As the sun’s rays beat down pummelling the northern hemisphere and producing record temperatures in southern Europe and North America – it seems there are few rays of hope these days for environmentalists.
The recent round of by-elections has sent both the Conservatives and Labour into retreat after concern that the Ulez clean air proposals were the reason Labour couldn’t take the seat of Uxbridge. Now right-wing climate denialists are wanting to push back 2030 deadlines.
But locally there is something to inspire those who care more about the planet than getting elected. A pioneering scheme by the Northumberland village of Humshaugh, near Hexham, has just won planning permission to build a one-megawatt solar farm which will help power 150 homes.
Humshaugh Net Zero, which was formed three years ago, is delighted with the decision. “This planning permission has taken a lot of time and effort to obtain. Now we can finalise work on the technical and financial aspects of the project,” it said in a triumphant Facebook post.
Electricity will be generated by thirteen rows of photovoltaic panels all pointing south at an angle of about 50 degrees. They’ll be built on a site near Lincoln Hill, just outside the main village. It’s hoped the scheme will be completed next year.
Project leaders received a grant of £67,000 from the Rural Community Energy Fund to get the project up and running. Now capital funding of up to £1 million must be finalised. No small feat, but infinitely do-able for a village community with 350 properties. Public meetings will take place in September to work out how this is to be done.
The end result will be cheaper electricity for residents in Humshaugh. As the scheme’s project manager, David Still, told local paper, The Hexham Courant, last year, “If we don’t do it, then who else will?”
Other village communities around the country are watching the project with interest and not a little envy. But how many will have the wherewithall, community spirit and the right sort of people to launch solar energy projects of their own?
The benefits are obvious. With electricity prices still double what they were just a year ago a solar project can drastically reduce domestic bills.
Simplify the planning process
Now, you might think building a solar farm next to your village would be a fairly straightforward and obvious thing to do when we’re facing a climate emergency where action is becoming more and more urgent by the day.
Surely, you just choose a piece of land – and away you go. Think again.
The hurdles which have to be crossed are many and varied. Our planning system is cumbersome, costly and confusing – many would say obstructive.
One minor example is how the Humshaugh plan was held up by the County Council’s archaeology department. They demanded a full assessment report on whether the solar farm development would impact upon the corridor of Hadrian’s Wall – a world heritage site.
Believe it or not they weren’t just worried about whether the solar farm could be seen by walkers along the wall. They were much exercised by the possibility that a mere “glint” from the panels might be spotted by an eagle-eyed rambler.
Fortunately, a site meeting to asses natural screening and the topography allayed fears, and Karen Derham, the assistant county archaeologist, wrote in her final report: “As a result, I have concluded that the solar array is unlikely to have an adverse impact on the setting of Hadrian’s Wall and the universal World Heritage Site.”
That seemed to be the last major stumbling block to a process which, after numerous public meetings and a great deal of professional support, began with a planning application in October last year. Twenty-One people in the village wrote in support. None objected.
Reports and assessments of almost every kind followed – from transport, to ecology, to the agricultural impact, to the needs of bats, red squirrels and great crested newts. They all had to be researched, written, read, noted and considered.
Further examination of the council’s papers suggests there is only a limited understanding for the urgency of such developments. For starters it is stated rather unenthusiastically that “The Northumberland Local Plan is generally supportive of renewable energy, provided that the effect from developments is acceptable.” Not exactly a priority then.
Also, the planning permission for Humshaugh’s solar farm only lasts for 40 years – as if the problem of climate change is going to go away! “The development is not considered suitable for permanent retention due to the impact on the landscape’s character and visual amenity,” says the county council officer. Work to return the site to its former state must begin “no later” than 39 years and 6 months after it begins operation.
However, despite “the landscape’s character and visual amenity” the main report makes great play of the fact that the land chosen was considered “brown-field” and on the former site of “quarry activity” and a “municipal waste dump.” The implication being that using this land is not much of a loss which, in the obvious view of the officer, helps the application.
The contradictions continue. The report states it is “non-agricultural” land, but then later on adds: “The development will be fully reversible if the land were required for food production.”
Anyhow, now that the people of Humshaugh have negotiated their planning permission the real work must begin. First there’s finance. The climate for borrowing money and the consequential interest rates has also considerably changed.
You can work out the maths. There are 359 properties in Humshaugh. If a million pounds has to be raised, that’s £2,785 per household – presumably to be gathered over time via what will be a much cheaper energy bill. If the solar farm can power half the village, then logically bills should also be halved – once the capital is paid off. At current prices that could be a saving of up to about a thousand pounds a year.
Those figures are too simplistic – there’ll be running costs, a couple of salaries, too – but even so, the pay-back looks manageable. The scheme will also reduce the village’s carbon emissions by 78% compared to 1990 levels.
After the finance is in place they must get on and build the thing, which apparently won’t take long, if they can follow the myriad of planning regulations and requirements which run to four pages.
Community and political support vital
The importance of taking action at this community level was raised at a recent public meeting in Hexham. Held jointly by Hexham Debates and Tynedale Transformed, invited speakers, and those from the floor, repeatedly called for urgent steps to be taken.
“What we can’t do, is nothing,” said Jan Ashdown of Transition Tynedale, an environmental pressure group. “It has to be a community effort.”
“But I also want to know what our government is doing about companies who are making huge profits while a massive amount of carbon is still being pumped out.”
Another speaker, Hexham Town Councillor, Mike Domingue said, “What we really need to do is generate more of our power from solar and wind. We need to use heat pumps, solar panels. We need to own electric cars.”
It is clear that projects like the solar farm at Humshaugh are a huge inspiration to campaigners. Recent talk of scaling back ambition, such as the Ulez plans in London, will horrify those demanding greater and more urgent action.
Politicians of ALL parties need to re-focus on priorities – and that doesn’t just include getting elected – and make sure they bring the public with them. Most people understand the urgency of dealing with climate change, but they do need support and their hands held.
They also need the government to invest. It’s great that a village like Humshaugh can come up with its own scheme and push it through, despite those planning hurdles and indifference. But we also desperately need a government that can lead from the front.