Christopher Booker's Notebook


(Filed: 02/03/2003)

Windmills fan the flames of unrest
Defra courts confusion
Auditors' alarm at promotions
The law is an ass

Windmills fan the flames of unrest

Councillor Gerald Sewell of Aspatria, near Wigton in Cumbria, has supported the Labour Party for 40 years. But he has protested to Tony Blair about the way a planning application for an eight-turbine wind farm at the beauty spot of Wharrels Hill, between the Lake District and the sea, was railroaded through by a Government planning inspector. This go-ahead was despite objections from every council in the area and bodies from the Lake District National Park Authority to the Council for National Parks.

Several fellow councillors resigned from the party after the inspector swept aside all normal planning rules, arguing that the Government's support for renewable energy must outweigh all else. Such outrage is likely to become commonplace following last week's pledge in the energy White Paper issued by the Department for Trade and Industry that normal planning rules are to be relaxed still further to ensure that the Government meets its European Union obligation to produce 10 per cent of our energy needs from renewable sources by 2010.

The White Paper has drawn fire from energy experts for its failure to propose any effective response to the impending crisis as, within 10 years, Britain will lose much of its home-grown energy from gas, coal and nuclear power. Prof Ian Fells, of Newcastle University, describes the failure to plan for renewing our nuclear power capacity as "reckless". Without nuclear energy, we shall become dependent on gas, oil and coal imported from north Africa and other countries whose stability cannot be guaranteed. But the most frightening part of the paper is the section that, with a startling absence of facts or figures, endorses our EU obligation to spend billions of pounds on wind power.

To reach this target, Prof Fells points out, we would have to build 20 two-megawatt turbines every week until 2010. Most are much smaller than this, so we may need some 20,000 wind generators, up to 400 ft high (we have only 1,000), dominating thousands of square miles of countryside. All this to produce electricity nearly twice as expensive as that generated from gas, oil or even nuclear power (official sources show that coal- or gas-generated power costs #16 per MW hour, nuclear power #19 and wind power #28.80).

The problem with wind power is not just that it is ludicrously uneconomic, yielding nothing like the environmental benefits its supporters claim, but that it is so inefficient. What its proponents never explain is that the average turbine produces only 25 per cent of its theoretical capacity. To guarantee continuous supply, 100 per cent of its capacity has to be duplicated by more conventional forms of power generation. For all the 20,000 turbines the Government wants, we will still have to invest in other power sources.

The reasons we have wind power are, first, the EU's "renewables obligation", which compels generating companies to buy power from wind farms; and, second, the EU's "climate change levy", which penalises industry for not using it. This huge hidden subsidy has turned wind power into a bonanza for companies such as National Wind Power to produce a mere 0.3 per cent of our energy needs. A single aluminium works in Anglesey uses 220 MW, more than is produced by every turbine in the country.

Wind power is one of the great self-deceiving fantasies of our age. Mr Blair, who writes the foreword to the White Paper, may have fallen for the make-believe but it threatens to become a central ingredient in our forthcoming energy disaster. It is not surprising that people like Councillor Sewell are so angry.

25 February 2003: Energy policy puts climate before consumers

Defra courts confusion

There have been curious developments in the case of Janet Hughes, whose 12-year-old son Matthew's toys were due to be seized by bailiffs, thanks to the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Defra pursued her for #17,000 in legal costs after she failed to have the killing of thousands of healthy sheep on the Brecon Beacons declared illegal during the last foot and mouth epidemic.

The demand included interest post-dated to January 2001 - before the epidemic began and six months before she launched her case.

Following my report a month ago, the bailiffs removed Matthew's toy quad bike and jeep from their seizure notice, where they had been clearly recorded as "child's toys" - a clear breach of the rule that children's property cannot be seized. But they still announced their intention to remove other property, including the car that Janet needs for her work as an environmental science teacher.

On January 31 she applied to the High Court for a stay of execution, with a cheque for the #25 fee, on the grounds that her case was still with the European Court of Human Rights. When she rang several times to find out how the application was going, the High Court insisted that it had not been received, although it had already cashed her cheque. Last week she had to pay #1.13 to collect an unstamped envelope in which the High Court had returned her papers, with no explanation other than a scrawled "application refused, February 6".

Meanwhile, on February 22, she received a letter from the legal department at the ministry, which said: "I confirm that Defra will not take any further action at the present time."

Watch this space.

Auditors' alarm at promotions

The North East Assembly was warned last summer by the local government minister Nick Raynsford that money it received from central Government must not be used to campaign for an elected regional assembly. This has come to light as district auditors for 25 local authorities across the North-East investigate complaints that the assembly has improperly used ratepayers' money to promote an elected body, in breach of Government guidelines that rates must not be used to promote politically controversial policies. One council, Alnwick, has already frozen its funding to the assembly; four others are considering doing the same.

Ratepayers to the 25 councils, co-ordinated by Neil Herron of Neara (North East Against a Regional Assembly), lodged their complaints after it was discovered that funds contributed to the Association of North East Councils (ANEC) were being used by the assembly, which makes no secret of its support for an elected regional government. The two bodies are virtually identical, sharing the same office, budget and chairman, Councillor Tony Flynn, the ambitious leader of Newcastle city council.

What has also come to light, however, is that the powers of district auditors to curb improper expenditure by councils have been severely curtailed. A little-noticed provision of the Local Government Act 2000 - which introduced the controversial system whereby councils must now be run by a "Cabinet" of senior councillors - abolished what had long been the ultimate sanction against financial abuse: the power to surcharge councillors. Even where auditors find malpractice they can now only send an "advisory notice".

It is scarcely consoling to discover that auditors have been emasculated like this, just when we hear that council taxes are to rise by up to 45 per cent.

The law is an ass

Entertainment has been provided in my part of the West Country by the instruction from Defra that, under EU Commission Decision 2000/68, Rosa Drohan from the Somerset village of Marksbury must pay #44 for "passports" for her two ageing donkeys, Popsy, 25, and Dillon, 11.

Brussels officials have ruled that by the end of the year all horses and donkeys must join cattle in having passports, to aid disease control. Rosa wonders why her donkeys should need "passports" when their only experience of foreign travel is walking a few yards down the road to graze the village churchyard.

This was why, when she saw the voluminous form she must fill in to apply for the passport asking to what "use" she puts her donkeys, she was tempted to put 'organic lawn mower'. It is unlikely that Brussels would be amused.