Country Matters: Moans from a mass crucifixion

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LAST week I wrote about Ireland Moor, the mountain in Radnorshire on which a group of shooting men are rehabilitating the heather. Well, as we stood on top, we had a magnificent panoramic view. Due south rose the Black Mountains; clockwise of them a little way soared the Brecon Beacons, and on round the compass the grey-green ridges and summits of central Wales swept gently up and down against the sky.

Only on the northern horizon did something strike a jarring note. There, in the far distance, a row of upright sticks bristled on the skyline, alien and out of place.

Dead trees? The remains of a coal mine? Worse than either, they were the turbines of the wind farm above Llandinam, in Montgomeryshire. No matter that they were 20 miles away: the stark white masts and flailing arms broke the harmony of the landscape in a way that seemed not only intrusive but also sinister. My companion evidently felt the same, for suddenly he exclaimed, 'It's like a mass crucifixion]'

Llandinam is the biggest wind farm in Europe. Already it has 103 masts, 90ft tall, with three-bladed propellors extending each structure by another 60 feet. Tomen, the giant Japanese company that built it, has applied for permission to erect 90 more turbines, and the sheer scale of the thing is sending shock waves through central Wales, as people realise that unless they take vigorous action, the whole of their lovely region is going to be ruined by industrialisation.

They are particularly dismayed by the spineless venality of local councillors, as exhibited over the wind farm at Bryn Titli, near Rhayader. This saga began last year when Dulas Engineering, a small firm that acts as a scout for National Windpower (itself an offshoot of British Aerospace and Taylor Woodrow), identified a hill called Marcheini as a potential site.

National Windpower applied for planning permission to erect 26 turbines but, after intensive lobbying, the Countryside Commission for Wales and the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural Wales persuaded the Welsh Office to call the scheme in for a public inquiry. Before that could take place, however, National Windpower shifted its stance and applied for permission to put up 22 masts on a site that it called Bryn Titli. This was in fact the same scheme, even down to the positions of the pylons, but this time the Welsh Office declined to call it in, and left its future in the hands of Radnor District Council.

The planning officer Jeremy Wright strongly recommended refusal. At a meeting held in the town hall at Llandrindod Wells, councillors voted 7-7, and the scheme was rejected on the casting vote of the chairman, Fred Barker. Then someone raised a trifling point of order, and the decision was nullified. A few days later, National Windpower announced that the company would make pounds 100,000 available to the community if the scheme went ahead, and at another meeting the voting was 11-3 in favour. Several councillors who had earlier spoken out eloquently in defence of the landscape now lamely said that they had changed their minds.

If this can happen at Bryn Titli, where will the process end? Site-hunting teams are out, not only from Dulas Engineering but also from another scouting firm, Ecogen, and test masts are going up on hill after hill.

Of course, wind power is superficially attractive, because it uses no finite resources and causes no pollution. Cleanness is the quality on which its champions sell it. Nevertheless its detractors point out that it has many snags.

The visual impact of wind farms on a landscape as wild as that of central Wales is certainly disastrous. The pylons, staggering over the hills in irregular lines, are linked by service roads, and destroy all natural harmony.

Aesthetic arguments often carry little weight, but here they are backed by practical considerations. Mid Wales depends heavily on tourism for its income, and people come to walk, cycle, ride and camp because the surroundings are splendidly unspoilt. If the hills are wrecked by industrial development, tourists will stay away.

Another serious problem is that of noise. If you stand beneath one of the windmills, the churning of gears and swooshing of blades do not seem too bad. At a distance, however, things are different. Only now is it being realised that a big farm can create intolerable disturbance as far as three miles off. The sound, which seems to sweep over hilltops and down into valleys, is variously described as, like a train going past, a helicopter taking off, or merely as an eerie moaning: yet it is proving enough to force people to sleep with their windows shut, or even to leave home. Houses in the area of Llandinam are falling in value and becoming difficult to sell.

If it could be shown that wind farms conferred enormous benefits, the case for them would be stronger. As it is, they are not at all efficient: they operate, obviously, only when the wind blows, and it has been calculated that even if 40,000 masts went up all over Britain, their output would be so small and unreliable that not a single conventional power station would close. Wind farms are going ahead at the present rate only because government policy means they are heavily subsidised.

According to present law, electricity authorities must buy all the energy produced by wind at 11p per unit. Yet the cost of production is only 4p or 5p - so a subsidy of up to 7p is being paid on every unit. Because the money comes from the electricity authorities, it is, in fact, being paid by ordinary consumers, in the form of higher rates for conventionally-generated power.

By far the greatest beneficiaries are the two big firms behind the present drive, Tomen and National Windpower. Although masts are expensive to build, each one can earn up to pounds 100,000 a year at current rates.

Local people, in contrast, stand to gain very little. The only ones who benefit substantially are the owners of land on which masts are built: they get a rent of pounds 2,000 a year per mast, guaranteed for 15 years. For farmers with dwindling incomes, this is obviously a tremendous temptation - yet they are the lucky few. Most of the hilltops are common land, on which the surrounding farmers hold grazing rights, and these people look like getting nothing except modest compensation for the loss of ground taken up by masts and roads.

Until now Radnorshire farmers have been broadly in favour of wind power, swayed by the easy assurance that it is green and friendly and the right sort of thing to have, and also by the scent of cash. But belatedly they are now rising up against it.

At Banc-y-celin, on high ground west of the Wye, the landowner has put up a trial mast without planning permission, and this has so incensed locals that their rage has infected other areas. Petitions are being raised to defend not only Banc-y- celin, but also Aberedw Hill, across the river to the east, which is similarly threatened.

At the eleventh hour it seems that the farmers may be coming to their senses, and realising their future does not lie in re-creating Golgotha on every hill in the Principality.