Joseph Turner loved the view from Bolton Abbey, the Duke of Devonshire’s 30,000-acre estate bordering the Yorkshire Dales. On three occasions, his brushstrokes took in the ruins of the 12th-century priory and the rolling hills of Wharfedale beyond. The same scene appealed to William Wordsworth and John Ruskin, who wrote about the “sweet peace” of the “wild northern land”.
The landscape also attracted less welcome visitors, however. In 1991, Yorkshire Water decided the hills overlooking its Chelker reservoir, five miles from Ilkley in North Yorkshire, were “ideal” for Britain’s third-ever wind farm because of their exposed location within “very open countryside”.
Its application was approved the next year, and the company put up four 140ft (43m) turbines in neighbouring fields. Planners gave them permission to keep the wind farm going until 2016. In 2008 locals believed they had lost their old view permanently when Yorkshire Water put in a fresh application for a “second generation” of turbines, which would have given them another 25 years on the site.
Yet, as The Daily Telegraph reported this week, Chelker has become the first-ever commercial wind farm in Britain to be dismantled. After councillors turned down two proposals for new turbines (the second submitted in 2011), the company has taken down the existing ones three years ahead of schedule, and said that the fields will never again be used for wind power. Campaigners believe the decision has national significance.
Locals in the nearby villages of Addingham and Draughton – many of whom have opposed the wind farm ever since the turbines were first erected – were celebrating their “David and Goliath” victory after a six-year campaign. They watched as a crane wrenched each turbine out of the ground, before lying them end-to-end across the meadow.
Today all that remains of the wind farm are four circles of concrete, which can only be glimpsed by leaning across a dry stone wall from an adjoining field at the end of an access track. Yorkshire Water admitted this week that the turbines had become “obsolete”, generating far less electricity than newer models. A study three years ago showed that they were generating just 9 per cent of their intended capacity. It is also harder and more costly to source spare parts for older models.
The effects of the decision could soon be felt across the country. More and more wind farms are being proposed, taking advantage of lucrative subsidies and divisions within the Coalition, where Energy Secretary Ed Davey, the pro-wind Liberal Democrat, is at loggerheads with Owen Paterson, the Conservative Environment Secretary, who is thought to oppose wind farms. Latest figures from the department show that 188 onshore sites were given planning permission between January and August, an increase of nearly half on the same period last year. But while campaigners have occasionally been successful in halting a development before it is approved, this is the first time they have triumphed after turbines have been installed.
This milestone is timely. Planning permission generally expires after 25 years, so developers must get approval before using a site a second time. At least two dozen wind farms built within six years of Chelker will soon need to be replaced, giving campaigners hope that even if turbines have stood for decades, securing permission to extend the lease is by no means a foregone conclusion.
Catherine Leigh moved to East Berwick Farm with her husband Stephen in 1987 to escape the relative bustle of village life. They set up a dog food business and kept sheep on the 20-acre smallholding at the end of a single-track road that runs over the reservoir dam. From the back of the house, they can see the Bolton priory, and at the front nothing obstructed their reservoir view. Just five years later their tranquillity was disturbed when the turbines were put up in the adjacent field.
The Leighs did not, however, protest the original application. “In those days, nobody had any knowledge at all of turbines,” explains Mrs Leigh, now 66. “It was a new technology, so we had no idea what they would be like. We lived quiet lives up here and we weren’t into objecting to anything.”
They realised their mistake as soon as the blades began to turn. “They dominated the outlook from our home. Then there was the noise: whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. That was constant. The farmer next door used to tell his wife: ‘I’ve got to come in, the noise is really getting to me.’ But once they were up, we thought we couldn’t do anything.” The Leighs never got used to them, although they found them handy for directions, telling visitors to “turn in by the turbines”.
In 2008, parish councillors called at the stone farmhouse to tell them about the plans to use Chelker for a second generation of turbines. “I just sank. It was hugely emotional for all of us. There were turbines there already so we thought we didn’t have a glimmer of hope in opposing it,” Mrs Leigh says.
But her mood improved when she met Peter Rigby, a retired company director who lives a mile away, at a meeting in the village hall. She was inspired by his “forthright” speech and together they formed Parishioners Against Chelker Turbines (Pact) and set about forming their strategy in meetings over cups of tea by the Aga in her kitchen.
“For such as us, it was a huge thing to set to and fight,” explains Mrs Leigh. “I don’t get involved in campaigns, so learning all the terminology was a massive task.” They spent dozens of hours a week trawling the internet for case studies, printing off leaflets and commissioning studies from experts.
Mr Leigh had just been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and died two years into the campaign. But his wife was determined to continue. “I was very busy caring for him,” she says, her eyes filling with tears. “But he was adamant that we fight it to the bitter end.”
Pact persuaded organisations as diverse as English Heritage and the British Horse Society to lodge objections to the first application, which was soon turned down. When Yorkshire Water submitted a second application, for slightly smaller turbines, they rallied even more opposition. They also submitted a poll that showed 90 per cent of villagers supported their objections.
Eventually, in February last year, councillors rejected that application, ruling that the turbines would have “a significant damaging impact” on the landscape. Even so, Yorkshire Water spent more than a year deciding whether to appeal, before finally deciding to scrap the wind farm altogether.
Mrs Leigh sat on the dry stone wall at the edge of the field two weeks ago, taking photos with her iPad as the crane lifted up each turbine in turn. “I had to be there for the first one to come down – I wasn’t going to miss that. It was such a relief.”
That night, she opened a bottle of champagne with her son, Danny, who lives with his wife and three of Mrs Leigh’s grandchildren in the converted stone barn next door.
Campaigners across the country have been heartened by the news, and have already begun to contact Pact. “I’ve had a lot of people from all over Britain ringing me up saying ‘I’ve never met you but well done’,” says Mr Rigby, who keeps a model turbine on top of his piano as a souvenir. “I’ve been to see two other campaigners in the Midlands and I’m willing to help anyone else.”
Sir Bernard Ingham, once Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary and now vice president of Country Guardian, the anti-wind farm campaign group, thinks the victory could provide a blueprint for others. “It shows that even if turbines have been up a long time, there is still hope [to get them down] if people fight hard enough, ingeniously enough and determinedly enough,” he says. “It is a great achievement and I hope it is followed by many more.”
Mike Hall, who has been campaigning against the wind farm on Kirkby Moor in the Lake District for 13 years, hopes to be among that number. A dozen turbines were put up on the site in 1993, and planning permission is due to expire in 2018. But developers plan to erect 10 new turbines.
“Chelker sets a precedent,” says the 74‑year-old retired university lecturer, who runs the campaign group Fells (Friends of Eden, Lakeland and Lunesdale Scenery). “We can cite it as an example where a decision has been taken that a wind farm should not be ‘repowered’, on landscape and other grounds. This will spur us on.”
Catherine Leigh, however, is looking forward to a quiet life. “It is a relief to know that the fight is finally over,” she says, looking out of her window to the fields beyond, now disturbed only by a handful of sheep.
“You’ve got to have time to smell the roses. That is what it was all for.”
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