Only Spain now has more solar panels than Britain

Wind turbines have been a source of argument, protest and bitter exchanges between those for and against since the first plan was proposed.

To date there hasn’t been the same level of angst about solar panel farms, probably because we haven’t seen them in our area on any scale. But they have flourished, if that’s the right word, elsewhere in Britain. So much so, that after a frantic rush to complete installations before midnight on March 31 that would have done credit to a TV garden makeover programme, Britain has more solar panels than any other European country except Spain.

The rush was, of course, to complete installations before the qualification period for a 20-year subsidy for large solar farms ended. With the subsidy, and with installation costs down to about one fifth of what they were five years ago because of developments in technology, solar panels should be a nice little earner for their owners. Some such ‘farms’ cover more than 200 acres with more than 200,000 panels.

To someone who has watched the effects of different types of farming subsidies over half a century the size and number of solar panel farms suggest that the subsidies were set too high. The same argument is made about wind turbines. Another argument against both panels and turbines as compared with nuclear and coal-powered power stations is that the energy they produce might be renewable, but it is intermittent.

All it did for me was re-emphasise that subsidies of any kind distort a market. That has been argued about farming subsidies since their first effective introduction in 1947 by a British government, more heatedly since we joined a European Union more than 40 years ago. Any change in subsidies encourages a search for loopholes, just as with tax changes. Smart practitioners will find them.

The saying about the more things change the more they stay the same occurred to me when I saw what First Milk proposes for its producers. At one time the price a dairy farmer got for milk depended on the open market and how far he was from a town or city. Those closer got a higher price because transport costs were lower and delivery faster.

In the 1930s the discrepancy in prices and isolated producers led to the milk marketing boards. The board for an area handled all milk and equalised a price. Far or near from a market, a farmer got the same price for his milk.

Fast forward to 2015 and First Milk, a farmers’ co-operative, is struggling to make ends meet. It has cut prices to farmers several times in the past year. But the latest cut differentiates according to where a dairy farmer is trying to make a living. Result? Near a creamery in the Lake District, farmers will get 21.7p a litre. Not great, but on the Isle of Bute they will get 19.3p.