Pluscarden Abbey, just outside Elgin in northeast Scotland, is one of the most beautiful places in Britain. But to those who have visited in winter over the years, it has also felt like one of the coldest. After the war, when Benedictine monks arrived to restore what was a medieval ruin they slept with no roof, let alone heating. Then came the paraffin burners, which gave the monks a choice between freezing and asphyxiation. Central heating arrived in 1980 (it’s needed, if your day starts with prayers at 4.30am) but it was used sparingly. But when I went to visit last month I found a miracle had happened. There is a biomass boiler – pictured, above – which means they can not only afford to heat the place, but actually make a profit in so doing.
Brother Michael De Klerk sums it up beautifully:
‘We had an outlay of between £300,000 to £350,000 to install everything for the biomass boiler. We were spending about £40,000 for gas but now we’re only spending about £6,000 on wood so it was really a no-brainer. The boiler is metred so we get about £23,000 from the Renewable Heating Incentive scheme. Without it we would have gone bust but now we’re actually making a profit.’
The monks recover the cost of the boiler in five years, but the subsidy is guaranteed for 20. The fuel is wood chip, cut from local timber. There is a rather nice historical symmetry to this: when the Abbey was built in 1230AD the monks would have kept warm by burning local firewood. They do so now, except the they get paid for it! As I say in my Daily Telegraph column today, no wonder the Pope is so enthusiastic about environmentalism. The green subsidy is the best news the monasteries have had from the British government for about 550 years.
I love Pluscarden (as does my colleague Mary Wakefield), and this about the only time the two of us have been pleased to see environmentalism in action. But there is a long-list of not-so-deserving beneficiaries. If you’re an aristocrat with a ballroom to heat, then it’s a no-brainer. One Tory peer tells me that every stately home he goes into now is boiling in winter, with windows open. If you’re being paid £4 for every £1 you burn, such behaviour is understandable.
The problem is a simple one: who pays? With the monks’ payments, it’s the Treasury. But the issue with green subsidy more broadly is that so much of it is raised through adding extra levies on heating bills.
The last five years have taught us a lot about the nature of the climate debate, about the usefulness of wind farms and about the burden that is inflicted on energy bills – which is important, in a country where 15,000 pensioners a year die of the cold. For too long, the climate debate has been reduced to a slanging match between zealots and ‘deniers’ – it’s now possible to have a proper conversation about it.
The Conservatives have a golden opportunity to start the argument on their own terms. Three years ago, The Spectator wrote a leading article on the Osborne Doctrine of climate change. It can be introduced now.
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