We Desecrate Our Landscape
|by Simon Jenkins
24 October 2003
The setting is classic England. The eastern flank of the Lake District sweeps down from Shap Fell into Borrowdale before rising to the Pennine ridge at Howgill. Moorland bluffs glare at each other over the dales as if spoiling for a fight. This is the North Country at its most virile and most deserted. It is gloriously, preciously wild.
Last month a proposal came forward for this landscape, backed by government subsidy, that simply defies belief. It is for 40 wind turbine towers, 100m tall, twice the height of the tallest electricity pylon, spread across five miles of moors at Whinash. It would be the largest onshore turbine park in Europe and the biggest industrial development by land area in Britain. Each turbine will require 1,000 tons of concrete, with associated roads, conduits and pylons. No office block, factory, supermarket or cooling tower would be allowed to commit such an outrage. Once upon a more civilised time, nor would anything else.
To see what is in store for Cumbria I went last weekend to what is currently the biggest such turbine park, in the Cambrian Mountains above Carno in Powys. The desecration of the Mid-Welsh uplands hereabouts is becoming total. The moors are speckled with white metal stalks. New parks are planned from the Snowdonia boundary to the north as far south as the Brecon Beacons.
West of Carno, rise above 2,000ft and then descend into the picturesque Rheidol and Ystwyth valleys. Here an even bigger park has won government permission, once financed by the American Enron corporation (now General Electric) on Forestry Commission land at Cefn Croes. Its champion is Patricia Hewitt, the Trade Secretary. She did not visit the site before ordering it to proceed without so much as an inquiry, despite this being a Special Landscape Area.
No attempt is to be made to camouflage these structures. By their nature they must be prominently sited, 1,800ft above sea level. The turbine "flicker" will intrude on 100 sq miles of wilderness. It is as if the whole of the Cotswolds had been handed to Tate Modern for a permanent, surreal mobile installation. Such turbine parks are now planned across the uplands and coastline of western and northern Britain.
I refuse to regard Britain as a philistine country. Yesterday an exhibition opened in the Hayward Gallery in London of 250 treasures acquired for the nation over the past century with help from the National Art Collections Fund. Here is the Rokeby Venus, Rodin's Burghers of Calais, works by Leonardo and Michelangelo, Botticelli and Rembrandt, Assyrian reliefs, Roman jewellery, silver and majolica. Here too is Houdon's bust of Voltaire, the mere sight of which turns me kleptomaniac. If it ever goes missing, the V&A will find it sitting on my desk.
I cannot think of many other countries that would devote such care to the protection and exhibition of these exquisite works. Yet how can a country so assiduous in guarding its moveable treasures be so careless of its more public realm, its landscape and townscape? How can it contemplate desecrating the Pennines and Cambrian Mountains? In the 1960s the American economist J.K. Galbraith pointed to the paradox of private wealth flourishing amid public squalor. Citizens who valued the best things in their homes could tolerate the worst beyond their front doors. They might be embarrassed by public squalour, but market forces had no way of turning that into collective action.
The history of democratic government has been a refutation of Galbraith. Poverty and disease have been countered. National parks and historic buildings have been protected. Planning has directed building so as to guard the quality of the built and rural environment. This has not always worked, but government has usually been with Galbraith's angels.
A giant irony of British politics is that under Labour this is no longer the case. One White Paper after another has declared planning's task as not to protect the environment but to ease the operation of market forces. At every Whitehall meeting, ministers and civil servants are expected to be "pro-development". They may be aesthetic Dr Jekylls at home but at work they must act the philistine Mr Hyde.
The Government wants to ring Britain with a necklace of turbine parks. The case for this form of energy generation has been so shot full of holes that the argument barely merits repetition. Since turbines produce only a third of declared capacity and need conventional power stations "idling" for when the wind drops, they are hopelessly uneconomic. Companies rush to build them only because of a statutory cross-subsidy worth almost three times the market value of their output. The Government plans to tip in an extra £300 million of grant. The Swedes, Dutch and Danes have already abandoned their wind programmes. The British Government is expensively out of date.
These machines comprise just 0.25 per cent of British generating capacity and are unlikely to yield more than 1 per cent. They could all be replaced by one conventional, and clean, power station. Their net contribution to fighting global warming, itself a controversial goal, is insignificant. Similarly financed incentives to energy conservation or higher taxes on car and aviation fuel would yield far more in CO 2 reduction. The Government refuses these for electoral reasons.
The turbine programme is merely cosmetic, a flag to wave at international conferences. The machines are carefully located out of ministerial sight and mind, in the wildest and most inaccessible parts of Britain, also the most beautiful. They would be inconceivable on the crest of the Chilterns overlooking Chequers.
Only governments can protect the environment. Market forces cannot embrace such public externalities as the enjoyment of countryside or the pleasure of old buildings. The market never reverts concrete to nature. Disused defence sites become warehouses; petrol stations become supermarkets; farm settlements are not replaced by compact villages but spread over the fields as caravan sites and bungalows. Those who care to inspect Ms Hewitt's domain of the East Midlands will see a countryside fast resembling parts of South-East Asia, of limit-less environmental degradation.
Planning used to order development and set standards of public design. It weighed costs against benefits within a rough framework of public aesthetics. The word beauty carried meaning. Old structures were thought to have value. Rurality was considered vulnerable and merited protection.
This no longer applies. Mr Prescott's new regional plans are intended to override local wishes, to force through faster development of the countryside. He was panicked by lobbyists last week into demanding urgent "prefab" estates. Labour's new Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land is typified by urban flight and rural sprawl, executive homes, warehouses, pylons and now wind turbines.
Britain has taught itself to cherish beauty in museums and galleries. Its historic houses and museums, its parks and gardens are without compare in Europe. As the Hayward show indicates, Britain can handle a Leonardo or a Rembrandt with panache. Yet Britons seem to have lost confidence as custodians of the public domain. Rich and influential people living in London mostly holiday abroad and rarely visit the landscapes under threat. They may imagine that all of Britain is ugly and therefore not worth an exercise of aesthetic discrimination. But that cannot justify central government in disregarding Britain beyond the London weekend cottage belt.
In the calculus of beauty, I would pit the hills of Cumbria, the coast of Devon and Cornwall, the Pennine uplands and the mountains of Wales against any Constable, Gainsborough or Stubbs. They are no less fragile, and currently far more vulnerable. I would not burn a Constable if I were told it might help to save fossil fuel, if only because the benefit would be vastly outweighed by the loss. Nor would I sacrifice the landscapes that Ms Hewitt plans to destroy for so trivial a donation to the cause of global cooling as a few hundred wind turbines.
The Government's thesis that the countryside of upland and coastal Britain is "worth sacrificing to save the planet" is an insult to science, economics and politics. But the greatest insult is to aesthetics. The trouble is that aesthetics has no way of answering back.