Our clients Saffery Champness and Smiths Gore are proud to be sponsors of the Oxford Union Debate at the annual Oxford Farming Conference. The Debate, which takes place in the famous Oxford Union where many politicians have cut their teeth, often provides some well-deserved light relief after a tough day of formal presentations at the Conference itself.
In keeping with that, Farmers Weekly awards a bottle of Champagne (or two) to the most iconoclastic contributions from the floor. This year was no exception in terms of the quality of debate, or that of offerings from the benches.
This house believes that green energy is not worth the carbon it uses to produce. That was the motion for the Oxford Union Debate held at the Oxford Farming Conference on 7 January 2014.
Proposing the motion was Roger Helmer MEP, UKIP spokesman on industry and energy, a man unimpressed with renewables despite admitting being in receipt of subsidy for a green energy project. Natalie Bennett MP on the other hand, leader of the Green Party and who, in bruising terms, came across far more as koala than Campese, was pushing the “priceless” green energy tag.
Helmer opened. “Renewables energy subsidies cost ten times more than the energy they produce” he said. And, “it’s too easy to blame climate change when a Russian survey ship gets stuck in the ice”, and “world wide, including in uber-green Germany, there have been 1200 new coal fired power stations built since 2002.” His supporting evidence, he said, was in the lobby.
And then he bristled some more. “We aren’t farming wind, we’re farming subsidies”, and “wind turbines will become redundant relics of our compulsion to so something.” He opined that every green job destroyed several jobs in our rural economy but, tellingly, created new jobs in China, and that Germany’s entire investment in solar PV will only delay global warming by 37 hours. Well, it could have been minutes!
If you believed all that, and thousands (Natalie Bennett included) wouldn’t, it all seemed remarkably compelling.
Bennett on the other hand didn’t seek evidence from “vested interests within the sector” but instead the odd coupling of the Joint Methodist, Baptist and United Reform Churches, and Apple who, she said, relied on 75 per cent renewable energy, and soon to be 100 per cent.
She told us that green energy was far more than wind – consider solar, tidal, wave, AD and, most important of all, the energy we don’t use – which I suppose makes sense (although does it create any jobs)?
One third of homes in the UK are rated in bands G, F and E (is it a southern hemisphere thing to do the alphabet backwards?) – that’s Energy Performance Certificate and not Council Tax rated presumably, making the UK the worst insulated country in Europe. Yes, she said, 200,000 new jobs could be created in installing insulation alone (hopefully not in telesales). And we need “more community owned, more community based generation. Start a project in your village!”
But it was the supporting speakers who stole the show. Self styled Northumbrian peasant farmer (and part time journalist and PR man) Matt Sharp said that his Union Jack dress was in the wash. What the heck have the Spice Girls got to do with any of this I thought, until it hit me…
Matt reminded us that we needed to emit less greenhouse gas, and that the drive towards renewable energy was like “trying to lose weight by eating more food.” “This isn’t the Oxford Let’s Grow Miscanthus Conference,” he told those of us who might have been swayed by the argument of his eucalyptus-chewing opponent. Job done.
Not so. Duncan Howie definitely has a career outside land agency, pigs and Chelmsford. “If we were all here in the dark we would be mushrooms” he told us, followed by a rallying call “Save the polar bears, save the baboons, save the residents of Sussex from having another rubbish Christmas!”
He was precious close to straying into UKIP territory, calling for a reduction in our reliance on energy imports. “We don’t like our country to be beholden to foreign powers,” he said, pub-landlord style. “It’s not just a case of hard economic fact but also national security.” Man the barricades everyone!
A son of Essex, “the finest county in a fine land” he told of his grandfather’s shire horse power (an example of early renewables), and his father’s view that green energy would only be profitable if propped up by subsidy. “With his 35 years in farming I could see the irony in that,” said Duncan.
Contributions from the floor were geographically spread – the Norfolk chicken farming MEP (?) increasingly reliant on CO2 to make the wheat grow faster to feed his birds; the old, cynical Yorkshire landowner (in no particular order) who spent three years at Cirencester, possibly some time ago, and marketing was never mentioned once; the Guernsey farmer desperate for a grid connection so that the impoverished but energy-rich Channel Islands can sell their power to England at 25p/unit; and an Irish contribution from Matt Dempsey. “We are being held to ransom by oil-producing middle-eastern countries,” he said. “To break this we need the photosynthesis of the sun and our brain power; where is the British will to win?”
“I’m going back to Ireland and I’m staying there,” he concluded.
In summing up Mr Helmer gave wind farms the bum’s rush but said shale gas would create wealth, new businesses and revenue for the Treasury (boo!). Ms Bennett said that the energy we should be relying on was the energy we don’t use, and fracking was, well, fracked from the outset.
It was entertaining, it was electrifying. And it was a resounding victory for the Noes at 277 votes to the Ayes 86.
It could possibly have been more heated – or maybe we were all taking Natalie Bennett too seriously.
The 2014 Oxford Farming Conference Debate and Post Debate Supper were sponsored by Birketts, Saffery Champness and Smiths Gore