Power stations and paternalism

Jon Metcalf and Andy Beaton respond, separately, to David Gray and Nick Spedding?s jointly authored TAC74 piece on windfarms and wildernistas

WHETHER OR NOT you buy the greenwash surrounding wind turbines, generation-diversity has to be a good thing. The debate is about where, not if, wind power stations and their associated infrastructures are permitted. Landowner and developer profits, along with limited political fallout for the authorities, are currently prevailing over the spiritual needs of the wildernistas in an increasing area of the country. These are destructive trends.
Messrs Gray and Spedding may regard a spiritual relationship with wilderness as risible, and that?s fine ? wildernistas are more tolerant of unbelievers than some who follow more abstract ideas! Gray and Spedding take a brave line in TAC74, given that much of the readership gets something positive from being in the hills. This bravery is rather unusual for ?windfarm? proponents. Ever notice how developers incorporate a negative-publicity-deflecting shell as a front for each planning application, rather than standing up for their plans in their own name? Doublespeak is rife in the industry, from ?windfarm? (aka power station) to ?borrow pit? (aka quarry).
Gray and Spedding say that most land perceived by the wildernistas as wild and natural has already been highly influenced by generations of people. Agreed. It does not follow, however, that all further development is OK. We inherit the country in one state, and pass it on in another. The challenge is to pass on a better place to future generations at a cost to ourselves, rather than one further exploited and worsened for our own short-term interests. This intent to improve rather than to corrupt doesn?t require a romantic-idyllic starting point.
For me, a better definition of ?wild? is in contrast to what I understand by ?developed?, which is regular, regulatable, more accessible with less effort, only maintainable on a large scale by continuing human intervention, and so on. I like large-scale contrast, not fine-grained sculptural toying by turbines. I like the amenity both of developed and wild places. I like the dominance of wild land over development in Scotland. I am prejudiced against changes that tilt the balance ever further toward large-scale development. We do not presently have anything like turbine installations everywhere, but the area from which they cannot be seen is steadily shrinking. It doesn?t need installations everywhere for turbines to form part of the view everywhere. I?d hate the Highlands to become as degraded as some once-wilder southern UK hill ranges.
I go to wild country to temporarily escape the urban. Turbine plants fundamentally change large areas of less-developed land into something less revitalising. I?m perfectly happy for ?windfarm? fetishistas to have as much intensive turbine development, road building and quarrying as they can secure subsidies for ? but to confine this blight to limited zones near power-demand centres and existing grid capacity, rather than continuing the creeping infection of the Highlands. Let them ?add? as much ?character? to these limited zones as their regulatory paymasters will tolerate. My basic disagreement with the ?turbine aesthete? appears to be the scale over which we enjoy the contrast of the wild and the intrusively exploited.
The Highlands aren?t untainted, but I would question each large-scale character-changing development. Mr McWilderneish takes, it seems to me, a principled stand on the matter. There is no financial gain for him, and he?s got to be right on the Loch Arkaig case, hasn?t he? This looks suspiciously like the developers? bridgehead to Knoydart, Glenquoich and Cluanie. It would be much harder to argue for first developments in these places without a nearby precedent. Once one set of turbines is built in an area, the environmental impact assessments for nearby potential developments become littered with platitudes about ?limited incremental visual impact?.
It is three generations too late to make comparisons with the post-war employment schemes that gave us UK hydroelectricity ? and anyway, the end products of those could hardly be more visually different from wind power stations. Most current hillwalkers don?t know the pre-development terrain for most hydro developments, so the present loch levels and layouts look fairly natural to us. Water naturally accumulates in hollows, is fed and drained by burns and rivers. Present schemes often raise the level of a natural loch, albeit with the negative side-effects (eg depopulation) that Gray and Spedding cite. Steel towers, propellers and generator housings do not, by contrast, spontaneously arise on any scale. Lochs are low-lying relative to their catchment area, and often screened by it. Even were they disagreeable to look at (which most aren?t, partly due to their irregular shape), their visual impact is more in keeping with an undeveloped surrounding area and more localised than a ridge-top power station.
Gray and Spedding?s point is well made about hydro schemes making some access harder, some country more remote. Again the contrast with mass wind turbines could not be more stark. Surely maintenance motorways into the Pairc ruining the view from the savage peaks of North Harris cannot be held up as a net improvement? Future generations who inherit this folly must restore the dignity of that area. The presence of some ugliness, and the falsity of the romantic idyll, is no excuse for further wanton desecration. On the contrary, it is a manifesto for positive change in the future.
How many years might it take before ?windfarms? come to be regarded as part of the authentic fabric of our wild places? Never, for some of us.
FOLLOWING ON from Gray and Spedding?s piece in TAC70, their ?TGO wildernistas? article in TAC74 ticked a few boxes for me. As a Highland native (if there is truly such a thing), I?m occasionally irritated by the tendency of some visitors to the area to treat it as some kind of large theme park, and I can?t help thinking that a wee bit of this approach to the Highlands ? and indeed to other rural parts of the UK and beyond ? forms part of the creed of the wildernista. They seem to forget that people actually live and work here (Roger Smith should try being unemployed in Gairloch for a few months).
There is a well-established and pernicious tendency for the type of self-appointed environmental crusaders described in TAC74 to lecture local communities about what is right for them. It?s as if we can?t be trusted to look after our own environment, so we therefore need to be treated like children. In the Scottish context at least, this doctrine comes laden with the baggage of patronising paternalism which has characterised Lowland Scots and English relations with Highland society for the past couple of hundred years.
Not that I?m saying being a resident of a ?remote? area entitles you to be the sole arbiter of what happens to its resources. And there is no doubt that many people from other areas genuinely care about the Highland landscape ? as indeed, I?m sure, do Cameron McNeish and Roger Smith ? it?s just the bleeding-heart, armchair-revolutionary stuff which pisses me off. And I wonder, too, if the whole thing is just an attempt by a bunch of ageing walking-magazine hacks to appear dangerous and radical while not actually getting their hands dirty (see Rick out of the The Young Ones).
I have no strong opinions for or against wind turbines and am content to leave the technical debate to those who know what they are talking about, but I do take issue with those who seem somehow to think that they speak for all of us who live in rural areas.
I?ve railed in the past in these pages about elitism in the hills and I think that there?s a good deal of that underpinning the wildernista point of view. I?ve never really bought into the idea of hillgoing being some kind of spiritually enriching experience. As a naive 17-year-old, I was drawn to the hills by a daft, romantic idea of adventure, inspired by Tom Weir, Jock Nimlin and Hamish Brown. There was the craic to be found in bothies and the folk you met in them, but the only spiritual experiences I?ve ever had in the hills have been fuelled by the Famous Grouse.
If folk want to commune with the spirit of the forest or mother earth then good luck to them; Cameron McNeish can hug as many pine trees as he likes. TGO magazine appears increasingly to be a vehicle for the achingly ?right-on? environmental credentials of its editorial team and, as for the letters page, I feel slightly scared to be a co-hobbyist with anyone who cuts the size labels of their gloves to save weight?
I?ve slagged off Trail magazine in the past, but at least it doesn?t take itself too seriously, unlike TGO.