MPs unite to question plans for the biggest solar energy park in Europe and planned for the Fens

MP Steve Barclay speaking in the debate on a Fens solar energy park

MP Steve Barclay speaking in the debate on a Fens solar energy park - Credit: Archant

Plans by a local council to build the largest solar and wind energy park in Europe on 900 acres of farmland in the Fens were described in the House of Commons by an MP as “deeply damaging and unpopular”.

Stewart Jackson said the scheme would require the construction of 500,000 glass panels “the size of 700 football pitches on some of the most fertile land in England”.

The scheme is being developed by Peterborough City Council to the east of the city in the Newborough, Eye and Thorney wards and will mean nine tenant farmers being forced to leave.

“Farmers such as John and Denise Harris, who have been good and loyal tenants for 35 years, are to be turned off the land, with the legal minimum compensation to make way for a project that, like the Great Wall of China, will be visible from space”.

The MP said the scheme had not been properly discussed and the proposals had revealed “major flaws in scrutiny, oversight and democratic accountability”.

He told the Commons other issues arose including “conflicts of interest, lack of openness and proper financial modelling, environmental concerns and food security”.

Mr Jackson said: “Using 900 acres of such fertile soil means stopping food production equivalent to bread for 7,000 families or potatoes for 9,000 families each year.”

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Peterborough City Council insists that the energy park will generate a profit of £31m over 25 years although Mr Jackson said the level of investment needed- £331m- was too high for the public purse.

He won the backing of Steve Barclay, the MP for NE Cambs, who supported Mr Jackson’s contention that not enough information had been put into the public domain.

Mr Barclay said he, too, was concerned by the “visual impact and the short-termism on food security”. He also said there was “real concern about our inability to see the proposed commercial case, which does not look like value for money for the taxpayer”.

But Marco Cereste, the council leader, argued during a BBC interview that he wanted nothing other than for Peterborough to be its own energy producer.

“If we achieve that then we can protect our residents from these huge price hikes that we’ve experienced in the last few days,” he said.

Mr Cereste said it was the size and scale of the energy park that made it viable “and it’s on land that we as the local authority already own.”

One way in which the scheme could be scrapped would be if archaeological inspections now under way point to the land throwing up major finds of historical importance.

Roman pottery has already been found on land at Newborough which has been described by Wessex Archaeology as “locally and regionally significant”. Some date from the 1st and 3rd centuries AD and artefacts from the Saxon era have also been found.

The city council is looking at early survey work and Mr Cereste admits that “clearly if we found some really fantastic remains on the site then perhaps we might not do it or we might not need to do it because what we find on the site is so great that it’s a new opportunity for the city”.

Mr Cereste said that if his council had to make “serious cuts to front line services because this project doesn’t go forward because its been stopped by our MP or some of his friends then those people need to take the responsibility for making those cuts that we have to make in the future”.

But in his Commons speech Mr Jackson argued that the business case for the scheme was flawed and lacked transparency.

“It is incumbent on the city council to justify its actions and to be accountable for them but it is helpful to allow the authority to concede it has erred and to pursue other renewable energy projects for community benefit on brownfield sites,” he said.

Mr Barclay also intervened to question whether the city council scheme was too reliant on the “gaming of the planning system to qualify, often in haste, for feed-in tariffs and the way that is incentivising developments in the wrong areas”.

Mr Jackson added that it “disappoints me that I have to take issue with my party colleagues in local government but some of them have failed in their duty to properly scrutinise this disastrous gamble.”

By speaking up in a Parliamentary debate he felt he had given those constituents who had often felt “helpless, ignored and impotent” a voice and to pose questions about democracy, accountability and integrity and the use of taxpayers’ money.

Gregory Barker, the minister of state for energy and climate change, said he was a “fan of solar” but had to make sure photovoltaic sites were appropriately sited.

“We must also make sure that we give due consideration to heritage areas but people do not have to live on Stonehenge, or even in an area of outstanding natural beauty, to value their local landscape and the visual amenity,” he said.

He added that the need for renewable energy “does not automatically override environmental protections and the planning concerns of local communities”.