Sunday, January 29, 2012

Whindge

One of the cornerstones of my plans for developing the farm has been the erection of two wind turbines on the ridge above the farm buildings. About thirty-one metres to tip, and generating a nominal 50kW each, these are not the enormous things you see sprawling across the skyline, but not insubstantial either. To put them up would have cost a lot of money.


I say 'would have cost' because it's not going to happen now. After a year of rather more hassle with the planning authorities than should have been the case, my proposal has been denied approval at appeal. No wind turbines for me.


The reason given by the DPEA, who deal with such things, boils down to visual intrusion on what is considered to be a special landscape. There is already one turbine on the ridge - my brother's erection mentioned in this blog before now. Two more reasonably close by, and slightly taller, are considered to be too much for the site to take.


Now I'll be the first to admit that the area around here is very pretty. Norman's Law is a prominent local feature, and the Tay Estuary* with its backdrop of mountains to the north and west is quite spectacular - particularly when you get a good sunset. But I can't agree with the worthy committees and hordes of unknown, unelected bureaucrats who have come up with the plan to designate the whole of North East Fife an Area of Special Landscape Value and slap even more onerous than usual planning restrictions on the area. In fact I can't really get behind such designations at all.


Far from being an unspoilt idyll, the south bank of the Tay is the way it is because of millennia of human interference. At the summit of Norman's Law there is an Iron Age hill fort; the fields immediately below it are defined by stone walls several hundred years old (and in need of repairs I can't afford); the woods surrounding the hill are blanket plantations of non-native species (Sitka spruce and Norwegian Fir mostly) dating back to the great Forestry Commission adventure after the second world war. Further down the hill towards the coast, once small fields separated by neat hedgerows have grown ever larger as arable farming has mechanised. The few small copses of native broadleaf trees are increasingly isolated; islands in a sea of uniform barley, oilseed rape and potatoes.


But people who live in towns and cities, who have well-developed public transport systems to take them from suburban house or urban apartment to office block, call centre or factory, who spend their lives in a melee of traffic noise, pollution and busyness, like to come out here where it's quiet to relax. 


I really don't have a problem with that. Technically I own Norman's Law. It's a hill rather than a mountain, but rugged and weather-beaten. It's a Scheduled Ancient Monument, whatever that's meant to be, and a Site of Special Scientific Interest. I walk over it every day, I am in the process of restoring it to lowland heath rather than the blanket gorse it was in danger of becoming. It's my responsibility. But I don't feel like it really belongs to me. Why shouldn't everyone enjoy it, as long as they leave only footprints and take only photographs?


There's the trite old saying, trotted out by well-meaning landowners, that they are merely custodians. The hill was there before I was born and will be still there long after I am gone. Certainly the rules and regulations mean that I cannot exclude people from the land even if I wanted to. And I must ensure that it isn't degraded in any way, so the fact that I own it counts for very little, really. I could moan and say that in fact owning the land is more of a burden than a privilege, as the hefty bills for replacing fences, fixing drains and clearing gorse have so clearly shown me this last year. Not doing these things is not an option and yet the potential for earning any money from the hill is very small. Such is the lot of the modern landowner.


I am, nevertheless, delighted that people come and walk here. Even if I were able to restrict access I wouldn't. I'm even more tolerant of riders and mountain bikers than my father ever was.**


But I digress. This area is undeniably pretty, and it's popular with the general public as a recreation space. But, and this is an important but, it is also my workplace. I have to keep the land in good agricultural and environmental condition (GAEC, as the wonderful acronym goes). That's the law, and if I don't follow it I can be fined. I don't get any direct subsidies for the farm - the grants I do receive are specifically for the restoration and maintenance of Norman's Law as a lowland heath. They don't amount to much, and severely restrict the numbers of animals I can put there and when, thus limiting my income potential on that particular piece of land. If I don't follow the terms of my agreement with the Scottish Government to the letter, I can have my grant stopped, be fined the same amount as was going to be given, and be banned from participation in any future schemes.


The grants don't even cover the full cost of the work they are meant to subsidise, either. One was for 300 metres of fence and a new gate. The grant amounted to £1200, which seems very generous until you realise the actual cost of putting up the fence and gate was almost twice that. Likewise the gorse clearing I have been doing all year. I'll get around £6000 for that, but I've already spent £4000 hiring in a team of men to help me with just a quarter of the total area. Dividing that remaining £2000 by the hours I've put in doesn't really bear thinking about. It's certainly not a wage, nor is it meant to be.


In short, I am under a great deal of obligation for very little reward. I am not complaining about this - well not much. I knew this was the situation before I decided to take on the farm. It's the same for all farmers, although some get more in subsidy that I do. We are very tightly regulated and, particularly for livestock farmers, struggle to make a living in a world where people don't really care where their meat comes from as long as it's dirt cheap, but want everything to do with the industry regulated - at the industry's expense - until it squeaks.***


On top of this, some genius in Fife Council has decided that this part of Fife needs extra protection from us greedy land-raping farmer bastards, who can't be trusted with a field of grass. The Tay Coast Special Landscape Area cracks down even harder on rural development than the already insane planning regulations. Want to build a house in the country for a person working in a non-agricultural but rural-based business? Forget it. You can have a holiday cottage (WTF?) but it mustn't be occupied for more than 40 weeks in any one year. And if you just wanted to build a nice house on a bit of land you own, well, that's never going to happen. Unless you're extremely rich and have friends in government.


For years now, the news has carried stories of rural decline, closing schools and village shops. Our nearest post office is miles away, in a large town, as is the nearest shop. There's no bus service anywhere near here either. Pretty much the only service I get for my horrendously large council tax is emptying the bins. The countryside is being leached of young people and entrepreneurs.


The obvious finger to point, when looking for reasons for this, is the horrendous cost of housing out in the sticks. Funnily enough, the most vociferous opponents of my wind turbine plan are all people who have bought houses out here in the countryside but work in Dundee, Perth or Edinburgh, or have retired here from a hectic life in the city. They have paid a lot of money for these houses, and even in these troubled financial times the prices around here leap enormously once you've moved away from the nearest streetlights. People who want to work around here, where wages are low, simply cannot afford to buy a house.


You might think the influx of Polish builders and Czech plumbers was noticeable in the cities, but it's nothing compared to what's happened in the countryside. I let some of my fields for grazing to a neighbouring farmer. He has a huge business, spread over many farms, and employs a lot of farm workers. A couple of times a year they turn up here to sort out their cows, dose them or take them away. Almost all of the young men are Eastern European, and almost all of them live a dormitory existence - often in great camps of static caravans bought in specifically for the purpose. The scale of these operations can be astonishing, especially in the soft fruit industry across the Tay from here, with annual migrations of young workers camped out for the summer months.


I'm not saying this is a bad thing in and of itself. I don't think we should put up barriers to these people - quite the opposite. They are prepared to work hard, and I wish there was a way to pay them more than the minimum wage pittance they get. But it's not a great way to maintain a healthy rural economy. Those born and brought up on the land face the same problem. Many would love to work in agriculture, but simply can't afford to live in the countryside any more, and the wages on offer aren't enough to cover the cost of travelling from the towns every day.


Over-inflated house prices are not the real reason for this sad state of affairs, however. Or at least not the root cause. That can be laid squarely at the feet of our planning system and the chronic nimbyism that underpins it.


Do we want unchecked development rampaging across the countryside? Well, obviously not. It would be crazy to try and build a huge factory here - the road infrastructure isn't up to it. But as long as well-meaning but misguided bureaucrats insist on preserving the countryside in aspic; as long as the haves with their well-paid city jobs and nice country cottages shout loud about controlling what happens on land they don't own; then we will continue to see our rural economy stagnate, our farm jobs go to itinerant foreign workers who will quite understandably repatriate a large chunk of their earnings rather than spending them in the local community. 


The government in its infinite, disjointed wisdom, has plundered the fund set up to facilitate the digital broadcasting switchover and is using that money - creamed off the top of the licence fee - to improve rural broadband coverage. its aim - to encourage business back into the countryside and reverse the decline of the rural economy. Brilliant, well done, more of it please. But here's a question: where are all these brave new entrepreneurs and teleworkers going to live?


My brother is one of these rural pioneers. His company employs nine people and is based in offices in the old stone steading buildings here on the farm. But all of those employees bar himself and his wife have to commute from nearby (and some not so nearby) towns. When he approached Fife Council planning department with a view to getting permission to build a house on a spare piece of land so that one of his employees could move closer, he was told no. He could build something for someone directly involved in agriculture, and it would have a restriction on it meaning it could only be occupied by or sold to a farm worker,**** or he could build a holiday cottage that could only be occupied for forty weeks in any one year. Someone simply employed in a business whose offices were in the countryside doesn't count. Likewise if I employ someone to drive tractors and feed cows, then I might get permission to build them a cottage to live in, but if I employ someone to run the wool processing plant I would like to establish here, then no, I can't. Because that's not agriculture.


My two wind turbines were intended to provide electricity for the farm and the wool processing plant, and generate a stable income to invest in the business. Without them, I am going to struggle, as so many livestock farmers do. The wool processing is on hold, and the prospect of employing anyone receding fast. Anywhere else - Aberdeenshire, Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles, Moray, Sutherland, Caithness - I would have had my application for two relatively small turbines approved without fuss, but because North East Fife is special, apparently, I have to do without. The government says it wants to encourage new rural businesses, and it is doing some few things to that end. But without a complete overhaul of the planning system to allow development to take place, then it's all just pissing in the wind.




* It's the Firth of Forth, the Moray FIrth, the Cromarty Firth and the Dornoch Firth, so why is it the Tay Estuary? No one seems to know.
** There's a wonderful pamphlet, produced by our ever-so-wonderful government, detailing the various rights of access across private land in the UK. On the cover it shows a walker with a backpack, a mountain biker and a rider on a horse, all beside a traditional footpath sign. The clue to the right of access is in the name 'foot'path. Mountain bikers and horse riders do not, automatically, have any right to ride over footpaths. Most, however, only get as far as looking at the cover, and leapt to the obvious conclusion.
*** This is a rant for another day, but why, FFS, do we have to have vets, who are trained to keep animals alive, inspect carcasses in abattoirs? Why can't this job be given to someone who's had maybe six months training, rather than five expensive years?
**** And this restriction is also retroactively applied to any other dwellings on the farm, i.e. the farmhouse. So my brother would have to move out, since he isn't a farmer. Genius idea.

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