From the eastern end of the South Downs it is possible, on a clear day, to look out over one of the most quintessentially English of all landscapes. A vast area of Kent and Sussex countryside lies at your feet, green, undulating, heavily wooded, and tranquil. This is The Weald, known for centuries as the Garden of England. Small villages cluster round ancient churches and farmhouses slumber among well-tended fields, timeless reminders of our rural heritage. Confronted with such beauty it is possible to forget, briefly, that this is also one of the most densely populated parts of the country and one of the most prosperous, and just revel in such a feast for the eyes and balm for the stresses of our modern, industrialised existence
Who could deny that this exquisite prospect is worth protecting? In an age when four fifths of the population live in urban areas, and the government plans to build up to three million more houses, many of them in the countryside, surely there must be some inviolable rules that will ensure that a few vestiges of pristine rural landscape are preserved for the enjoyment of all. Without them we risk losing the ability to see our existence in any context other than that of an industrialised landscape that isolates us from the natural world. Our daily lives will be impoverished by the loss but, even more seriously, we will risk loosing sight of our relationship with the forces of nature, and forget that we are subject to them and not their master.
Well one person who does not see things quite this way is that illustrious television presenter, naturalist, and all round national treasure, Sir David Attenborough.
Some time ago, the proprietors of Glyndebourne Opera House, which enjoys the kind of setting that I have described above, applied for planning permission to build a 230 ft Wind turbine on the South Downs for the purpose of reducing their carbon footprint. They seem to have been quite indifferent to the footprint that this would leave on the landscape, which is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and is also designated to become a national park.
We are talking about a structure with a height equivalent to a twenty-storey office block. If you can see the whole of the Weald from the proposed site of the turbine, then of course, the whole of the Weald will be able to see the turbine too: views do tend to be a two-way thing. One might expect that such an obviously outrageous proposal would be doomed to failure, and opposition to the planning application was widespread and vocal, leading to a public inquiry.
Enter Sir David in his role as the nation’s conscience where all things environmental are concerned. It was obvious from the outset that he would be able to exert considerable influence on the way that the controversy was treated by the media. Innumerable television series - and of course the best selling books of those series - have turned this seemingly reticent and modest celebrity into a powerful brand, with all the PR clout that this implies. Well in advance of the planning inspector starting his deliberations, the media were headlining his intention to give evidence in support of the wind turbine. Here are his reasons:
“Having visited the proposed site, I noticed that it is close to a place where not so long ago, a windmill once stood. I suspect that were that windmill still in existence, many of us would regard it as a welcome feature in the essentially domesticated Sussex landscape and would speak passionately in favour of its protection. That, surely, is because most of us have a care and affection for the past. I certainly have.
“But I also have a care and affection for the future. A wind turbine, with its graceful lines, collecting energy from the environment without causing any material damage, is a marvellous demonstration of the way we can minimise our pollution of the atmosphere, if we wish to do so. It would help protect not only the countryside we have known for centuries but also the wider world beyond.”
Now it is just possible that Sir David really is incapable of distinguishing between a modern wind turbine and a traditional, stone built, windmill, although that would be rather like not being able to tell the difference between a historic watermill and a nuclear power station. And it may also be possible that a man who has spent much of his career visiting some of the world’s remaining wildernesses is indifferent to what the landscape of his native land looks like, or whether its few remaining glories are polluted by gigantic industrial structures. But can he really think that past use of a location automatically provides a precedent for its modern equivalent. In Attenborough-land would the site of every old barn have a profitable future as a bright new concrete and steel storage and logistics unit?
So how can this respected and much loved celebrity have formulated such fatuous and unreasonable arguments? The answer, of course, is global warming. It would seem that it is no longer necessary for any pronouncement associated with this subject to be rational in order to sway public opinion. It is only necessary to mouth the prescribed platitudes and no one will question your sanity, however extraordinary your ideas may be.
Ever since I was a child, I have been enraptured by Sir David’s television programmes, and by his ability to bring the remotest parts of the world to life in people’s sitting rooms. He seems so relaxed and at home in such surroundings that one can imagine him returning from his trips to some snug haven in the heart of the countryside; perhaps a rambling Devon farmhouse or a remote lodge on the shores of a distant Scottish sea lochs. It therefor came as quite a surprise when I discovered that, in spite of the wealth that his career must have brought him, he has actually chosen to live in Kingston upon Thames, one of London’s more prosaic and crowded suburbs. Evidently he does not see this as an impediment to telling people who live in the Kent and Sussex Weald what is best for them.
A further element of unreality was added to this saga when the public inquiry concluded with a recommendation that the Glyndebourne turbine should be granted planning permission, but with some conditions.
The opera house has always been a favourite place for high-end corporate entertainment, and for this purpose Glyndebourne has a helipad so that wealthy visitors whose time is valuable can fly to this isolated, but very fashionable and eye-wateringly expensive, venue. One of the conditions imposed on the applicants is that the helipad should be closed and furthermore, the audience should be discouraged from driving to Glyndebourne. So people who are prepared to pay up to £190 for a single ticket will be expected to discover the joys of travelling by public transport, dressed in their finest evening clothes. The objective of this condition may be exquisitely politically correct, but I think that the residents of East Sussex can look forward to even more gas guzzling limousines clogging up their already desperately overcrowded roads.
Hazel Blears, the communities and local government secretary, has now endorsed the planning inspectors decision, and there is little doubt that the turbine will be built. Here is what the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England has to say about this disaster:
“We are talking about an industrial scale of development in what is designated as a national park. It sends a very stark warning to anybody who cares about the quality of the landscape that the government’s present mindset appears to be against the profound importance of beauty.
“It will fundamentally alter the landscape and profoundly impact on the quality and tranquillity of the South Downs.”
Surprisingly, I have mixed feelings about the Glyndebourne turbine. On the one hand I am horrified that our society has become so desensitised to the tragic destruction of our countryside, and to the protests of those who inhabit it. On the other hand, I am aware that the area that will be subjected to this unnecessary and intrusive development is populated by some of the most wealthy and influential people in the land. A great many of them are about to become aware of what industrial wind generation looks like on their doorstep.
The decision to go ahead with the Glyndebourne turbine is so obviously reprehensible that it may even lead some to question the rationale for such decisions. Perhaps attitudes to similar, but much larger and even more devastating schemes, in parts to the county which they may only be familiar with by reading about them in the newspapers, will change. But even if this is the case, the Weald and the South Downs will already have paid an appallingly high price.
Let’s give the last word to Gus Christie, the executive chairman of Glyndebourne, who was the author of this scheme:
He said wind turbines were becoming necessary “symbols of the age we live in” and that countryside groups should spend more time finding places turbines should go rather than opposing each one.
Perhaps daily exposure to the make believe world of an opera house makes you see things differently from most people.
Update 23/11/2009: There have been new, and possibly hopeful, last minute developments. See these links: