Bragg tilts at Britain's biggest wind farm

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The Independent Online

The author Alfred Wainwright described them as "a hidden treasure", a delight for walkers prepared to venture off the beaten track. But the largely unspoilt hills and dales between Kendal and Penrith could soon acquire a very different sort of reputation.

Led by pillars of the Lake District establishment, including Melvyn Bragg and the mountaineer Chris Bonington, an army of Cumbrians is gathering to fight off the plans for the largest wind farm ever on mainland Britain.

They claim that the five-mile scheme, which boasts 27 giant turbines, will turn Rounthwaite and Bretherdale Common on the edge of the Lake District National Park into an "industrial" eyesore.

Next week sees the start of a six-month government inquiry into the Whinash wind farm with Lord Bragg, Mr Bonington and broadcaster Eric Robson all due to give evidence against the project.

The opposition is formidable. The crowds of angry farmers have been joined by the author Hunter Davies, naturalist David Bellamy and Dame Jennifer Jenkins, widow of Roy Jenkins.

The Cumbrian Tourist Board has come out against the wind farm, along with the Lake District National Park Authority, the Ramblers Association and the Wainwright Society.

They will tell the government inspector at the Shap Wells Hotel that the turbines, each over 100m high, will wreck the views from all directions, including those from the eastern fells of the Lake District, and undermine attempts to spread tourism eastwards, across the M6.

According to Lord Bragg, who was born in Cumbria and remains a frequent visitor, the Whinash scheme will "destroy the place as a natural habitat for human beings, and replace it with what will be seen as an industrial landscape". Lord Bragg, who yesterday attended the royal wedding, is a friend of Prince Charles, who has spoken out against the impact of some turbines.

Chris Bonington, a lakeland resident, believes that the visual impact of the Whinash development will outweigh any benefits. "I'm not against wind power," he said. "We should look at all forms of alternative energy. But this one is being put up in a particularly beautiful area right on the edge of the national park. The most important industry here by a long way is tourism, which you don't mess up."

Eric Robson, the TV presenter and chairman of Radio 4's Gardeners' Question Time, is also chairman of the Cumbria Tourist Authority. "We have got a proven industry generating money being threatened," he said.

The objectors fear that the development will set a precedent for building turbines on other beauty spots, and that eventually the whole Lakeland area will be surrounded by a "ring of steel". They say the wind farm could also undermine plans to boost tourism in the nearby Howgill Fells and the town of Sedbergh. English Nature has already proposed extending the Lake District National Park westwards.

Wind farms are a growing source of controversy, as pressure mounts for green alternatives to conventional power. Scotland is bracing itself for thousands of turbines, with a particular concentration on the island of Lewis. Conservationists, including Friends of the Earth, insist that they are essential as a way of replacing fossil fuels and circumventing the need for nuclear energy. Opponents say the turbines are noisy and can never generate sufficient power by themselves.

Chris Tomlinson, the head of onshore wind for the British Wind Energy Association, the main industry group, argues that the protesters are wrong about tourism and that, if anything, the Whinash scheme will increase the number of visitors.

Visitor centres at two wind farms, at Scroby Sands near Great Yarmouth and Swaffham in Norfolk, have attracted 5,000 visitors a month.

"I'm speaking as a Cumbrian," he said. "This site is sandwiched between the A6 and M6. It's an area that the tourist board wants to increase tourism in. You're not going to get visitors within earshot of the M6 any other way. It's barren moorland. Why would people want to walk there otherwise?", he said.

Steve Molloy, the project manager for the developers, Chalmerston Wind Power, said the scheme would actually help to resurrect a badly damaged raised peat bog.

The wind farm would supply enough electricity for all 47,000 homes in the area, including the nearby towns of Penrith and Kendal. Since the Government had admitted its official target of cutting carbon dioxide was in serious jeopardy, building schemes such as Whinash are now of national strategic importance. It was, he said, the best available wind farm site in the region.