A wet, mud-clotted track trudges along the backbone of a valley in rural Dorset. On the map, nothing marks this place. There are no people and no houses – just sheep and ribbons of hedge separating the green fields from the clawed, brown arable land. “That’s the field, there,” says Dan, a local who is out walking his dog. He points across the gently sloping landscape. “That’s where the turbines will go.”
This is the quintessential corner of the English countryside where developer Broadview Energy wants to install six wind turbines and a substation – a plan that, since it was first suggested two years ago, has divided the usually quiet village of Charminster, less than a mile away from the proposed site. With the planning committee set to make a decision on the wind farm on 28 January, tensions over Christmas have been high.
Richard Coode, who lives on the edge of the village, is in favour of the development, known locally as Slyer’s Lane. “With the steady build-up of the evidence and impact of climate change, it seems to me that we have no choice but to invest now in renewable energy,” he says.
But he is worried that tension in the community is harming the ‘Yes’ campaign: “My concern is that people, who say they want to support the project, do not want to declare their position publicly as they feel it could antagonise their relationship with neighbours, or upset their business relationships with local customers.”
In the aftermath of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris last November and with countless parts of northern England experiencing heavy flooding recently, how the UK can adapt to climate change is a decision often being made at a local level. Local planning officers have become the gatekeepers of renewable energy projects, swayed by community backlash or support.
The area, known as Hardy country after after the famous 19th century novelist and poet Thomas Hardy whose classic narratives were carved out of the rolling Dorset Hills, is now dotted with defensive placards reading ‘No giant turbines here’ are spread across Charminster, pinned to gates and mossy walls. A survey conducted in November 2014 revealed just how much the issue had split the local residents: 52% opposed the wind farm and 43% supported it, with the remaining 5% feeling indifferent.
On the quiet country road that slips through the centre of the village, two women stop to say they support the turbines. As her child climbs on an abandoned digger, one simply asks: “Why wouldn’t you?” Another, trailed by a small boy and a shabby dog, says she is worried about climate change. “You want to know who’s against the turbines? I’ll tell you.” she says, angry now. “The old people and the posh people. But what are we supposed to do when they’re gone?”
Ian Gosling is chairman of the ‘No’ campaign. In his hallway, there is a crystal chandelier and a small statue perched on a marble plinth. He says the campaign has so far spent nearly £30,000 in opposition to this development.
It doesn’t matter to Gosling that the turbines would be removed after 25 years; he takes issue with their size. They could reach a maximum tip height of 115m if the project is approved. This means the turbines would rise out of the valley, visible not only in Charminster but also in the county town of Dorchester, where Gosling lives.
“They will be incredibly tall,” he says. “If you think that St Paul’s [Cathedral, in London] is 111m. It will be highly visible from the whole of Dorchester.”
But Gosling insists he’s not a nimby – the popular acronym for the phrase ‘Not in my back yard’. “My objection is preserving the landscape that is exceptional,” he says. The turbines would be visible from the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, one of several protected landscapes in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and they would be visible from some local monuments including Maiden Castle, an Iron Age hill fort.
But Jeanie Averill, coordinator of the West Dorset Pro Wind group, disagrees that the turbines would ruin the landscape: “The thing about visual impact is that it’s subjective. Some people find wind turbines elegant. Some people find them relaxing to watch. The appearance doesn’t bother everybody.
“In fact, some see them as a reassuring and positive sign that Dorset is pulling its weight in lowering emissions.”
She links the aggressive ‘No’ campaign to nervousness in the local area: “Loads of people keep their heads down – they want to avoid conflict. When we were handing out leaflets in local businesses, shopkeepers would look both ways to see who was around.”
Throughout this very public battle, the landowners have been quiet. The local farming family who own the Slyer’s Lane site did not reply to a request that we made for comment, and have as yet made no public statements. Even the ‘No’ campaign chose not to target the farmer. “We understand the landowner’s reaction when the developer offers money,” says Gosling. “Particularly when life is hard for farmers.”
David George, South West spokesperson for the National Farmers’ Union, says more and more farmers are installing renewables on their land, but their reasons vary. “People want to do their bit in environmental terms,” George says. “Also if you’re a farmer struggling to make a living, it’s an extra stream of income.”
After two years, the relationship between the two campaigns has been stained further by pettiness and personal comments. Gosling talks of rowdy parish council meetings and says the general debate has been heated and “almost threatening”. Averill says ‘Yes to Wind’ signs have been “torn down by anti-campaigners”.
This winter, both sides set up stalls in Dorchester, encouraging passers by to write to the planning officer with either their objection or support. On many occasions, the two stalls would be on the same street at the same time. Gosling describes how the ‘No’ campaigners would try to arrive early and steal the pro-wind campaigners’ favourite spot. Averill denies there was conflict, although she admits that, “one person did try to run off with all our leaflets”.
In Dorset alone, there are many ‘No’ campaigns running simultaneously. Whether the battle is against wind turbines or solar panels, the issue is always placement. “We are all for renewable energy,” says Sarah Stacey, who is campaigning against a proposed solar farm near her home in Thorncombe, on the Dorset-Devon border. “But we don’t want it here. It’s not the right place.”
The government’s position on renewables adds fuel to the resistance movement. Britain’s target for onshore wind generation by 2020 is between 11 and 13 GW. In June 2015, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd told Parliament: “We have enough onshore wind in the pipeline, including projects that have planning permission to meet this requirement comfortably.”
Dr David Peacock of the Campaign to Protect Rural England echoes the government’s stance. “England is just about saturated,” he says. “Everybody agrees that global warming is a reality and we need renewable energy, but the government has made it absolutely clear that we have enough onshore wind turbines.”
He believes the Slyer’s Lane planning application has a good chance of being turned down. “You might be trying to save the planet, but you’re destroying what we have… You could say that climate change is a matter of life and death, but we do have time to plan this better.”
To counter opposition, Broadview Energy has scaled back proposals. The turbines have been made 10m smaller and they now plan to have less: six instead of seven. As an incentive, the ‘community benefit fund’ – the money that Broadview would give to the local community each year – has been increased from £70,000 up to a maximum of £135,000.
Gosling says Broadview have been ruthless in this fight: “They’re very determined. We might have expected them to withdraw by now.”
As the 28 January deadline approaches, everyone here knows a decision could set a precedent. For the ‘No’ campaigners, a rejection would be yet another success: applications for two other wind farms in the surrounding area have recently been unsuccessful. For the ‘Yes’ campaign, a positive decision could mark a shift in attitude in the Conservative stronghold of South West England.
But in Charminster, the decision would likely be met with a sigh of relief whichever way it goes. It would mean that, at last, peace can return to this quiet village.
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