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United Kingdom

Election year politics feed media frenzy -- Conservative party launches anti-wind power policy

In Britain, the parliamentary opposition Conservative party is appealing to the UK's anti-wind farm vote with its launch in July of a new policy to give local communities more powers to block wind farm projects. Conservative leader Michael Howard joined forces with TV environmentalist and anti-wind campaigner David Bellamy to pledge that if his party comes to power it will change planning rules to prevent local objections to wind farms from being overruled.

Howard, speaking at an event held by the Conservatives in London, claimed that current Labour government policy relies too heavily on onshore wind turbines to meet its targets for renewable energy development. Under the government's amendments to planning rules, local people will be ignored and local objections overruled, he said.

Following a spate of attacks on wind power by Conservative party representatives., Howard's comments represent the first time the party leader has become embroiled in the issue. He says that Romney Marsh in his own south Kent constituency is threatened by a wind farm.

Shadow environment and transport secretary Tim Yeo shared the platform with Howard. He says opposition to wind power plant will grow as Labour pushes forward with its plans to increase the number of wind turbines from 1000 today to over 6000 by 2010. "Ministers have bet everything on land based wind farms" in the belief they are the quickest and cheapest way to meet the government's renewable energy target, regardless of the cost to the British landscape, he said.

From the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) Marcus Rand points out that Howard's new-found anti-wind stance runs counter to the Conservatives' history on renewables. After all, it was Howard, then environment secretary, who oversaw Britain's first set of wind farms, he says. Rand accuses Howard of a major misreading of public sentiment. "The vast majority of the public wants to see the UK embrace wind and other renewables," he says. "By standing alongside David Bellamy, an all out opponent of wind energy and well known climate sceptic, Mr Howard runs the danger of listening only to a tiny vocal minority and ignoring the views of the majority of us that want to see wind energy developed as part of an immediate response to the devastating impacts of climate change." Indeed, Scottish experience during the recent European elections shows that few votes are to be had in opposing wind: anti-wind party Wind Watch polled just 0.6% of the vote in Scotland.

Prince and country

With the forces ranged against wind power in Britain now numbering the Conservative party and various media celebrities lending their names to anti-wind campaigns, the amount of column inches devoted to wind in the press shows no sign of abating. Even Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, is recently reported by friends to have described them as a "horrendous blot on the landscape."

The prince's press office says he has never made any public comment about wind farms. But in 1994 he appeared on television saying that he was worried that too many are being built in the UK like in Denmark where "the whole place is knee deep in these damn things." At the time, his marital crisis was attracting more press attention than his views on wind power.

The country's major newspapers are divided on the issue, largely along political party lines. The Daily Telegraph, which is sympathetic to the Conservative party, is among the most virulently opposed to wind. Country Life magazine continues its crusade against turbines, although its online petition signally failed in its aim to change the government's newly issued planning guidelines on wind energy. Meantime, the BBC television channel has website pages devoted to chat about the merits, or not, of wind energy.

The BWEA points out that the press and media thrive on controversy and tend to give disproportionate coverage to the views of the vocal minority who are opposed to wind. "We have always known that people do actually like wind turbines," says BWEA's Alison Hill. "But if you were to rely on the newspapers alone to gauge public attitudes you would think that the people who like wind turbines are in a minority," she adds. "The media are like sheep", she says. "They will follow what they see the story is, and so far the story has been: we hate wind turbines."

Hill claims to have detected a "voice of reason" emerging recently in some newspapers' editorials and comment pages. Among these, are those of well known columnist Polly Toynbee and a former member of parliament, Roy Hattersley. "That voice of reason was always there and is increasingly being heard," she says. "And with the launch of the BWEA campaign, we hope to hear a lot more of it."

The campaign Hill refers to is called "Embrace" and is due to launch in September. "We are providing a vehicle for people who do like wind turbines to show their support," she explains. To help put over the case for wind, the BWEA is enlisting support from some household names.

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