In the picturesque town of Lydd, the museum records the fate of two smugglers arrested at the turn of the 17th century. The men were locked in a room at a inn on the edge of Romney Marsh, a few miles from the English Channel, where they were guarded by six armed customs officers.
But the officers were unprepared for the militancy of local residents. Hours after the arrests, more than 100 from the surrounding marshes confronted the guards, freeing the men. More than a century later, residents confirmed their antipathy to authority when they cheered a smugglers’ convoy of contrabrand through the streets of the town.
Today, politicians have replaced the detested customs officers as the bête noire of residents. They fear Westminster politicians and local councillors are set to approve plans that would lead to the skies above swarming with commercial aircraft, while unsightly wind turbines proliferate on their fields.
A decision on whether to develop a major airport in Lydd, less than three miles from the Dungeness nuclear power station, is said to be imminent, while residents are battling to prevent more wind farms being built near the marsh. But this is more than a dispute between the inhabitants of a remote, wild and beautiful region, and the metropolis.
The battle over the future of Romney Marsh offers a snapshot of the dilemmas facing a government struggling to reconcile job-friendly “grand projects” with commitments to reduce carbon emissions and preserve the integrity of the countryside.
These have become perennial themes in austerity Britain; all are present in this exposed corner of England. If Eric Pickles, the secretary of state for communities and local government, approves the airport plan, opponents claim that the decision will speak volumes about both the government’s attitude to nuclear safety after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, and its attitude to international environmental obligations.
It would also undermine the point of the Davies commission, which was set up by the government to consider the arguments for airport expansion, and will not publish its findings until 2015.
Currently Lydd receives the occasional light aircraft. But approval for a runway extension would allow large commercial aircraft such as the Boeing 737 and Airbus 320, which can weigh over 70 tonnes fully loaded. The operators of Dungeness B, the French energy giant EDF, opposed the application, warning that it would increase the risk of a nuclear accident. “The large increase in air traffic around the site is a risk that should be sensibly avoided in the local and wider public interest,” EDF argued in its submission.
If Pickles approves the extension, a crucial step in allowing the airport to take up to two million passengers, opponents say that no other regional runway in Europe, possibly the world, would be as close to a nuclear power complex.
The airport, which is owned by the Saudi billionaire, Sheikh Fahad al Athel, is surrounded by protected habitats including a major RSPB bird reserve. Environmentalists say that it is under one of the main migratory bird routes in the south of England. As a result, the Dungeness Peninsula is the most heavily protected area in the UK, its habitats designated under EU and UK legislation. But some in government appear willing to flout such laws. George Osborne has said that he wants to “make sure that gold plating of European Union rules on things like habitats are not placing ridiculous rules on British business”.
The proximity of large colonies of birds to a large airport and a nuclear power station has also prompted fears of a catastrophic birdstrike. The Office for Nuclear Regulation acknowledges that if a large aircraft were to crash onto the site it would have the potential to cause its most severe “Target 9” incident, one that would kill more than 100 people. But it concludes that the probability of an accident at Dungeness, resulting from the introduction of commercial flights at Lydd, is so low that it can be ignored.
Experts hired by Lydd Airport Action Group (LAAG), which opposes the scheme, disagree, claiming that the risk assessment is flawed. The group complains that repeated requests, made under the Freedom of Information Act, to establish how the ONR reached its decision not to oppose the expansion, have been denied.
The European Commission has joined the dispute, asking the government for answers, a move that could lead to the application being mired in legal battles. “Should the government approve Lydd airport’s development, not only would this leave it open to legal challenge because of infringement of multiple directives but it would demonstrate that the government is willing to sacrifice public safety and the environment for its growth agenda,” said Louise Barton of LAAG.
The RSPB is equally opposed. “We already know that the only real capacity issue is at Heathrow,” said Chris Corrigan, its regional director in the south-east. “If there is a decision to allow expansion at Lydd, it is both unnecessary and extremely damaging, especially in the context of the UK’s legally binding climate change targets and the risk of not meeting them due to spiralling aviation emissions.” One way of countering the increase in emissions generated by airport expansion would be further investment in green energy.
But opposition to onshore wind farms in the region also runs deep. A few miles from Lydd, the energy company Ecotricity is looking to build six 125-metre turbines near the village of Snave. “Snave has been identified as an excellent site for wind energy with enough resource to provide clean green electricity to power the equivalent of 9,800 homes a year,” it says. The scheme is one of many small-scale onshore wind farms being proposed to help Britain meet EU targets for 15% of its energy to come from renewable sources by 2020.
Save Our Marsh, Block Rural Exploitation, or “Sombe”, a local pressure group, says that the marshes already have one of England’s largest onshore windfarms, a 26-turbine scheme at Little Cheyne Court, close to the medieval Cinque Port of Rye. Several other marsh parishes are also being considered for onshore turbines, with plans for four new developments unveiled in the last year alone. As a result, Sombre fears that a plethora of small onshore farms could become one giant network of turbines over time.
“Once so many have been placed strategically around Romney Marsh they will go for the infill,” said Mike Bartlett, a spokesman for the group. “We are fighting against it because we fear it will set a precedent.” Last Thursday evening, about 100 people packed the parish hall to discuss their opposition to the scheme. The mood was angry with many warning that the haunting bleak beauty of the marshes was in jeopardy.
The local Tory MP, Damien Collins, backs Sombre’s campaign, saying the answer to Britain’s energy crisis is to build a new nuclear power station at Dungeness. However he is in favour of expanding the airport, saying it would put “Romney Marsh on the runway to economic growth”, an argument shared by some locals who fear the marshes will die unless the young can be dissuaded from moving away in search of jobs.
Airport expansion, nuclear power, wind farms and conservation: a row that has it all. And what transpires in this remote part of Kent will not stay in Kent. Reflected in the brackish water of its marshes, the shape of Britain’s future can be discerned.