Thursday 29 November 2007

A land in need of heroes

It’s been one of those rare and special days when I truly appreciate the wisdom of returning to live in Northumberland full-time. The sun shone and the air was as sharp as a fishwife’s tongue. Under these atmospheric conditions, visibility seems almost limitless, offering breathtaking vistas of rolling hills almost untouched by any signs of modern industrial society. Indeed, one has to focus really hard to pick out the one line of electricity pylons advancing along the line of the A697, a single TV transmitter mast, and the golf ball shaped dome of the Brizlee Wood radar station guarding our airspace against Mr Putin.

All this is destined to change quite soon, in order to Save the Planet. Which most people would undoubtedly consider a Good Cause. I have my doubts myself, since what we are actually talking about is not the salvation of the planet, but of humanity. Would it really matter so much if we went the way of the dinosaurs? Given a few million years of evolution, the next dominant species (and my money is on the cockroach) might actually make a rather better fist of it.

But even if we accept that Saving the Planet is the right approach, are wind farms really the answer? They are monstrously inefficient and generate huge amounts of carbon dioxide in their construction. Nevertheless, in a rush that has echoes of the Klondike, assorted developers are pursuing plans to erect more than 300 giant turbines across the Northumberland uplands, in order to cash in on the generous subsidies arising from the UK’s “renewables obligation”. It is the most outrageous subsidy scam since the one that gave us countless acres of conifer forests to safeguard supplies of pit props for our now closed mines.

There is currently a public enquiry taking place in Alnwick, following the soon-to-be-abolished district council’s brave rejection of npower’s application to construct England’s biggest wind farm at Middlemoor, six miles north of the town. This proposes to plonk 18 giant (400ft) turbines across an unspoilt stretch of moorland midway between the coast and the Cheviot Hills, alongside what is, at present, one of the loveliest drives in the county: the single track road from North Charlton to Chillingham, passing the wonderful viewpoint of Ros Castle. The view may soon not be worth the effort of walking up to the summit.

Still, at least the press reports of the proceedings have afforded some much-needed amusement. My personal favourite was a Mr Urquhart, who appeared as witness last Friday. He assured the enquiry that the wind farm would be hardly noticeable, since looking at a 125 metre structure from a distance of two kilometres was the same as looking at a telegraph pole from a distance of 100 metres. For some reason, a vision of Father Ted holding up a model of a cow to Father Dougal and alternately pointing at it and gesturing out of the window while reciting the mantra “Small … far away … small … far away” sprang ineluctably to mind.

Mr Urquhart also suggested that Middlemoor could become the focus of a carbon-neutral 3,000 home eco-community, for which he had even taken the trouble to dream up a name: “Nortopia”.

I think he was supposed to be appearing on behalf of npower. Surely the oddest decision since someone decided that it would be a cracking idea to call Paul Whitehouse as a defence witness for Chris Langham.

The paper cited Mr Urquhart’s qualification to pontificate on Saving the Planet as being a medical librarian at Newcastle University. It didn’t specify whether he had a straggly beard and wore sandals, but I think we can all make an educated guess.

As the distinguished environmental scientist James Lovelock has written, the proponents of wind farms in the wider community are motivated by exactly the same spirit of faith-based vandalism that led the Puritans to smash the icons and stained glass windows of our great cathedrals. While behind them lurk the spiritual (and in some cases actual) descendants of the fat cats who profited so hugely from the stripping of the altars.

Oh for a Milton to protect the hills of Northumberland, as the poet drew his sword to defend the stained glass of King’s College, Cambridge. Sadly, these days we must rely on public enquiries. We all know what answer the Government wants from them. And who doubts that, by one means or another, it will ultimately have its way?

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