Shaun Spiers: Beauty, Tranquillity and Power Stations?

I would like to thank Chris Huhne for agreeing to give CPRE’s lecture. When David Miliband gave the first CPRE Lecture in 2007, we said that it was the first speech on land use by a Cabinet Minister since Lloyd George. I am not totally confident that that was true, but I can say with confidence that today’s was the first speech by a Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change addressing the implications of energy policy for landscape and the countryside.

It is an important topic, because – as the Government will discover as its planning reforms unfold – people care passionately about the countryside. They should also care passionately about climate change, and the debate CPRE has been wrestling with is how we can enable the countryside to play its part in cutting emissions without damaging or destroying its special character.

If the country is to get the new energy infrastructure it needs, we need a richer national debate. This won’t be easy – it hasn’t been easy within CPRE – but at present the national debate about new energy infrastructure, and in particular wind farms, is characterised by a lot angry rhetoric, too many highly contestable ‘facts’, and very little listening.

So I hope this is the start of a more intelligent and better informed debate. And I hope that we can avoid the debate becoming too technocratic. Exercises such as DECC’s 2050 pathways project are very important – CPRE has participated, and the exercise certainly shows just how difficult are the energy choices the country will have to make. But it is also important to engage with people’s gut feeling and emotions.

Beauty, Tranquillity and Power Stations

We billed this meeting as ‘beauty, tranquillity and power stations’ partly because we thought that a title of ‘beauty, tranquillity and wind farms’ might be misinterpreted, but also because beauty and tranquillity are central to CPRE’s mission.

As a country, we ask quite a lot of our land. George Osborne seems mainly concerned that it should provide us with economic growth, but it also feeds us, provides us with a range of ‘environmental services’, and it has powerful cultural meanings. Values such as natural beauty cannot, extraordinary though it may seem to some people, be captured by the the market.

The question is: should we compromise these in light of the threat which climate change poses? Should we cover the countryside in biomass plantations, onshore wind farms, pylons, nuclear power stations, CCS pipelines and all manner of intrusive infrastructure?

The threat of climate change is sometimes likened to that of war. “We face an emergency,” the argument goes, “we cannot spend too long arguing, we have to act! We need lots more renewable energy, and we need it quickly. Democracy and landscape must take second place to saving the planet.”

I have some sympathy with this point of view. We do need to act quickly to reduce the speed of climate change and wind farms can play a part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But it is interesting to reflect on what happened the last time the country’s survival really was threatened by war. In the late 1930s there was widespread concern about what the Manchester Guardian called “the fatal fascination which draws our Defence departments, when they are in search of sites for new depots, nearly always to scenes of great beauty or historic interest”. A similar fascination seems to draw wind farms, nuclear power stations, and pylons to scenes of ‘great beauty or historic interest’ today.

Of course, there are reasons why wind farms are sited in windy uplands; nuclear power stations in remote (and often beautiful) locations; and pylons march across rural landscapes to connect these remote areas with the cities where energy is consumed. But these are not the only green energy options, as work which CPRE has done with DECC on a pathway to 2050 shows.

Returning to my wartime example, in response to concerns about the siting of aerodromes and arms factories, one of CPRE’s founders, Patrick Abercrombie, was appointed as an official consultant to the RAF. CPRE said that it recognised “that in the final resort national defence must take precedence, but it is anxious to ensure that other national interests, especially those of our agricultural countryside and finest unspoilt scenery, shall receive due consideration before sites are selected”.

This was welcomed by a Leader in the Times which argued against “playing the traitor to the ideals of peace and letting beauty go hang because the nation must have more guns and aeroplanes. By appointing Professor Abercrombie to be consultant in the acquiring of sites, the Royal Air Force has set a fine example. The end of all this preparation is to preserve in permanence all that makes life worth living in our country; and it would be futile to let the hurry and heedlessness of the hour destroy any portion of what we are aiming to preserve for all time.”

Those words ring true today, when we need to find ways of protecting the wider environment without trashing the landscape.

We don’t have Patrick Abercrombie now, but we do have a much more detailed understanding of the natural environment, and much better tools – including the planning system, to help direct development into the right locations.

New challenges

At the same time we face three significant challenges which are different to those faced by conservationists during the war.

First, despite being vastly wealthier than we were during the war, we seem obsessed with costs. I hope that the Secretary of State will put pressure on National Grid and Ofgem to provide the funding necessary to put transmission lines underground. We believe, based on the Danish example, that National Grid is exaggerating the cost of undergrounding. We also believe that the threat now posed by pylons to some of our finest landscapes, including the Mendips and the Dedham Vale, is unacceptable.

Second, we ask much more of our land and landscapes. We live much more energy intensive lifestyles and have many more roads, aeroplanes and buildings than 70 years ago. We need to accept that there is a limit to the ability of our landscapes to absorb further development without compromise.

As Professor Susan Owens has put it, we all have a difficulty in ‘confronting fundamentally unsustainable patterns of production and consumption. We do need renewable energy but, to put it crudely, we shouldn’t be putting wind farms in wild locations so that we can continue to drive and take cheap flights as much as we want. Climate is indeed a crucial issue, but … we miss the point if it becomes a warrant for other environmental harms.’

Third, one of the greatest tools for environmental protection – the planning system – has faced a barrage of criticism, including from environmentalists who have fallen into the trap of believing that there is necessarily a conflict between natural beauty and environmentally friendly energy. While planning cannot reconcile irreconcilable land use conflicts, it can do much more to integrate conflicting environmental goods (unless economic aims take precedence over social and environmental aims).

Yesterday’s budget was an environmental disaster in this respect and in other respects. The fuel duty and aviation giveaways will encourage people to drive and fly further, trashing our emissions targets, while relaxation of planning rules, particularly brownfield targets, is likely to lead to more energy-inefficient sprawl which will lock the country into higher energy use. This means more power stations, more difficulty in cutting our emissions, and a less tranquil and beautiful countryside. A better budget would have avoided windfall profits to energy companies, strongly supported energy efficiency and reductions – the cheapest way of tackling climate change – and helped people to move to greener forms of transport which are less vulnerable to oil price spikes.

I know that the Secretary of State is not responsible for the Budget, but he is a member of the Government and I hope he will register our strong concern. Trashing planning will make his task harder in many ways. It will make it much harder to get consent for the energy infrastructure the country needs, to get people to believe that they have engaged in a fair process where their concerns have been listened to.

But the Secretary of State’s speech was encouraging in many ways, and I greatly welcome his willingness to engage with CPRE’s concerns and to think hard about how to accommodate new energy infrastructure without unnecessarily harming the landscape.

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