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The Spectator May 27 1995

The Cabinet's Appeasement of the Green Lobby has ruined one of Britain's Natural Wonders.

by Simon Jenkins


"The best drive back to England takes the old slate road through Corris to Machynlleth and then up past the Roman mining settlement of Dylife. From here on a clear day we always stop to look back across the Dovey.

There lies the complete Cader range: an unsullied panorama of British landscape from the heights above Bala round to the shores of Cardigan Bay.

I have gazed on this view since childhood and even the Forestry Commission's set-square plantations failed to ruin it.

Today the view has been defaced beyond belief. In the middle of the tableau and standing guard over the upper waters of the Dovey lies a mountain ridge known as Cemmaes. Across its summit now march 24 gigantic white wind-turbines.

Like creatures from the The War of the Worlds, they frantically wave their arms across the scenery as if semaphoring to some distant ally.

Not only is it impossible to avoid them, placed as they are on one of the most prominent spots in mid-Wales, but their ceaseless movement draws the eye from wherever else it may rest.

Nobody with an ounce of respect for the countryside could have permitted their erection. (Step forward, David Hunt, Welsh secretary at the time.)"

And : "They would never be allowed into a town. There should be an organised tourist boycott of any county that permits them. A year ago a great storm blew up from the sea and wrecked the Cemmaes turbine blades. One day economics will do the same. But by then we shall doubtless be compensating farmers for not erecting them."



How green are our turbine valleys?


Tony Blair yesterday spoke on the environment in an overheated hall in St James's Square. He should have spoken somewhere else. He should have spoken at Ordnance Survey reference SN828953, in the moorland north of Dylife in Mid-Wales. There he could have seen his green policy in action. He could have seen a spectacle of such appalling desecration that words (almost) fail me.

The landscape is among the most beautiful in upland Britain. It stretches from the borders of Snowdonia down the spine of the Cambrian Mountains to the Brecon Beacons. It was too little-known to be included in any national park and is ignored by the National Trust, which recently blew 3.5 million "rescuing" the perfectly safe Snowdon, largely because someone in London had heard of it.

From the wilderness above Dylife, Mr Blair would see perhaps 1,000 square miles of country that is now as turbine-infested as a Gulf oilfield. The region contains the largest concentration of wind turbines in Europe, with more than 250 visible from most vantage points. In the past decade Mid-Wales has become the dumping ground for 45 per cent of Britain's subsidised totems to environmental diplomacy. The scene is awful. Were these the South Downs, the nation would have apoplexy.

The turbines are everywhere. To the north march those of Cemmaes Ridge, a row of crucifixes rising as a giant Golgotha over the upper Dovey Valley. To the east run the Carno turbines, boasted as Europe's biggest single wind power station. South are the Llandinam turbines above Llanidloes, Europe's second biggest field after Carno. To the west are the turbines that line both sides of the once-lovely Rheidol Valley, running down to Cardigan Bay. The new Cefn Croes power station is planned to be the biggest in Britain, requiring 39 turbines, each 328ft high. There are further reports of turbines proposed along the actual 2,500ft summit of Plynlimon. Nobody seems to give a damn. The depredation is beyond belief.

These machines are good for nothing but boasting at Earth Summit conferences. They were conceded by Michael Howard and John Gummer in pledging a "10 per cent renewable" energy quota, and dumped on Wales by Tory Secretaries of State, John Redwood and William Hague. With no strategic planning control, hill farmers have rushed to claim the 2,000-a-year rent from each turbine. Yet such ruined countryside is worthless for its one long-term use, recreation. The Welsh Tourist Board should be sacked for failing to defend its most precious asset, landscape, first against conifers and now against these forests of whirling steel. Tourists should boycott mid-Wales unless and until they are dismantled.

The turbines generate footling amounts of energy. Whenever I see them, only half are working. They cannot turn in light wind and must be switched off in a strong one, so that they operate at barely 25 per cent of their quoted output. They exist only because government demands a cross-subsidy from a levy on fossil fuel bills. A recent turbine in Ayrshire claimed to be the first to "operate without subsidy", but that was assuming peak output. Critics claim that each turbine uses more fossil fuel in construction and maintenance than it saves in a lifetime. The 160 turbines of the huge Carno and Llandinam fields yield the same energy in a year that a normal power station produces in four days. We could erect turbines in every park, cliff, bay and estuary - we could destroy every scenic vista in the land - and still not generate 2 per cent of Britain's energy needs.

Wind turbines evince the ultimate Nimbyism. They are located in parts of Britain that London politicians never visit, since most now holiday abroad. Imagine Mr Blair's fury if the Italian Government erected 60 turbines on a hill opposite San Gimignano or near his regular Gascony retreat. Yet he is promoting turbines along the coast of Cornwall and Devon. He has them climbing the Pennines above the Dales. He has them encircling the Lake District. Like 19th-century aristocrats despoiling the Highlands in the name of sport, Labour's metropolitan elite neither knows nor cares about the British landscape, so long as it can cut a dash at the next international summit. In the name of the environment, the environment is destroyed.

Earlier this week, the British Government joined the rest of Europe in expressing "concern" at the Taleban regime in Afghanistan, for smashing ancient Buddhas in the name of religion. How could these fanatics, we asked, seek short-term political gain by wrecking the timeless heritage of their country? Offers poured in to buy or guard the statues carved into the hills of the Hindu Kush. Despite these protests, soldiers were sent with mortars and dynamite to blast them to pieces.

If I were a Taleban leader I would accuse Britain of hypocrisy. I would thank Mr Blair for reminding me of the glory of the Hindu Kush, perhaps asking when he last paid it a visit. I would point out that destroying heritage for short-term political gain is not unique to Afghanistan. What was Mr Blair doing to protect the London skyline or the English countryside? Why did I read that Mr Blair was desecrating the wild places of ancestral Britain, the mountains of the Celtic gods, with his giant gyrating crucifixes? What god was he appeasing? The British should consult their much-vaunted Bible, and consider the beam in their own eye before protesting the Afghan's mote.

I am all for renewable energy, though the Earth's reserves of fossil fuel are so huge that it takes an apocalyptic "green" to fear their imminent exhaustion. I remain an enthusiast for nuclear power, which does little atmospheric damage and is highly efficient, if and when we can ensure its safety. Solar power is cheap and not unsightly. Geothermal energy from under ground is as yet in its infancy. Wave energy is still expensive to extract. Wind power is the least efficient of all to gather, and the most environmentally intrusive. The green lobby still loves it. We can all watch Jonathon Porritt's view with interest as his beloved turbines now move up from Stroud towards his Gloucestershire back yard.

By far the best way to conserve fossil fuel is to use less of it, to insulate buildings, restrain consumption and discourage mobility. Yet the present Government last autumn cut petrol taxes to appease the transport lobby. If ever there were a case of "political shorttermism", this was it. Mr Blair is blatantly unserious on this issue, so why should he be allowed to destroy what is left of the British countryside to win a few headlines? No sensible person regards wind energy as efficient, but some at least find turbines beautiful. I would agree that some industrial structures are appealing. The granite stacks of Cornwall's tin mines fuse gracefully into their cliffs. The vapour flumes that rise over the cooling towers of the Trent Valley can, in the right light, have a eerie charm. The pylons that march across much of England are handsome to some eccentric souls. But even we do not build cooling towers on Helvellyn. We do not push pylons through Suffolk villages or down the Golden Valley. Wind turbines are worse than either. Their materials are alien to the landscape and their movement is visually distracting. It would be hard to design structures so hostile to the natural wildness and serenity of Britain's uplands.

Those who want turbines should build them in their own backyards. They never do. Wind turbines are industrial machines and should be confined to sites where they intrude least on the natural environment. If turbines only work on prominent hill-tops, that is too bad. I am sure hotels and bungalows work best there too. Planning cannot collapse before people who would gladly put a Hilton on Snowdon and a motorway through the High Peak. It is incredible that we must have this argument in the 21st century.

But let us give politicians the benefit of the doubt. Let us assume that they act from ignorance rather than sin. Those who holiday in France and Italy can surely comprehend scenic beauty. Perhaps nobody has told Mr Blair and his court that Britain too has fine scenery. So let the famous motorcade head out to map reference SN828953, and see what this is all about.