On one side of the sitting room in John and Denise Harris’s farmhouse, an open fire burns beneath a mantelpiece heavy with framed photos. As well as their two sons and grandchildren, there’s a picture of three fluffy baby barn owls, the first of a long line of birds born in a nesting box the family placed in an outbuilding 30 years ago.
Today the memories bring tears to the couple’s eyes. The reason is that in a matter of months they – and the owls – could be forced off their Fenland farm to make way for Europe’s largest renewable energy plant.
Under proposals put forward by Tory-run Peterborough City Council, half a million solar power panels and nine giant wind turbines will be erected over 900 acres of prime agricultural land. That is an area roughly equivalent to 700 football pitches. Of that land, 250 acres are farmed by Mr Harris, who rents the holding from the council and has tilled the soil there for more than 35 years.
The plan was to keep on going for six more years, until he reached 65, and then for his son to take over.
Not any more. Not since they learned in June of the local council’s extraordinary plan to become a trail-blazing producer of green energy.
‘It was totally out of the blue,’ he says. ‘I thought initially it wasn’t worth worrying about it because it would never go ahead.’
But now they know that the council is deadly serious. On December 19, it submitted a formal planning application for the first phase of a scheme that will cost a staggering £331 million to implement – much of which would come from taxpayers.
During the 25 years it will operate, it is expected to generate £30 million of profit for the local authority.
If permission is subsequently granted for additional turbines, that sum, they say, could grow to as much as £100 million.
But, and it is a big but, its profitability depends on taking advantage of public money – in the form of a Government loan and, crucially, from cash subsidies offered to producers of green energy.
In order to benefit from the current level of subsidy paid out per megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity produced, the council is desperate to get the scheme through the planning process before the end of this financial year.
Critics are deeply worried. Not just by the speed, but also the fact that it is the council’s own planning department that will decide whether or not to give the scheme the green light.
They also worry about the gamble being taken. How, they ask, can the council be sure the Government will keep on paying these subsidies, whatever their promises?
And how can it predict what the energy market will look like in five years’ time, let alone 25?
Then there is the issue of siting half a million solar panels in a country that once again this week succumbed to flooding, at the end of one of the wettest years on record.
But perhaps most of all, they worry about the impact this huge development will have on the countryside.
This land is some of the most fertile in the country, valued at £8,000 an acre. It produces an abundance of corn, potatoes and sugar beet. It is also beautiful, in that unique way of the Fens. ‘I am 59 and I have had my time, so this is not about me,’ says Mr Harris. ‘What I object to is the total destruction of the countryside. This is the Fens.
‘I love how you walk out of the front door and the land is there and then there’s this big sky above it.
‘There’s nowhere else like it. And they want to cover the landscape with glass. What they are doing is vandalism.’
There is no doubt the city of Peterborough could do with an injection of cash. Like other local authorities, it has seen Government funding cut as the austerity programme bites.
At the same time, the pressure on its services has grown because of an unprecedented influx of 10,000 migrants into the city over the course of the past decade.
Add to the mix the council’s desire to cut its carbon footprint and for the city to become the environmental capital of the UK – a dream driven by its Tory leader Marco Cereste – and an investment in a commercial renewable energy scheme makes some sense.
But it is the scale and location of the Peterborough project that takes it to a different level.
Under the plans, three blocks of farmland owned by the council have been earmarked to become ‘renewable energy parks’.
The land has been chosen because it is close to the city and to the power network, and because the council already owns it. But that, say the scheme’s critics, is where the planned site’s suitability ends.
Peter Brewer, group secretary of the Peterborough branch of the National Farmers’ Union, explains: ‘This is some of the best farming land not only in the county, but the country. It’s grade-one or two agricultural land, which is the best you can get.
‘It will produce significantly more crops per acre than other land, and it seems an odd tactic to take excellent farming land out of production at a time when food prices are going up.’
In other words, why not site the panels on a brownfield site – an under-used or neglected industrial location – or even on the roofs of council-owned buildings?
If the scheme goes ahead, farming on the affected land will cease. The council says it will offer the farmers ‘compensation’ and will try to find those who want it alternative land. But, in all likelihood, many will have no choice but to give up farming.
Instead, rows and rows of ground-mounted solar panels will spring up, visible for miles. For security, the fields will be surrounded by 3m-high chain-link fencing, interspersed with CCTV towers. Then there will be the infrastructure, such as electricity sub-stations.
What the impact will be on wildlife is hard to know. But farmers like Mr Harris fear that bats and birds could be adversely affected by the huge expanse of glass.
Given the scale and novelty of the proposals, it might be expected that the process of surveying, planning and consulting would take place over a matter of years.
Not in Peterborough. The plans were not made public until this summer. Under the council’s timetable, construction will begin by next summer. All in all, a year at best. The speed with which the operation has proceeded is highlighted by the plight of 47-year-old Graham Cowley.
He bought his £225,000 home on open farmland to the north of Peterborough eight months ago. Having taken early retirement from his job as a water company engineer, he wanted a home with views of unspoilt countryside.
Then in the summer he received a letter from the council informing him that his house was right in the middle of the largest of the proposed solar parks.
Before buying the property, his solicitors had found no evidence that the scheme was in the pipeline.
‘My views are going to be spoiled,’ says the father of three.
‘I will look out of my house to see solar panels and huge wind turbines practically in my garden, and they want to install CCTV cameras, too.
‘I may as well commit a crime and go to jail, as I would probably have a better quality of life.’
Mr Cowley believes that if the scheme goes ahead, his house will be worthless. He has not been offered compensation.
The council has been selling the scheme to its 175,000 or so residents by telling them that if it goes ahead they will be able to buy cheaper electricity via a council-run company, saving them up to £100 a year on their bills.
At the same time, it will make a cash profit that the council will be able to spend on public services.
According to the council’s own figures, installing solar panels sufficient to power 22,000 homes would cost £141 million.
Running and maintaining the site, plus interest payments on the Government loan for the scheme’s duration, would add another £190 million, giving a lifetime cost of £331 million.
Over that same time, it is claimed the solar panels would generate enough electricity to bring in some £362 million.
Of this, £125 million would come from the subsidies that energy companies (via their customers’ bills) must pass on to green energy producers. Take away the costs from the income and there is a ‘profit’ of £31 million.
But critics such as the city’s Tory MP Stewart Jackson are deeply concerned that the figures behind the scheme don’t stack up.
‘This project is highly speculative and a risk for taxpayers’ value for money,’ he says.
‘The financial projections are based on guesswork and are overly optimistic, the procurement process is flawed, the alleged return on investment is minimal and there is a strong feeling from my constituents that their views are being ignored.
The decision to convert some of the best agricultural land in the East of England into an energy park needs to be examined in forensic detail.
‘I will likely seek to bring the matter to the attention of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and the District Auditor.’
But stopping the council may not be easy. In just a few months it has spent in excess of £500,000 commissioning feasibility surveys and, of course, the formal application is now in place.
While it is not unusual for a planning department to consider an application from its own council, the Peterborough authority admits this could ‘give rise to problems of public perception’.
If the application is approved, the right of appeal is limited. Any challenge would have to be made through judicial review, a process that can be costly and complicated.
Given the strength of feeling against the scheme, it is inevitable that questions are being asked about the role being played by Mr Cereste, a property developer who is the council’s leader and the scheme’s main flag-waver.
The 63-year-old is a passionate advocate of green energy. Indeed, records show that since becoming a councillor in 2007 he has become director of nine companies. More than half of them have ‘green energy’ as the focus of their business.
In 2010, one of the companies of which he is director and chairman signed a £450 million deal with a Malaysian manufacturing giant for the construction of a biomass (an energy source derived from organisms such as plants) power station in Peterborough.
He is also chairman of a development company called Larkpoint, a subsidiary of Lark Energy, which recently completed the construction of a solar park near Peterborough.
Asked whether he feared there was a potential conflict of interest between his public and private roles, Mr Cereste said: ‘Some may argue, incorrectly, that there is a conflict of interest.
‘However, the commitment to creating the UK’s environment capital is a council-wide mandate, not just a personal one.’
He stated he would not benefit personally from the energy park plans.
A spokeswoman for the council added: ‘Central government is cutting funding in swathes.
‘If we as a council do not act now, there will be a serious reduction in services in the long-term – for the farmers, the affected residents or any person in Peterborough.’
Any risks, she added, had been assessed as ‘entirely justifiable’.
With tens of millions of pounds of public money at stake, residents of Peterborough had better hope that the council has got its sums right.
And that at some point in the next 25 years, the sun actually shines over the freezing Fens.