The editor-at-large for Grand Designs Magazine writes an exclusive column every month.
This month, our editor-at-large gets his head around the plethora of alternative energy schemes springing up around our countryside and the effect on our rural communities
All across Britain – the Wild West, East and North, and the Wild Home Counties – rural communities are dividing into vicious camps as a new form of agriculture is emerging: not super-intensive, genetically modified hydroponics – no, nothing as traditional as that – but energy production.
In just a few short years, farmers have shifted their hungry gaze from forestry and biomass willow plantations to miscanthus elephant grass, as they have roamed across the lush plains of renewable energy. But now, they are being eagerly tempted to much higher ground. Dozens of entrepreneurial energy companies are now competing in a free-for-all, bidding to rent farmland and fields to install solar arrays or wind turbines. The farmers, of course, capitulate.
The appeal of receiving an income for doing nothing is far too exciting.
In one particular valley near where I live, a wind turbine is going up. Another three are proposed by a quarry company (to offset their emissions) without any regard for the important, lovingly restored, Grade I-listed Tudor manor that they overshadow. One farmer has agreed with an energy firm to proceed with planning permission, and another is about to begin the early due diligence to install a turbine in his field. A proposed solar farm has worked some local residents into a lather as they campaign to save a view (I can’t see their view so don’t understand their view). Over the hill, another proposed solar farm is considered such an eyesore and so miscalculated in its siting that residents have formed a vociferous action group. And all this activity in a stretch of landscape just a few miles long.
There are concerns about low-frequency vibrations from turbines; Wiltshire County Council want them sited 0.6 miles from the nearest dwelling. Nevertheless, we should be celebrating this renewable energy revolution. Wind turbines are not noisy (I stood in a field of them this week in a gust) and, when grouped together, they are magnificently statuesque and surprisingly quiet to the ear. Solar arrays are low-profile and discreet when properly sited, and both can drastically improve biodiversity on farmland when sensitively managed. Thanks to vast improvements in technology and the flexibility of the national grid, these renewables are beginning to make a significant contribution to our energy production. In Denmark, 25 per cent of the country’s energy needs are met by wind.
And we should not be stultified by changes in our existing landscape. The countryside is not a rural theme park to enjoy from our cars, it is entirely manufactured; fields and hedges are man-made structures designed as a workplace where our food is produced. This tightly managed resource has always changed. As we pass from the industrial revolution to its post-industrial equivalent, we need to reassess how we use that landscape for energy production as well as food, as amenity and, occasionally, for its beauty.
But no one is assuming that responsibility. Minister Eric Pickles issued guidance in June in which he helpfully stated that important amenities and historic sites must be protected from the intrusive visual impact of renewable installations, but there is no joined-up national and regional strategy and there is, importantly, no planning mandate to deliver profits from schemes back into local communities. This is bonkers. Residents would start to feel very differently about renewable energy if 10 per cent of all turnover income from a wind turbine was made to find its way into the parish coffers for a new playground or mobile library (curiously, there’s one wind turbine near me that does just this).
Planning departments need to get wise and toughen up, consult rural communities, design some serious strategies and demand some positive benefit to the local communities they will affect. What are the alternatives? How do you feel about old-fashioned Dutch windmills? More acceptable? If not, it’s more coal-fired power stations, more nuclear ones perhaps, too. Oh, and don’t forget fracking. Also coming to a landscape near you pretty soon.