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Christopher Booker's notebook


(Filed: 09/10/2005)

The little people versus the giants

The Government's policy on wind power is rapidly becoming such a fiasco that it is hard to know where to begin. While rows are raging all across the land, from Suffolk to the Cotswolds, from Romney Marsh to Antrim, and from Cornwall to Caithness, over plans for giant wind turbines, it is obvious that the Government's hope of reaching its EU target and generating 10 per cent of our power from "renewables" by 2010 is doomed to failure.

This would require building more than 10,000 additional turbines, at a rate of more than 2,400 a year. The present total, which is the work of more than a decade, is only 1,367 - most of those much smaller than the giant turbines now proposed. There is no way the Government can hope to meet even a quarter of its EU/Kyoto commitment, with local protesters up in arms the length and breadth of Britain.

In Gorsley, Gloucestershire, 10 days ago, Sir Peter de la Billiere, the Gulf War commander, had to calm a stormy meeting of villagers outraged by just one of 22 proposed windfarms in the county, involving such Cotswold tourist sites as Bourton-in-the-Water, Moreton-in-the Marsh and Fairford. In Northumberland they are fighting proposals for more than 80 turbines; in Suffolk, six 328ft turbines planned for Framlingham; in Antrim, 36 similar giants on the hills around Broughshane.

The Dartmoor Preservation Society warns that the moor may soon be ringed by a "forest" of such "monsters", such as the ten 300-footers proposed for North Tawton, which have already drawn 1,500 letters of objection, the record for any planning proposal in the county's history.

The beauty of Scotland's landscapes is threatened by no fewer than 6,472 turbine proposals, including 502 in the Western Isles and 403 in Argyll. Prince Charles is unlikely to relish the prospect of looking at 45 giant turbines next to the Castle of Mey. The 600 giant pylons needed to carry wind-generated electricity from Inverness to Falkirk via the Cairngorms National Park have been decried by the Ramblers Association of Scotland as "disastrous".

Yet the Government is so desperate to meet its unrealisable target that it now seems prepared to overrule the democratic wishes of local communities wholesale. Harrogate councillors were shocked when an inspector overruled their rejection of eight 320ft turbines next to the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty; as were those of Allerdale in Cumbria when another inspector reversed their decision against three giant turbines within sight of the Lake District.

The crucial issue, however, which is being missed (and by the Government deliberately suppressed) is not how wind turbines impact on the landscape, but that they are a fraud and a waste of money. Electricity from wind, at 80 per megawatt hour, costs more than twice as much to produce as that from conventional sources. The only reason why developers are flocking to join the bonanza is that, thanks to the Government forcing electricity suppliers to buy their power, they get a hidden subsidy amounting to 135,000 a year for each megawatt of capacity, unwittingly paid by the rest of us in inflated electricity bills.

At least in recent months the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have begun to wake up to the scale of this scam, so carefully hidden from view that our gullible environment minister, Elliott Morley, can still prattle on about how "clean carbon technology" provides "value for money" (probably because no one has actually briefed him on the true arithmetic).

Perhaps most shocking of all, however, is the fact that, because the unreliability of wind means it can only generate power for 25 per cent of the time, any theoretical savings in greenhouse gas emissions are more than wiped out by the need to keep conventional power stations "hot spinning" on permanent standby, ready to step in when the wind stops. Those "environmental gains" are a complete illusion, as is everything else about the "great wind scam" - except, alas, the price we must all pay for it, in higher bills, and in the prospect of many of our finest landscapes being disfigured forever.

Auntie just can't digest Brussels at all

Last Monday, possibly drawn by the presence as host of Andrew Marr, some 1.8 million viewers spent up to 90 minutes watching a BBC2 special entitled How Euro Are You? Many times over the years I have marvelled at the seeming inability of the BBC to give intelligent coverage of anything to do with the EU, but for babyish vapidity, this bizarre cross between Kilroy and a quiz show touched a new nadir.

An early clue was given when Mr Marr introduced, as a star member among the panellists (none of whom, he assured us, were politicians), an EU enthusiast called Julia Gash. Although she was coyly described as "a businesswoman", a few seconds' research showed that she runs a Sheffield sex-shop and hopes to become a Lib Dem MEP.

Mr Marr's co-presenter, an Irish comedian called Dara O'Briain, made mock of a succession of "Euro myths" from the British press (supplied by the European Commission). Three of the four examples he cited, with much forced jocularity, as silly "Euro scares" about EU directives in fact originated in this column and, as originally reported, were entirely true.

The only panellist who put his finger on the central flaw of the programme was the journalist Peter Hitchens, who pointed out that it was deliberately trying to confuse Europe, as a place, with the quite different issue of the EU as a form of government. This was how the show's nationwide "interactive" poll managed to demonstrate that easily the largest single group in the population are "Europhiles": if you "like all things European, from going on holiday to sun-dried tomatoes and good red wine", this somehow shows you must be in favour of our new Brussels-centred system of government.

The real lesson of this unbelievably silly programme was that, if most people are as woefully hazy about the EU as the answers given on the show indicated that they are, it is not least because the BBC itself has proved incapable of covering the issue in a professional fashion. Of course if it is consistently dumbed-down, trivialised and misreported, the subject is going to be viewed by most people as boring and incomprehensible.

At least Mr Marr had the grace to look fairly embarrassed to find himself involved with such rubbish. But all it really demonstrated was how lamentably the BBC has failed us. On Tuesday, when I was yet again approached by a BBC researcher asking for help with a documentary series about the EU, I had to say that, on every occasion I have ever tried to assist them, I always found the result so disappointing that, sorry, I have at last learned my lesson.

Spot the missing persons

Trevor Phillips, the head of the Commission for Racial Equality, has startled people - and even won some praise - by suggesting that it is not exactly helping the cause for public bodies to print millions of forms and leaflets in Urdu, Gujerati, Albanian and so forth (most of which then moulder away in council basements).

Perhaps he should have a word with the East Dorset police, who have spent considerable sums advertising for recruits to an "Independent Advisory Group" to keep in touch with the views of the local community. To represent "the widest possible spectrum of diversity", they are keen to enlist advisers from the following communities: "lesbian; gay; bisexual; transgendered; gypsies; travellers; African-Caribbean; Chinese; Islamic" etc. The list goes on in predictable fashion, via "visible ethnic-minority business owners", to end on "young farmers", "members of the hunt" and "anti-hunt protesters".

Having spent much of my youth amid the hills of east Dorset, I guess the police will have their work cut out tracking down members of any of those "communities" in those parts (not least "young" farmers). On the other hand, it could try recruiting a few "advisers" who have been the victims of burglaries or vandalism. But perhaps that is no longer a "community" in whose views the police have any interest