Points of view differ in power struggle over skyline: Richard North reports on a scheme to build a windfarm on a Welsh hilltop

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WIND TURBINES a third taller than most in Britain will be sited on a hill near the Welsh border if Sir Simon Gourlay, former president of the National Farmers' Union, has his way.

It did not surprise Sir Simon to be facing a hostile crowd in Presteigne, Powys, late last month: he is used to being on the unpopular side of arguments, having presided over the NFU at the height of the farmer-bashing period of the Eighties.

He wants to build a windfarm on 100 acres of Stonewall Hill in the county and is seeking planning permission from both Leominster and Radnor district councils, which will decide on his application next month.

Protesters have pointed out that the Gourlay windfarm will be within a few kilometres of the Offa's Dyke path, and clearly visible from it. They have written to local papers, noting that Sir Simon, as president of the Offa's Dyke Association, has talked about the glories of the area's countryside, and yet allowed his consultants to produce an environmental assessment which speaks of the turbines as perhaps adding 'some interest and visual appeal to an otherwise dull landscape'.

Sir Simon insists the turbines would be on a hill which, in itself, 'is not terribly interesting'. He says the windfarm will attract sightseers.

Sir Simon believes that part of the hostility to his plan is 'a rentacrowd' from the area around Llandinam, an existing windfarm near Newtown, and the biggest in Europe, which has already attracted fierce opposition. It has 103 turbines, producing about 31 megawatts of power. (The 14 Gourlay machines will produce a total of about 10mw.) It has also attracted fierce opposition from some of its neighbours.

The audience at Presteigne - mostly composed of 'incomers' - was unmoved by Sir Simon's claim to be following government policy by diversifying out of farming-only operations and exploring renewable energy.

Joan Rees, a retired professor of English literature at Birmingham University, lives within a mile of the Gourlay site. After the meeting, she remarked: 'I said I had walked up the hill that day and the background noise was of skylarks and the bleating of lambs and however quiet Sir Simon claimed the turbines would be, they would inevitably interfere with and probably obliterate those sounds. I think it's a harmful proposition for the community at large.'

Sir Simon countered: 'I have been to a village within 350 metres of turbines of the kind of I propose to use, and there were no complaints there at all. This is all so subjective.'

According to research by the British Wind Energy Association, visiting a windfarm tends to make converts to the cause and three-quarters of the near neighbours of one windfarm could think of no disadvantages to wind power. But some studies suggest between 3 and 10 per cent of people are strongly opposed.

The issue crosses normal fault-lines in opinion. The Council for the Protection of Rural Wales is calling for a moratorium on further wind power in the principality; the Green Party and Friends of the Earth are in favour; and the cosmetics firm Body Shop has just taken a minority holding in a new windfarm at Bryn Titli, near the Llandinam windfarm, claiming that it is wrong to rely on fossil or nuclear fuels.

Windfarming is profitable, but it is made so only by government subsidy, and there is furious debate about whether the smallness of its contribution to Britain's energy requirements is worth the visual and aural intrusion. The owners of the Llandinam site say their output is sufficient to meet the domestic needs of the county in which it operates.

Sir Simon and his two partners - a local farmer and a subsidiary of Midlands Electricity, the regional grid company - believe their site will produce enough power for 4,000 homes. Their pounds 7m scheme is one of 230 proposals seeking subsidy from the Government.

Sir Simon said: 'My farmer partner and I are doing the best to ensure the windfarm is a sucessful business venture, but we both do believe in the necessity for alternative energy, and it's not surprising that that requires subsidy in the early days.' He believes a carbon tax on fossil fuels would soon make wind power profitable without subsidy.

(Photograph omitted)