Six councillors believed the issues of flooding, visual impacts on the landscape and visual impact on heritage sites was insurmountable, while four did not, meaning the controversial proposal was rejected. In the summer, East Devon approved plans for a solar farm to be built in Clyst Hydon and more solar farm applications are on the horizon.
Rob Kershaw www.devonlive.com
Campaigners who opposed plans for a huge solar farm on farmland in East Devon were celebrating an early Christmas present after planners rejected the scheme. Devon CPRE, the Devon branch of the countryside charity, feared councillors in East Devon would back the proposal for the development south of the settlement at Marsh Green to the East of Rockbeare alongside the A30.
Some 60,000 panels were proposed covering more than 200 acres of land across a total of 27 farm fields. Planning officers recommended the scheme go ahead. But councillors voted to refuse permission following a two-hour debate on Tuesday. The 6-4 decision – with one abstention – came as a welcome surprise to opponents of the scheme, including residents in and around Marsh Green.
It followed a site visit by councillors earlier in the day who found the proposed construction area waterlogged after all the recent rain – a fact that backed up the argument that the land at Marsh Green was not suitable for such a development. Taking flooding and other factors into account, namely concerns over visual impact, land classification and impact on a designated heritage asset, East Devon’s planning committee voted against their own officer’s recommendation.
Devon CPRE director Penny Mills was among the opponents allowed to give a statement to the committee. Commenting on the decision to refuse the scheme, she said: “It’s a great Christmas present! We’d like to thank the councillors who voted to refuse it for having the courage of their convictions, for supporting the local community and for standing up for Devon’s countryside.
“We are all incredibly grateful, particularly coming so soon after the disappointing decision by the Secretary of State to permit the Langford solar farm, near Cullompton, on appeal. We hope East Devon District Council shows the same resolve should the applicant in this case decide to appeal.”
She added: “There are currently another two solar farm applications in planning in East Devon and who knows how many more in the pipeline? It’s encouraging that this one at least has been turned down for the right reasons.”
Resident Cyril Emmett, who farmed at nearby Rockbeare for 50 years, also spoke against the plans. He told councillors Marsh Green was not the right place to put a solar farm because it’s a flood valley. He said increased run-off would damage the village and building on the fields would also be a waste of good farmland.
He said: “It’s the right decision. A soil assessment carried out by independent consultants challenged the applicant’s claim that the proposed site was low-grade agricultural land.
“The assessment I commissioned concluded that the applicant’s report was incorrect and should not be relied upon. I’m not totally against solar but panels should be put on rooftops. If there were panels on every roof in the new town of Cranbrook, there would be no need to sacrifice productive farmland for such developments. Food security is paramount.”
Aylesbeare Parish Council had supported the plans due to the need for more sources of renewable energy but they wanted to see some refinements to the proposal. Drainage in the flood-prone area, dirt on the roads from HGVs passing through during the construction process and possible damage to a gas pipeline were among the concerns raised by the council. They also suggested a “more sensible” speed limit on Marwood Road, a narrow route which will be used during construction, fencing which accommodates easy passage for sheep and consultations with the RSPB.
But Rockbeare Parish Council objected to the proposal in the “strongest terms” partly due to the “unsuitability” of the development area. They claimed a solar farm would harm the pre-existing agricultural land and would not be conducive to the grazing of sheep. They raised concerns surrounding the lack of parking spaces around the site and said parking on private roads, driveways and verges would not be “permissible.”
Speaking at the meeting, Cllr Richard Lawrence (Conservative, Whimple & Rockbeare) said the proposal went against a part of East Devon’s local plan, which encourages the approval of renewable energy projects as long as “any cumulative landscape and visual impacts” are “satisfactorily addressed.”
He said this had not been adhered to, nor was he convinced by the proposed measures to mitigate flooding. His view was shared by Cllr Philip Skinner (Conservative, Tale Vale) and Cllr Geoff Pratt (Independent, Ottery St Mary).
Cllr Lawrence rubbished suggestions the farm would power over 18,000 homes and predicted the figure would be closer to 5,000. He also raised concerns about the restoration of land which would be temporarily altered during construction and highlighted a lack of clarity as to who would pay for the maintenance of the solar farm. Cllr Pratt added that a solar farm would “destroy the natural environment” and lead to the loss of “extremely productive farmland.”
However, Cllr Olly Davey (Green, Exmouth Town) claimed “no unacceptable harm” would be caused as a result of the proposal being approved and pointed to a report by a conservation officer which stated the effects the development would have on heritage assets would be “less than substantial.”
He agreed the landscape would be altered by the construction of solar panels, but said the “applicants have gone to a lot of trouble to minimise the effect on the landscape.”
“I’m not denying it will change the character of the landscape,” said Cllr Davey. “I think that’s a given, but it is for us to decide whether that is acceptable or not.”
He argued there is “no evidence that there is a carbon deficit in solar panels,” and that they “put a considerable amount of energy into the national grid.” Therefore, he felt that there were no “strong enough reasons” to reject the plan, given the need for renewable energy.
But six councillors believed the issues of flooding, visual impacts on the landscape and visual impact on heritage sites was insurmountable, while four did not, meaning the controversial proposal was rejected. In the summer, East Devon approved plans for a solar farm to be built in Clyst Hydon and more solar farm applications are on the horizon.