After three years and £3 million, curtain finally drawn on controversial Peterborough energy parks project

BBC Radio Cambridgeshire debate on the Energy Park, held at the Copeland Community Centre. Cllr Marco Cereste ENGEMN00120131212205224
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire debate on the Energy Park, held at the Copeland Community Centre. Cllr Marco Cereste ENGEMN00120131212205224
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After three years of controversy, £3 million of taxpayer money, and a ‘relationship breakdown’ between Peterborough’s MP and its council leader, the curtains have finally been drawn on plans to introduce renewable energy parks on city farmland.

Peterborough City Council’s cabinet agreed yesterday to scrap the final part of the project at America Farm, thus ending an acrimonious chapter in Peterborough’s recent history.

The Harris farming family from Black Drove, Thorney.  John Harris and son Ross Harris ENGEMN00120130628165105

The Harris farming family from Black Drove, Thorney. John Harris and son Ross Harris ENGEMN00120130628165105

The episode left a number of open wounds with MP Stewart Jackson admitting that he had fallen out with the then council leader Marco Cereste, while farmers were left fearing for their livelihoods.

It was in September 2012 that Mr Cereste unveiled his grand vision to make Peterborough self-sufficient for its energy needs and a £100 million richer by building across 900 acres of council-owned farmland.

But the scheme was dogged from the start by vocal opposition and eventually ground to a halt two years’ later when the government announced that support for large scale solar projects would be scrapped.

This time last year, the planned schemes at Newborough Farm and Morris Fen in Thorney were axed and the one at America Farm was put on the back-burner, but with government tariffs for solar panels set to be slashed it has now been written off.

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Mr Cereste left the council in May after failing to be re-elected, but the failure of the energy parks remains a source of personal frustration. Yet he insists the city has still benefitted from the project.

“At the time the decision was taken it was the right one,” he said, “but circumstances change.

“Now people are having free solar panels and energy for their homes and that initiative came directly from this project.

“It’s a real shame that it had to be abandoned. If we had our own supply in Peterborough we would have energy security.”

Asked if he had any regrets Mr Cereste said: “Perhaps one of the ways forward would have been to get a better consultation from the beginning. I think that basically was the problem. Perhaps it took too long to get the message across and the opposition was formed.”

Mr Jackson wishes Mr Cereste well but said he had failed to engage and listen to alternatives.

He added: “These plans were always risky, costly to the local taxpayer and speculative and depended on a government subsidy regime which was unsustainable. I had no choice but to support my constituents in the rural areas and I have never regretted taking a principled position on the matter.”

John Harris (62) and son Ross farm 250 acres of land off Black Drove in Thorney. John said: “I’m pleased for the estate this is not going ahead. There’s been a lot of stress through it all but I suppose that’s life. I believe that you do not have a project like that on good quality farmland. They didn’t talk to us, they weren’t bothered about our feelings.

“Everybody was depressed about it all but as tenants we have been quite impressed with how the new leader [John Holdich] and [council chief executive] Gillian Beasley have kept us involved. They are building bridges.”

Timeline

The plans to create three renewable energy parks harnessing wind and solar power on Peterborough City Council farmland were first unveiled in September 2012.

Council leader Marco Cereste said there was a vision to make Peterborough the first city in the UK which was self-sufficient for energy and that the parks could bring in £100 million of income.

Tenant farmers, though, voiced their opposition to the plans straight away.

In June 2013, hundreds of people gathered outside the Town Hall to voice their objections to the scheme, before piling in to a planning meeting where the application for the first solar farm at Morris Fen was adjourned until a later date after concerns were raised by English Heritage.

In October, Peterborough MP Stewart Jackson raised the issue in Parliament. In February 2014, the projects at Morris Fen and Newborough were put on hold for further consultation but the one at America Farm pushed ahead.

A further consultation was agreed in September but in October it was announced the schemes at Newborough Farm and Morris Fen would cease.