Donald Macintyre's Sketch: ‘Archers’ solar farm adds surreal drama


Ever since 1955, when to the listeners’ horror the glamorous and newly married Grace was killed by a falling stable beam as she tried to rescue her horse from a fire, it’s been clear that Archers fans have a problem distinguishing between fact and fiction.

Today, however, the Tory MP Andrew Bridgen took this disorder to a new level. In a parliamentary first, he announced that his north-west Leicestershire constituents “have considerable sympathy for those protesters campaigning against the current high-profile application by Borchester Land to build a large-scale solar farm on the Berrow estate in Ambridge,” and he asked for the Government’s view.

For those not following every twist of the ever-topical everyday story of country folk, go-getting BL chairman Justin Elliott is proposing what a blog on the Archers website describes as a “big bold plan” to cover a wide tract of farmland with an “array” of large solar panels before the subsidy for such “field-based” schemes runs out next March.

The never less than tiggerishly eager climate change minister Gregory Barker said he wished to “draw the attention of South Borsetshire district council to the planning advice and solar strategy that we sent to all councils, making it clear that our focus is on brownfield sites, not high-grade agricultural land, and, wherever possible, building-mounted.”

Though comically surreal, the exchange underlined that local opposition to renewable energy installations is not limited to the hated – by many Tories – wind farms. But it was an older fuel that proved most contentious. Labour ex-miners Dennis Skinner and Ian Lavery (there are still some MPs left who once had real jobs) pressed energy minister Michael Fallon on the threatened closure of Kellingley and Thoresby collieries, which would bring Britain’s once-mighty coal industry down to one pit. (UK power stations still burn loads of the black stuff. But it’s seemingly cheaper to buy from abroad, including Russia.)

When he and other MPs had met Vince Cable to call for £70m to save the pits, complained Skinner, the Business Secretary had not been “able to talk to us frankly” because a representative of Fallon’s had been sitting at the back taking notes. To be fair, the multi-tasking Fallon is a minister in Cable’s department too; though Skinner probably had in mind that he is a disciple of Margaret Thatcher, not exactly a coal industry fan.

Nowadays the alternative energy holy grail is fracking, which Tory ministers and most backbench MPs passionately support, other than in their own constituencies. Promoting the government’s plan for “shale gas exploration” – ministers prefer not to use the f-word – Fallon remarked drily: “I know colleagues across the House will want to champion applications for licences in their area.” If nothing else, Fallon does irony rather well.