At last, the wind of change is blowing in favour of local power

It seems only minutes ago that it was a good and progressive thing to be local and active. Suddenly the wind has changed. A report on the energy industry, to be published next week, will reveal that the number of onshore wind farms to be granted planning permission dropped by a half in the 12 months to September. The problem, it seems, has been local activists who are not quite so progressive, after all; in fact, they might even be that terrible new thing, regressive.

There are few topics of conversation more likely to cause difficulty in liberal, urban society than that of wind energy. Most of us can agree about climate change, the need to move away from dependency on fossil fuels, and even to modify the way we live. The problem begins when anyone dares to suggest developments should be sited where they do not desecrate the landscape or blight the lives of those who live near to them.

I should declare an interest. Three-and-a-half years ago, a patch of south Norfolk countryside which could be described as my back yard – indeed is the back yard of four villages – was selected as a possible site for wind turbines. I had previously argued the case for care with these developments; now I was to experience the full, unpleasant drama of being on the front line.

It has become difficult to explain to those who do not live in the countryside, or are not particularly interested in the wonders it contains, why planting three 400ft moving industrial turbines matters as much as it does. An unlikely alliance of politicians, business people and environmental activists have stoked up such an atmosphere of panic and guilt in this area that an unthinking emotionalism has driven out any kind of reasonable debate.

When he was Energy Secretary, Ed Miliband once said that opposition to a wind farm – that is, any wind farm anywhere – should be made socially taboo, like driving without a seatbelt or over a zebra crossing.

In a debate marked in equal measure by ignorance and prejudice, it is now commonly assumed that those who speak up for small, local environments are by their nature out of touch, backward-looking members of the middle class who are selfishly interested in the view from the window of the value of their house.

If I could take Ed Miliband for a walk into my back yard, down Lonely Road, the footpath which leads through what is now partly wooded farmland and might one day be the site of a wind turbine plant, how could I explain to him that these few acres represent an important part of what England is?

I could tell him that it is rare to find completely uncluttered countryside surrounded by villages whose residents enjoy walking across it. I could show him the open fields, the big East Anglian sky which would be lost.

At this time of the year, we might see flocks of golden plovers and lapwings which have just arrived to over-winter in the area. A family of buzzards which occasionally wheels slowly around the energy company’s wind-measuring mast. If Ed had the time, I might take him to a small church nearby, whose position in the unspoilt landscape of its parish would be lost.

He would probably think I was mad. What a few acres of Norfolk countryside beside the great demands of the planet? To an urban mindset, the idea that tranquillity and beauty contribute to the quality of everyday life of ordinary people would seem mystifying. Surely those are the sort of things one could experience by going away on holiday.

“I suppose I should feel guilty, but I just like looking across those fields at the end of the day”, a local man, who has lived here all his life, told me. He kept quiet about his opposition; as the owner of a shop, he had to be careful not to offend people.

It is bizarre that, in the current climate, his views are unacceptable while a financially ambitious landowner and an eager energy company have become angels of responsible environmentalism. Over the past five years, concern for the future of the planet has morphed into an unthinking support of any plan, however harmful to the countryside, that might just possibly help the energy crisis, however infinitesimally.

Turbines have become a marketing tool, representing global concern and niceness, appearing in advertising campaigns, as backdrop for local TV news, even in the England World Cup symbol.

A sort of collective madness sometimes seems to have taken over. Visiting my area to support the wind farm development, an academic from the University of East Anglia cheerfully admitted that the energy generated would not be significant. It was more important, he said, as a symbol for future generations that the people of south Norfolk cared about the planet.

Major agencies, from Natural England to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, have nailed their colours to the mast of wind energy and are rarely prepared to argue the case for the local as opposed to the global. In spite of increasingly convincing evidence from around the world that the noise of turbines can affect health and stress levels, government-commissioned academic surveys can be relied upon to toe the official line.

In the media, the energy industry’s figures, particularly in the area of the number of households whose electricity would be supplied by a development, are accepted without a quibble.

It is the specific, the local, which matters more and more in this debate. The reason why fewer planning applications are now being granted is simply that most of the suitable sites (as well as many that are unsuitable) have already been developed. We are a small, heavily populated island.

“As we move rapidly towards a global society, we increasingly value the ‘anchor’ that our local identity gives us,” a report on the English landscape for the late-lamented Countryside Commission concluded not so long ago.

It has been up to local people, planning officers and committees to examine the specifics, rather than listen to generalised propaganda. Far from being a block to progress, they have often proved to be heroes of down-to-earth commonsense and humanity.

Independent, Friday, 29 October 2010