The mighty wind: how local people took on developers – and won
Earlier this week, a threat which has hung over the village where I live was after more than five years was finally lifted.
A government Planning Inspector upheld our local council’s decision to reject a proposal for a windpower development on a stretch of countryside between four villages in south Norfolk, and the developers have finally and sensibly decided to abandon their ill thought-out plans.
Renewable energy matters, but so does the countryside: to contribute meaningfully to our environment, wind turbines have to be sited in the right places.
Here is an article I wrote about our campaign for Countryside Voice, the magazine of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, while waiting for the decision.
The news could come through any day. It might arrive by email by the time I finish this piece, or tomorrow, or next month. The decision which has dominated part of my life, and those of many people who live in the south Norfolk villages of Dickleburgh, Rushall, Pulham St Mary and Pulham Market since 2007 will come down to the decision of one person, Zoe Hill of Her Majestyâ€™s Planning Inspectorate. It is Mrs Hill who is adjudicating in the matter of an appeal by TCI Renewables in relation to a proposed wind turbine development at Upper Vaunces Farm.
For over five years, I have been part of campaign opposed to placing turbines only slightly smaller than the London Eye on a much-loved piece of countryside situated between our four villages. We have made our case, on environmental, cultural, visual and above all human grounds, through two planning applications, dealing with two separate energy companies, all leading to a lengthy appeal hearing, with full legal paraphernalia, before the planning inspector.
It has been turbulent, stressful and occasionally shocking experience which has reminded me how strong and resourceful country people can be when tested. It has opened my eyes to the planning system and to attitudes towards our future energy needs. It has also, on occasions, revealed how tough it is to stand up against the forces of big business and politics.
Before I found myself on the front line of a local campaign, I had definite views about wind energy. I believed that, in a world where fossil fuels were becoming depleted, renewable resources at sea and on land should play their part in supplying energy needs. On the other hand, I thought and argued in print, it was wrong for human welfare to be put at risk and for treasured landscapes to be blighted for a dubious energy benefit. What was needed was a balance between protecting the countryside and producing new forms of energy.
Five years on, my older, more battle-weary self still believes that there is a need for wind energy, deployed in the right places, but I am now ruefully aware that the gale of emotion which surrounds this debate makes sensible decision-making almost impossible. In a simple-minded culture, the turning blades of a giant turbine have come to symbolise caring for the planet â€“ it is why they are so widely used in TV commercials. As a result, anyone opposing the location of a particular development, however strong the case, tends to be characterised, often unthinkingly and stupidly, as selfish, irresponsible, a nimby. To their shame, those who benefit from wind energy, financially or politically, cheerfully exploit these prejudices.
During the darker days of our campaign, it has felt as if our little villages were out of step with the rest of the world. Increasingly, though, I have come to believe that those who genuinely care for the future of our planet tend to be the people who act locally rather than generalise, who have concern for the area where they live â€“ for their own back yard.
Our nightmare started with a tea party. The largest landowner in the area invited a few residents to meet representatives of an energy firm called SLP. They were told of plans to erect seven giant turbines in the fields surrounded by our four local villages. It was an excellent place for wind energy, the developer said.
It was, and is, a mind-bogglingly inappropriate site. The turbines would dwarf houses that were little more than 500 metres away. Over a thousand residences were within a kilometre of one of the turbines. A popular public bridleway connecting the villages of Rushall and Dickleburgh crosses the land. There is important bird life there, with flocks of over-wintering golden plovers and lapwings significant enough to be the subject of study by the British Trust for Ornithology.
As in much of East Anglia, village churches are a feature of the open countryside; here an unspoilt landscape would be lost. Because the site was once an air station and became a dumping ground for munitions and salvage in World War II, there are real concerns and uncertainties about contamination of the ground to be dug.
It was, in short, difficult to imagine a setting which was less suitable for this kind of development.
Battle commenced. An action group was formed under the name of 4Villages. Like most rural communities, our villages contained a formidable mix of talents and a committee was formed. Together we began to spend days, weeks, months on research, responding to Environmental Impact Statements, finding and using expert opinions, arguing our case to the local council and, as important, to the public. A natural leader – forceful, efficient, never drawn into the local politics and personality games which can so often undermine campaigns â€“ emerged.
A large number of local people supported the campaign, as did two of the three parish councils. A smaller number of villagers, led by the third council, believed â€“ in the early days at least – that to have a development in oneâ€™s own location was generally virtuous, a good way of being green.
The struggle was long and unremitting. There were high points (SLP apparently saw the logic of our arguments and withdrew its application) and low (within weeks, another company TCI Renewables had replaced them with a new three-turbine proposal). There were brief celebrations when South Norfolk planning committee decided unanimously to reject the application but, as we always knew they would, the applicants appealed and another tougher, more legally-based process began.
Much of what I have discovered through hard first-hand experience over the past five years is depressing. Some people are not the slightest bit interested in the countryside, yet feel at liberty to pronounce about its future. The arguments deployed in favour of development tended to be based on a generalised emotion. Wind turbines were important, an academic for the University of East Anglia told one meeting, less for what they did than the symbols they provided for the fight against climate change.
The scheme would make the developers and landowners many millions over 25 years, and yet, bizarrely, it was those arguing for the landscape who tended to be characterised as self-interested.
In fact, most of the clichÃ©s deployed in the debate surrounding onshore wind turbines turned out to be a distortion or a lie. The â€œnimbiesâ€ I know are not villains; because they are interested in, and care for, their neighbourhood, they are the people who collect litter, keep footpaths clear, report the grubbing up of hedges, campaign on behalf of village post offices or shops.
The â€œvocal minorityâ€ to which sneering reference is often made tend to represent a majority, too nervous to speak on behalf of an unpopular cause. They come from all backgrounds and, contrary to the usual slur, their concern is never, in my experience, about the value of their properties.
Another revelation was that the establishment quangos tend to have an in-built bias in favour of development. When academic studies are commissioned by government to report on the effects of wind turbines on local communities, their conclusions will always tend mysteriously to support the government line. As a member â€“ now former member â€“ of the RSPB, I was genuinely shocked to read its openly political bias in favour of onshore wind. Unless high-profile locations, like the Isle of Lewis, are at risk, the organisation will tend to nod through applications, much to the delight of the wind energy lobby.
One has to be tough and persistent in these campaigns. We became used to being patronised by powerful organisations and ignored by the developers. On key matters, their statements turned out to be simply untrue, commitments proved to be meaningless. Consultations with the local community were often pointless box-ticking exercises. It is easy to forget that, for all the emotional talk of the environment, wind energy is a significant money-making opportunity. Business people can be ruthless is search of profit.
Yet, whatever outcome awaits us, the experience has had its positive aspects. In our case, the local planning officers were diligent and fair. The will and determination of people in our villages not to be bullied by powerful outside forces has been inspiring.
We have all learned to appreciate the wonderful landscape which many of us previously took for granted, and which is so desperately worth protecting.
Thanks to Countryside Voice for allowing me to reproduce this article. If you are concerned about the wrong kind of wind development, itâ€™s worth joining the CPRE which campaigns for a balanced approach to renewable energy.
Some tips for local action around wind turbine developments can be found here.