My opposition to wind-turbines used to be merely theoretical. I understood that they were an inefficient way of generating energy and that companies pushed them into inappropriate places, against the wishes of communities, because of extravagant subsidies. But Britain desperately needed clean energy. I knew struggling farmers, for whom turbines could bring enough income to save a family farm. And friends told me I was out of date and that was not taking the environmental problems seriously. And so I was confused. I am no longer. My visit to Reagill has turned my theoretical opposition into something deeper. Penrith and the Border should be a turbine-free constituency.
Standing above Reagill, you can see the horizon from Blencathra to the Pennines. Nothing breaks that silhouette and, although it is the largest constituency in England, you can see almost every mile of it: an unbroken sweep of rolling hills, clean to the mountain ridgeline, without industrial machinery. It is almost the last constituency in Britain where this is true. In Scotland, the crest of the wild and empty hill of bracken above Glendevon, is visible for 3,000 square miles around – from the Sma Glen to the Pentlands, South across the Forth: and for 3,000 square miles around you can see that it is crowned by giant white turbines.
We are a densely populated island, that industrialized heavily and early, and has no Alps, no wilderness, no Himalayas. Since Wordsworth, the British have found their escape and freedom in our Cumbrian landscape. People still want to move and retire here; live and die here – because of the purity of the space. It is a human-made landscape, sculpted and tended by farmers, but the human hand is hidden. It consists of pure expanses of open ridge lines, framed by mountains, but it is in reality, small in scale. As Auden says, this is a limestone landscape ‘where everything can be reached or touched by walking’. If 400-foot industrial turbines –taller than St.Paul’s cathedral – whir on three hundred foot hills, sending flickering shadows over the valleys, all this is altered forever. Everything around will be industrialized, domesticated, humiliated and diminished. The hills will seem, under these great lazy robots, like municipal parks in the shadow of a ferris wheel.
So what? During the election my opponent and friend said to me: “You can’t pay the bills with the view, my lad”. Turbines seem to promise great environmental and financial benefits; they are astonishing technology and starkly beautiful; they epitomize modernity. Carbon dioxide emissions are driving climate change and could destroy the lives of billions: we are not even beginning to properly reduce emissions. Our constituency has some great renewable projects – geothermal in Gamblesby, solar in Bolton, wood in Alston, hydro at Bongate weir – but they do not begin to suffice. Even the contribution and sacrifice that Cumbria has made in nuclear generation is not enough to solve Britain’s problems. The arguments for wind-turbines seem hard-headed, practical and moral. Are we, therefore, simply being foolish, sentimental, selfish?
No: because if we kill the magic of Cumbria by driving four hundred foot steel stakes into the heart of our landscape, we lose more than sentiment. For a start, we will lose money. Tourism is the largest income earner and employer in the constituency and the landscape, which we will be wrecking, is what the tourists pay to see. They come now to visit one of the last upland areas, in which it is possible to see how Britain looked before the wind-turbines.
But what moved me most on Saturday above Reagill, was not the hills, or tourism but the fierce commitment of the anti-wind farm campaigners themselves. Once you have met them – grasped the time they have given, the research they have done, the opportunities which they have passed up – the way they live their lives – you would not call them nimbys. When they talk about the skyline, or point to the birds on Winter Tarn, or discuss their support for the fights of other communities from Shap to Stainmore, they are neither sentimental nor selfish. They are people whose lives are concretely absorbed in their landscape: aware of its shape, its heft, its space. They loved it – as millions of others loved it – and will love it. I know people will struggle to understand why we should make this a turbine-free constituency. But the best reason to block the developers is the love of such communities for their own place.