Recommendation: Conditional approval subject to legal agreement
Simon Weeks resumed the Chair.
Proposal: Full planning application for Installation of a Solar park to include 40000 solar photovoltaic panels, 11 inverter/transformer cabins, a single control building and associated works to include vehicle access and fencing with Environmental Statement.
Applicant: Wessex Solar Energy
The Committee considered a report about this application, set out in agenda pages 143 to 174.
The Committee were advised that the Members’ Update included a typographical correction to paragraph 24.
Jonathan Wheelwright, Swallowfield Parish Council, spoke in objection to the application. Jonathan stated that Swallowfield Parish Council were in support of climate emergency objectives, however this was the wrong location for a solar farm. Jonathan was of the opinion that this would be more likened to a solar industrial site, built on top of good quality 3A graded agricultural land which was not low quality land. Jonathan stated that it would be hard to find a more visible or intrusive location. Jonathan added that this application had received 89 resident objections, all of who supported the green energy initiative, however not in such an unsuitable location. The site would cover around 46 acres of Greenfield, including installation of approximately 40,000 panels each 8 feet in height. Additional security fencing and outbuildings would also be developed on the Greenfield. Jonathan stated that the fields would be lost to foraging animals, and the alternative site assessment had shown other more suitable sites. Jonathan concluded by stating that sustainable energy was important, however sites should not be placed on good quality farmland, situated in highly visible locations.
Harry Cannon, resident, spoke in objection to the application. Harry stated that he was speaking on behalf of a number of residents, and their view was that this was a good idea, but it was situated in the wrong place. Harry added that this would be a large industrial development located within local countryside on rising ground. As such, the proposals would be visible for miles around, including from farmland and paths which were used enormously by locals. Harry stated that the proposed development would be located next to listed buildings, and would breach a variety of planning policies and guidelines. Harry stated that one report categorised the views from paths as negligible or minor, which was not the case at all. Harry added that the development would be seen from as far away from Earley, Arborfield and Eversley. Harry concluded by stating that the assessment for alternative sites was incredibly weak, and these proposals would in fact damage the environment by placing an industrial site within the countryside which was valued by residents.
Richard Wearmouth, applicant, spoke in support of the application. Richard stated that this application was for the development of a solar park, and the proposed park was entirely suitable for a site of this scale, in part due to the 33kv powerline running underneath the site. Richard added that the WBC landscape officer had deemed the screening proposals to be appropriate, and the site would see a net ecological gain in the form of hedgerows, trees, and wildflowers. Richard stated that gates would be present to allow for animals such hedgehogs and badgers to pass through the site safely. Richard added that the proposals would improve drainage in the area, and the flood risk assessment had shown that the proposals would not pose any additional risk when it came to flooding. Natural England had concluded that there was only a limited use for the land, Richard added. Richard stated that the power lines would be located underneath the site, which was desirable for a site of this nature. Richard concluded by stating that this site would not be used indefinitely in the proposed way, and the applicant was not placing an application for an indefinite designation, and the site would be safely decommissioned at the end of the site’s lifespan.
Stuart Munro, Ward Member, spoke in objection to the application. Stuart stated that this was a rare occasion whereby he had received quite so many comments in opposition to an application. Stuart added that there was clear support for solar panels and solar farms within the Borough, however the question needed to be answered, could a site be positioned in a more suitable location. Stuart urged the Committee to consider residents’ concerns and submissions prior to making a decision.
Simon Weeks sought clarification regarding a number of points raised by speakers, namely whether the existing hedgerow was planned to be reinforced, whether the proposals could be viewed from miles around, and what animals would be present on the site. Mark Croucher, case officer, stated that there were plans to reinforce the existing hedgerows, and this would follow in detail should the application be approved. Mark stated that the western parcel of the site was flat and would be very well screened, and where the ground did rise to the east more distant views would be present, however the visual envelope would still be fairly well contained. Catherine Brimble, Landscape Architect, stated that most views would be contained very locally, with gaps mainly present, through vegetation, footpaths, and gates. Longer distance views could possibly be seen from the north, and middle distance views would be really restricted to existing vegetation. Regarding the animals present on the site, Mark Croucher stated that this would be primarily deer and sheep.
Gary Cowan was of the opinion that there was next to nothing presented which gave support to this application. Gary stated that it was very hard to make a judgement regarding the stated low grade land until a high resolution map from Natural England was provided. Gary added that there were no pictures showing the dimensions of the site as it stood. Gary stated that the site elevated considerably, which could lead to views from a long distance. The highest point of the site was approximately 65m to 70m, with the lowest point being 55m, which showed a considerable 10m to 15m rise across the site. Gary added that the vast majority of the land was good quality 3A as stated by Natural England, which should not be used for proposals such as this. In addition to the plethora of solar panels on site, Gary added that the proposals included hundreds of feet of buildings, some being up to 10 feet in height. Gary stated that planning policies stated that developments in the countryside should seek to protect and enhance the natural landscape, and significant development should only be delivered in areas of poor quality land. Gary was of the opinion that 3A land should be protected, and the proposed 8 foot fence would urbanise a rural location.
It was at this point of the meeting that Simon Weeks proposed the meeting be extended by a maximum of 30 minutes to 11pm. This was seconded by Rachelle Shepherd-DuBey and carried.
Stephen Conway recognised that this was a difficult recommendation to make for the case officer, as there were a variety of policies going in different directions. Stephen stated that there were a variety of national and local planning policies which suggested that there were problems with this site, including landscape harm and the quality of the agricultural land that would be used. Stephen stated that there appeared to be a lack of information regarding potential alternative sites, and why they were deemed to not be suitable. Stephen suggested that a deferral may be appropriate, in order to receive information regarding alternative sites and how they had been considered. Mark Croucher stated that one of the key benefits of this particular site was the 33kv power line running underneath the ground. Mark added that the climate emergency action plan would require seven solar farm sites of this site in order to achieve its objectives. With that in mind, Mark stated that some impacts were inevitable and other sites had other problems, and therefore there would always be an impact regardless of the location. Mark stated that the Natural England map was broad, and the soil tests were accurate at showing 58 percent of the land was of 3A grade, and 42 percent being 3B or 4 grade, being moderate or poor quality land. Mark added that there were two grades of land which were classified as better land for agricultural purpose than 3A grade.
Rachelle Shepherd-DuBey was of the opinion that the proposals were a good idea in a reasonable location, and would help Wokingham Borough Council (WBC) to achieve its climate emergency agenda.
Abdul Loyes queried how visible the site would be from the highway, and queried whether flooding was a major concern. Mark Croucher stated that cars may see a small view from the bypass. Mark Croucher stated that that the only change to the site’s surface would be the stands for the panels to be mounted on. In addition, extra SUDs would be provided.
Malcolm Richards stated that views would not be present from most nearby roads, and the Borough needed a variety of facilities of this scale. Malcolm was of the opinion that stating that the site should be placed somewhere else was not a valid reason for refusal.
Angus Ross was of the opinion that the proposed location was a totally inappropriate site, and grade 3A land should not be used for a solar farm, and therefore the application should be refused.
Chris Bowring stated that he would support a deferral of this application, as the Committee needed to know what the criteria were for site selection, such as profitability, proximity to the electrical grid, the sightlines, and the weighting applied to all of these considerations. Chris queried whether the Executive’s climate emergency declaration had any change on current planning policies. Justin Turvey, Operational Manager – Development Management, stated that the climate emergency declaration did not change planning policy. Justin commented that this site could potentially generate enough energy to accommodate for 5 percent of the Borough’s energy needs.
Pauline Jorgensen stated that she was not convinced that the site could potentially be viewed from miles around based on her experience at the site visit. Pauline queried whether the site would be protected in future from a developer stating that the site had been used in an industrial nature, and therefore wanting to place either an industrial site or housing on the land. Mark Croucher confirmed that the change of use would only be granted for 40 years, after which the use would revert to its current form.
Andrew Mickleburgh queried whether the site had no formal designation, and queried what criteria was used to select sites for renewable energy generation, as these were not allocated within the Local Plan. Mark Croucher stated that the site was deemed as essentially countryside land, rather than a formal designation. Mark stated that Local Plan policy CCO5 set out what would be required in terms of renewable energy. Any of the normal material considerations would be taken into account when looking at an application of this type.
Angus Ross proposed that the application be reduced, on the grounds that the land being used was of high quality agricultural land. This proposal was not seconded, and therefore fell.
Stephen Conway suggested that the application be deferred, to allow for further information to be gathered regarding the assessment and consideration of alternative sites, and why those sites were rejected in favour of the proposed site. Gary Cowan added that the returning information should include better maps and plans that included the profile of the site, rather than just the planned view.
The above suggestion was proposed by Angus Ross, and seconded by Chris Bowring.
RESOLVED That application number 200711 be deferred, to allow for further information to be gathered regarding the assessment and consideration of alternative sites, and why those sites were rejected in favour of the proposed site, and in addition include better maps and plans that included the profile of the site, rather than just the planned view.