The wind power industry could employ over 200,000 people in Britain in forty years time. And one of the biggest opportunities comes from actually getting the equipment made here. So while arguments go on about wind farms, for many commentators they are a vital part of a Green New Deal.
Danish company Vestas wants to set up one of Europe’s largest turbine fabrication plants in Sheerness, on the Isle of Sheppey, to serve the expected huge growth in the offshore wind power market. This could be operating by 2015, creating around 2000 jobs in a deprived part of north Kent. So as part of my exploration of wind energy I went to have a look round and find out what the locals think of the idea.
Sheerness was home to a Naval Dockyard for nearly 300 years. In fact until the dockyard came along Sheerness didn’t exist at all. Built on the marshes at the mouth of the Medway, the town gradually developed around it. In the 1950’s around 2,500 people worked there. And by then the dockyard wasn’t the only string to the town’s bow. Marketed by the railway companies as Sheerness-on-Sea, it had a pier, a promenade and a steady stream of day trippers and holiday makers. The Medway shore to the west was given over to the docks, and the northern beach front to seaside fun.
Unfortunately the last fifty years have not been kind to Sheerness. The Naval Dockyard closed in 1960, and like so many other seaside places, holidaymakers have also dwindled away. The commercial port still operates, hosting around 500 workers, but the other big employer, the steelmaker Thamesteel, has now gone bust, throwing a further 350 people out of work. In a small town that is a big hole to fill.
So the arrival of Vestas could be a massive boost. The site they have chosen is Lappel Bank – which in the 1990’s was the cause of one of the Government’s (not infrequent) defeats in the European Court of Justice. What had been a mud flat rich in bird life was reclaimed as a dock extension, in contravention of the EU Birds Directive. Once done it couldn’t be undone, so instead the Government agreed to provide a new habitat across the Thames Estuary at Wallasea Island. Since then Lappel Bank has mainly been used as a massive car park. Sheerness is one of the main ports of entry for new vehicles, and thousands of cars and vans cover the site awaiting onward delivery. But it is ideal for putting the massive turbines to sea after fabrication, so the cars will now be found somewhere else on the island.
I drive in through this operational dock area. As functional and unlovely as any, it still provides glimpses of its Georgian roots. Naval Terrace is beautifully preserved, but next door the neo-classical dockyard church of St Paul’s is a roofless shell. I park the car and walk up to Sheerness High Street. To start with it’s actually hard to find someone who has heard of the proposal. The planning application has been in for about two months now, but I get some blank looks. “What – you mean they’re keeping it a secret?” one woman asks me. In a café I finally find someone better informed about Vestas. Her husband has worked in the docks for twenty years. I ask her why there isn’t more interest.
“We’ve heard these promises before”, she says, “but all we get is more closures. The ferry service stopped a few years back and now the steel mill is shut. The new factory would be good news but people will believe it when they see it – and will they want people who are used to dock work?” She tells me of an elderly café customer who remembers the days when a thousand Naval Dockyard workers would cycle home down the High Street for lunch. Sheerness is that kind of place – a close-knit community where people stay despite the limited local job opportunities.
On the shoreline a group of anglers are also sceptical about the plant. “Where it’s been done before they bring a lot of their own people in,” I’m told. In fact they believe that today British people generally get less favourable treatment than foreigners. “If the Government is willing to let a Kent businessman be extradited to America and put in jail, but is utterly unable to deport a terrorist back to his native Jordan, do you think it will have any say in whether British workers get the jobs?” one of them asks me.
This mixture of anger and resignation makes me wonder. Is the fear that an invasion of foreigners will take all the jobs so different from fearing the impact of an invasion of wind turbines on the view? I suspect not. Both say “we were very happy with things the way they were, and are not sanguine about what they may be turning into.” I’m sure an anthropologist could explain how this innate conservatism has been of value throughout human history – creating bonds of tribal loyalty which aided survival, and investing specific places with a significance which met our equally important spiritual needs. But change happens, and our ability to adapt and make the most of it is an even greater hallmark of our species.
Vestas are proposing an Employment and Training Strategy for the plant, aiming to help local people compete for the available jobs. From the opinions I heard this will be the most important part of the plan. Of course any investor is going to want the best workers at a fair price – and they won’t all be local. But if the strategy succeeds then I should be able to go into Sheerness in five years time and find that everybody knows someone who has a secure well paid job at the factory, and find a town that has become really proud of its part in the green economic revolution.
This leaves me with that other fear – of the visual impact of an offshore wind turbine invasion. Before I leave Sheppey I’m hoping to face up to that one too. So I jump in the car and drive across the island to Leysdown on Sea. This little community centred on its caravan parks and holiday camps is just waking up after its winter break. And it’s already pretty busy. Afternoon drinkers sit outside the pub and the aroma of fish and chips fills the air. On the beach I scan the horizon and, yes – I can see the turbines of the Kentish Flats wind farm in the distance, standing up out of a small proportion of seascape.
They seem completely benign, as the rotating white blades glint in the sun far out to sea. But this is the baby of offshore installations. Its power output is only 10% of that proposed in Dorset, and the turbines are about half the height of the ones Vestas intend to produce in Sheerness. I try to imagine more than a hundred of them, and bigger too, dotting much of the view.
At Leysdown today the Kentish Flats wind farm takes up maybe 10-20% of the visible horizon – and it isn’t a problem to me. But at 30% I imagine that I would start to feel differently. By 50% I decide that my experience would be seriously affected. It’s a subjective issue but perhaps the planning team at the Marine Management Organisation could come up with some guidelines. These might need to be more restrictive close to protected landscapes, but as the Government’s Marine Policy Statement recognises, views of seascapes from many other places around our coast can be significant for people too.
Of course the cost and reliability of offshore wind power are going to be far more material to decisions on its future than its visibility, or even who gets the jobs. But if careful planning can manage its impact on cherished coastal views, and it can give struggling places like Sheerness a major new lease of life, then we have the makings of a green new deal.