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United Kingdom

The story of a british wind project

In the aftermath of one of the UK's most bitter battles ever over installation of a wind turbine is the dawning realisation that many of the fears of protesters were unfounded.

A single wind turbine on the outskirts of a west English village today turns in quiet solitude. There is little local evidence left of the bitter five year battle to prevent the machine's erection. Opposition to the project was so intense at times that it made national news, with a last minute blockade by local villagers providing one of the blackest moments for British wind energy. Emotions ran high as pictures of elderly protesters camping out in freezing weather in their folding chairs and wheelchairs were shown on television and printed in newspapers.

The pattern of opposition at Nympsfield was typical of many developments in Britain, even if its intensity was unusual. Yet time and again initial hostility prior to a wind energy development later gives way to widespread acceptance and a favourable reaction once it is operational. Whether this turns out to be the case at Nympsfield remains to be seen, but a flood of letters to the local press praising the turbine would appear to indicate a swing in public opinion in favour of the project.

Small developer Western Windpower did not expect a barrage of protest when it first planned in 1992 to build the wind turbine on farmland one and half kilometres from the village of Nympsfield near Stroud in Gloucestershire. Although in the Cotswold Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), the site is crossed by electric power lines and is above a waste dump. The planning application for two 300 kW Enercon E-33 machines from Germany encountered some local resistance but was granted by a comfortable margin by Stroud District Council's planning committee.

However, by the time Western Windpower had secured a power purchase contract for the site under the third round of the Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation (NFFO) in 1995, Enercon's technology had moved on. Dale Vince from Western Windpower explains that the 500 kW E40 had by then become Enercon's leading machine. The company decided to reapply for permission to build a single 500 kW machine instead of the two smaller E-33 units and to revoke the earlier application. He points out that the project was the first wind energy development in the area. "So if the public were going to come along and judge wind energy on the basis of our scheme, we wanted our first machine to be the latest and the very best," he says.

But when the company made its second planning application, local opposition escalated. Vince and partner Karen Lane had to fight for their project every inch of the way, from securing planning permission through to final installation.

Protest campaign

Villagers organised a petition and mobilised themselves into a protest campaign called the Cotswold Protection Group. Its spokesman, Ian Blair, says most of the villagers are united in their opposition to the development. "The vast majority of the village feels that the amount of electricity this turbine produces is trivial and does not justify it being built," he says. "We feel that the unspoilt landscape is as much of a limited resource as coal, oil or gas and has to be protected." Hundreds of letters of objection were sent to Stroud District Council. Around half were sent by members of Country Guardian, a national anti-wind farm campaign group. However, Stroud planning officer John Balfe points out that he also received a large number of letters in support of the turbine.

Not surprisingly in the face of so much dissent, councillors rejected the application -- even against the advice of their own planning officers. According to Balfe there were several reasons for this. In the intervening period before Western Windpower's second application, the political make-up of the council had changed. Moreover, many on the planning committee had their own concerns about the scale of the turbine, noise and interference with television reception, he explains. "But now it is up and running I have not had any evidence of problems with noise and TV interference," he comments.

Western Windpower appealed against the council's refusal and eventually, after a public inquiry, was granted planning consent by a Department of the Environment inspector. Yet although it had won this particular battle, the war still raged on.

As work on building the turbine finally began, the National Trust charity briefly joined the fray -- objecting to the planning inspector's ruling in favour of the project. Its concern was that the turbine would be sited within an AONB and would overlook its recently acquired stately home, Woodchester Park. Western Windpower counter that they had earmarked the site for wind development long before the National Trust gained possession of the park, and point out that if the National Trust had not cut down so many trees to create views, the turbine would not have been visible from the house. Although the National Trust was at one point poised to call for a judicial review, it withdrew fearing the high cost of taking its objection to the High Court.

Blockade by villagers

By early December 1996 work on site was nearing completion, yet villagers kept up the pressure to the end. In a last stand in the village churchyard they delayed the local utility MEB from connecting the turbine to the grid. For a week they picketed MEB's connection point in the churchyard, some nights camping out to block access by MEB engineers. One resident, Bernard Freeman, who had lived in the area for 70 years was quoted by the media as saying: "I will not allow this windmill to be built, even if it means me going to jail." The story -- carried by the Press Association -- even made the national papers.

Finally, after police mediation, the villagers abandoned their picketing and MEB was able to complete the connection. On Friday December 13 Enercon's first UK wind turbine had been installed and by December 18 was fully operational.

Yet in a happier postscript to the story, the turbine is proving to be the focus of an alternative groundswell of opinion. Since it was erected on the Cotswold escarpment outside Nympsfield, a growing body of people has been expressing its approval. Dale Vince claims that thousands have commended him on it. "We have had colossal support. It is really encouraging, particularly after the dark days, the abuse and all the propaganda from Country Guardian." Throughout development he had maintained that when the turbine was up, fears would be allayed. He adds that many local opponents to the scheme had genuinely believed Country Guardian's wild claims. "But all of the things they claimed would happen have not happened. There is a lot of anger now in the village among people who think they have been duped."

Ian Blair on the other hand claims the turbine's existence has made no difference to the villagers' attitudes. "We still feel it should never have been built. It definitely has affected the amenity and property values in the area."

There is little doubt that the issue has polarised attitudes in the village. But if the letters pages in the press are representative of local opinion, there would appear to be a majority in favour of the turbine. Letters of support have outnumbered those against by a margin of nine to one. Correspondents have called it majestic, praised its beauty and grace and described it as a symbol for the future.

Vince says there have been four themes common to most of the comments he has heard. "Firstly they say how quiet it is. Then how beautiful, and what is all the fuss about? Finally, they say why only one?"

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