£15million pounds solar farm near Lakenheath bought by Forest Heath District Council
PUBLISHED: 09:00 20 August 2016
At a time when councils are facing cutback after cutback, one Suffolk authority has decided to spend £14.5million on a solar farm.
The purchase of the farm, on the Fens near Lakenheath, officially completed yesterday. The 48,000-panel site is now the largest owned by any local authority in the country, and the council behind the scheme, Forest Heath District, says its project will generate upwards of £500,000 every year.
The scheme came about two years ago, when the owners of Toggam Farm were granted planning permission by Forest Heath for a 17.5-hectare solar farm.
But before the ink even dried on the planning documents landowner Tom Clayton said he was flooded with big-money offers from pension funds, investment trusts and “rich London wasters” looking to buy the farm and churn out a profit.
“To the shock of some of those around me, I turned them all down,” he said.
“I thought if this is going to be funded by government subsidies, it is the local people who should get the benefit.
“So I approached the council and asked them if they would consider it, and they seemed to like it. It was not the easy option – councils have absolutely no capacity to take risks – they are dealing with taxpayers’ money.”
Mr Clayton, who has owned the farm since 2010, said the land the solar power station is built on was not being farmed, and not suitable for crops.
“It is getting value out of poor-quality land,” he said.
In the weeks ahead, once wildflowers have been given time to set in, a flock of sheep will be moved on to the land to keep the grass short.
With the completion of the sale yesterday, Forest Heath officially owns Greenheath Limited, the company which operates the solar farm. It does not own the land, which remains with the arable farm’s owners.
However, with a price tag of nearly £15m, the council has justified its outlay on the basis it will turn its capital reserves, which cannot be spent on day-to-day services, into income that can.
Council leader James Waters explained: “With a 60% cut in government funding we need to act more commercially to generate the funds so we can carry on running quality services for our residents.
“We are not borrowing to pay for this. We could have left this money in the bank and made probably half a percent, but with this we are looking at 8% over 25 years, and possibly beyond that.”
Stephen Edwards, Forest Heath cabinet member who led on the project, said: “The way the councils are financed is changing – our main government grant will be scrapped by 2020 and council tax doesn’t help as much as people think.
“This means we have to look at new ways of investing to make money to pay for services.”
Aside from the income, which could total more than £23m over 25 years, the council is set to lobby government for a change to energy law, which could let them deliver cheap and green energy to vulnerable residents and businesses.
Peter Gudde, service manager in environmental health at the council, said the solar farm forms part of the council’s drive towards a fossil fuel-free future.
“This project will help us achieve a low-carbon future,” he said. “Back in 2014 we agreed a community energy plan.
“We have been investing in renewable energy on our rooftops – this project takes that ambition forward.”