How an energy company put wind in our sails
12 September 2008
It is time to doff the cap to a developer, to utter grateful thanks to a member of that much-criticised group, the energy companies. They may have resisted a windfall tax and made unfortunate jokes about profiteering from the energy crisis, but in south Norfolk, a toast is being drunk to the wisdom and judgement of one of their number.
Until a few days ago, a proposal was in place to develop a stretch of agricultural land between four villages into a wind power plant containing seven 125-metre turbines and the considerable infrastructure needed to connect the plant to the national grid. As, over the past year, the project entered the planning process and an ever-wider collection of interests and factions became involved, it seemed likely that a much-loved and much-used part of local landscape would become industrialised and changed for ever. The community became caught up in the sort of crazed soap opera of rumour, propaganda, stress and division which is being experienced in towns and villages across the country.
Then, at the end of last week, the company involved announced, almost casually, that it had changed its mind. The site contained a number of disadvantages which, taken together, suggested that it was inappropriate for development. The plan was being abandoned. The grateful thanks are not for the wisdom of this decision. The original proposal had always been slightly dotty. There are houses on all sides of the site. The wind is even said to be unusually low in the area. With the urgent need for renewable energy, it is more important than ever that investment goes into developments with minimal impact on human lives and landscape, and maximum energy efficiency. This site would fail abysmally on both counts.
The gratitude owed to the energy company and the landowner has nothing to do with energy; it concerns the community. Frankly, it shook us out of our complacency. For years, we had taken for granted the fact that we had a stretch of attractive, unspoilt land, with a public bridleway and over-wintering flocks of lapwings and golden plover within walking distance. Over the traumatic, and occasional melodramatic, past year, this precious resource has been appreciated in a way it never was before. “I suppose I’m selfish,” said a man who has lived in the area all his life. “I just like looking across those fields at the end of the day when the sun’s going down.”
That was another useful lesson learned. The debate about development often contains easy, intellectually idle accusations of selfishness: the energy companies are philanthropic environmentalists while those arguing that the landscape of a small, crowded island is too precious to squander for dubious benefits are deemed to be self-interested. It is desperate, cynical nonsense, invariably deployed when all other arguments have failed.
The developers managed something which politicians have failed to do. They unified a community, bringing together a variety of personalities and talents in common cause. That sort of localism, frequently invoked by politicians, is a powerful force once galvanised into concerted action. It seems more than possible that the dynamic collective spirit sparked into life by the threat to the landscape will continue, perhaps investigating possibilities of co-operative conservation, the sort of initiative being championed by the Transition Network. We have become involved in what is perhaps the most urgent debate of our time. Another kind of energy has been released.
* As Andrew Motion wearily approaches the end of his tenure as Poet Laureate, he deserves our thanks. Unkindly mocked in the media, Motion has promoted the cause of poetry and done much to rehabilitate poets back into the community. His recent complaint that it has been a thankless task is surely justified: writing poetry for the Queen is futility personified. In revealing that his work has suffered, Motion has delivered another useful lesson. The more a writer plays the part of being a writer, the less he writes.
Live music is made for sharing
One of the less surprising news items this week was that the revenue earned from live music now exceeds the value of CD and download sales.
According to market research company Mintel, £1.5bn was spent on recorded music last year, compared to £1.9bn for tickets to live concerts – £1.05bn going on rock and pop, £500m on classical, £200m on jazz and £150m on opera. The explanations for this trend tell only half the story.
The perceived value of recorded music has fallen as it becomes more easily available online, says the Mintel report. By contrast, the popularity of festivals has grown at an extraordinary rate. There were 12 festivals listed on the website efestivals.co.uk in 2000 – today there are 664. But why? There is surely a connection between the trend away from the recorded to the live and the fact people spend an ever-increasing amount of time in front of a computer screen, cut off from human contact. There is a hunger for community – and that good live music provides almost better than anything else.
* Which public figure would you least like to appear, with reporters and cameras in tow, at a moment of intense private grief? The answer for most people would surely be Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York – the ex-royal, ex-children’s author, ex-weightwatcher who is now a byword for celebrity nothingness.
Yet, strangely, there she was, centre stage, at the funeral for Ben and Catherine Mullany, the Welsh couple shot dead on their honeymoon in Antigua. Fergie had met members of the family while on her way to Antigua with her daughters for a holiday; the family, presumably, were flying out to bring back the couple’s bodies. Weeks later, the Duchess was at Llandaff Cathedral, reading a Yeats poem at the funeral and looking sorrowful in news photographs. “The nation was so touched by [the murders] and I just felt they were taken away at such a young age,” she told the press, adding that the Sarah Ferguson Foundation would contribute £10,000 to a charity set up in memory of the Mullanys.
Families grieve in their own way and, if Fergie’s presence at the funeral helped those close to the Mullanys, then their wishes should be respected. But it is difficult not to feel faintly queasy as this fringe celebrity plays the Queen of Hearts role, hawking her qualifications as a mum and parent and implying that she was there to represent the nation. As with all celebrity endorsements, playing a lead role at the funeral will provide a useful pay-off in terms of image and publicity.