Peterborough Solar Farm Setback But A Glimmer Of Hope For North Westgate

nbnp07:49 Friday 25th October 2013
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

[D]OTTY MCLEOD: Council plans to build a solar farm on tenants’ farmland in Peterborough have been thrown into doubt, after archeologists discovered a number of artefacts believed to be from the Roman and Saxon eras. The findings were made earlier this week, but have been kept under wraps by the City Council officials. The archeological digs are being undertaken after experts from English Heritage and Cambridge University warned that the three sites being earmarked for the energy project could be riddled with remains. Peterborough City Council archeologists are now conducting tests to find out how old the finds are. Joining me now is Dr Francis Pryor, the man who discovered Flag Fen. Francis, does this surprise you at all?

FRANCIS PRYOR: No. Not even slightly. What does surprise me a tiny bit is that they haven’t found any earlier evidence yet. Roman and Saxon is relatively recent. Flag Fen for example is two thousand years earlier than that. But it seems to me if you’re getting Roman and Saxon, then the chances are you’re going to get much earlier stuff, either further down, or slightly to one side, or something like that, because it’s very unusual to find some of this later material without getting prehistoric material as well, because the landscape would have been initially cleared of trees and farmed by prehistoric people, and then the later people simply take over their land as time passed. So archeology is all about continuity, and when you find things from one period, you nearly always find things of other periods as well. One of the things that worries me is that the holes that they are digging are fine for a dry land environment, but this is fen, and if you dig a series of small holes, you’re going to get disconnected results. And small holes are absolutely hopeless for trying to understand pre-history, where you have to dig larger trenches and get a more general picture. So I think the strategy they’ve adopted of having lots and lots of holes over a huge area is .. well .. barmy. If you’d spoken to any wetland archeologist about such a strategy, they’d tear their hair out. It’s completely crazy. But anyway, that’s what they’re doing.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Now obviously what you found at Flag Fen years ago was hugely significant. At the moment of course on these digs for whatever reason .. you’re suggesting that their methodology is flawed is very interesting .. we don’t know yet whether anything significant has been found. But how big could this be? How significant could it be?
FRANCIS PRYOR: Well there’s absolutely no reason why they couldn’t find another Flag fen. The edges of the fen are where people have stayed and settled in pre-history, and there’s absolutely no reason why there shouldn’t be another Flag Fen out there, or a site that we can’t imagine. You must get out of the habit of thinking along tramlines. What this environment has the power to reveal is the unexpected. And that’s what makes it so much more important than almost anywhere else in the country, because it hasn’t been damaged by modern ploughing. Everything is there, as it would have survived in the past. And so it’s hopeless to try to guess what might be there. We didn’t know about sites like Flag Fen before we came across that site. And there could be another site that’s completely unknown about, but preserved under those fen deposits. So I refuse to predict what might be there, or how important it would be, because we just don’t know. It’s just potentially so exciting and so revelatory. But, you know, we certainly won’t find it by digging silly little holes.
DOTTY MCLEOD: How long do these kinds of excavations take? Suppose something of significance is found. Obviously the Council wants to build an energy farm on this. How long could that plan be delayed for?
FRANCIS PRYOR: Well, take Flag Fen. Flag Fen ..
DOTTY MCLEOD: .. is still being excavated.
FRANCIS PRYOR: It is still being excavated. We’ve done less than ten per cent of the whole site, and that’s after twenty years. If you’ve got something that’s well preserved out there, ten years, twenty years. Certainly nothing less.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Dr Francis Pryor thank you so much for joining me this morning. The man who discovered Flag Fen. Now also with us is the MP for Peterborough, Conservative MP Stewart Jackson. Stewart, your reaction to this news? I saw you were Tweeting about it yesterday.
STEWART JACKSON: Well I think it’s pretty exciting news from an archeological point of view, and obviously scholars of that period, Roman and Saxon times, will be wanting to look at the artefacts and date them. I think it has wider ramifications for the City Council, in that they are in the process of pushing through a deeply unpopular and expensive proposal for a sustainable energy solar park in the area around Newborough. So far it’s cost £1.8 million. Hasn’t got planning permission. Is unlikely very soon to get planning permission, because it’s been served with a legal notice by the Government that it has to be called in and decided by Ministers and the Planning Inspectorate, because of the sheer size of it. We’re talking about 500,000 glass panels in that area. I just think it’s now time for them to step back and say it’s not an appropriate site, and we need to stop the proposals.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Well of course I must just stress that we don’t yet know whether anything significant has been found. But also that Peterborough City Council could say on this, you know we’re thinking big. We’re thinking outside the box, because we need ways to raise money, because the Conservative Coalition Government has cut our grant so much. We’ve got to think big and do things like this just in order to balance the books.
STEWART JACKSON: Well they may very well say that, and of course they had said that with these apocalyptic predictions of power cuts in Peterborough etcetera etcetera. There’s no evidence that that will ever be the case, and there’s no evidence because other local authorities are not inflicting these massive solar energy parks on their own land. The fact is that they took a decision last Summer to effectively throw off the tenant farmers, to build on this prime agricultural land. There wasn’t hardly any consultation. The financial case doesn’t stack up. The environmental case doesn’t stack up. Even the Energy Minister Greg Barker is writing to MPs and the Council to say he doesn’t believe that you should be building solar energy parks on prime agricultural land, because it damages the reputation of renewable energy.
DOTTY MCLEOD: We’ve heard from green campaigner and a Green candidate for being an MP, Tony Juniper before. He stood for Cambridge at the last election. He praised Peterborough City Council. He said they were “visionary”.
STEWART JACKSON: Well he’s entitled to that opinion, but parish councils, local people, the local Member of Parliament myself, City councillors, farmers, local residents were all against this. English Heritage forced the Council to undertake this dig last Summer, because they were worried about the potential long term damage to the heritage of this proposal. We’ve actually suggested a Plan B, that we’re not against solar energy per se, but it should be built on brownfield land, on warehouses, factories, car parks, colleges etcetera, or unused industrial land. And we’ve given the opportunity for the Council to go forward with Plan B. They haven’t really taken that up, and now they’re in a position of having spent all this money, and not having planning permission. It’s a mess, and I think they need to step back and think about value for money for council tax payers.
DOTTY MCLEOD: And just briefly Stewart, on another topic, reports that the developers Hawksworth, they’re getting together, and plans are actually being put together for the North Westgate project, which has been mooted and on and off for twenty five years. Your thoughts on that.
STEWART JACKSON: Well let’s be positive about what’s been done in the city centre. It is very positive, and I think Peterborough can be exceptionally proud of what has happened in really a renaissance of the city centre. We’ve got new restaurants coming, Cathedral Square looks great, the lighting. But there is a blot on the landscape, and that’s the area around the bottom of Lincoln Road and around the station. I think we do need urgent action. Let’s not forget too we need to use the Riverside properly. But let me just say, after seven years where Hammersons sat on that land and did nothing, I’m a little cynical, so I’d like to see a bit more detail. But it’s positive. If Hawksworth have got the money, and City Council have got the willpower, then I’ll look forward to the proposals as they come forward.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Stewart Jackson, Conservative MP for Peterborough. Thank you for joining us this morning. We’ll be speaking to Peterborough City Council later on, in the form of their Leader, Marco Cereste.


DOTTY MCLEOD: Marco Cereste the Leader of Peterborough City Council joins us. Marco, how much can you tell us about what’s actually been found?
MARCO CERESTE: No more than you know Dotty. I’m not evading the question. There’s been some interesting stuff found. So far I’m not aware .. I’m not clear about what it is and how old it is and how important it is. If it is important then clearly we as a city we value very much our heritage and our archeology. You can see how the city stepped in to save Flag Fen with the help of Vivacity, working with the boats found at Must Farm. We really value what we have.
DOTTY MCLEOD: So are you trying to tell me your heart didn’t sink when you got the call and were told there could be something interesting here?
MARCO CERESTE: Well no, to be perfectly honest. I look at things as a pretty hard headed businessman. We need to produce energy for our city, and that’s what we are aiming to do, if the circumstances are right. If you found something incredibly important under that land, quite frankly that could be as valuable if you like to the city as a renewable energy farm. So the jury’s out. We’ll find out what’s there. If it’s hugely important we will have to assess the situation.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Of course ancient heritage is valuable in some ways, but it’s probably not going to plug the hole in your budget that would be left, if you have to can the solar farm project.
MARCO CERESTE: I agree with you. I agree with you. And the people of this city need to decide .. it’s all very well saying that I’ve got to fund us a Plan B. We’re working on Plan B, C, D and E on everything all the time. because the last thing we want to do as an authority is cut services. And our MP knows full well why we’re having to cut services, because he’s in our party, and they’ve had to make those cuts because of the really bad economic circumstances that the new Coalition Government took on.
DOTTY MCLEOD: So what is Plan B Marco? What’s Plan B.
MARCO CERESTE: Well Plan B is we’ve looked at what they suggested. We’re evaluating that. And if we can’t deliver the renewable energy photovoltaics etcetera, well we’ll have to try and find .. we are working on other things all of the the time. What I’m trying to say to you is I’m trying to be as completely honest with you as I possibly can. It’s not a question of Plan B to the photovoltaics. We are constantly working on things that will create .. or projects, initiatives that will create energy, will bring in income to our city. because we understand now that’s really the only way forward. We can’t expect Government or the taxpayer to keep funding things whilst the economy is the way it is. So we as a city take the view we’ve got to find ways of generating more income. It’s not a question of Plan B. We’ve got lots and lots and lots of projects. Some of them will be announced very shortly which will help generate income for our city and for our citizens.
DOTTY MCLEOD: How big a hole would it leave in your budget if this project, the energy park, didn’t go ahead? What number would we be looking at?
MARCO CERESTE: Well, we believe that the photovoltaics over a twenty year period would .. will produce something like £30 million. And those are the numbers. I completely sympathise with the people that say, oh, we don’t want to see photovoltaics out of our window. I’m not fortunate enough to have a fence a hundred metres away from my house. The nearest fence to my house is two metres away. I don’t know about yours, but some people seem to think that a hundred metres is unreasonable. It’s too close to them. And they’re entitled t ..
DOTTIE MCLEOD: Oh and it seems that we have lost Marco Cereste there. Maybe he has walked inside a tunnel. Maybe he has walked too close to the fence that bounds his house, two metres away. But great to talk to Marco this morning, the Leader of Peterborough City Council. They were hoping that this solar park would create huge amounts of revenue, £30 million he said over the next twenty years. So without that, it could leave them with problems. But he’s saying don’t worry. We’ve got plans on the back burner. We’ll be fine. Do you believe him? They could be having to work very very quickly to fix that black hole in the budget.