MILLIONS of pounds earmarked by the council for investing in commercial property could be spent on solar panels instead. 

West Berkshire Council has borrowed £100 million to buy commercial real estate, like shops and warehouses — some hundreds of miles outside of the district. 

So far, it has spent £63 million of that money, and has £37 million left. Instead of buying more properties, some of that money could be spent on solar panels. 

Nick Carter, the chief executive of the council, said the executive are looking at the investment strategy and considering ‘potential other opportunities’.

Currently, the council is piloting installing solar panels on its buildings. Councillors were quizzing Mr Carter on the pilot at a meeting of the overview and scrutiny management commission on October 29. 

Councillor Steve Masters (Green, Speen) said: “The return on the solar panel project will get a quite reasonable five per cent, which is somewhat higher than the property portfolio. £100 million is a vast amount of money and doesn’t come without some risk, especially in these turbulent times. 

“The community and the district is always going to need power. Especially in light of the climate emergency, it’s going to tick a few boxes. There’s commercialisation and revenue, and it’s also reducing the carbon impact.”

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Cllr Lee Dillon (Lib Dem, Thatcham North East) asked why the pilot was taking so long to spend the earmarked money. So far £60,000 of a planned £700,000 has been spent. 

Cllr Dillon said: “We’re piloting something that the rest of the country has been doing. You know that the sun is going to rise in the morning and is going to set in the evening. Why aren’t we just getting on and doing it? It’s not new technology.”

Mr Carter said: “Well we are getting on and doing it. There’s a real desire to do a lot more. Before we rolled out a large amount of money on this, we wanted to check that it actually worked. And it has worked in part.”

Cllr Masters asked whether the pilot will be rolled out further. 

Mr Carter replied: “The executive are actively looking at its investment strategy. I think renewable energy is probably going to be part of that. It’s a very current discussion and you can expect to see something coming back on that fairly soon. The conversation at the moment is, next year’s capital programme, do we want to ramp that up?”

He said ‘potentially’ part of the £37 million — borrowed for investing in commercial property — could be spent on buying further solar panels. “(The executive) have not made any decisions, but I want to give you some assurance that that is very much part of it.” 

In a statement, Cllr Masters welcomed the news. He said: “The review of investments is a direct result of my questions over several months about the return on investment and instability of the commercial property landscape.

“The fact that green energy generation is potentially out-stripping their previous investments is proof that the Green party can reinvigorate local government, and indeed the political arena.

“I am proud of the sea-change that has occurred since our election. Even if a small part of the residual funds are utilised, it will have a positive effect on the district’s financial bottom line, along with the carbon neutrality project.”