There was a time when I considered writing a book about being on the front line of a proposed wind turbine development. It seemed to me that there was some great material there for a factual account or, better, a novel. Global environmental concerns (climate change, the future of the planet) would be set against more parochial ones (a church, a few fields, local lives). There would be rich satirical potential in the fact that a large landowner and a corporate developer, both looking to add to their considerable wealth, were now seriously considered as heroes of the green moment by the hippyish types who normally would have loathed them.
In the end, I decided that the local drama would quickly pass, as would the appeal of a book about it. That was in 2007; as 2014 approaches, the threat (or promise) of three giant turbines being set on unspoilt landscape between four villages lives on. Over those seven years, there have been planning meetings, and environmental impact surveys running to thousands of pages, and appeals, and hundreds of hours of work and research, and experts, and barristers squaring up to one another expensively, and, in the end, a final, definitive decision.
Yet, weirdly, it is all as undecided as it ever was.
What has happened at Upper Vaunces Farm in south Norfolk may help explain why the number of onshore developments granted planning permission has doubled in the past two years, and, to judge by the rate of increasing rate of new applications, the process is likely to continue.
Press coverage of wind energy may have raised questions about its cost and efficacy. Ministers may have promised month after month that local opinion is important and that turbines should be sited in the right, appropriate places. Yet on the ground, where it matters, the green rush has continued. This enthusiasm, sad to report, is not propelled by any kind of idealism, but by the unimaginably large financial rewards on offer over the next 25 years.
Our case is probably not unusual. In 2007, an energy company and a local landowner announced their plans. Two years later, well into its environmental report, the firm withdrew. The landowner approached another energy firm, TCI Renewables, who took up the challenge. When its proposal was opposed by local council’s planning officers and the rejected unanimously by the planning committee, the developer appealed the decision. A hearing which, in two parts, took two weeks was heard before a government planning inspector. She too rejected the developer’s case.
End of story? Far from it. Three months late, TCI Renewables announced that they would be putting in a new application: same site, same number and size of turbines, but positioned slightly more closely together. While negotiating with planning officers, the developers sprung their own surprise, selecting to go straight to appeal on grounds of “non-determination”. An eight-day hearing is scheduled for the New Year.
Here, then, is how it goes. A site is chosen by a landowner and developer. When their plans are rejected by the community and its council on the grounds of its impact on nearby residents and houses, a church and the local landscape, they simply start all over again, knowing that local councils are strapped for cash and time.
When David Cameron makes speeches about how the planning system is the victim of red tape - how it is clogged up by those who oppose development – he might consider cases like this, where the clogging is being done by big business pursuing profit and public subsidies. Eric Pickles, in his next speech about the importance of local opinion, might care to explain how the system allows moneyed interests to skip their way past legitimate and accepted objections.
I still have faith that justice and commonsense, rather than the power of capital, will prevail, but I am glad I never wrote that book. It would not have been about new environmental challenges at all, but an old-fashioned story of cash and corporate bullying.
Independent, 14 October 2013 [This article is the original text of the lightly modified version which appeared in the Independent]