Sir David and the battle of Glyndebourne

Controversial plans to erect a wind turbine on hills above the famous opera house have won an influential supporter. Cahal Milmo reports
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In his long career, Sir David Attenborough has dodged caymans in Amazonian swamps and stared down big cats in the savannah. But until yesterday he had never braved the bear pit that is a provincial planning inquiry to speak in favour of a wind turbine to service the needs of Britain's most picturesque opera house.

Using the same soothingly modulated voice that he might deploy to describe the plight of an endangered tree frog, the 81-year-old sage of nature documentaries once more set out the case in favour of a species that tends to inspire admiration and loathing in equal measure.

If the owners of Glyndebourne get their way, a 70 metre-high wind turbine capable of providing the theatre with 70 per cent of its electricity with zero carbon emissions will be in place by 2010. The proposal, which will place a structure of similar height to Big Ben on a hill overlooking the opera house in the heart of the proposed South Downs National Park, has drawn determined opposition from a formidable coalition ranging from conservation bodies and sporting groups to residents in Ringmer, the East Sussex village where the turbine could be sited.

Angry opponents, which include the Ramblers' Association and the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), argue that the sustainable energy project will blight a landscape just as it is on the verge of receiving the legal protection of national park status. Glyndebourne, in the heart of rolling hills that Rudyard Kipling described as, "Our blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs", is already in a designated area of outstanding natural beauty.

It was therefore a surprise for those who might have considered Sir David to be a natural ally in their battle against what they believe is an unwarranted intrusion into a pristine landscape to find him taking the witness stand in a conference room at the White Hart Hotel in Lewes to in effect accuse them of being Nimbys (not in my back yard).

Sir David, who told the inquiry he had been visiting Glyndebourne Opera since the 1950s but does not live in the area (he is in fact a resident of Richmond in south-west London), said he had seen at first hand the effects of climate change elsewhere in the world and was ready to back a scheme which he said represented a British organisation doing its bit to counter the effects of global warming.

A planning inspector will spend the next week hearing evidence about the project before making a recommendation later this year to Hazel Blears, the cabinet minister responsible for making the final decision on the turbine, which will stand 400 metres from the opera house.

Sir David said: "I greatly applaud the plan to erect a wind turbine. That such a celebrated institution should pay such regard to its environmental responsibilities seemed to me to be wholly admirable, demonstrating that some communities really do take the ecological challenge seriously and do not simply utter pious words and leave it to others to take action.

"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."

Although received in hushed reverence, the words of Sir David were nonetheless politely rebuffed by opponents of the scheme, who suggested his reference to the fact that a windmill once stood on the exact spot on the aptly named Mill Plain where the new wind turbine would stand was overly whimsical since it would be replaced by a structure four times its height.

Sir David explained he was merely trying to contrast the nostalgia that most feel for old structures with the panic created by futuristic technologies such as wind turbines, of which the Government has pledged to build up to 8,000, most of them offshore.

His opponents said he had missed the point that placing a turbine so it could act as an "ecological beacon" for the 230,000 visitors to Glyndebourne Opera each year was too a high a price to pay for the impact it would have on its surroundings.

Tom Oliver, head of rural policy at the CPRE, said: "The South Downs are a priceless part of the beauty, tranquillity and heritage of England. It is not 'green' to squander this in return for an unreliable and severely limited supply of energy when more efficient alternatives and locations are available. It is disappointing that someone like Sir David has missed the point."

Jacquetta Fewster, director of the South Downs Society, added: "The turbine is the wrong scheme in the wrong place."

Citing the "smoked salmon, caviar and helicopter trips" enjoyed by the opera fans who flock to Glyndebourne, conservationists argued that the opera house should be doing more to limit the carbon dioxide emissions of its customers, the majority of whom travel to performances by car.

The inquiry heard that while the wind turbine would save 802 tonnes of CO2 each year, research had shown that 4,800 tonnes of the greenhouse gas were generated by the car journeys of those attending the opera.

The venue boasts a helicopter pad for "very influential people who come to Glyndebourne who don't have the time to come by train or car". Gus Christie, the venue's chairman, said the pad was used just six times last year and he believed those continuing to use the facility would become "social pariahs".

Mr Christie said his company would be using the wind turbine to educate its "influential" customers and local schoolchildren. He said: "A single wind turbine is a simple, elegant and sculptural structure. It is not an industrial monster as some have suggested. I don't believe it would spoil the views from Glyndebourne or anywhere else for that matter."

For his part, the star turn of the day laughed off suggestions that both he and the South Downs were both national treasures worthy of preservation for future generations. Referring to the poetry of Hilaire Belloc, whose line "And along the sky the line of the Downs/ So noble and so bare" had been quoted earlier by opponents, Sir David said: "Unless we all take action then the South Downs as we know it will be transformed inside two to three generations and the place described by Belloc will seem in the very distant past."