Beef farmer Stuart May looked across the Cornish valley where – if an energy company gets its way – 11 wind turbines will soon soar skywards, and shook his head.
“We don’t need them and we don’t want them,” said May. “Cornwall has already done much more than its fair share when it comes to renewable energy. We’re absolutely pickled in solar panels and windfarms. They’re dotted around everywhere.
“I’m not against green energy but there are better ways of doing it than plonking these monsters here. For me, it’s all about greed. The energy company wants to make money, the farmers who are giving them land want to get rich quick. I count one of the farmers involved as a good friend but the first I knew of all this was when a leaflet from the company dropped through the door. We haven’t talked since; I feel so let down.”
The scheme – called the Big Field Wind Farm – has divided the community. There have been fractious public meetings, rows in the local shop (plus one reported assault) and lifelong friends have fallen out. Insults, allegations of dirty tricks and wild conspiracy theories are flying around.
But it is more than just a local issue. Wind power is likely to be a key issue for the Tories and Liberal Democrats in the runup to next year’s general election as the coalition parties distance themselves from each other. This week it emerged the next Conservative manifesto may include new controls over onshore generation such as cuts to subsidies and planning restrictions while the Lib Dems reinforced their support for wind farms.
The Big Field Wind Farm is the sort of scheme that will be the subject of fierce political debate in the months to come. “I think clamping down on developments like this will be a vote-winner for the Tories and for Ukip,” said May. “I certainly wouldn’t think of voting Lib Dem if they are for these things.”
The plans for the Big Field Wind Farm, which would be sited in a large bowl of farmland between five villages a few miles from the coast of north Cornwall, are likely to reach councillors in Truro in June.
Good Energy says the windfarm would provide power for about 13,500 homes and argues there will be a range of benefits for the local community. It is pledging to use local people where possible to build and operate the farm and to offer cheaper power to people living nearby. It will provide a £60,000-a-year community fund and build a learning centre to teach children about green energy.
The PR campaign by Good Energy is sophisticated. It has produced a Facebook page, complete with attractive images of wildlife, and a Twitter feed @TheBigFieldWF that directs followers to interviews with children who speak about the benefits of wind power. More controversially, it has encouraged customers and shareholders to write to councillors to support the scheme even if they live nowhere near it.
The campaign group set up to fight the plans, Communities Against Rural Exploitation (Care), is furious at the scale of the scheme and at what it sees as underhand tactics by Good Energy. Most emphasise that they are not against renewable energy but believe this scheme in this place is wrong.
A retired researcher, Nina Kamm, said she was concerned at the “industrial scale” of the turbines, which will dwarf local landmarks such as the beautiful old church at Week St Mary. She said: “I don’t think everyone realises how big they’ll be. We’re worried that tourism will be affected – visitors won’t want to come – and wildlife and plant life will be blighted.”
A painter and potter, Nicky May, argued that a rural area was being industrialised. “This is a beautiful, unspoiled spot. We’re going to have a development on an industrial scale but without the benefits that come from being in an urban area such as proximity to hospitals and other services. It seems unjust.”
Teacher Pauline Smeeth said she was “shocked and horrified” at the size of the turbines, which will be up to 125 metres high. “They’ll be seen for 30 miles or more. Nobody here will have a chance of selling up and moving up. We’re stuck here.”
Smeeth is also angry about allegations made this week on a Facebook page called Friends of Week St Mary Turbines. It claimed a supporter of the scheme was “physically abused by a detractor” in a village shop. Smeeth believes she is the alleged perpetrator and admits she had a “rather heated discussion” with a relative of one of the farmers planning to lease land for the windfarm. “But there was no physical abuse,” she said. “That’s outrageous and typical of what is going on here.”
The Friends page is not connected to Good Energy but Care members are angry at how the company has asked customers and supporters to express their support to Cornwall council.
“It’s unethical,” said retired lecturer Stuart Mealing. Mealing, who has never voted Tory before, said he would consider doing so at next year’s general election if the party opposes schemes such as Big Field. “That would be a big step for me but you never know.”
Such talk must worry the sitting Lib Dem MP (and environment minister), Dan Rogerson, who will defend a relatively slim majority next year.
Rogerson’s only intervention in the controversy has been to express frustration at Good Energy’s encouragement of supporters to lobby the council and some are angry that he is not saying where he stands.
Rogerson was not available for comment. A Lib Dem spokesperson said: “In nine years since getting elected, Dan has never interfered in a local planning decision. Planning is a job for the council, who should take the feelings of those affected into account; the role of an MP is to represent their constituents in parliament, which Dan does tirelessly.”
The Lib Dem local councillor, Nicky Chopak, was more forthcoming. She said she had supported turbine schemes in the past and backed the national party’s supportive stance. “Wind energy is very important for this country, our children and our children’s children. But this scheme is wrong for this place.”
Rogerson’s Tory opponent at next year’s election, postman Scott Mann, accused the MP of sitting on the fence and said he would be campaigning on the issue. “We have far too many wind turbines in north Cornwall. I think attitude to onshore wind turbines is going to be one of the big differences between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems.”
Good Energy insists it is proud of the scheme, unapologetic for asking customers to show their backing for it – and is not shy over expressing alarm at the possibility of the Tories promising to bring in more controls.
The founder and CEO of Good Energy, Juliet Davenport, said: “Any move to block further onshore wind farms is pandering to a privileged vocal minority. Polls consistently show that most people are in favour of windfarms, which help build energy security in the UK.
“Only a matter of weeks ago in parliament, David Cameron publicly stated that manmade climate change is one of the most serious threats this country and this world faces, so putting the brakes on the UK’s drive for more renewables makes no sense.”
There are, of course, local people who are supportive, including the farmers who will make money out of leasing their land. Farmers Ray and Val Griffin, who are involved in the scheme, said farmers had to find new ways of diversifying to make a living.
Mrs Griffin, who runs a bed and breakfast and holiday cottage business, said the couple have endured some aggressive questioning from the naysayers. “But we don’t believe it will ruin the area as some people claim. We’re not greedy, we’re trying to run a business.”
An aerospace engineer, Bill Andrews, said he was an “INBY” (in my back yard) rather than an NIMBY. “The country that began the industrial revolution in the 18th century has to set an example to the rest of the world. This is a good scheme that makes sense here.”
A retired theatre designer, John McMurray, added: “Everyone wants electricity. If they want that convenience, they have to put up with scheme like this.”
Clergyman Rob Yeomans said he saw the turbines as a “stopgap”. “They have a lifespan of 20-25 years. By then we’ll have found another way of generating power. For me this is about caring for the environment and caring for the Earth. I think we have a moral duty to support this scheme.”
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