Locals fight back in row over the future of Thomas Hardy country
No thanks, sunshine! Deep in the heart of Thomas Hardy country, this beauty spot is the latest that is set to be carpeted in solar panels earning thousands for the landowner – but this time, the locals are fighting back
The view is straight from the pages of Thomas Hardy. ‘The fields are mere paddocks, so reduced that from this height their hedgerows appear a network of dark green threads overspreading the paler green of the grass,’ he wrote in his novel Tess Of The d’Urbervilles.
‘With but slight exceptions the prospect is a broad rich mass of grass and trees, mantling minor hills and dales within the major. Such is the Vale of Blackmoor.’
Indeed, that vale has been largely untouched since Hardy published Tess in 1891.
Locals in Dorset are opposed to plans to build a large solar farm on this land near the village of Stour Provost
Stretching mainly through north Dorset and touching upon parts of Wiltshire and Somerset, it is an idyllic slice of the English countryside, through which flows the River Stour, where cows congregate on the banks, their tails flicking away flies on a hazy afternoon.
One could even be forgiven for thinking that Hardy was writing specifically about the view from the village of Stour Provost over the river to the enchantingly named Fifehead Magdalen.
Here, there is the same network of hedgerows and that rich mass of grass and trees described in Tess. But, tragically, much of this view of Hardy Country could soon be lost for decades.
For, if a London-based energy corporation has its way, a swathe of the vale will soon be desecrated by nearly 40,000 solar panels, covering a total of 44 acres — the equivalent of 22 football pitches.
To the consternation of many locals, the panels will not be the only blots on the landscape. The proposed solar farm, which could power more than 4,000 homes, will include 11 buildings, as well as a two metre-high deer fence with CCTV cameras.
In this artists impression, 45 acres of land will be covered in solar panels, pictured
In fact, calling this a solar ‘farm’ seems disingenuous. Such artificial developments should be deemed exactly what they are: solar power stations, or solar factories.
Though, just because they often look like factories doesn’t make them profitable. Embarrassing figures released this week revealed Britain’s biggest solar farms get more money in taxpayer subsidies than they make from selling the electricity they produce. (It is partly for this reason that any new developments, such as the one at Fifehead Magdalen, will not get this subsidy.)
Economics aside, there is a chilling irony to their creation. Such projects are being built all over the country to help save the environment — and yet, in doing so, they often ruin the natural landscapes they are ultimately seeking to protect.
While they are certainly an eyesore, not even the most fervent climate change sceptic would dispute that a solar power station is much better for the planet than its dirty, coal-powered equivalent.
The area was made famous by Thomas Hardy
Resounding cheers rightly greeted recent news that Britain had gone one week without coal power for the first time since 1882. This is partly thanks to the country’s almost 750 solar power stations, which contribute around 6 per cent of our electricity.
Both those numbers are sure to rapidly grow, as the energy sector tries to meet the Government’s target of 30 per cent of electricity being supplied by renewable sources by next year. The current figure is around 20 per cent.
But, while there seems little wrong with constructing solar power stations on brownfield sites — landscapes not necessarily visible, or areas already spoiled by other infrastructure such as motorways — it seems an act of ecological vandalism to blight beautiful and historic landscapes with tens of thousands of photovoltaic panels.
It’s for this reason that those who live in the three villages that would be affected by this power station steadfastly deny they are ‘Nimbys’ — the acronym used to refer to those who say ‘not in my backyard’ to developments which they would welcome anywhere else. Among them is Andy Branson, 67, who lives in Stour Provost and whose house will overlook the power station.
The founder and previous editor of British Wildlife magazine, he cares deeply about the environment. He also welcomes a greater use of renewable energy.
‘My initial response was that this is completely the wrong place,’ he says. ‘These fields and this valley are an almost unique part of the Blackmore Vale. It’s been farmed in the past 20 to 30 years in a way that’s been environmentally kind to the land, with little more than grazing and a few fields cut for hay.’
Bridling at the term ‘Nimby’, Mr Branson says he would have little or no problem if the solar power station was sited in the intensively farmed fields behind his house, which are far less visible.
‘Those fields are well-screened, level plateaus,’ he says. ‘Having a solar farm there would be a beneficial use of them.’
Villagers have said the plans to build on the site would ‘desecrate’ the area
Indeed, Mr Branson feels so strongly that he agreed to chair the steering group opposing the new development. He says there has been a ‘universal feeling of objection’ to it.
The scores of impassioned letters of objection to the council show this to be true. Among them is one from the 3rd Viscount Slim, grandson of Field Marshal William Slim, who commanded the 14th Army in Burma during World War II.
‘The Stour Valley is a particularly beautiful part of north Dorset and this will be a serious blight on the landscape,’ he writes. ‘The site is inappropriate and the motivation is convenience and profit.’
You only have to take a walk on the site to realise how misguided it would be to desecrate it.
Accompanied by David Redwood, 72, a Fifehead Magdalen resident, Mr Branson shows me where the power station would lie — on three fields with the lyrically evocative names of Long Mead, Dry Mead and Great Narlong.
The latter runs down to the Stour, and Dry Mead is festooned with buttercups. In the middle stands a quintessential English oak tree, which is marked on a map of the land from 1864 — which, rather poignantly, means it even stood in Thomas Hardy’s day.
It goes without saying that the scenery is picture-postcard, and you can spot the village of Marnhull, which Thomas Hardy called ‘Marlott’ and was the home of his eponymous heroine.
Just out of sight, although clearly visible from the other side of the valley at Stour Provost, is a bend in the river called Lucky Dip, where teachers at a local school took pupils to learn how to swim.
After visiting the site, it becomes clear that installing a power station on this land — even if it is, as its proponents claim, ‘only’ for 40 years — would be folly in the extreme. This is a landscape rich in biodiversity. Its villages are ancient, with their history enshrined in the Domesday Book.
They are not like many newbuild dormitory villages in the Home Counties, but places where people both live and work — and have done for centuries.
Which is why it seems so bizarre that the landowner would allow their fields to be ruined. The answer, of course, lies in cash.
Although the precise figure is commercially sensitive, it is estimated that the landowner will receive around £25,000 per year.
And, since the farmland is not of a particularly good grade, a guaranteed figure of that sum for the next four decades is, understandably, tempting.
The land’s owner is Sally Waters, 75, who lives in The Manor House in Fifehead Magdalen, and has 175 acres of land, as well as Higher Farm, where the power station is proposed. She declined to speak to the Mail, but, in an interview with Gillingham & Shaftesbury News, she admitted of solar farms: ‘I wouldn’t want them on my doorstep. I am very interested in helping the environment and these things are necessary. Part of me wonders whether it’s a good idea, but you have to progress. It’s in the hands of the planners.’ Mrs Waters’ decision to cave in to the proposed power station has not endeared her to locals.
But records of the Fifehead Magdalen Parish reveal her relationship with some members of the community has hardly been rosy over the past few years, with acrimonious meetings and with Mrs Waters complaining about ‘alleged threatening and intimidating letters to her’.
Unsurprisingly, Intelligent Alternatives, the consultancy firm seeking planning permission on behalf of the energy company, NextEnergy Capital, is adamant that the proposed power station is not detrimental to the area.
‘The farm is in an appropriate location in line with local and national planning policy,’ says Roy Amner, the firm’s director.
‘We have presented an accurate application with appropriate supporting documentation.’
Mr Amner insists that the views of the power station would be largely ‘transitory’, as many of the footpaths from where the eyesore would be viewed have hedges growing alongside them.
Furthermore, he says that the power station would increase the area’s biodiversity. ‘We shall be continuing with sheep grazing,’ he adds, ‘and we are creating special areas for invertebrates and reptiles and encouraging the growth of wildflowers on the margins of the site. In addition, there will be places for nesting birds and bats.’
Mr Amner claims there has been ‘some misunderstanding’ about the planning application and he states some objections have been ‘inaccurate’ in regard to the height of panels and other details.
But Andy Branson and fellow objectors feel the supporting documentation provided by Intelligent Alternatives is one-sided and highly selective. They are spending more than £10,000 of their own money in producing a report to counter the one made by the energy firm.
Yet, ultimately, as landowner Sally Waters says, the fate of this beautiful corner of Britain is in the ‘hands of the planners’ — although, as the owner, she could stop the process at any time.
In the meantime, all the villagers can do is continue pressing their objections and keep their fingers crossed. ‘Beauty lay not in the thing, but in what the thing symbolised,’ wrote Thomas Hardy.
For the citizens of Fifehead Magdalen, it is clear they are passionate about both.
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