Yesterday one of the much vaunted wind turbines stopped traffic as it passed through the town centre. It gave all of us a close up view of the technology. It brought home to me yet another planning issue which is affecting our area. Much as we are angered by the fiasco over the housing in the town, the rural communities around Ashbourne are facing a similar never-ending stream of controversial applications for wind farms.
There are some strong comparisons between the two situations. There is an overriding need which drives the planning process – whether this is the need for homes or the need for safe renewable energy. There is also a greed element: the people wanting to build houses and turbines are not doing it through any philanthropic or social motive. If there is money to be made they would use the land for any purpose within the law. There is of course the NIMBY element too but in the countryside there is also surely a wider consideration of the landscape affected for all of us.
Overriding all of this is time pressure and a sense of the immediate economic pressures and the longer term issue of global climate change and this is the saddest dimension of all. Ten years ago, and in ten years time, the pressures were, and may be, completely different and Government priorities may be refocussed. Undoubtedly there are problems to be solved but the solutions being created are massively short-sighted and show a real lack of political courage. No-one in their right minds would think that solar panels scattered on rooftops around the country and occasional windmills in fields is a sensible solution. It is a sop to the environmentalists rather than a meaningful climate change strategy for the United Kingdom.
Just down the road from us we have an example of entrepreneurship and vision – Arkwright’s Mill. Where technology was applied to solve a problem and hugely increased the effectiveness of it. Our current approach to renewable energy is a pre-industrial revolution crofter’s approach which is unsustainable and will be laughable when people look back. Just as the true windmills (two on Windmill Lane at one time) were rendered uncompetitive and obsolete through the arrival of the steam engine we run the risk of hundreds of individual wind turbines becoming follies.
In Europe they have long understood the economies of taking an industrial-scale approach to energy production. In Germany and Scandinavia there are vast fields of solar panels and huge wind farms which treat power like a crop. I have to confess that I really like the look of wind turbines. I don’t share the view that they are automatically a blight but that they can be a sympathetic landscape element like a dam or a bridge. In the right place they are spectacular and graceful – a weed is only a flower out of place. Sadly, Governments still work on too short a timescale and don’t recognise that an energy policy is right up there with a defence policy in a true Government’s agenda and needs long term investment. And housing fits in the same category.
I still return to why we need all the housing? Why do we need so many new houses which outstrip the population growth? The true reason is that this is an indicator of the type of society we are becoming as well as of a headcount. Before someone shoots me down with suggesting that I want people to stay in abusive relationships or stop people travelling to work in other areas – I am a realist. However I do worry that we are falling further and further behind our European neighbours in our ability to live with each other and to sustain a work-life balance. We can carry on building houses and make them cheaper and cheaper but in doing so we are not addressing some of the issues. Maybe the right approach to housing is to make our existing housing stock fit for purpose as well as building new stock to meet a defined demand. Manufacturers do not keep the old production lines running and supplement them with more and more newer factories.
The industrial revolution which Richard Arkwright underlined was accompanied by a huge population shift from countryside to town. Families which for generations had only moved within a five mile radius through marriage and work suddenly became more mobile at a time when there was no attractive benefits culture. I am not advocating stopping technological progress but I do believe that, in the absence of a strong strategy for our country, we can do irreparable damage to what we are through short-termism. Margaret Thatcher was never more wrong when she said there is no such thing as society but it is easier to see when it is broken. Government needs to define the right long term strategy – a true non-political National Plan – with at least a thirty year timescale. Industries such as aerospace, shipbuilding, mining and defence could not possibly operate without this long term vision and the results of failing to plan are obvious in some of those industries too. Our leaders need to define the strategic objectives over that timeframe and then execute them on an industrial scale. Maybe then we’d take some forward steps and stop the silly tinkering which is affecting our communities so badly.