Christopher Booker's Notebook
T he Government's plan to dominate hundreds of square miles of Britain's countryside with wind turbines is the centre of a battle rapidly approaching its crisis. This year 30 new schemes have been approved, for turbines supposedly generating 770 megawatts of power - equal to the entire capacity of the 1,165 turbines erected to date. Up to 9,000 turbines are now at different stages of the planning process - and many are far bigger than the majority of those already built.
The Government is desperately bending the planning laws to get the turbines up because the EU requires us to generate 20 per cent of our power from renewable sources by 2020. Meanwhile, ever more scientists, engineers and conservationists are adding their voices to the argument that wind turbines are ludicrously costly and inefficient - and do not bring the ecological benefits they are supposed to achieve anyway. There are many who warn that the Government is making a catastrophic blunder.
Although I have been professionally concerned by the delusions surrounding wind power for some years, I have recently become personally involved. I am chairman of a group that opposes the plan for the first giant turbine to surmount the 1,000-foot-high escarpment of the Mendip Hills in Somerset. There are more than 70 similar groups fighting all over Britain, and compared to what they face our threat may seem trifling. There are plans, for example, for 340 turbines up to 400 feet high within 18 miles of Perth; for 500 in the Hebrides; for 22 monsters near Ilfracombe in north Devon, and 26 on Romney Marsh in Kent. However, if we lose our battle there are already plans for more turbines on the Mendips.
We were therefore delighted last week to win the support of the doughtiest anti-wind campaigner of all, the veteran conservationist Prof David Bellamy, who was at Bristol Zoo to talk about his forthcoming book The Battle for Britain's Countryside. He met with some of our campaigners against the backdrop of Brunel's Clifton suspension bridge - which is a full 70 feet lower than the turbine we are fighting on the Mendips.
The statistics demonstrating the futility of wind power are now overwhelming. Electricity from wind is two-and-a-half times more expensive than from conventional sources. The claims for the amount of power generated by turbines - which consumers already subsidise to the tune of £1.5 billion a year through higher bills - are wildly exaggerated. On the Government's own admission, the output of each turbine, thanks to the vagaries of the wind, is less than a quarter of "installed capacity" (24.1 per cent), so that the 1,165 turbines already built produce an average of only 186 megawatts: a fraction of that produced by one large conventional power station.
The saving in greenhouse gas emissions is minimal: the 1,165 turbines already built may "displace" 93 tons of CO2 an hour but, for comparison, five jumbo jets in flight will give off 100 tons an hour. And even this notional saving is discounted by the need to keep conventional power stations permanently ticking over, ready to take over for the three-quarters of the time when turbines are unable to generate.
The Government, as deluded by its windmills as Don Quixote, is backed by a strange alliance of ill-informed, sentimental greens and the wind-power companies themselves. The latter cannot believe their luck at a bonanza worth more than £1 billion a year. On the opposing side, led by such eminent conservationists as Prof Bellamy and James Lovelock, is an increasingly clued-up army of critics, who cannot understand why we should desecrate vast tracts of Britain's most beautiful countryside for what they see as "the scam of the century".
Last week, without fanfare, it emerged that one of the British Army's biggest defence contracts for decades, a £1.8 billion order to replace all of its trucks, was to go to a German firm, MAN-Nutzfarzheuge. The other main bidder was an Anglo-American consortium, led by the giant US truck builders Stewart & Stevenson and including three British firms, LDV, Multidrive and Lex. A first consequence of the Ministry of Defence's decision, therefore, is that thousands of jobs which would have been created in Britain will go instead to Germany.
The implications of the MoD's decision, however, go much further than lost employment opportunities. The US partners in the rejected consortium, who were keen to supply sophisticated off-road vehicles capable of operating in any terrain, are world leaders, as in its own way is the Thirsk-based Multidrive, which recently landed a big order with the Pentagon.
The real reason for the MoD's decision may lie in a recent vote by the US Congress that Britain should not be given a waiver on the tight rules surrounding US exports of high-tech defence equipment, because of growing US suspicion of Britain's absorption into the EU's joint defence effort. The Americans are worried that know-how supplied to us may get passed on to our less reliable EU partners.
In July Geoff Hoon warned the US that, without the waiver billions of dollars of US export contracts could be imperilled. Six days after Congress turned it down, the MoD announced it would now be negotiating the vehicle contract only with the Germans.
Mr Hoon's decision accords with the EU's recent green paper on the harmonisation of defence procurement (COM (2004) 608), and with an agreement on the EU's defence objectives reached by heads of government, including Tony Blair, in June 2003. It seems that the breaking-point in Britain's 60-year-old special defence relationship with the US may have arrived.
John Prescott is so keen to secure a Yes vote in next month's referendum on an elected regional assembly for the North-East that, last week, he and two other ministers, Gordon Brown and Peter Hain, were out on the campaign trail. (As Mr Brown put it in Newcastle, "I believe that a Yes vote would be good for the people and the businesses in the North-East.")
On Thursday Neil Herron of the North-East No campaign lodged an official complaint with the Electoral Commission. He pointed out that the politicians' visit was in clear breach of the Referendums Act 2000, which rules that Ministers of the Crown may not actively campaign to promote a specific result within 28 days of the start of polling in a referendum. At the same time he asked the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to explain why ministers appeared to be breaking the law.
He was told that they were not campaigning in their capacity as Deputy Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House, but simply as Labour MPs (although this was not how their presence in the North-East was reported). When Mr Herron asked whether they had used ministerial transport to travel to the North-East, no explanation was forthcoming.
Perhaps the Electoral Commission, which has a statutory duty to ensure that the law is observed, would like to investigate, with a view to possible prosecution?
Two weeks ago today, five fishing boats were an hour off the Yorkshire coast when they received a coastguard warning of "severe weather". They decided to head for Whitby but, since each had a catch of cod, they had, under EU conservation rules, to give notice to the fisheries inspectors of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
At 6.15pm Dick Brewer, the skipper of the Copious, rang Defra's Edinburgh call-centre, only to be told that, under EC Regulation 4231/2004, the boats could not enter Whitby harbour for four hours (a provision designed for the convenience of officials). Mr Brewer pointed out that it would then be low tide, and the boats would have to stay out until the next morning, at severe risk. Edinburgh was adamant: if the skippers broke the law they would be prosecuted. Finding the danger of the storm too great, they headed for safety anyway.
When it emerged that, if they had obeyed the law, a dozen fishermen could have lost their lives, Defra issued a statement blaming the Edinburgh call-centre which "did not follow correct procedures". This sounds plausible until one reads Regulation 4231/2004: it allows for no exemptions from the four-hour rule.
Barrie Deas of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations wrote months ago to the fisheries minister, Ben Bradshaw, pointing out that the inflexibility of this rule could cause "potentially life-threatening situations". Mr Bradshaw did not reply.