In his great work Small Is Beautiful, EF Schumacher argued that, because land is our most precious resource after humanity itself, the way we treat the landscape involves our whole way of life. The mighty quango, Natural England, in its recent much-publicised Manifesto for the Natural Environment, made a similar point. The countryside and its future was closely linked to the nation’s cultural identity, it said.
But, as always in the case of government bodies, it is worth looking at the specifics which lurk behind the warm words. Towards the end of its manifesto, Natural England mentions that it will “help find the space for renewable energy by publishing a map of suitable locations for onshore wind energy developments”. As a soundbite, it works well enough. The Government has renewable energy targets. Who better than its statutory governmental adviser on the environment to offer guidance as to where new developments should best take place?
But when one looks at how the new guidelines are to be drawn up, worrying questions arise about this project. The map will have a seismic effect on the future of the landscape. Natural England, after all, is as powerful as any government body can be, having been formed out of the Countryside Agency, English Nature and the rural development wing of Defra. It seems to me that the fate of any area designated on its regional map as “a suitable location for onshore wind energy development” will be sealed. Developers will have been given an unofficial green light. Environmental objections based on local concerns, however valid, risk being defeated before they have even been articulated.
And here is the first problem in Natural England’s planned guidelines. It is claimed they will be applicable to power plants of 25 or more turbines, that smaller developments (small, at least, to those not living near them) will be treated case by case. This is a profoundly disingenuous argument. If Natural England has pronounced a region to be suitable for large projects, surely the same map will be deployed in planning meetings for any scale of development.
In fact, the closer one looks at this project, the stranger its provenance and rationale seem to be. Natural England, no slouch at self-congratulation, has no reference to it on the official website. A call to them revealed that the consultant drawing up the map and guidelines is Ove Arup, the international engineering company with particular experience of wind energy, but,when I rang Arup their press office refused even to confirm that the firm was involved. For a government-run project that could affect the shape of the English countryside, not to mention the lives of those who live it, there is something distinctly odd about this shyness.
There are other concerns. The development map, drawn up on a regional scale, will take account of national parks, of areas of outstanding natural beauty and of environments, like peat bogs, which are likely to be particularly vulnerable. As for humans, the visual effects on much-loved landscapes will be considered, as will the way developments might impinge on recreation or access to the countryside.
But wait. Surely something is missing here. For some people, the countryside is not merely a place for views, walks and tourism; they happen to live there. Will this highly influential map include considerations about the human environment?
It will not. The effect on people of large wind turbines, the sight and the sound of them, the shadows that fall as they turn, their effect on health and welfare, is apparently outside the scope of Natural England’s new guidelines. Rather less than impressively, a “hard rule” will be established that no turbine should be constructed within 150 metres of a human habitation. Any argument quoting the UK Noise Association’s suggested buffer zone of 1.5 kilometres will fall on deaf ears, too. According to Natural England, noise falls outside its remit of environmental concern. It is all rather bizarre. The welfare of a hiker on a path matters; that of someone in his house or her garden does not. The effect on birds and bees will be taken into consideration, but not the effect on humans.
Thus a perfect circular arrangement falls into the place. The Government’s adviser on the environment and an engineering multinational will come up with a map and broad-sweep set of guidelines which will suit the government just fine, easing the progress of rural developments through the planning system. Meanwhile, approaching from the opposite direction, there is a new planning Bill which will reduce still further the power of local communities to have a say in their own future.
The message is clear from the Government, its quangos and business beneficiaries. Big is beautiful. The future of the countryside is too important to be left to those who live there.