Connecting the dots: a firsthand account of how the UKIP surge drove the Tories to sabotage the renewables industry
Having spent years working in the renewable energy industry, especially in the South West, I witnessed first-hand the political and economic backlash against the renewables industry in the UK. As is often the case, with the anti-renewables backlash, there is more going on than first meets the eye.
My foray into renewable energy started in 2014 at a small company in Tiverton, Devon and then on to Source Renewable in North Devon to take on the role of marketing manager.
Working for a bigger player, I tried to promote our ‘solar photovoltaic (PV) success stories’ in the local press and was surprised at how difficult it was.
Our Quince Honey Farm solar PV installation made it into The North Devon Journal as the installation team wore beekeeper suits while they were on the roof to protect them from being stung, so that story had another angle. I was later told that many other pro-renewables stories were blocked.
After talking to one local reporter on the North Devon Journal, about our ‘need to do more on climate change’, he suggested that we meet up. We talked for ages. About tourism, the local economy and the political structures in the system.
He suggested that I look into Steve Crowther, chairman of UKIP, who was based in North Devon. Did I know that Crowther was the main party fundraiser, stood for election in North Devon, ran a database business and cut his teeth campaigning against renewable energy in Devon?
I learned that Crowther had met key people in Devon while campaigning with ‘Slay The Array’ against the proposed Atlantic Array offshore wind farm, and that he had been linked to different local organisations such as CPRE Devon.
At one Slay the Array meeting, a 59-year-old supporter of the Array plans was ejected after asking too many questions. This man was then beaten up. And that was at a renewable energy event.
The main suspect was described by police as ‘wearing a purple jacket with a UKIP badge’.
My journalist contact said that Crowther was linked to Penny Mills, chair of CPRE Devon, who had gone on to stand as a parliamentary candidate for UKIPin the Plymouth election.
Mills, who calls herself an environmental campaigner, ironically has a long history of fighting wind turbines and solar. Her Twitter account includes tweets such as ‘It’s time to admit the green agenda has failed’ and ‘please sign this petition to reduce wind turbine subsidies’.
A search of her archived website from when she was running to be a UKIP MP, shows links to Roger Helmer MEP, a long-term climate denier, who jumped ship from the Tories to UKIP, before having to resign after a demand to repay around £100,000 of EU money for alleged misuse of public funds.
For example, in 2007, Helmer organised and chaired a Counter-Consensual Conference on Climate Change, whose speakers included the arch climate sceptics, Lord Lawson from the UK-based Global Warming Policy Foundation and Chris Horner from the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), amongst others. For years, the CEI received millions from Exxon to deny climate change.
In March 2009, Helmer crossed the Atlantic to speak at the Heartland Institute’s 2009 International Conference on Climate Change, along with many other leading climate sceptics. In 2011, Helmer was back in the US as a featured speaker at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) annual meeting. In 2012, Helmer spoke again at the Heartland Institute’s international climate sceptic conference. Once again many of the world’s leading climate sceptics were there. Research by DeSmogBlog revealed the co-sponsors of the conference had collectively received over $67 million from ExxonMobil, the Koch Brothers and the conservative Scaife family foundations.
Back in Devon, the journalist told me that the North Devon Journal received loads of anti-wind and anti-solar letters after each article, so its editor didn’t think readers were interested in renewable energy. Although the letters seemed coordinated, it was difficult to prove who was behind them.
Having talked to hundreds of customers in the Devon area, this was at odds with what I knew. Who was writing all these letters? Why did wind turbines generate more letters of protest than other development proposals?
So I started looking into CPRE Devon. Despite its limited membership figures and charitable income, this group did phenomenal campaigning work. Their website offered comprehensive reference materials for:
- Contacting every Member of Parliament (MP)
- Writing letters to media titles (local and national newspapers, radio, TV)
- Planning applications on solar parks and wind turbines
- Preparing objections to planning applications
This activity also went beyond just Devon. CPRE Devon provided an online portal for anyone in the country (or world) to write letters of objection for cleantech. The policies of CPRE Devon were out of line with CPRE National – none more so than with the views of the likes of Phillip Bratby, who had given evidence at UK parliamentary select committees. Bratby is a trustee of CPRE Devon, yet is a full-blown climate denier.
Bratby has spoken at CPRE events too. In late 2013, at one seminar on “Understanding wind and solar power’, he said: ‘wind and solar do not reduce CO2 emissions, but may actually increase them’ and that the technologies were ‘destroying wealth on a massive scale’.
The following year, at another CPRE Devon seminar, Bratby stated that wind energy “Kill[ed] birds and bats” and that the “attempt to return to using renewable energy is bound to lead to reduced productivity, the destruction of wealth and an increase in poverty … Renewable energy was never an engineering decision, an economic decision or an environmental decision; it was purely a political decision”.
We often think of CPRE as green custodians of the countryside, but if they are linked to the anti-green UKIP and promoting views such as those of Roger Helmer and Bratby, then this adds a new political dimension to the anti-wind movement. Despite contacting CPRE national head office, nothing could be done as CPRE Devon was a separate fundraising group and the national body had no control over it. Clever stuff. Over the next two years, I watched the West Country renewable energy sector come under sustained fire from social media campaigns and grassroots activity at every level.
- Two wind turbines at South Torfrey organic farm in Cornwall were taken down by a local campaigning group who deemed them ‘a blot on the landscape’. If one gentleman – a retired engineer – looked out from his top bedroom window he could see them ‘flicker’ on the hill two miles away. I found out that this gentleman was a Conservative-party activist, highly intelligent and kind but had become a wind turbine hater.
- The proposed development of a solar park on Rampisham Down, Dorset by British Solar Renewables also came under heavy negative campaigning fire by The Dorset Wildlife Trust. It even drew Twitter support from major wildlife celebrities like Chris Packham, presenter of the popular BBC Springwatch. This seemed incredible given the impact of climate change on wildlife and our need to address it.
The spin kept coming
The spin, that wind turbines ruined the countryside and killed birds, kept coming. Solar panels were unattractive. Anaerobic Digestion (AD) plants smelt and increased traffic. I even heard that Prince Charles was not keen on solar PV systems on aesthetic grounds. This was despite the beautiful solar PV installation at Home Farm on Duchy Land (pictured below).
Every group had their own particular gripe. Beautifully crafted anti-renewables messages had been targeted by each interest group. But who was funding this? And how could we address it?
To combat this negative activity, we developed case studies to send to potential customers and liaised with other renewable energy companies to do the same. But it was a losing battle. The spin machine was much more powerful. And we only had limited marketing budgets. The spin also used TV:
- George Eustace, Cornwall Conservative MP and former UKIP candidate, appeared on BBC local TV speaking out against solar parks. He would later announce ‘an end to farm subsidies for unpopular solar farms’ on his blog as DEFRA minister.
- The Dorset Wildlife Trust campaign against The Rampisham Down solar park was taken up to the national level by The National Wildlife Trust parent group and appeared on local TV.
Meanwhile, the national press wasn’t interested in our regional SW stories about schools, factories and medium-sized businesses.
Politics, social media and the 2015 election
In the 2015 national election, the Conservatives won a majority and the Liberal Democrats suffered a major defeat. The West Country, a traditional Lib Dem area turned blue. Many West Country Lib Dem MPs lost their seats and the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition ended.
Stephen Gilbert, Lib Dem MP for St Austell & Newquay in Mid Cornwall had helped me with a constituency matter, was an excellent local MP and I volunteered help in return. Roped into the grassroots election campaign, I saw first-hand how the Lib Dems concentrated on traditional campaigning techniques; coffee mornings and leaflets for fundraising, posters for awareness, direct mail/leaflets and door-stepping for policy messages. Coming from the marketing world, it all seemed quite primitive. When the Conservatives hired digital experts Craig Elder and Tom Edmonds I warned the Lib Dems about the power of social media. Fortunately, the main political parties were not well versed in social media, the use of databases and targeted communications activity back then. The Conservatives spent £1.2 million on Facebook but UKIP outperformed everyone in the social media stakes. It was around this time that UKIP effectively learned how to spin the message and set the ball rolling for the BREXIT referendum.
New party, new policy
Shortly, after the 2015 election, Sir Ed Davey (ex-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change) warned us at a Regen SW renewable energy event that the Chancellor, George Osborne was pro-gas. And that Osborne was ‘pro-gas of any kind’ and the Feed-in Tariff was likely to be reviewed. Our hearts sank.
We all started campaigning to save the solar industry. But our campaigning failed and the Feed-in Tariff was cut by 65 per cent.
My company, Source Renewable went bust and I moved to Solarsense, a larger company just outside Bristol. I lasted another twelve months before that company went down from 26 to 8 staff. The solar PV industry lost over 12,500 jobs and domestic solar installation rates fell off a cliff.
What happened to this vibrant industry sector? Why did the Conservative party destroy a business sector supported by investors, private companies and innovative tech industry start-ups?
The Conservative party has around 70,000 party members. Forty-four per cent of members are over 65 years old and 71 per cent are male. Climate change was not part of the school curriculum 20 years ago. And if the mainstream media doesn’t talk about it (BBC Radio 4 and The Daily Telegraph) party members won’t care about it. In addition, Conservative MPs in the West Country reacted to the rise of UKIP.
Rallying support to defend our industry
Prior to the Feed-in Tariff cut announcement, many North Devon businesses recognised the impact it would have on the South West local economy (electricians, roofers, scaffolding, distributors and retail). Four local companies got together and arranged a meeting with North Devon Conservative MP, Peter Heaton-Jones. At that personal meeting, Heaton-Jones was supportive of our concerns and recognised the problem. However, he said he didn’t dare speak up in favour of wind turbines or solar parks because whenever he did, he received a sackload of letters the next day in protest of his actions.
This spin machine had influenced him too and was putting pressure on Conservative MPs to steer their thinking and policy decisions.
At a Solarsense launch event for the community-funded solar park in July 2016, Sir Ed Davey said that the Conservatives had adopted UKIP policies by mistake, including killing the solar industry. Worried about losing the vote to UKIP, the party had become anti-renewable energy. Destroying a vibrant sector essential for the future economy.
Industry professionals working in renewable energy are aware of a spin machine working against them. What may be surprising to some, is that the spin is linked to UKIP. Using social media and databases, UKIP has infiltrated the system to whip up an anti-renewable energy agenda.
It is easy to underestimate the effectiveness of this activity and to ignore the impact on our democratic processes.
The Conservative Government has effectively decimated a vibrant solar PV and onshore wind industry in reaction to a powerful spin machine from UKIP. Reporting by Carole Cadwalladr in the Observer and Guardian has revealed the links between UKIP and Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, Trump and Russia. Thus highlighting how hostile outside interference has disrupted our own economic affairs.
Politicians are just beginning to realise that the same pattern has occurred in relation to renewable energy as Brexit. And that the UKIP –Trump alliance is still active and holding us to ransom by social media campaigns and an oil industry agenda.