The family’s coat of arms is still carved on the walls of Wormleighton Manor. For it was in this Warwickshire hamlet that the Spencer dynasty first acquired their wealth and power in the 15th century by farming huge numbers of sheep.
They would eventually move on to grander digs 20 miles away at Althorp, their Northamptonshire pile, but, to this day, Earl Spencer and his family trust still own Wormleighton. Look at the villagers’ touching memorial to his sister, the former Lady Diana Spencer, and you sense that the 500-year-old bond between the village and its founding family runs deep.
Or at least it did. Now, however, any mention of the Spencer name is greeted with a hollow laugh thanks to a plan by the current Earl Spencer, his trustees and the French energy group, EDF, to plant a giant wind farm here.
This week, the planning committee of the local council was due to decide whether Lord Spencer and his partners can erect nine giant turbines (each taller than St Paul’s Cathedral) plus a brand new road. Such is the sensitivity locally, however, that the decision has now been postponed for several weeks more.
If it goes ahead, the wind farm will be visible from three counties and completely dominate one of the most unspoiled, undeveloped corners of central England. For hundreds of locals, already dismayed by the news that the HS2 rail route is earmarked for these parts, there will be anger, stress and an inevitable drop in the value of their homes.
This may be one of the least windy bits of the country. But never mind. Thanks to those hefty green subsidies – which cost every British household £96 per year – even the laziest wind farm can earn a handsome return.
The lowest estimates for what will be called Stoneton Wind Farm would leave EDF and the Spencers with an annual sum of at least £2.5 million to be divided as they see fit. Stretch that over the 25-year span of the project, deduct the projected £27 million building costs and that leaves a surplus of £36 million. Not bad, especially if you don’t even have to look at the things.
With energy now firmly back on the news agenda and similar neighbourhood disputes all over the country, it’s an increasingly familiar story.
For those who could find themselves living right next to these colossal structures, however, it is a deeply depressing spectre. That glib acronym, ‘Nimby’ (Not In My Back Yard), does not begin to capture the depth of feeling.
‘For the first year and a half, I couldn’t sleep,’ says Irvin Klegerman. ‘I thought: “What have I done to deserve this? I’ve retired and I’m 76. I don’t need this”.’
Mr Klegerman is the chairman of the Wormleighton Parish Meeting (‘we’re too small for a parish council so we have a meeting’), and lives in one of the handful of non-Spencer properties round here. ‘If Lord Spencer and EDF had taken the trouble to talk to everyone first and ask how to make these things as unobtrusive as possible, they’d have won some people round,’ he says. ‘But they just got everyone’s backs up from the start.’
As one tenant summed it up to me this week: ‘The last Lord Spencer would never have allowed this. He must be spinning in his grave.’ EDF’s pledge to donate to an unspecified ‘community fund’ has not made one jot of difference.
While some direct their anger at the present Earl, others are cross with the Government for putting such juicy incentives in front of Britain’s landowners. Neighbouring farmer Ian Maclellan fears that the wind farm could act as a tipping point. ‘If it goes ahead, others might reluctantly say: “Well, if this is to be an industrial site, then let it be one”. And what then?’
Among those who would be hardest hit by the turbines are the Darbishire family in the neighbouring village of Priors Hardwick. Simon Darbishire farms 450 acres with one of his sons, while his wife, Angela, does bed and breakfast, and hosts wedding parties.
‘That business would be wrecked,’ he says, showing me the visitors’ book entry from the night before. ‘What can we say?’ writes a lady from Kent. ‘Such a view and such peace . . .’
At present, that view stretches over a patchwork of sheep-specked fields to the distant sight of a narrowboat chugging along the Oxford Canal. If the 410ft turbines are approved, they will eclipse everything.
Many of Mr Darbishire’s relatives have been tenants of the Spencers, and he has very fond memories of the last Earl.
‘Johnny Spencer was a delightful man, often driving himself over for lunch or tea with his tenants.’ But few people have seen the present Lord Spencer in recent years, he says. I hear the same thing, with genuine sadness, from many people. It might soften the blow, they joke half-heartedly, if Lord Spencer would act like a good commander, lead from the front and stick a turbine in front of his own house.
‘I’m worried he doesn’t know the depth of feeling,’ says one tenant who was born in the village. ‘He’s our landlord and he needs to know.’
She is happy to be named. But given the torrent of legal threats which I receive when I contact the Althorp Estate, I would rather not land her in trouble with her landlords.
Lord Spencer’s spokesman points out that the Earl and his trustees have a legal obligation to maximise estate income. ‘Given that the establishment of wind turbines is part of government policy,’ writes the spokesman, ‘the trustees of the estate have no alternative but to pursue this source of income for their estate.’
So it’s the Government’s fault, then – although it’s worth noting that many other landowners (including the Prince of Wales and the Dukes of Buccleuch, Northumberland and Westminster) have refused to go down this route.
One of the saddest side-effects of these discredited schemes is the bitter social divisions which they cause. I have unearthed many sad accounts of farmers who have been wooed by the energy companies, only to be stunned by the fury of their neighbours.
‘I try not to blame the landowner because the level of subsidy is so great that you’ve got to be mad not to consider it,’ says Chris Heaton-Harris, Tory MP for nearby Daventry and ardent wind farm critic. Although Wormleighton is not actually in his seat, many of his constituents would still be affected by the wind farm and he has opposed the plan on their behalf. He’s seen it all before.
‘There’s a lovely local farmer near me who signed up to a wind farm thinking no one would mind. Now he’s desperately trying to buy his way out of it. No turbines have gone up, but it will cost him £250,000 to back out.’
The Heaton-Harris solution? ‘Scrap the subsidies altogether. We don’t need a single new onshore wind turbine in this country.’ It’s an increasingly popular idea among Tory MPs, particularly now that UKIP is selling itself as the only mainstream anti-wind farm party.
According to the respected energy think tank, the Renewable Energy Foundation, the cost of subsidising Britain’s wind energy industry will reach an eye-popping £14 billion a year by 2020.
If Lord Spencer’s plan comes to nothing, there is an alternative. For there is now a new temptation for the landowner – and a new menace for the neighbours. Unlike these alien whirlybirds, solar farms are less obvious, but the hefty subsidies are just as juicy.
The Government is already sensing trouble ahead. Just five months ago, energy minister Greg Barker warned the industry not to cover vast swathes of the countryside with black panels. ‘Solar is rightly popular,’ he told a solar power conference. ‘But we don’t want solar to become a bone of public contention like onshore wind.’ He wants to see major solar projects ‘on brownfield sites, not on our beautiful countryside’.
All of which makes it a little awkward that a plan has just been proposed to build one of the largest solar farms in England deep in Thomas Hardy country. And the landowner behind this one is an Old Harrovian Tory MP.
Beyond one of the longest brick walls in Britain sits Charborough Park, home of the man with the longest name in Parliament, Richard Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, Conservative MP for South Dorset.
Six years ago, he tried to erect a wind farm on a far corner of his 7,000-acre estate but withdrew in the face of furious locals (including a member of his own family). Now, in tandem with a company called Good Energy, he has submitted an application to build a 174-acre solar farm, involving 112,000 solar panels, on a south-facing hillside at Mapperton Farm. Enraged once more, his neighbours have already started a campaign against it.
‘It’s not for the greater good. It’s just greed,’ says Sir Michael Butler, 87, former ambassador to the European Union, who has lived at Mapperton Old Rectory since he was a boy.
Despite the energy company’s promise of a ‘community fund’, a ‘wildflower-rich grass sward’ alongside the solar panels and enough electricity for more than 6,000 homes, this will still be a blot on the landscape. Hence the strong objections from the Campaign to Protect Rural England, among others.
As at Wormleighton, most estate tenants seem reluctant to voice an opinion. But I do meet a few fans of the scheme. ‘We won’t see it, we’ve got to have progress and it’s a lot better than a wind farm,’ says pest controller Mark Bradford over a pint at the World’s End pub.
Whatever the planners’ verdict, it is unlikely to be a happy process. Sir Michael says that Mr Drax sent him the ‘rudest letter I have ever seen’ after opposing his wind farm, and expects more of the same again. Mr Drax, a former journalist, was unavailable for comment. But his estate office produced a statement pointing out the ‘strong and increasing need for additional sources of renewable energy’.
What annoys the locals, aside from the fact that Mr Drax is not putting a solar farm next to his own home, is the fact he recently used his local newspaper to denounce green energy subsidies. Good Energy insists that Mr Drax will receive ‘no direct subsidy’ and that the company is merely renting his fields. But that is playing with numbers. If there were no subsidies, there would be no solar farm and no rent.
And the income is astonishing. According to the Renewable Energy Foundation, the solar farm would not only earn £1.5 million a year from the electricity it produces, but a whopping £2.2 million bonus in subsidy from the taxpayer – a grand total of £3.7 million a year.
Few can dispute that we should be exploring all sources of green energy – but not at any cost. Britain has already met its wind energy targets for 2020.
Why shouldn’t the people of Dorset or Warwickshire – or anywhere else – object to these projects, especially when they are manifestly in the wrong place?
Or should we all continue to shovel billions into ruinous schemes which enrich utility companies and wealthy landowners, heap misery on local residents and make not one jot of difference to the average polar bear?