Wind power? I don't buy it

Last updated at 09:55 28 October 2005

Civil disobedience is not something to be contemplated lightly. But there are moments when even the most staid and law-abiding citizens feel that enough is enough - as we have seen with pensioners opting for jail rather than paying inflated council taxes.

Romney Marsh and the barbaric decision to put a wind farm there may excite similar feelings. The area, on the Kent-Sussex border, must rank as one of the most beautiful lowland sites in Britain. It has a magic all of its own.

On the coast, it is bordered by the exquisite towns of Rye and Winchelsea. Outside the towns, the roads and lanes, flanked by rich hedgerows, wind through charming villages and hamlets and fine farmland often heavy with grazing sheep. Beautiful small and even tiny churches, sited on spots now largely deserted, have inspired travel writers by their neat, simple interiors. The area is a home to wildlife where you may see rare birds and elusive otters.

In the teeth of fierce opposition from the local authorities and environmentalists and despite an official inquiry that sided with them, we are promised a wind farm with turbines twice the height of Nelson's Column.

The barbarian who made this decision, energy minister Malcolm Wicks, arrogantly scoffs at the local critics as motivated by the "Not In My Backyard" instinct.

But Romney Marsh is no backyard. It is a national treasure. And though it is a somewhat distant backyard for me, I would, like others, feel outraged if the same sort of decision came for Cumbria or Cotswold beauty spots.

Yes, Wicks really has his eyes on Bourton-on-the-Water and Stow-on-the-Wold. He appears to be sitting in his Whitehall office armed with travel guides, planning onslaughts on the nation's beauty spots.

One of the historical charms of the Romney Marsh area is that here and there, at strategic spots, you find World War II pillboxes, built to repel a German invasion. The supreme irony is that the builders of this wind farm are in fact German.

The company, RWE, is an enormous international power and utilities business. In Britain its components include Thames Water - which it is thinking of selling off in whole or in part - the old Midlands Electricity business, Yorkshire Electricity, Northern Ireland Electricity and Gas and Calortex, another gas supplier.

But here, perhaps, is the route for protest without anyone feeling the need to lie down in the paths of the road and turbine builders.

Those who feel strongly about the beauty of our waning countryside do not have to buy their water, electricity or gas through or from RWE, which trades to customers as Npower. We have alternatives.

Here, and perhaps with wind farm schemes elsewhere, the power may rest with consumers to make the turbine builders think again.

The Government protests that wind power is an ideal source of renewable energy. Using it helps to meet the demands of the Kyoto agreement.

In fact, it is a very inefficient engineering option with dubious environmental savings. Some critics argue that the building and siting of wind farms alone causes more pollution than it saves.

In any case, the power produced is so expensive that the Government provides a subsidy. In the Romney Marsh context it will run into millions.

Moreover, because winds often falter, normal generating stations will have to be kept at high capacity to provide power, thus creating more pollution. There are alternatives. A new report has underlined the possibilities of biomass - using plants and animal waste - as a fuel for power generation. This is judged neutral on pollution.

There are also the possibilities in geothermal power and the harnessing of water power, both unobtrusive.

To be fair to Npower, it is, like others, undertaking research on these alternatives. But that does not alter the fact that the assault on Romney Marsh is an act of barbarism.

An interesting sidelight is that Nigel Doughty, chief of Doughty Hanson, which owns a turbine blade manufacturer, turns out to have been a major contributor to Labour Party funds. But what did you expect?

Tony Blair's new plan to give state schools a sort of independence may be a step in the right direction, but it is fundamentally flawed. The idea that parents should have more choice and more influence over schools is right, but it lacks the vital ingredient: the direct power of the parents' purse.

It is precisely what would be provided by the much-debated voucher scheme that would steer money directly from the bad to the good schools. Lord Adonis, the education minister in the Lords, is on record as having favoured this radical step. Yet he has lost to what might be called the John Prescott tendency.

If the education plan's principle was applied to supermarkets, it would involve the Government setting up focus groups who would judge who was doing best and who the worst. Whitehall would then decide whether Tesco or Sainsbury or whoever should be allowed to expand at the expense of their rivals.

The Prescotts of this world would of course demand lots more Co-ops.

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