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A shameful U-turn at the National Trust

Open-minded on fracking? Not any more

3 May 2014

9:00 AM

3 May 2014

9:00 AM

What has happened to Dame Helen Ghosh? Last October the director-general of the National Trust seemed prepared to stand against the green orthodoxy which exists in the public and voluntary sectors. She declared that she had an ‘open mind’ on fracking, while she rejected the case for wind farms on the Trust’s land. Her approach was entirely logical. The Trust’s job is to guard the aesthetic integrity of the landscapes which it has bought with its donors’ money, or been gifted, in order to preserve. Not to deface this land with 300 ft-high wind turbines that generate pitifully little electricity.

This week, however, Dame Helen and the National Trust appear to have done a double backflip. She now says that she is absolutely opposed to fracking on Trust land, ‘because as far as possible we want to avoid anything that encourages continued use of fossil fuel’. At the same time, she has softened her stance on wind farms. The Trust’s rural enterprise director has said that it plans to create more solar farms on its land, claiming that they encourage wildlife.

These announcements are not consistent with a policy of conserving treasured landscapes; rather, they smack of a desire to jump aboard the climate change bandwagon. Dame Helen Ghosh will find it a pretty crowded vehicle, what with all the ministers, quangocrats and backbench MPs who have already leaped on. It seems now to be a prerequisite of a senior post in the public or voluntary sector that appointees must devote time to platitudes on climate change if they want to keep their job.

This speaks to a wider, more insidious culture in government. When organisations from the Parole Board to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are required to have a climate change plan, something has gone seriously wrong. Ministries are devoting much of their time and effort to cross-government policy initiatives which have little to do with their stated purpose.

What makes this even more curious is that, on fracking, the climate change bandwagon is still travelling in one direction when the evidence is pointing very much in the other. The former high priests of the climate change agenda now accept that fracking provides the quickest way of reducing carbon emissions. The irony is that the US, generally regarded as an environmental vandal, is leading the way on cutting carbon emissions — thanks to lower-carbon fracking. Europe, which sets in motion most initiatives on climate change, has failed to do so. America has quickly learnt to distinguish between genuine environmentalism and the green industry’s racketeering.

As for the claims that fracking is environmentally hazardous, no quantity of evidence to the contrary seems to persuade opponents. They who are quick to condemn anyone for taking a sceptical attitude to climate change science utterly reject any form of science when it is telling them that fracking is not causing significant earthquakes, poisoning the water supply or causing methane to leak from water taps. They cling instead to scare stories which have been ruled by US courts to be untrue.

A ban on National Trust land is not, of course, going to hold up the fracking industry. It is simply indicative of a kind of wider denial in Britain, the intellectual cul-de-sac into which our nation’s energy policy has been directed. We saw another example of it this week when Nick Clegg championed a £500 million initiative for electric cars. You could not invent a better means of passing money from the poor to the rich (other than the National Lottery) than through government subsidy of electric cars, which are hugely expensive and ineffectual. The logic upon which these schemes are built is collapsing. Yet the subsidy has been authorised and the vested interests refuse to let go.

It’s far from clear whether the National Trust’s three million members will appreciate having solar farms installed on land which they have gifted or helped to buy and maintain. In small quantities, on roofs, solar panels might be said to be a useful way of generating power, but plastering fields with thousands of them is going to lead to the same problem of patchy generation — which already happens with wind turbines.

In March, energy customers had to pay £8.7 million in ‘constraint payments’ to the owners of wind turbines to turn them off because windy weather was threatening to overload the national grid. Solar panels have an even worse problem in that their maximum output occurs during sunny weather in summer, when demand for electricity is low.

There may come a time when acquiring wind turbines and solar farms becomes a perfectly proper role for the National Trust: when the turbines themselves have become heritage structures providing an educational reminder of the folly that was national energy policy in the early 21st century. But that time has not yet come.

We ought to be able to rely on the National Trust to make a stand against the unseemly rush by landowners to impose wind turbines and solar farms on the British countryside in order to scoop up absurdly generous subsidies. Instead it seems that the Trust is joining the unseemly rush.

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