Labour members of Hastings Borough Council (HBC) are being accused of breaking their promises to the public.
The council chamber was packed, almost to capacity, on Monday night when the council’s ruling cabinet met to discuss plans that could see ten acres of ground mounted solar panels (arrays) being installed on Hastings Country Park.
The eight member cabinet voted 6-2 in favour of spending more than £80,000 on ‘professional studies and pre-planning consultations’ to develop a detailed business case for installation of the solar panels.
But James Dee who stood as a Conservative candidate in Ore at last year’s borough council elections is angry that Labour is, he says, breaking promises it made at the time of the election in May, he says: “At the last local elections the Ore Labour Team promised to protect the Hastings Country Park. On Monday evening the Labour members of HBC’s cabinet voted unanimously to look into building a solar farm on the Country Park.
“I’d have expected that Ore’s councillors Heather Bishop and Andrew Battley would have been present to speak in opposition to these plans, as they promised to protect the Country Park but they were not.”
Mr Dee says Labour has ‘let down’ the residents of Ore and pointed out that only the two Conservatives members of HBC’s Cabinet voted to oppose the plans which Mr Dee believes is necessary to ‘protect’ the Country Park.
An online petition set up at the weekend by Hastings MP Amber Rudd has already attracted more than 800 signatures and Rob Lee, leader of the opposition Conservative group on HBC says they will be campaigning hard in the coming months to stop the proposed solar farm going ahead on the Country Park.
“We’re not opposed to green energy sources or the generation of solar power but we are opposed to this plan because it’s in the wrong place,” he says.
Mr Lee points out that proposed location for the panels is in what has been classified as an area of outstanding natural beauty and adjacent to a site of special scientific interest.
“We are against this inappropriate development and against the industrialisation of the country park,” Mr Lee told Hastings In Focus.
It’s unusual that the public benches at a council meeting are filled by members of the public, Mr Lee says those who attended last night’s cabinet meeting were all there to hear the debate on the solar farm and were “100 per cent” against the proposal.
Some of those who have made their feelings on the proposal known include Clare Robins who says: “We are rapidly running out of accessible countryside and what they are planning is wrong.” Lucinda Mantel agrees the town should have solar panels, but says, “…definitely not in the country park. The council owns so many buildings, why not put them on the roofs, or on other brownfield land.”
Bernard Hunter says: “This proposal will have an extremely negative impact on a special part of the countryside which should be protected for future generations.”
Those who support the idea include Steve Rodrick who says: “The park is large enough to accommodate the solar panels.”
But HBC’s leader Councillor Peter Chowney says The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report last October that warned of the catastrophic consequences of not capping global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees within the next 12 years means that councils have to look at all options.
He says: “There are three sites proposed for potential solar arrays – two in the country park and one at Upper Wilting Farm. The report recommends commissioning various appraisals, which would take into account the ecological impact of the installations as well as the financial implications. No decision is yet being taken on whether to go ahead with the proposal. Last night, the council cabinet meeting approved a proposal to carry out appraisals of all three potential sites, but to begin by talking to Natural England about it.
“These sites were selected as the best possible sites for solar energy generation after lengthy discussions with UK Power Networks and the council planners – they’re south-facing slopes, close to an electricity sub-station, with less visual impact than other potentially good sites, in that they’re partially concealed by trees and hedges, and are on land that has no public access.
“If the studies we’re commissioning reveal that the solar arrays have significant negative environmental consequences, particularly for the neighbouring SSSI in the country park, then we wouldn’t go ahead. But if those studies demonstrate that the schemes are viable and can be installed with no negative environmental effects, the installation would then be subject to a pre-application planning consultation, as well as consultations with statutory agencies such as Natural England.
“If the only reason for opposing it is one of aesthetics, that would not seem to be a good enough reason. The challenges we face from climate change are far too great to reject proposals for sustainable energy generation solely because it spoils the view.”
Mr Chowney points out that the only alternative to sustainable energy generation is using less electricity, he says: “As electric cars take over from petrol and diesel and with the government’s target to shut down all coal fired power stations in six years’ time… we’re going to need a lot more sustainable generation, which will often be controversial and unpopular. The only responsible thing to do is to act now, and install sustainable energy generation wherever we can.
“So as a matter of principle. I think we should be considering this scheme. Whether it proceeds, though, will depend on the outcome of the consultations and studies, and its potential impact on the local environment and ecology of the country park.”
A further report to the council’s cabinet is expected to be presented in June.