It sounds like a dream scheme for any committed climate activist or environmentalist – a clean, green, wind power project capable of meeting the energy requirements of 286,491 homes and saving 426,246 tonnes of carbon release annually. So why is it causing so much anger and dismay among so many Yorkshire conservationists?
Turbines on the High Pennines of Brontë Country
Only a few weeks after the government did a U-turn on on-shore wind farms – thanks in part to that brave and eloquent eco-warrior Chris Packham – a Saudi-led investment company called Calderdale Wind Farms Ltd has submitted a ‘scoping study’ for a 2,352-hectare wind farm on Wadsworth Moor in the South Pennines, more or less on the watershed between Calderdale and Airedale, on either side of Walshaw Dean Reservoir.
This would be a gigantic windfarm, one of Britain’s largest. There would be 65 turbines, each between 150 and 200 metres tall. By comparison Blackpool Tower is a mere 158 metres. The windfarm will make an immense visual impact, dominating the landscape for miles around.
But this is a wild, open, even iconic, cultural landscape, the inspiration for poets and novelists over generations, most notably Emily Brontë. Her poetic descriptions of Pennine moors, windswept heather, crags, deep rocky gills and waterfalls above her home village of Haworth, inspired the name Brontë Country. The ruin of Top Withens farm, with its two iconic sycamores, is widely reputed to be the setting for Wuthering Heights. It could soon be framed by the outlines of immense, slowly moving turbines. Hardly surprisingly, the august Brontë Society has suggested that the development would have “a significant impact on local viewpoints and a world-renowned landscape”.
This landscape has also inspired many other painters, photographers and authors including former poet laureate, the Calderdale-born Ted Hughes. Calderdale Council considers this landscape to be “internationally important in terms of its role in British culture and tourism”. It is an area beloved by walkers with such popular routes as the Pennine Way and the Brontë Way going through or close to it. This in turn represents significant economic value in terms of tourism.
But, in a national climate emergency, can and should such considerations outweigh the need to switch the nation’s dependency away from the hugely destructive burning of fossil fuels that now pose a threat to human existence?
Green energy will damage a vital carbon sink
In fact, the scientific evidence for climate benefits is nuanced. For one thing, much of the Walshaw Estate is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI), important for wildlife, especially moorland birds. It includes areas of deep peat, a hugely important material for carbon storage. According to wind turbine expert Professor Jospeh Holden of Leeds University, the carbon benefits from the turbines would outweigh the loss from peat storage but only by a modest margin. This would not include other environmental disbenefits.
Prime among these is the impact on flood management. Already Calderdale is one of the most high-risk areas for river flooding in the UK. The huge concrete bases required for the turbines, deeply dug by heavy machinery into peat, soil and bedrock, and new roadways and access tracks required to bring the blades and towers, and to service turbines, plus the kilometres of underground and surface cabling required would massively increase the speed and quantity of water run-off, undoing the careful eco-management and leaky dams being constructed on valley slopes.
The proposed mega structures would only have a life at most of 25-30 years; but the damage to fragile ecosystems and peat layers that have taken centuries to grow would be permanent.
Gaming the planning process
There is little doubt that if the proposal gets as far as a public inquiry, the evidence and public opposition will be overwhelming. It will almost certainly be turned down on both scientific and cultural grounds. But there is no certainty about this outcome. The present government has a record of ignoring local opinion, especially in areas where there is no sitting Conservative MP (Calderdale’s own Conservative MP, Craig Whitaker, is not standing for re-election), even overruling planning inspectors and giving decisions in favour of developers, a fact influenced by massive donations that appear in party coffers from development companies.
More realistically, this is part of a well-known softening-up technique: an outrageous proposal followed by a ‘compromise deal’ of, say, 30 turbines a mere 120 metres high, which might be what the developers had in mind in the first place, and which politicians then feel able to endorse.
In practice, there are ample low-grade, degraded, and in some cases featureless post-industrial landscapes in Britain, sites dominated by industry, distribution warehouses, motorways and agro-prairies where large turbines, even in significant numbers, could actually become enhancing features. Because of their size and efficiency, it is no longer necessary to put turbines on hill tops where, as in the case of the Wadsworth Moor proposals, they could even be a threat to incoming aircraft heading for Manchester and Leeds-Bradford Airports.
We need a positive strategic regional plan to determine sites where wind farms might be built, where there is no risk of destruction of sites of ecological or scientific importance, including peatland, or areas of cultural significance to be compromised.
The need for strategic green thinking
But there is an even more fundamental question to be asked. The huge drive for so-called sustainable energy is based on an exponential growth of consumption. We need energy to heat our homes, drive cars, fly our planes, maintain our slavish and growing power-hungry information technology in all its many ever-expanding facets.
In my own small commuter village, planning permission for a huge estate of 500 multi-bedroom ‘executive’ homes – not a starter property in sight – was granted totally against the wishes of the parish, city council and planning inspectorate, but at the whim of the then housing minister. None of these ‘traditional’ homes will meet low energy targets, let alone reflect the concept of zero-energy passive house construction which should, in a climate crisis, be mandatory. They are not intended to meet local needs, rather to attract a highly profitable national ‘market’ of wealthy buyers, mainly from other parts of the UK.
All of them will attract households with two or even three cars, putting huge pressure on already near-gridlocked roads, inadequate bus services, overcrowded schools and a doctor’s surgery already struggling to cope. The alarming trend towards more multi-car households, and ever larger and heavier SUV vehicles which, in order to meet supposed climate targets, need to be electric powered, must be met by enormous increases in electricity generation capacity. Even if this to come from solar and wind generation, huge investment is still required in infrastructure, including carbon-producing construction of overhead power cables, substations and indeed enormous wind turbines.
The concept of encouraging low energy lifestyle, including insulating homes, encouraging people to walk, cycle and use public transport, is alien to the British psyche based on car-centred lifestyles. The concept of a 15-minute town, city or suburb where everything lies within easy walking distance – as happens in my own village, but not in the big new housing estate now being constructed on its outskirts – is routinely attacked by right wing journalists as ‘Woke Marxism’.
The battle to save the moorlands above Haworth could just be the first of many to come.