The annual Frogmore Regatta, with its raft race, tug-of-war and beer tent, is a world away from the striped blazers and corporate hospitality of Henley. But when the locals meet on the banks of the Frogmore Creek in the spirit of friendly competition this summer, there will be further cause for cheer.
After a 3½-year battle, controversial plans to erect a 112ft wind turbine on a nearby farm, within the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), have been vetoed by the government in a case that will be an inspiration to campaigners fighting turbines up and down the UK.
In the villages around the Frogmore estuary, three miles from the town of Kingsbridge, the debate has split the community. The lines are drawn between long-established Devonians with an innate sympathy for the needs of local farmers, and newer arrivals who tend to put a higher value on preserving the pristine landscape of the South Hams.
Fighting a planning application is an expensive business. And these “no” campaigners have adopted a very contemporary form of fundraising to help pay for the phalanx of lawyers, barristers, consultants and expert witnesses needed to fight their case.
Ian Bryan, a retired British Gas engineer in his seventies who has holidayed in south Devon for decades, was horrified to learn, back in 2014, that South Hams council had controversially granted planning permission for a turbine on Winslade Farm, within sight of the creek. He had read newspaper articles about crowdfunding and, despite not being particularly au fait with computers, decided to give it a whirl. The experiment proved fruitful.
Bryan settled on Crowdjustice.co.uk, one of scores of sites that have sprung up to allow individuals to fundraise for anything from university fees to business start-up costs, and set up a page in a couple of hours.
He asked for £4,000, but to his astonishment and delight, more than £5,000 was quickly pledged to the Friends of South Hams, the group he set up with his fellow protesters.
Their first move was to seek a judicial review of the council’s decision, which overturned the planning consent. In May 2015, after lobbying by local MPs, the communities secretary at the time, Greg Clark, exercised his right to “call in” the application – effectively claiming the right to make the final decision – and a planning inquiry was arranged for September 2016.
The Friends launched a second crowdfunding appeal to raise £16,000 to pay for legal representation and expert witnesses for the hearing. Derek Weaving, another of the protestors, points out that the total cost of the campaign has exceeded £80,000 – money that will never be recouped.
“This is a reasonably wealthy neighbourhood, with a lot of retired, comfortable people who can find the money if necessary,” he says. “The tragedy is that most neighbourhoods cannot.”
In January, to the delight of the Friends, Sajid Javid, Clark’s successor, ruled that the turbine would do unacceptable harm to the AONB. For Weaving, 65, the decision was a relief – his home is within 500yd of the proposed turbine – but also entirely logical. “It was clear to every single expert that it never should have been approved,” he says.
And South Hams council has no plans to protest: “Following the planning inquiry for the wind turbine at Winslade Farm, the council accepts the decisions of the inspector and secretary of state, and has carefully considered the reasons provided,” a spokesman said.
Yet the reasoning is anything but clear to Elizabeth Perraton, 66. Her family has worked Winslade Farm since 1960, and she never expected to be cast as a villain and despoiler of the countryside when she, her husband, Ronald, and their son Edward applied for permission to build the turbine on their 450-acre dairy farm. “All we are trying to do is produce food as economically as possible,” she says.
The Perratons run an intensive operation with about 500 animals and use a robotic milking system that runs 24 hours a day. They hoped the turbine would power the system, overnight reducing their carbon footprint and cutting their electricity bills, which currently run at £25,000-£30,000 a year.
In her view, the single turbine would have been harmless. “From where I am sitting, I can see two other turbines in this area, so we would not be the only one,” she says. “It is a crazy situation.”
One particularly sore point is that she believes the majority of the Friends are either recent arrivals to the Frogmore area or not local at all. Derek Weaving moved down from Westminster three years ago after retiring from his job as an equity analyst, while Ian Bryan lives in a village near Dorchester, in Dorset.
“The problem was that these protesters were hellbent on stopping us,” Perraton says. “They are not people who have got a clue about dairy farming because they are alien to it. They have just moved into the area to retire, and nothing must change.”
Weaving, naturally, protests. “My argument has always been that to live in this part of the country is a privilege, and there are certain rules and obligations,” he says.
Whatever the Perratons’ concerns about the attitude of incomers, their presence is crucially important to the local economy, and in particular to the property market. Simon Rodwell, manager of Fulfords estate agency in Kingsbridge, estimates that 50%-60% of buyers in the area’s towns and villages are looking for a holiday home or retirement property. For them, a beautiful rural view of patchwork fields and open water is part of the package.
Many want to buy only within the AONB because of the protection from development it affords – whether it’s against a wind farm, fracking, a sea of polytunnels or a housing estate. “It is why people come down and spend the money that they do,” Rodwell says. “It is a world away from what they are used to, especially if they are coming from London or the home counties. The last thing they want is to look out of their window and see a huge wind turbine.”
Rodwell estimates that a property with a wind turbine within view would be worth almost 10% less than a similar home where you couldn’t see it. “The outlook is what people are after,” he says. “If there’s a big turbine in front of a house, that can easily knock £50,000 off the price.”
There is still one option open to the Perraton family. They could appeal against Javid’s decision at the High Court. Yet Elizabeth Perraton is clearly shaken by the events of the past three years – not to mention the “horrendous” cost of their legal battle – and says they have not decided whether to try once more or give up on the turbine.“It has just been a nightmare, really.”
If the family do decide to keep trying, the Friends of South Hams are ready for them. “I am not anti-farming, but you can’t disobey the laws of the AONB,” Weaving says. “If you want to have a wind turbine, you can do it – there are very few parts of the country that are AONBs – but just not here.”
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