City council may go ahead with solar farm plan

Land planned for the wind farm
Land planned for the wind farm
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Peterborough City Council could still press ahead with one part of its stalled Energy Park plans.

Two major elements of the council’s controversial Energy Park, planned near Newborough, were dropped last year following changes to tariffs and lack of Government support, but a statement released today (Friday, February 13) said the council might still press ahead with the last remaining part of the scheme - a solar farm on land at America Farm.

The controversial £200 million plus project was unveiled two years ago by council leader Councillor Marco Cereste who claimed it would mean an energy self-sufficient Peterborough creating and delivering all the power needed by homes and businesses in 20 years’ time.

But the plans sparked a huge protest from residents and farmers in the area and became mired in delays following an intervention by English Heritage which demanded archaeological surveys of the area.

The Energy Park was to have involved the construction of wind turbines and solar panels across 900 acres of farmland at Morris Fen, Newborough Farm and America Farm.

The council announced in October last year that it did not intend to go ahead with Morris Fen and Newborough Farm.

A statement released by the council this evening said: “Peterborough City Council’s cabinet will investigate a potential solar farm project at America Farm and recommend two other schemes at Newborough Farm and Morris Fen are cancelled. On February 23 cabinet will be asked to continue to investigate the potential for a solar power project on a site at America Farm.

“Recent developments regarding the agricultural use of local land and scale of the project suggest the America Farm scheme could still be viable, but further investigation is needed.

“In October 2014 cabinet announced two schemes at Newborough Farm and Morris Fen should be cancelled after the government withdrew support for large scale solar projects. The council has now established that the business cases for these two schemes do not add up. In light of government funding changes, and in response to local opposition, Cabinet is now requesting the two schemes be cancelled and corresponding planning applications withdrawn.

“Further consideration of the America Farm scheme has established a project could be viable, subject to an upgrade of the electrical infrastructure close to site. Three proposals regarding the grid connection from UK Power Networks, Centrica and Green Energy Parks will be reviewed to establish the costs involved and ultimate viability of the scheme.”

Councillor Gavin Elsey, cabinet member for street scene, waste management and communications, said: “America Farm could be a success and generate income for the council, but we need to do further work to establish the costs involved. We are asking scrutiny to look into the costs of upgrading the local infrastructure to see if we can make the scheme work.

“The goalposts have moved for big solar schemes. The government changed the rules meaning Newborough Farm and Morris Fen became non-starters. There is still a chance that America Farm could work.

“We are recommending the council writes off the costs associated with all three projects and finds this money from next year’s budget. A final review and business case analysis of this scheme will establish if we can salvage this scheme. We could still see a successful solar farm scheme set up, but only if it makes business sense.”

No decision will be taken by the council until a report is presented to scrutiny evaluating the options for a viable grid connection.

The report will not be binding, but will provide cabinet with the information it needs to decide whether to proceed or cancel.

Peterborough City Council has spent more than £3 million on preliminary works intended to pave the way for the installation of solar panels across 900 acres of farmland. According to details released by the council in October last year, the costs cover 18 different headings. They range from staffing costs through to legal advice and planning fees. The largest cost so far is obtaining technical advice from experts from the support services giant AECOM. The council has paid out £1,302,667 to the company for its expertise. Technical advice has also been sought from London-based Pinsent Mason at a cost of £431,211 - the second largest individual sum spent. The figures also show the council has sought legal advice from numerous sources. Some £12,000 has been paid out to DLA Piper, a further £840 to James Howlett and £2,112 to Freeth Cartwright. One of the delays to the project was the need to carry out archaeological surveys of the sites, which are not far from the renown Bronze Age camp site at Flag Fen. The digs have cost £65,129. Although none of the 22 farmer tenants has been asked to leave their homes and construction work has not started, the council had at that stage still paid out £127,645 in compensation. A council official was not able to specify why the compensation had been paid at the time. A total of £453,739 has been paid by the council to itself for planning application fees. The fees are broken down into sep- arate headings for each of the three sites. Staffing costs are £96,934 while consulting with the public has set the council back by £9,247. Most of the spending details were released under a Freedom of Infor- mation request. The total expenditure also included £50,000 for technical advice plus a further £24,000 for ecological advice and another £16,000 on financial advice.