Greens split by battle over Romney Marsh wind farm

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The increasingly bitter conflict over giant wind farms came down from the hills to the lowlands of south-east England yesterday.

The increasingly bitter conflict over giant wind farms came down from the hills to the lowlands of south-east England yesterday.

A public inquiry opened into the first big wind power development to be planned for the traditional English countryside: a scheme to site 26 turbines, each 350ft high, on the sweeping landscape of Romney Marsh in Kent. The scheme was put forward by Npower Renewables, a subsidiary of RWE, a German energy company.

All the councils in the area, and many countryside and wildlife groups, oppose the plan, but because its energy capacity is more than 50 megawatts, the Electricity Act stipulates that its fate must be decided by Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Yesterday an inspector appointed by Mrs Hewitt began taking evidence in the inquiry, which is expected to last four weeks and is being held at Lydd airport in the centre of the marsh. In pitting proponents of wind power against landscape and wildlife conservationists, the inquiry may split the British environmental movement in the way that has been seen in wind power proposals in the uplands - the Lake District, the Welsh hills and the Scottish Highlands.

Some environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Green Party, favour large wind farms in spite of potential damage. They have argued that renewable energy such as wind power is essential in the fight against global warming and the consequences of increased droughts, weather turbulence and rising sea levels.

But the opponents of the Romney Marsh development say that the relatively small amount of electricity it will produce - enough to power just over 1,000 homes - is not worth the damage to a well-loved historic landscape teeming with wildlife. the environmentalist Dr David Bellamy said of the Romney Marsh project: "It is not green. It chops up birds. It destroys landscapes."

The local planning authority, Shepway District Council, has twice voted unanimously against the proposal, as have sixteen parish councils, Kent County Council, East Sussex County Council, Rother District Council, Rye Town Council, and Lydd Town Council.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and English Nature, the Government's wildlife watchdog, are objecting because the wildlife of the marsh is spectacularly rich.

"I feel very strongly about the wind farm," said Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, leader of Kent County Council and one of the leading opponents. "Romney Marsh is one of the most evocative and traditional landscapes of Kent with the wild land dotted with the local breed of sheep, the big skies and the tiny medieval churches.

"Most of the evidence shows that more energy is consumed in constructing a wind farm than will ever be saved by it."

But Stephen Tindale, executive director of Greenpeace, said the greatest threat to birds and plants is the rising sea level. "The landscape is already ruined in visual terms with the two nuclear power stations at Dungeness, and the site for the wind farm is already bisected by the pylons for the Dungeness national grid connection."

But he said that Greenpeace would not formally support the proposal until the group's scientists had examined the environmental impact assessments.