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.”

TimesOnline, 26th Fed 2008

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.”

The Guardian, 12th July 2008

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.

The Guardian, 12th July 2008

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:

  Fresh Objections to Glyndebourne Wind Turbine Plan

Glyndebourne Wind Turbine Proved to be Hot Air
Abandon Glyndebourne Turbine Say Campaigners

11 Responses to “Glyndebourne’s wind turbine and Attenborough’s shame”

  1. Tony: I have been going to Glyndebourne’s productions for many years – at my own (considerable) expense and not as a corporate invitee. It’s always a magic experience – partly because I’m in the company of some of my oldest and closest friends, partly because of the always wonderful music and partly because of the exquisite countryside. It’s something I look forward to every year. The prospect of its being dominated by a 230 foot and pointless wind turbine fills me with utter dismay.

  2. Robin:

    Glyndebourne turbine form lawns

    Wind farm developers have become very skillful at producing photo montages of their products. Note the use of the white gazebo to provide a high impact focal point to draw the eye away from the turbine, and the way that it peeps out shyly form behind a tree. The blade will have a diameter of 177ft and, when seen in real life, will be moving, remorselessly.

  3. Man-made climate change is without doubt the greatest global threat that we face today, not to take action to address it or to actively oppose measures designed to tackle it are highly irresponsible and small minded. Wind power, both on and offshore, must and will play a key role in our energy mix – yes to wind !!!

  4. Jonathan: your comment that “Man-made climate change is without doubt the greatest global threat that we face today” suggests that you could make a useful contribution to another Harmless Sky thread. You find it here.

  5. According to the Times of May 30,2008, Gus Christie, the chairman of Glyndebourne said that arguments against his proposed wind turbine were “lies”.

    Mr Christie claimed the turbine will save 855 tonnes of CO2 emission per year. This seems about right, though no anemometry has confirmed the available wind at Mill Plain.

    As the UK’s annual emission of CO2 is given by DEFRA as 572 million tonnes, is it also a lie that it would require well over half a million machines like the Glyndebourne swisher to equal this – six or seven turbines per square mile?

    And is it a lie that in early June 2008, E.ON UK pointed out that it would need to build new fossil fuel power stations to provide back-up for the amount of windpower which is proposed? E.ON estimated this backup as 90 percent of the installed capacity of windpower! Paradoxically we must build power stations to accommodate wind “farms”

    We, or certainly our descendents, will rue the effort and money wasted on the arrogant assumption that man and windmills can alter the weather.

  6. When I saw that Greg Sandow – an eminent American composer and music critic – had posted an article on his blog in support of the Glyndebourne turbine I submitted a comment. Here’s what happened:

    By TonyN on July 19, 2008 6:14 AM
    Greg: The Glyndebourne turbine may be a victory for ‘the environment’, but I think that you will find the people who will have to live with it as part of their environment will see things rather differently. See here:

    [Greg says]
    This controversy — a very old one, involving many more places than Glyndebourne — was noted in the story I linked to. I’ve driven through lovely landscape near the Yorkshire Dales (where my wife and I go every summer), and seen wind turbines. I don’t mind them. At home, we have a house on 18 acres in a lovely spot an hour outside New York City, and I’d happily put a wind turbine on our property, where in fact it’s very windy. Which is to say that views on this differ.

    I liked the bit in the blog you linked about windmills, how many people would think a windmill in a lovely place only added to its beauty. I think we might learn to feel the same thing about wind turbines. I always get a good feeling when I see them — I think that we’re moving toward a better future.

    By TonyN on July 19, 2008 4:33 PM
    The problem with 230ft wind turbines is that you cannot enjoy them in the privacy of your own home. Your predilection is inevitably shared with everyone else within a wide radius, whether they like it or not.
    Its rather like the Flying Dutchman at full volume on the stereo on a summer evening with all the windows open, but much, much more so.

    You say:
    “… how many people would think a windmill in a lovely place only added to its beauty. I think we might learn to feel the same thing about wind turbines.”
    And if this happens then there will be no part of our habitat which is safe from industrialisation. You live on a vast and sparsely populated continent. I live on a small and crowd island where even the most remote and and unspoiled areas are being contaminated with the artifacts of our technological age.
    But thanks for being tolerant enough to let my original comment and link appear.

    [Greg says]
    We’ll just have to disagree. I do respect your point of view.

    But that line about the “vast and sparsely populated continent” — !! That’s a bit of a stereotype. Well, more than a bit. You should travel sometime between Boston and Washington, DC (an eight-hour car ride), or along the Florida coast. Or anywhere in the area of Denver, Colorado, or anywhere along the California coast south of Los Angeles. Or, of course, many, many, many other places. The US is being eaten alive by development and urban/suburban sprawl. I mentioned that I spend time in the Yorkshire Dales, and there I feel more isolated and more surrounded by nature than I do anywhere I normally go in the US. Granted, I’m in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, but still — I don’t know many (if any) residential areas in the US that are so protected. By contrast, I live an hour outside New York in a surprisingly rural place (surprisingly for something so close to the city), and development is encroaching everywhere, most recently in a field behind our house. I’d love it if the town of Warwick, NY, were “vast and sparsely populated.”

    It disturbs me that people who are obviously intelligent and generally well informed can hold such illogical and ill-informed opinions on any subject that pertains to climate change without realising that what they say is contradictory.

    There seemed no point in pursuing the matter any further.

  7. I saw it yesterday and was shocked and saddened!
    I knew nothing about it .
    The world has gone mad!
    It has to go.
    Everything you said I agree with and very well put.
    It is an icon to our times – we are very very lost.

  8. Well said

  9. i think people are missing the point. It is not just the look of this turbine (that is bad enough) it is the fact that wind farms and the whole policy of ‘renewable and green energy’ is pushing more people into fuel poverty and driving industry away because of high energy costs. Added to which, wind energy only offers intermittent and unreliable power and we are just waiting for the lights to go out. When, and it will happen, when it happens, it will cause utter chaos and by then it will be too late to turn back. The damage will be done.

  10. Katie

    It’s undoubtedly the case that more and more people share your point of view, and let’s hope that the tide will turn before too much more damage is done. Whatever one may choose to read into the Eastleigh by-election result, it is clear that the vast majority of voters there were not backing metropolitan liberal policies.

  11. I’ve just written to our local (Isle of Wight) paper in reply to a crie-de-coeur from our local FoE representative, who seemed to think that more windmills would prevent the lights from going out! He sees no problem with the intermittency, even though we had a lovely still weekend recently where the wind power contribution was around 0.1% and possibly even negative, given that they require maintenance power when not turning.

    I think he’s also overlooking the EU insistence that we close Fawley and Didcot power stations this month, and a whole load more next year. That should concentrate a few minds in Westminster…

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