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Energy shortage or food crisis? The great solar debate

By Alan Smith

Paul Barwell, the chief executive of the Solar Trade Association, bravely stepped into the lion’s den this week and attempted to persuade villagers that solar farms in the countryside were both necessary and desirable.

Mr Barwell was one of a number of speakers at a debate organised by Ulcombe Parish Council and held in Headcorn Village Hall on Tuesday.

He said: “Our objective is to have as much deployment (of solar power) in the UK as possible.” He argued that solar farms “in the right location and well screened” were acceptable to the majority of people.

Paul Barwell, chief executive of the Solar Trade Association.

Mr Barwell said: “You can’t hear solar power, you can’t smell it; there are no by-products. If it’s well screened, you won’t know it’s there.”

He said solar farms could still provide grazing for sheep, around the panels, or could encourage bio-diversity as wild-flower meadows and also gave a useful steady income to farmers.

He said: ”We are facing more of an energy crisis than a food crisis.”

The 150-strong audience seemed largely unconvinced.

Around 150 villagers attended the debate

Ulcombe resident Paul McCreery said: “With 160 acres of solar panels, 3m high, you just couldn’t plant enough hedging to hide it. It would be an unmitigated disaster.”

Many in the audience were concerned about existing applications for solar farms at Tong Farm in Headcorn and at Great Pagehurst Farm in Staplehurst, but the meeting’s chairman Mike Bax did his best to keep the debate about the general principles.

A key issue was the potential loss of agricultural land. Professor Chris Atkinson, an expert in sustainable agriculture and climate change at Greenwich University, warned that the world was indeed facing a food crisis. Although a warming climate would present farmers in the South East with opportunities to grow new crops, 73% of the fresh fruit and vegetables consumed in the UK currently came from abroad, mainly Spain, Greece and Turkey, where food production would be severely curtailed by rising temperatures and drought.

Prof Chris Atkinson had some dire warnings about future food production

He was supported by Richard Knox-Johnston, chairman of CPRE Protect Kent who said: “We need farms to farm, not put up solar panels.”

He said there was a role for solar power, but the place for the panels was on people’s roofs.

Shellina Prendergast, who facilitated the meeting, said afterwards: “We called the meeting in response to the groundswell of concern in the area, witnessed by the good attendance. It was helpful to have all the issues outlined, but it is clear that there is a need for the Government to develop much more cohesive legislation on solar.”

Shellina Prendergast: groundswell of concern
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