Solar plan: ‘It could be the end of cattle farming in Barkham’

solar farm
A solar farm is planned by Wokingham Borough Council on this land in Barkham

A LOCAL farmer is frustrated at Wokingham Borough Council’s plans for a new solar farm, which he said could force him to sell and slaughter his livestock.

Andrew Lake lives on Highbarn Farm, an area of council-owned land in Barkham where the council is planning a 40-hectare solar farm.

It revealed its proposals earlier this year, which include installing solar panels and equipment stores on the site, but it has not yet submitted a planning application.

Now, Mr Lake has accused the borough council of having “no thought for other people” and said his tenancy has been handled with “disrespect”.

However, John Kaiser, councillor for Barkham and deputy leader of Wokingham Borough Council, said the council is “very conscious” of the solar farm’s impact and wants to offer Mr Lake as much leeway as it can.

‘To give us a year to move out is a joke’

Last September, Mr Lake was served notice and given one year to move out, to make way for the proposed development.

After living on Highbarn Farm for more than 50 years, he said the council’s approach to his tenancy has been “a joke”.

“We’ve been tenant farmers since 1966,” Mr Lake explained. “You would have thought the council would have the decency to tell us the bigger picture of their plans for the site, so we could get ourselves prepared.”

The farmer said his 15-year farm business tenancy ran out two years ago.

“Since then, we’ve been trying to negotiate a new long-term tenancy [with the council], but they wouldn’t give us one,” he said. “They should have put their cards on the table and given us a heads up of their long-term plan for the site.

“We could have started planning how to take our business forward.”

Cllr Kaiser said Wokingham Borough Council wants to offer Mr Lake “flexibility” in regards to the end of his tenancy.

“This includes the possible extension of the lease for a further period,” he said. “We are currently engaged with Andrew Lake discussing options, and will continue to work with him throughout this process in order to minimise any impact wherever possible.”

Mr Lake has since negotiated with the council to rent the buildings on Highbarn Farm for another year.

This will allow the family to house their cattle next winter.

“It is very difficult to discuss the council’s plans in the early stage of any project until feasibility studies have been carried out and full consultation has occurred, both of which will inform the outcome of any plans,” Cllr Kaiser added.

Mr Lake is also worried that his family will now have to stop farming after it has been their livelihood for over half a century.

“We haven’t got anywhere to go,” he explained. “There’s not a property on the market that suits our needs, and that’s not helped by covid or Brexit.

“It can take six to eight months to finalise a house these days, let alone finalise a farm which can accommodate the stock and crop we’ve got.”

The farmer fears he will have to sell and slaughter his livestock if a property does not appear soon.

“We’ve looked after some of these animals for 15 years. We would be gutted,” he added.

“They’re part of the family and we know them inside out.”

Why is the council proposing the solar farm?

In July last year, Wokingham Borough Council published its Climate Emergency Action Plan Progress Report, which laid out a number of targets to help reduce carbon emissions.

To meet Target 12 of the Action Plan, it must build four solar farms across the borough.

However, Mr Lake has since questioned Wokingham Borough Council’s priorities when it comes to the climate agenda.

“They say they want the solar farm to help the environment, but they shouldn’t sacrifice green space for it,” he said. “They should put solar panels on the new build houses and increase the thermal efficiency of buildings across the borough.

“Instead, they’re taking away green fields, which will affect local produce and increase our food miles which doesn’t make sense.”

He said Highbarn Farm is one of the last bits of farmed grassland in the area, and once it’s gone, there will be no cattle livestock left in Barkham.

“The pandemic has made everybody realise they need local produce, and this goes against everything we’ve learned,” Mr Lake added. “The council just wants the money, and they couldn’t care less where our food comes from.”

Sarah Kerr, Lib Dem councillor for Evendons ward, said the solar farm is a “red herring” and Wokingham Liberal Democrats is worried it will not reduce local carbon emissions.

“The electricity generated will go into the grid and contribute to the nation’s pool of renewable energy, which will reduce Wokingham’s carbon footprint by only a tiny fraction of a percent,” she said.

“It is clearly a good thing to be generating renewable electricity, but we should not underestimate the enormous challenge of achieving carbon neutrality for Wokingham.”

Rachel Burgess, Labour councillor for Norreys ward, also said the borough council’s climate emergency plan is “failing”.

“It will bring us nowhere near carbon neutrality by 2030 and is severely lacking in scale and ambition, and it doesn’t even add up,” she said. “This solar farm represents a mere 1% carbon saving.”

Cllr Burgess said Mr Lake is right to call for solar panels on new homes, but they cannot legally be forced on housebuilders.

“This is why we need a Citizens’ Assembly on the Climate Emergency,” she added. “To put residents, and not politicians, in the forefront of decision making and take party politics out of the equation.”

Cllr Gregor Murray, executive member for climate emergency at Wokingham Borough Council, said that if approved, the Barkham solar farm will generate “clean renewable energy locally” without impacting the landscape.

“It will ease our reliance on fossil fuels and reduce emission of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide and other pollutants.

“The council has also made the commitment to plant 250,000 trees over the next five years, and we are looking at making new developments net zero carbon.”

If approved, Highbarn Farm will be reverted to farmland after 40 years.

Read its Climate Emergency Action Plan here: www.wokingham.gov.uk/council-and-meetings/open-data/climate-emergency

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