14.06.24 Big Tech

Save the Shire: veteran Tory aide enlisted by ‘grassroots’ anti-solar campaign

Local push to protect Worcestershire farmland has hired longtime Boris Johnson adviser and cost upwards of £10,000

“We’re a group of local people campaigning to protect an historic part of Worcestershire which is under threat,” reads the website of Save the Shire, seemingly a grassroots movement against proposals to build Roundhill Solar Farm in Wychavon, Worcestershire.

What the website does not make clear is that Save the Shire is being pushed by a PR firm run by Alex Crowley, a former Boris Johnson aide with a history of running misleading and fake grassroots campaigns.

Crowley, who worked on Johnson’s Conservative party leadership and mayoral campaigns, is a self-described Londoner who has criticised the efficacy of renewable energy and “climate alarmism” on social media.

One 2021 tweet reads: “There is a reason why the Government won’t say how much [net zero] will cost you. Because when you find out, you will be livid.”

He has previously managed a fake grassroots Facebook page promoting a no-deal Brexit. He also ran the Fair Tax Campaign, which spent £83,000 on Facebook ads attacking Labour in the 2019 general election and 2021 London mayoral election, a number of which were taken down for breaching the platform’s guidelines.

Crowley is also co-founder of a PR firm, Shared Voice, which paid upwards of £10,000 to publish Save the Shire’s adverts on Facebook and Instagram.

According to transparency data, Save the Shire has published 15 ads since the page was created in February 2023. They were shown roughly 2m times to Facebook and Instagram users.

Save the Shire on X (formerly Twitter): "This is the very landscape we are trying to protect from industrialisation, Bag End Farm where Tolkien lived with his Aunt and the landscape he drew in the first edition of The Hobbit🏞️Our literary landscapes deserve protection.#SaveTheShire: https://t.co/lRYa0zUmiN pic.twitter.com/50tayrXV12 / X"

This is the very landscape we are trying to protect from industrialisation, Bag End Farm where Tolkien lived with his Aunt and the landscape he drew in the first edition of The Hobbit🏞️Our literary landscapes deserve protection.#SaveTheShire: https://t.co/lRYa0zUmiN pic.twitter.com/50tayrXV12

Phil Coathup, chair of Save the Shire campaign, told TBIJ: “This is not a political campaign. We are a local non-partisan action group that are employing a company called Shared Voice, paid for by our activists, to run some of our communications and ads.

“We are working with all political parties and organisations that support our campaign.”

The Save the Shire website hosts an “email your MP” form which states that user data will be processed by Shared Voice, Crowley’s PR firm.

The ads promote the area’s connection to The Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien, whose aunt owned a nearby farmhouse. “Tolkien’s last remaining landscape could be lost forever to a huge industrial power station,” the captions to one promotional video read.

“We are supposed to have transparency over who pays for influence campaigns but, as this investigation shows, it is still incredibly easy for opaquely funded lobbyists to influence our politics,” said Peter Geoghegan, author of Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics.

A spokesperson for Shared Voice told TBIJ that the company is run by people across the political spectrum. They said Save the Shire is “a legitimate campaign, started by local people who wish to object to a planning application for a solar farm, as is their right in a democracy”.

Distorting the debate

The proposal for the solar farm is currently under review by Wychavon District Council and was submitted by JBM Solar, which is owned by German energy giant RWE. The scheme would be able to meet the electricity needs of over 18,000 homes, according to JBM Solar.

Chris Hewett, CEO of Solar Energy UK, a trade body for the solar industry, said: “We are now concerned [anti-solar groups] are starting to distort the public debate on renewables, and largely based on misinformation.”

He said anti-solar campaigns tend to “bear the hallmarks of other anti-net zero campaigns, whether it’s against electric vehicles, or heat pumps, or wind. [There is] frequent use of misinformation which creates fear on things like safety, on food security, on impacts on wildlife, even links to China”.

The Save the Shire website states that it is run by the Roundhill Wood Solar Farm Opposition Group, also chaired by Coathup, which has lodged multiple objections to the planning application.

Former MP Rachel MacLean, who is standing again for the Conservatives in Redditch, the constituency covering the proposed development site, has said she has “worked closely with the Roundhill Wood Solar Farm Opposition Group”.

A screengrab from a photo posted on Facebook by the Roundhill Wood Solar Farm Opposition Page

“I want to thank the [Roundhill] campaigners for all the hard work they are doing and to let them know that I will continue to stand up for them,” she said in a parliamentary debate on levelling up rural Britain. “I do not believe that our levelling-up agenda will be served by solar farms of this scale and size.”

Shared Voice has not publicised the fact that it is working with Save the Shire, but it posted on LinkedIn about its work on the Roofs First project, which advocates for solar panels placed on roofs to be prioritised over those placed on agricultural land.

Liam Hardy, policy analyst at climate thinktank Green Alliance, said the UK needed to increase adoption of solar to meet its net-zero targets. “At the moment, solar uses less than 0.1% of the UK's land. And even if we scale up to 70 gigawatts or beyond in 2035 it’s still going to be, let’s say, half a percent of agricultural land and much less than we use for golf courses, for example.”

He added: “Often in those places, growing food simply isn’t profitable and [solar] can be a source of income for farmers. And often it can be deployed in conjunction with growing food […] so there isn’t really a trade-off between land for food and land for solar manufacturers.”

Save the Shire is part of the UK Solar Alliance, a well-organised network that says it represents 100 local anti-solar groups. These groups were addressed during a recent protest at Westminster by Andrew Bowie, the nuclear and renewable energy minister, who described their concern as “completely legitimate.”

Stop Botley West, another member of the UK Solar Alliance, recently advertised for a parliamentary lobbyist after receiving a large anonymous donation, according to online magazine the Lead.

Other groups such as Save Hardy’s Vale have, like Save the Shire, used literary heritage to make the case against renewable energy schemes. Campaigners opposed to the Stratton’s Farm development in Hampshire, near the the real-life Watership Down, staged a protest dressed as rabbits in homage to the famous children’s story.

RWE told TBIJ: “Through the course of our public consultation on the project, we have engaged extensively with [Roundhill Wood Solar Farm Opposition Group], pre and post submission, and sought to answer any questions posed. We respect the right of communities to voice their opinions, whether in favour or against our projects.”

While RWE currently operates 64 renewable energy schemes in the UK, just 35% of energy it generated globally in 2023 was from renewables. RWE continues to invest in controversial new fossil fuel developments such as the Lützerath coal mine in Germany.

Reporter: Niamh McIntyre
Tech editor: Jasper Jackson
Deputy editor: Katie Mark
Editor: Franz Wild
Production editor: Alex Hess
Fact checker: Emiliano Mellino

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