A near £21 million plan to build a new solar farm in Barkham has been given ultimate approval by councillors in a contentious vote.

The scheme, which is a brainchild of Wokingham’s Conservative council, will see approximately 72,000 solar farms installed and almost 11,000 new trees  planted on the land.

But it also means tenant farmer Andrew Lake, who has farmed the land from the council for nearly 15 years may have to leave for good, as much of the land will be swallowed up by the development.

Funding for the solar farm was approved by the council’s executive in July.

But because the executive can only approve capital spending if it costs up to £15 million, the spend had to go to a full council vote.

READ MORE: Massive Barkham solar farm plans approved

The scheme was subject to two contentious votes at the most recent full meeting of Wokingham Borough Council yesterday (Thursday, September 23).

That’s because an amendment was proposed by councillor Sarah Kerr (Liberal Democrats, Evendons) which would have approved the solar farm, but only subject to a full business case and that any action on the plan be approved by the council’s corporate and community overview and scrutiny committee first.

Ultimately, the amendment was defeated by 25 votes to 20, with all members of the opposition voting for the amendment and almost all Conservative councillors voting against it. Cllr Keith Baker (Conservative, Coronation) abstained from the vote, as he is the borough mayor. 

The plan for the solar farm has been spearheaded by Cllr Gregor Murray (Conservative, Norreys), the executive member for emissions, who blasted the amendment.

Bracknell News: An idea of what the panels will look like once installed. Credit: Wokingham Borough CouncilAn idea of what the panels will look like once installed. Credit: Wokingham Borough Council

Councillors were asked to approve a spend of £20,283,000 funded from borrowing to build the solar farm, delegate decisions about the  final extent and configuration of the solar farm to the council’s deputy chief executive and Cllr Murray, and acknowledge the council’s estimates of a net income of £12 million over 25 years.

It was approved with 25 councillors voting for, three against, and 18 abstaining. All Liberal Democrats voted to abstain.

You can view the meeting from this tweet here: 

Serious questions about calculations the council had made to justify the solar farm projects in its Climate Emergency Action Plan (CEAP) were raised by the opposition. Earlier in the meeting, Labour activist and former councillor Andy Croy asked: “The CEAP of July 2020 included four proposed solar farms, at an estimated combined cost of £18 million.  It showed estimated carbon savings by the four farms as 5,112 tonnes of carbon each but with a total of 25,560 tonnes of carbon saved.

“The CEAP of July 2021 still included four solar farms but the Barkham Farm by itself was now shown as costing £21 million.  The cost of the remaining three farms was shown as ‘to be confirmed’.

“The plan showed 7,970 tonnes of carbon saved by Barkham and in addition showed the three un-costed farms still saving 5,112 tonnes of carbon each.  In effect, the plan showed over 15,000 tonnes carbon saved but for no cost.

“To summarise, the cost of the Barkham solar farm is more than four times the original estimate while the current CEAP includes carbon savings estimates for three farms for which there are no costs attached.

“The CEAP is a living document. Given the extraordinarily inaccurate estimates as to costs of solar farms and totally misleading accounting for carbon savings, how can residents trust the plan?”

Bracknell News: Andy Croy, former councillor and Labour activist. Credit: Wokingham Labour PartyAndy Croy, former councillor and Labour activist. Credit: Wokingham Labour Party

The differences in the estimated carbon savings and costs of Wokingham Borough Council’s solar farm projects were also raised by Cllr Kerr and Cllr Carl Doran (Independent, Bulmershe & Whitegates).

In response to the question, Cllr Murray said: “The £18 million recorded in the report published in July 2020 is the committed funding to initiate these projects, which as we already mentioned, will be informed as we progress with the delivery of each project.

“Solar farms, as any other infrastructure project, are subject to location, site specific and capacity requirements. The real cost and carbon savings for each solar farm can only be confirmed once the necessary studies are finished.

“As the detail of the Barkham project has evolved, the financial appraisal has been developed using expert advice on costs and performance. Importantly, after taking into account the delivery, running and capital financing costs of the project, the appraisal is still forecasting a healthy return to the Council over the lifetime of the installation.”

READ MORE: What is the Wokingham Local Plan update that could see thousands of homes built across the borough

He added that the council’s three other proposed solar farms will follow the same process, and overall, the projects are a “major and very positive commitment by the council.”

A planning application for the solar farm was approved by the council’s planning committee on September 8.

The scheme must now be given final approval by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government.