In a battle between big business and a village, back the village
19 January 2011
It is now almost four years since the life in our village changed. A farmer who owns 5000 acres in this area decided, in the way of farmers, to maximise his profits.
There was a stretch of land between four villages. Although there was public footpath there, it was not designated as a site of outstanding natural beauty. A good spot, then, to put three or four 126 metre wind turbines. It would make the landowner hundreds of thousands of pounds over the next 25 years or so, while the developer would profit from the generous public subsidies on offer.
So began a process which has rumbled on miserably since 2007. The land is an unspoilt, uncluttered stretch of the Waveney Valley, much loved by locals, home to golden plovers, lapwings, skylarks and barn owls. It is good, quiet English countryside – or, to put in planning-speak, a invaluable leisure amenity to local residents. It would be difficult to find a less appropriate area to industrialise.
Four years, two developers, thousands of pages of evidence and several planning meetings later, the struggle continues. Nothing attracts a combination of intellectual dishonesty and mindless, bullying emotionalism quite like business investments in onshore wind, I have discovered.
The opposition to the development, though, is strong and organised. Ordinary people, who are not obviously militant by nature, can be a powerful force when something important is threatened.
The latest developer, having had their application sounded rejected by a 10-0 planning committee decision, have just decided to take the matter to appeal. Yet again, we will be ready for them.
But what a waste of time for us. What a horrible way to make a living for them. Who would have thought defending the right of residents to peace and enjoyment of their local countryside would prove to be so difficult and controversial?
Last year, I wrote about what makes this little patch of land – and others like it – so special in Icons of England, a book edited by Bill Bryson and commissioned by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England. Here’s my essay:
Outside the village of Dickleburgh in the Waveney Valley of south Norfolk, there is a narrow lane called Lonely Road. After a few hundred yards, it becomes a footpath which leads past a farmhouse and a row of allotments. There, at the end of the track, the path grows narrower and enters a stretch of woodland which forms a sort of passageway into the landscape. When you emerge, you find yourself in the kind of landscape for which this part of England is so well loved – open, undulating farmland, with small woods dividing the fields under a big Norfolk sky. In winter, you are likely to see flocks of golden plovers and lapwings which regularly visit these fields; in summer, the sound of skylark song will be in the air.
This place has a history – it was once the site of Pulham Air Station, from where the first transatlantic crossing by air balloon took place – but its present is more important. Today Lonely Road offers the residents of the four villages nearby, of which I am one, the chance to enjoy a landscape, uncluttered by pylons, masts, roads or railways. Its ordinary beauty is something we have taken for granted down the years.
Only when a local planning officer recently referred to the “unexceptional quality of the landscape” did ordinariness become a problem. The planner was supporting an application for a wind-measuring mast. By the time this book is published, the fields surrounding Lonely Road may well be on the way to becoming definitively cluttered. Thanks to the determined efforts of a landowner and the opportunism of a developer, there is a plan to place three 126 metre wind turbines on the fields.
So our little community, like many others across Britain, finds itself caught up in the great national debate about the future of the planet. It is difficult to convey how unpleasant and, above all, how strange the experience has been. Those of us who agree that a shift to renewable energy is essential, but that global need does not justify the sacrifice of much-loved countryside, are regularly portrayed as villainous and selfish – we are the equivalent of drink-drivers, one government minister has said. Landowners and developers whose only motive is financial are suddenly heroes of the environment. Politicians, speaking to a largely urban electorate, have discovered that wind turbines are an easy vote-winner, symbols of green concern which will be viewed by the vast majority only on TV screens or on holiday.
What chance has our little patch of “unexceptional” landscape against the might of environmental correctness? To those who do not enjoy or understand the countryside – like most politicians, one suspects – the idea that a few fields and birds, a bit of woodland, can be set against a great global concern will seem bizarre. Yet, as they become increasingly rare, these unspoilt, ordinary places matter, each in its own particular way. The fields outside Dickleburgh, for example, offer an unusual variety of birdlife, access to nature and rural peace for hundreds of villagers. The great abstract ideals of environmentalism mean nothing when they are achieved against the grain of local environments.
It is difficult, walking down Lonely Road, not to be saddened by the concrete and steel nightmare which may well lie ahead. In years to come, when the ugly remains of greed and political panic litter the landscape – the true icons of early 21st century Britain – future generations may wonder what on earth possessed their parents and grandparents to give up so easily what is so precious.
ICONS OF ENGLAND, edited by Bill Bryson and published in paperback by Black Swan, is available from independent bookshops or here.