I went to watch the HBC cabinet meeting tonight (7th Jan, 2019) because everyone’s been up in arms in recent weeks over an apparently outrageous decision by our council to build large solar arrays on beautiful bits of the countryside around our town.

Socialist me v Environmentalist me

I thought perhaps this was a stereotypical problem – as if we have Conservative councillors who are good at thinking about business and tourism, and Labour ones who are good at thinking about poverty and climate change. As an environmentalist, in a constant state of sorrow over the degradation and over-building of our land and a socialist, worried about fuel poverty and the urgency of the climate crisis, two of me went along to hear the meeting, one of me both for and against, and the other for, the rumoured decision. I was feeling sorry for the local greens because they must be desperately, passionately both for and against this plan; and I was worried about our councillors because everyone is so angry about it.

Council Officers are not Councillors

What we actually heard was a council officer’s report (council officers are full time, executive investigators, advisers and administrators, not party-political decision makers). His report made clear that they are nowhere near a decision to put solar panels on those two sites. They have made initial investigations and come to the conclusion that, although they’re putting panels on all available roofs, that will do absolutely nothing to ease fuel poverty in Hastings, due to the government ending the feed-in tariff, and until or unless there is a change of government, they can’t return to their wind scheme, or put larger arrays anywhere they aren’t economically viable, so the only option they are currently allowed under government rules, is to have large arrays where there are substations that could take up around 10megawatts. There are only two places that meet all the criteria – the Coombe Valley one and the Fairlight one.

That does not mean they approve or disapprove, or that that will always be the only option.

Party Politics

One Conservative councillor responded by saying (at length) that it was just plain wrong to put solar panels on country park. Put them on roofs, he said.

We’re doing that, Peter Chowney replied, but it’s not enough, and small clusters on roofs do absolutely nothing to reduce local fuel bills, thanks to the government ending that feed-in tariff.

The proposal put tonight was not to do that, but to release up to £80k for commissioning studies and reports – including environmental ones, to find out what a) energy experts, b) environmental experts and c) local residents think about it all with the view that, if there is a change of government, they will have more options, and could use that knowledge to make a plan that’ll suit as many people as possible; if there isn’t a change of government, we are going to be in such desperate straits as a country that we’ll probably soon get told to generate our own power or do without, so the information gained will be useful either way.

Another Tory councillor repeated (at length) that we just mustn’t, and appealed to them to get a report from Natural England first, and that £80k was a completely unreasonable spend.

Peter Chowney agreed to amend the motion calling for funds, to make a request for information from Natural England their first move – so that any further action or spending would depend on the result of that. If, Chowney said, there was an outright ‘no’ on environmental grounds, then that would be an end of the whole plan for now. He also pointed out (again) that the request was for up to £80k, and as work would stop if the results weren’t suggesting an economically and environmentally viable scheme; in all likelihood they would spend only a fraction of it.

More ‘just don’t’ from the Conservative councillors, but no other alternative suggestions. Perhaps they haven’t noticed about climate change or fuel poverty.

Impoverished tenants can’t put solar panels on their houses

Neither the Conservative councillors nor the angry watchers seemed moved by the urgency of the problem, and the need to consider changes in priorities when desperation strikes. Bearing in mind that plans can be changed at any stage there doesn’t seem to be much to object to yet – especially as, even if country park sites are used, even after installation, solar panels probably do not prevent the plants, insects and other life in the area going on under and around them (going to Natural England will make a certainty one way or the other out of that ‘probably’) – But solar panels don’t create wastelands, the way mines or heavy industry do – indeed the panels could feasibly be moved, if and when other options become available.

Councillor Fitzgerald asked why the Conservatives were so dead set against solar panels in our countryside, when their party has been more than happy to allow fracking and fossil fuel mining in some of the most beautiful parts of our country.

So no, I don’t think the council is doing anything so very terrible but the heat and noise around the town has got a lot of people very angry, and those people who came to the meeting with their placards and their bingely bongely phones and their mutterings seemed to go away just as angry as they arrived.

They did rather lose my sympathy when they completely failed to respond either to Peter Chowney’s appeal about the urgency of addressing both climate change and local fuel poverty – or, as they trooped off out of the meeting, blocking our view of the start of the next item on the agenda, that we were hearing an eagerly awaited report as to whether we can still afford to remain as the only town in the south east that is able to offer 100% council tax relief to its poorest residents. I guess they must have been quite a wealthy group of people to whom council tax bills are of no more concern than energy bills.

Everyone gets very angry

Seriously though, I do understand why they were angry. The rumours and the tone of the conversation around the town in recent weeks did create the impression that the council were planning on spoiling our best bits of countryside out of sheer bloody mindedness. There was absolutely nothing in those Facebook rants about the constraints on our council, or about their desperation to deal with the poverty and deprivation our town suffers from. You could all but hear the far off chuckles of our MP, who knows all that perfectly well but never the less was busy in recent weeks stoking up the heat by running a petition against the solar panels that the council are not, actually, about to install – but then she never misses a chance to try and place herself with (the wealthier) residents and against the (Labour led) council.

The new ‘us and them’

So all in all, this is the stereotypical problem. The divide now though is not between developers and nimbies, but between those who do and those who don’t see a crisis looming in both poverty and fuel provision. I think that in this case, our council are doing pretty well at keeping business, environment and people in mind – what they aren’t doing is a particularly good job of communicating that to the people. Party politics gets in the way. So does an all too ubiquitous fondness for knee-jerk Facebook rants.

Meanwhile in council, the Conservatives mainly want everyone to know the Labour-led council are wrong, wrong, wrong and the Labour councillors are too busy battling the government for resources to realise that people need to understand what’s going on.