Want to see a beautiful corner of old England? Come to north Norfolk, its gentle landscape dotted with houses, halls and cottages built from flint and clay dug from north Norfolk soil. Visit Baconsthorpe Castle, one of the most magical places in Britain, down a lane, up a track, round a corner and in a time warp. Walk, cycle or potter along winding country lanes under grand skies that have inspired poets and painters for centuries. Come, but come now — because, barring a miracle, north Norfolk will very soon be wrecked beyond recognition.
In an act that demonstrates the utter lie of the coalition’s claim to be committed to localism, a central government planning inspector has overturned the North Norfolk District Council’s decision to refuse permission for a gigantic wind turbine at Bodham, in the heart of our unspoiled countryside. When the scheme first emerged in August 2011, I wrote here of my disbelief that anyone could seriously consider ripping up our timeless skyscape with a 284-foot structure with a blade-span the width of a jumbo jet. The tip of the turbine would be 579 feet above sea level. It would degrade views for miles in all directions.
‘They’ve got to be kidding,’ I wrote. ‘No chance. The planners wouldn’t wear it.’
And the planners didn’t. Unanimously. I was there. Every man Jack on the district council said ‘No!’ Not one parish council spoke in favour of the turbine. One thousand, four hundred and fifty-five people wrote in to object to it. No other local planning proposal has ever generated such a response.
Proposals of precisely this kind had been foreseen and forbidden by the local authority in its planning policy, which declares that turbines ‘sited so prominently that they are apparent for miles’ should not be allowed, and particularly not ‘near the Cromer ridge’ — on which the Bodham turbine would be built.
But the developer appealed, an outsider was bused in to review the decision, and he overturned it. On 8 April, the turbine was granted planning permission by an inspector who judged the opinion of local people and their elected representatives to be wrong. ‘This is not a referendum,’ he told the hearing. Indeed, it was not.
Nor was it a good advertisement for the 2011 Localism Act, which Nick Clegg told us would ‘mark the beginning of a power shift away from central government to the people, families and communities of Britain.’
Well, Nick, come here and tell that to Barbara, whose home is set to be dominated by a monstrous, throbbing machine with blades that will cut a 170ft hole in the sky 600 yards from her front door. Pop round the corner and explain to Paula, Simon and their young son how power has shifted from central government to families like theirs, when their home life is ruined by the overwhelming presence of turbines built in pursuit of insane central government policies.
And while you are here, drive six miles up the road to the council offices at Cromer — you’d have a good view of that turbine for most of the way — and explain your Act to the councillors our community elected. You could start with the summary on the parliament.uk website: ‘The Bill will devolve greater powers to councils and neighbourhoods and give local communities more control over housing and planning decisions.’
Perhaps it would be fairer to ask your colleague Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, to come here and explain why the views of our community and our local government count for so little. Because one reason that your words on localism ring hollow is that his new National Planning Policy Framework has just come into force. You wouldn’t think there’d be a problem from what he wrote on 26 March in the Daily Telegraph: ‘Firstly, our reforms safeguard our glorious green spaces and countryside… The intention is to let residents, not remote Whitehall officials, decide… which cherished sites need to be protected.’
But when our residents decided our glorious countryside and our cherished sites needed to be protected, it wasn’t our view that prevailed. And when English Heritage argued that even under the new national planning policy, the damage to the setting of Baconsthorpe Castle and ancient local churches was not justified by any benefits claimed by the Bodham turbine, the remotely appointed inspector rejected their opinion, too.
For Pickles’s reforms are built upon ‘a presumption towards sustainable development’, and the person sent to tell us how that presumption should be weighed against any local disadvantages was empowered to write of Barbara’s bungalow and Paula and Simon’s cottage, ‘I do not think the properties would become unattractive places to live.’ Well, they do, and they told him so. And to them, they are not ‘properties’; they are ‘home’. But hey — what do they know?
In theory, the principles of sustainable development set out in the National Planning Policy Framework are laudable: ‘living within the planet’s environmental limits, ensuring a strong, healthy and just society, achieving a sustainable economy, promoting good governance, [and] using sound science responsibly.’ But the framework will struggle to live up to any of those ideals, because the notion of ‘sustainable development’ has been hijacked. Profiteers with no interest in social justice, and irresponsible, unsound scientists have conned and scared ill-informed MPs into passing environmental legislation that is wrecking the economy while doing little or nothing to save the planet.
Where is the social justice in driving millions into fuel poverty by forcing them to pay for subsidies that make windfarmers filthy rich? How can you achieve a sustainable economy when you drive jobs overseas by driving up electricity prices here? How is sound science being employed responsibly by building unreliable, inefficient wind turbines as part of a catastrophically incoherent energy policy that leaves us wondering not if, but when all the lights will go out? And where is the ‘good governance’ in talking up local democracy while riding rough-shod over it?
In a nation edging towards post-democracy, such questions need to be asked. Whatever our ministers say, their actions bring to mind the scorn for ordinary folk in China, where populated valleys are evacuated and flooded to produce power for the state. The comparison is imperfect, of course, because hydroelectric schemes produce reliable electricity at an affordable cost. And in pre-democratic China, nobody pretends that little, local people count.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 20 April 2013