Substation plan would be a ‘catastrophe’ for Suffolk’s Sandlings, say campaigners

Campaign group Save Our Sandlings say Broom Covert is part of internationally-important rare lowland

Campaign group Save Our Sandlings say Broom Covert is part of internationally-important rare lowland heath habitat. Picture: Save Our Sandlings - Credit: Archant

Can renewable energy be considered eco-friendly if a windfarm substation complex covering an area equivalent to 27 football pitches is built in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, perhaps setting a dangerous precedent? Sheena Grant speaks to campaigners fighting to protect part of the Suffolk Sandlings, which make up 1% of the planet’s remaining lowland heaths.

Save Our Sandlings group has been formed to fight Scottish Power's proposals to build a giant windfa

Save Our Sandlings group has been formed to fight Scottish Power's proposals to build a giant windfarm substation at Broom Covert, part of the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Picture: Peter Chadwick - Credit: Archant

On still evenings, as night descends, the eerie cries of tawny owls carry through the air around one of Suffolk’s most precious but fragile wildlife habitats.

It’s a sound Bridget Chadwick loves. But she’s no longer able to enjoy it as she once did.

Tawny owls are among the bird species at Broom Covert, says campaign group Save Our Sandlings.

Tawny owls are among the bird species at Broom Covert, says campaign group Save Our Sandlings. Picture: Paul Sawer - Credit: Archant

“Every time I hear the owls I feel heartbroken because I think, how much longer will I hear this?” she says. “Will it be replaced by the hum of a vast energy substation?”

Mrs Chadwick and her husband, Peter, live just outside Leiston, close to the Sandlings Way, beloved of walkers, wildlife enthusiasts and tourists, where it snakes towards Sizewell on its 55-mile route along the Suffolk coast, in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), a highly-prized national landscape designation.

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Mr Chadwick’s parents, artist Paxton Chadwick and conservationist Lee, built their home here in the 1930s. It’s where Lee wrote her book In Search of Heathland and Peter grew up. He says the “catastrophe” that may overtake this area is like “having your world ripped apart”.

The path past their home is surrounded by heathland, woods and water meadows. It backs onto Leiston Common - where an information board informs visitors that the Suffolk Sandlings make up 1% of the world’s remaining lowland heathland and adds: “This is our rainforest” - and overlooks a ‘mitigation area’ earmarked by EDF Energy to relocate wildlife affected by the proposed Sizewell C nuclear power station.

Anyone who doesn’t know this place might imagine it’s already ruined by the existing coastal power stations. But they would be wrong. There’s beauty here. In abundance. And it needs protecting from those who would sacrifice it, say the Chadwicks.

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They are part of Save Our Sandlings (SOS), a community campaign fighting proposals from ScottishPower Renewables that could see a 30-acre substation complex with buildings up to 21 metres high and accompanying lorry park built on this wildlife mitigation area, for its East Anglia Two and One North offshore windfarms.

SOS is being backed by a number of businesses and celebrities who live locally.

Chris Holden, manager of the Wentworth Hotel at Aldeburgh, says the substation would have “a potentially major effect” on tourism, visitor numbers and jobs while former BBC Breakfast presenter Bill Turnbull says it would wipe out a “precious resource”.

The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), which advises government, says lowland heathland is “rare and threatened”. Only a sixth of English heathland present in 1800 remains and, says the JNCC, the UK has a “special obligation” to conserve this habitat, as it supports 20% of Europe’s remaining lowland heath.

Heathland is home to “highly specialised” plants and animals. It’s particularly important for reptiles – like the adder Peter found when he was six and brought home for his father to illustrate for a Penguin wildlife book. It also supports rare and specialised birds.

“There are nightingales, barn owls, skylarks, tawny owls and nightjars on this site,” says Mr Chadwick. “Stone-curlew historically used to be on this land. They are nesting nearby and spreading back into that area. ScottishPower’s substation would fracture the wildlife corridor on the coastal AONB.”

And who would have thought, say those fighting the proposals for what’s known as Broom Covert, put forward for consideration at the end of September as an alternative to a farmland site outside the AONB, at Friston, allowing only limited time for consultation up until November 12, that ‘eco-friendly’ wind energy could cause such environmental destruction?

They are angry and bewildered that Suffolk County Council and Suffolk Coastal and Waveney district councils - all AONB Partnership members - have offered “greater support” to siting the substation at Broom Covert than Friston as the “lesser of two evils” in their consultation response. Friston residents site say building there would change the nature of their village.

“Most people think, if they sign up for renewable energy, they’re helping the planet,” says Mrs Chadwick. “They would be shocked to discover this could be the result. Planning law gives AONBs the highest protection. What is the point of this designation if government and councils do not uphold it?”

SOS supports wind power but says the substation complex should go on a brownfield site, not on the edge of Leiston in the AONB. Currently, it says, there’s a “wild west” approach with private companies each building massive renewables substations. Government needs to co-ordinate a proper energy plan.

“Allowing Industrialisation of AONB land in favour of renewable energy infrastructure sends the message that access to power is ironically more important than the environment or the wellbeing of communities. This proposed development stands to set a dangerous precedent.”

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The power company’s response

ScottishPower Renewables says it is still investigating the suitability of both the Friston and Broom Covert sites for the substation complex associated with its East Anglia Two and East Anglia One North windfarms.

A spokesperson said: “The proposed offshore windfarms could provide enough clean energy to power the equivalent of 1.5 million homes. We are consulting on two potential substation site options and we extended the latest phase of consultation by a further two weeks to allow as many people as possible to provide comments on the proposals. All feedback will be fully considered in the assessment and site selection process.”

SPR said a brownfield site in a different location was not an option.

“We are proposing to connect The East Anglia Two and East Anglia One North projects to the existing National Grid system in the vicinity of Sizewell/Leiston. This area has been identified by National Grid and SPR following a review of all realistic connection options, which concluded that, taking into account environmental, geographical and programme considerations, this is the most economic and efficient connection area.”

In answer to criticism about the possibility of building the substation on an AONB undermining wind power’s eco-friendly credentials SPR said:

“We have not reached a decision on which of the two substation sites will be selected. We are aware of the sensitivity surrounding the Broom Covert site, particularly given its location within the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB. We are investigating the environmental, consenting and technical challenges associated with both sites. The results of the site selection process will be presented in the Preliminary Environmental Information Report, which will be published in early 2019. This will form an important part of Phase Four of the consultation.”

But, it said, there was no alternative to an onshore substation complex.

“The proposed windfarms will require onshore and offshore substations to allow the energy to be input into the National Grid transmission system in the most economic and efficient manner. The onshore substation is required to increase electrical voltage provided by the offshore substation to a level suitable for connection to the transmission system. It also maintains the quality of electricity fed into the system, as well as ensuring the safe operation and maintenance of the offshore electrical infrastructure and the wider National Grid electricity transmission system.”

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