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An ill wind blows in from the west Duff Hart Davis

0nce again wind turbines are threatening to rear their ugly, whirling heads on the rim of the Cotswolds. For the past five years a single monster has been wheeling away on Lynch Knoll above the village of Nympsfield, to the chagrin of almost everyone who can see it, and now there is a bid to put up four more, even bigger, close by it. The application will come up before Stroud District Council's Planning Committee next Tuesday, and the vast majority of local people are fervently hoping it will be rejected. The population of Nympsfield is only about 350, but already more than 1,000 objections have been lodged, and opposition is being led by a band of local volunteers who style them selves the Cotswold Protection Group.

The first turbine, which went up in 1996, has always seemed bad enough: it is 63 metres high (including the blades) and visible for miles around. Yet the proposed new machines, at 80 metres, would be 17 metres higher, and far more obtrusive. Whenever the first one is working, its gyrating arms create acute visual irritation, entirely otherwise-serene lines of at odds with the hills. The turbine also sets up a mysterious, hum, which is maddening to anyone living within half a mile. The noise does not come from the blades or gearbox, both of which are quiet, but is apparently created by some vibration within the tower.

In sanctioning the first installation, the planners faced a tricky decision. On paper, clean power from a renewable source is an attractive option, and one which any council would go for if other factors were equal. But Lynch Knoll is a prominent site, and it lies within the Cotswold Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which is supposed to be exempt from development. How does one weigh a minor gain in green electricity against defacement of the AONB?

When permission was given, locals took matters into their own hands and tried to prevent the installation crew connecting up with the national grid by physically blocking access to the only available pole, in a corner of the Catholic churchyard. Relays of volunteers, including the Protestant rector and the Catholic priest, took turns to sit across the front of the pole, and refused to move. The developers brought along an army of 30 security men, who penned the rebels in and the stand-off lasted 10 days before resistance caved in.

Now, once again, the proposer is Dale Vince, a local entrepreneur whose own company, Next Generation, represents a major German firm. He sited his first turbine on a field rented from a farmer, but this time he has spent £80,000 buying land of his own. To a proprietor, the attractions of farming wind are obvious, especially at a time when traditional agriculture is in such difficulties, for an operating company pays an annual rent of at least £2,000 per mast. Mr Vince claims that the average output of the first turbine has been 150 kilowatts -enough to run 50 two-bar electric fires - but as critics point out, there is often too little or too much wind for it to operate at all. If the speed of the blades' rotation, falls below 18 revolutions per minute, it ceases to generate, and if the blades turn at more than 38 rpm,, they are automatically feathered to stop them breaking up. At either extreme the device is producing nothing and overall its contribution to the national grid is infinitesimal. It would need 33,000 turbines of this kind to generate 10 per cent of the country's electricity

Another claim is that, by reducing consumption of fossil fuel, the turbine saves carbon dioxide pollution. The protest group counters this by pointing out that traffic is by far the worst contributor of carbon dioxide, and that the saving is no more than the C02 produced on 43 yards of the M5 motorway, which runs along the Severn Vale beneath the Cotswold escarpment.

One of the protest group's crucial arguments is that the site is by no means the best in the area. There is another site available near Berkeley, down on the Severn estuary, where the surroundings have already been blighted by a nuclear power station. In the words of Ian Blair, a farmer and critic: "A site like the one near Nympsfield, in a nationally designated AONB, is the last place you would expect anyone to choose." He points out that one of the major players in the industry, Powergen, when advertising for sites on which to build wind arms, now specifies that the land must not be in a National Park or an AONB.

The protest group's long-term fear is of a creeping takeover: that if this new development is allowed, a forest of turbines will quickly spread up over the Cotswolds, disfiguring one of England's most cherished landscapes, just as the hills of central Wales have been desecrated by wind farms. Immediate aesthetic concerns apart such a development would seriously damage tourism, which offers the area its best chance of long-term prosperity.

This time, should Stroud decide in favour of the development, there will be no physical obstruction, for Next Generation already has access to the national grid. instead, the protest group is pinning its hopes on fact that during the past months the Government has accepted that Britain is not an appropriate island on which to site thousands of wind turbines. Indeed, the announcement last month of major investment in offshore wind farms seemed to indicate a major policy switch.

Increasing attention is being paid here to the Darmstadt Manifesto of 1998, a paper signed by more than 60 college and university lecturers, which called for the withdrawal of all subsidies on the production of wind power in Germany, on the grounds that turbines are "of no significance whatever for the purpose of supplying energy, saving resources or protecting the climate". The authors of the manifesto warmed against "the uncritical promotion of technology% which, 'they wrote, "can in the long term have far-reaching adverse effects on the relationship between man and nature".

From "The Independent", 5 May 2001