Call for lessons learnt on dropped Merston Solar Farm investment plans

Sandra James, UKIP county councillor for Bourne. SUS-160322-130103001
Sandra James, UKIP county councillor for Bourne. SUS-160322-130103001

UKIP’s deputy leader has called for lessons to be learnt from the county council’s decision to drop plans to invest £2m in a solar farm near Merston.

West Sussex County Council was proposing to take an equity stake in a community benefit society, which would own the five megawatt solar farm off Pagham Road, along with Meadow Blue Community Energy (MBCE), which raised almost £1.5m in a share offering late last year.

But at last month’s Performance and Finance Select Committee meeting several councillors raised concerns about the expected £283,000 return to the county council over 16 years.

Sandra James (UKIP, Bourne), UKIP’s deputy group leader at WSCC, said: “The announcement at the March P&F meeting that the Merston Solar Farm will not be progressed vindicates the recommendation I gave to the P&F committee meeting in February 2016 – at this February meeting this was the first opportunity to see the detail concerning the Merston Solar proposal.

“It was plain to me that this project had major concerns, fundamentally it did not fulfil a robust business model.”

She added: “It was clear through access to the financial and legal framework of the scheme provided only at the February 2016 P&F meeting, that the scheme did not have the satisfactory financial returns to West Sussex taxpayers and this is most fundamental to expect, given especially the backdrop of a rise in council tax of 3.95 per cent.

“Nor was the proposed capital investment of £2 million by WSCC to the scheme, secured.

“It is of great concern that these basic business issues were not recognised far sooner by the cabinet at WSCC.

“The importance of these observations proffered by UKIP in February 2016 were in time accepted as evidenced in the outcome announced from the March P&F meeting.

“This earlier scrutiny in February had pointed out the deficiencies and weaknesses of the project.

“There are many lessons to be learnt from the dropping of this project by WSCC, perhaps the most relevant ‘is why it took so long before there was a recognition that this project had fundamental investment and business concerns for WSCC’.”

A spokesman for West Sussex County Council said: “We have thoroughly looked into investing in the proposed Merston Solar Farm site.

“It is right that we evaluate any possibilities as well as risks when investing taxpayers’ money, including the benefits of sustainable energy for our community and income generation for the council.

“There were a number of complex legal and financial issues that needed to be resolved in a short timescale in order to safeguard the council’s investment, which is why we decided to not invest in this scheme, although we wish the project every success.

“This was the position put to the recent meeting of the Council’s Performance and Finance Select Committee and the Committee agreed with the approach taken.”

As part of a separate project the first half of the Merston Solar Farm was completed back in December last year by Primrose Solar.

Community benefits include an annual fund to support local environmental and social schemes, which will be managed by Oving Parish Council, and a programme of educational projects for local schools.

The completed 5mW solar farm was part of a 10mW facility that Solstice Renewables gained planning permission for back in March 2015.

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