to be a NimbG (Not In My Back Garden).
My dismay, I promise, has nothing to do with the view from my window. Not long ago, I was protesting against a proposed, highly-visible wind farm in a pristine landscape in the North of Scotland.
That’s about as far from my back garden as you can get in this country. And there, I was accused of being an interfering outsider.
The point about this is not what I can see from my garden. That’s immaterial.
This issue is as big as the planet. It’s about how logic seems to be leaving our lives. It is about how successive governments are putting our heritage and our national security at risk by pursuing an incomprehensible energy policy.
It is about how the planning of it – or perhaps the lack of planning of it – is threatening to randomly desecrate our landscape.
This week it emerged that local authorities will be banned from imposing minimum distance limits to protect communities from wind farms.
New planning guidance says councils will not be able impose ‘buffer zones’ between properties and turbines.
A few weeks ago, David Cameron drove past a crowd of protesters in Kent to open the world’s biggest offshore wind farm, which will boast 175 turbines sprouting from the sea in the Channel.
There has been a dash towards renewable energy sources such as wind power and solar power.
Britain is aiming to produce 15 per cent of its energy – including electricity, heat and transport – from renewable sources by 2020. Even the most avid proponents of renewables accept that we will still have to have the bulk of our energy from other sources.
This renewable target is horrendously expensive to achieve. What’s worse, the cost isn’t just economic: we are going to obliterate the most valuable and historic resource we possess. Our landscape.
It’s difficult to engage in a rational debate about this. Those who want to assault the countryside with forests of shiny panels and 500ft propellers are apt to react with a fundamentalist fervour when they are challenged.
I am deeply worried about global warming: I accept the evidence without demur. The world is getting hotter, and we are going through serious climate change.
But the fundamentalist green lobby – and those involved in sponsored research or subsidised industry – react to our legitimate concerns as if they are nothing more than selfish whining.
They ask: ‘Do you want to die in a horrible conflagration and for your children to starve to death as a result of global warming?’
To that, of course, we have to answer: ‘Well, umm, not really.’ Because this is such an emotive issue, we are denied logical and sensible discussion.
We need to ask ourselves serious questions about whether we can rely on renewable energy sources, what our alternatives are, and how we can best embrace them.
Even if we hit that 15 per cent target (and we are still far away from that), it will make only the tiniest dent in world carbon emissions.
In fact, even if the whole of Europe reaches its own renewables target, that would reduce carbon emissions by only 0.2pc over the entire world.
There’s so much carbon coming out of China and the great conurbations in India, America, Russia and elsewhere that our reductions are insignificant.
Meanwhile, look at what we stand to lose. Our heritage is being destroyed by solar plants and wind farms.
I first became aware of this in the early Nineties, when I was sent to Bronte country in Yorkshire for a TV programme called Bookworm.
We went out on the moors above Haworth, the setting for Wuthering Heights, and I gawped – because these moors, which are so much a part of British culture and draw tourists from all over the world, were covered in wind turbines.
For the sake of a meagre contribution to the energy grid – enough electricity to power a few hundred houses (and on windless days, not even that) – we had lost an inspiring and world-famous landscape.
Why are we desecrating our country? Is it really necessary? I cannot imagine the French would cover Notre Dame with solar panels. I don’t think the Italians would erect a wind farm in St Peter’s Square.
But if the moors of Wuthering Heights are not safe, then is anywhere in Britain?
Is the Lake District sacred? Is the Vale of Evesham? You can already see wind farms from the gorgeous wilds of Snowdonia, as well as on the North Sea horizons.
We have all sat on trains and watched acres of bleak and blasted land pass by the window. Land already surrounded and marooned by motorway systems. Is that being identified and brought into this system? No way.
Instead, this ugly and expensive intrusion is being left to the ‘free market’. The result is random and opportunist. Wherever a stricken farmer or a greedy landowner can be bribed or hoodwinked by subsidy, we see a wind turbine or a wretchedly blank area of solar panels go up.
So we seem to be happy to ruin the landscape, while siphoning public money into private pockets.
I have been told not to worry – that it is ‘only two per cent’ of the available countryside. But two per cent, scattered about wildly, like dirty confetti, obviously directly affects a much wider area.
And then there’s Planning Minister Nick Boles’ belief that we can afford a further ten per cent of the countryside given over to sprawling estates, with nice big gardens, so that developers don’t have to work too hard to make brownfield sites work.
Add them together and we have ten to 15 per cent of the countryside lost in the next ten years perhaps.
So, what’s the alternative?
Well, could we not be quite so hysterical about atomic power, for instance? The nuclear disaster at Fukushima in Japan in 2011 created an emotional furore that overwhelmed the debate.
It has become impossible to deal in simple facts – such as that more people die in the coal-mining industries every year than have ever died as a result of nuclear power.
There are leading ecologists who fervently believe that nuclear power, with its effective 100 per cent carbon neutral super output, working at all hours of the day and night, is the only conceivable option for a safe future.
About 20 miles away from my home there is a nuclear power station, Sizewell B. Another is planned and would occupy about 80 acres – 15 fewer than those that would be sacrificed to this clutter of photo-voltaic cells at Alton Water.
The solar panels, I am told, would supply 5,400 houses with electricity – when the sun is shining, of course. And when it’s not night-time.
The pressurised water reactor at Sizewell B, on the other hand, generates enough electricity to power two million homes.
Solar cells just aren’t economic. If they worked as advertised, every south-facing roof of every industrial warehouse and every motorway embankment would be bristling with them. We would be cramming solar cells wherever they would fit.
But the truth is, they are expensive and near-worthless unless backed by a Government subsidy.
Britain has gambled everything on renewable sources that can’t supply our needs, so we’re reliant on other producers. That means buying gas from Russia, and electricity created by atomic power from France. We are at the mercy of other governments, other suppliers . . . and must pay their prices.
We’ve made ourselves a pair of cardboard braces and now we’re realising, as our trousers fall down, that we’ll need a belt anyway.
Even with a wind farm on every hill-top, Britain would need an energy back-up. And current policy is far more piecemeal than that.
We need coherent planning legislation. We need to enable local voices to be heard, as well as the clamour of landowners and energy companies scrambling for subsidies.
We have some of the most breath-taking, magical, inspiring, mysterious and delightful landscapes anywhere in the world – and in a few short years they will be ruined because of some misunderstood emergency.
I scratch my head and say: ‘Am I going mad? I can’t believe people are going to allow this, are they?’
The Government is so single-minded about fulfilling this self-imposed 15 per cent target that there’s no reasoning with it. It is like dealing with an obsessive.
Ten days ago, to the joy of everyone in the area, and despite the recommendations of planning officers, the council turned down that Alton Water application. We breathed a sigh of relief. Good sense had triumphed . . .
Now I open my newspaper and find that Greg Barker, the Energy and Climate Change Minister, has revealed his ambition to increase massively the amount of energy being produced by solar panels. The figures he is talking about would effectively mean a ten-fold increase in the number of solar farms.
Mr Barker has also said that he wants solar farms to be ‘targeted on industrial roofs, homes and on brownfield sites, not on our beautiful countryside’ – but given the Government’s confused stance on this issue, I am not much reassured.
My concern deepens when I open my email inbox to find an ominous warning regarding Alton Water.
‘The process is this,’ it says. ‘The Parish Council and all the locals turn it down, and then the District Council turns it down … and then an inspector arrives from the Government and promptly allows it through. They will appeal.’ I can’t wait.
So how do we restore sanity? At the moment, I’m assured by MPs that ‘there are no votes in this sort of thing’. Without the promise of votes, there’s no political clout.
There’s only one way to make politicians take notice: turn the issue into a vote-winner. We need to stop being long-suffering about all this and make it an election issue.
Now, I really am dreaming …
Griff Rhys Jones is President of Civic Voice
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