If this is nimbyism, there should be a medal for it
27 July 2007
The new Prime Minister, still in a blissed-out state of honeymoon-period euphoria, must have thought his brave support for “Britain’s ordinary heroes” was a smart vote-winner. Community is good. Everybody loves local. In a big and brutal world, we hanker increasingly for what Mr Brown calls “the good society”.
Recognising that an ordinary hero deserves as much social approbation as, say, a Whitehall jobsworth, Brown has floated the idea of gongs for little folk. There will be a Good Neighbour MBE campaign, seeking nominations for everyday heroes.
As a sound-bite, it is as shiny and cynic-proof as anything the great marketing team of Blair and Campbell ever produced, but ideas of what makes a good society can be complicated. If, the day after the Prime Minister had announced that 24 July would be the day when we would remember the round-the-clock work of ordinary heroes (24/7, geddit?), he had paid a visit to my local village hall, he would have seen neighbourhood concern in action. Almost certainly, though, he would not have been taking down names for the Good Neighbour MBE campaign.
The people who were packed, sitting and standing, inside the small building in the centre of Dickleburgh, near Diss, were attending a public meeting called by the parish council about a planned wind turbine development just outside the village. A little over a month ago, an energy company went public on a development that it had been working over for the previous eight months. On a stretch of agricultural land, weirdly described in the submission as a brownfield site, it hopes to erect seven 125-metre-high turbines.
It is such an inappropriate venue for a wind development as to be downright bizarre. Four villages, more than 3,000 people, are within a 2km range of the turbines, with a number of houses between 500 and 700m away. The countryside is attractive, with exceptional birdlife. Wind levels are low. There are huge issues of local infrastructure, noise, light and health.
It was an extraordinary gathering – good old boys and young mums, long-term residents and incomers – but it was incomplete in one critical area. Both the energy company and the landowner declined to attend the meeting. At the end of it all, there was near unanimity of opposition to the scheme, with a small number of abstentions.
Here is the difficulty. What was represented in that hall, any dispassionate observer would conclude, were the qualities which make up Brown’s good society. There was no squawking about property prices. People were well informed about the need for renewable energy, and committed to it. The concern was not to allow a vast industrial development to destroy a part of south Norfolk where a balance between agriculture, building, small businesses and the community has successfully been established.
The conventional wisdom, which resides in that ill-thought-out term of abuse “nimbyism”, is entirely wrong. A commitment to the people, landscape, wildlife and character of the area you live in is closer to what Brown’s predecessor liked to call “respect”. If the people of Dickleburgh are Nimbies, then the Prime Minster should consider introducing, with the rest of his new medals, an award for services to nimbyism.
But ranged against them is a formidable alliance of interests. There is big business, of course – wind power, supported by massive public funding, is where the smart money is going in the City. Any advertising campaign worth its salt pushes a self-consciously virtuous (and usually bogus) green message. The Government has realised the marketing power of putting turbines where people can see them. Energy from onshore wind may be woefully ineffective compared with offshore, working around 25 per cent of the time, but it is a vote-winner. Every giant turbine, however useless, is an empty but potent symbol of apparent commitment to distract public attention from the real issues.
We are trying to build our way out of trouble. A single jumbo jet flying every day to Miami and back, the environmentalist George Monbiot has calculated, emits in a year the carbon dioxide saved by no less than three large wind developments. Yet our caring, green government, while supporting inefficient and brutally intrusive onshore turbines, is pushing through new terminals at Heathrow and Stansted.
On one side, a combination of commercial greed and political cynicism which encourages the bullying, simple-minded idea that anyone opposing onshore turbines is selfish; on the other, a group of villagers who believe that their community and landscape should not be sacrificed for an ill-conceived energy policy. I know where I think the everyday heroes can be found.