Recommendation: Conditional approval subject to legal agreement
Carl Doran did not participate in discussions or vote on the application, having not been present at the previous Committee meeting where the item had been previously discussed.
This application was considered first during the meeting.
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 received and reviewed a report about this application as set out in agenda pages 5 to 74 of the Supplementary Agenda.
Harry Cannon, resident, spoke in objection the application. He commented that with regards to alternative sites, he heard that the Council was giving notice to tenant farmers to vacate land for the purposes of using it for solar. This suggested that Bartletts Farm was not the only site available. Harry Cannon stated that additional drawings and information provided did not show an elevation from the north, which would be 50ft tall and difficult to screen. He felt that this would have a negative visual impact.
Richard Wearmouth, Applicant, spoke in support of the application. He commented that their Landscape Architect and the Council’s Landscape Officer had agreed that the application had no unacceptable impacts. Once existing screening by vegetation and topography was considered, views from the surrounding area, were limited. There would be additional buffer zones, new hedgerows, trees, and planting. With regards to land quality, Natural England as a statutory consultee, had not raised any concerns. The landowner had reported low crop yields despite the application of lime and fertiliser. During the life of the solar farm the land would not be lost, and the quality of the land would be improved as more intensive agricultural practices were temporarily moved away from and regenerative farming practices were introduced. He reminded Members that the land would eventually return to its current use. Richard Wearmouth asked that the application be considered on its own merits. A Site Alternative Assessment had been provided in the application, which had set out the applicant’s systematic approach to site identification. Richard Wearmouth added that solar parks needed to be able to connect to the Grid, to be accessible from the road network and for a landowner to be willing to accommodate it on their land. This site met these requirements. The site was free from National and Policy designations and Rights of Way, had an onsite Grid connection and had been made available by the landowner for use.
Stuart Munro, adjoining Ward Member spoke in objection to the application. He commented that the solar farm at Sheepbridge Court had been in place for six years and that the hedging provided, provided insufficient screening.
Gary Cowan questioned whether the site was the most appropriate location. He commented that it was one of the first times the Council had dealt with an application of that size and that it was a learning curve for Members and Officers. He noted that other Councils, such as Renfrewshire, had professional standards, and that the Council did not appear to have these. Mark Croucher responded that the Council did have a policy regarding renewal energy provision, CCA5, which the application accorded with. He went on to highlight a solar farm application which had been granted at Committee stage in 2014.
Gary Cowan expressed concern around the lack of drawings or photos of potential before and after, and site elevations and on-site vertical structures. Mark Croucher commented that Members had been on a site visit to visualise how it may look, and that the applicant had submitted further information to assist. A Landscape Visual Impact Assessment had been submitted by the applicant. Catherine Brimble, Landscape Officer, believed whilst there would be some limited harm, it would not be unacceptable.
Gary Cowan commented that BRE provided guidance on the development of large-scale ground mounted solar and PV systems. He asked whether this guidance had been followed. The preference was for land used to be either 3B, 4 or 5, which was not the case in this application. Mark Croucher indicated that Officers had looked at Planning Practice guidance in detail.
Gary Cowan queried the potential impact of glare from the solar panels. He expressed concern regarding the fact that the Aviation Authority had not been consulted given the proximity of Heathrow Airports, Blackbushe and Farnborough Airports. Mark Croucher indicated that the site was not within an aerodrome safeguarding zone and therefore there was no requirement to consult.
Gary Cowan commented that the Ministry of Housing, Communication and Local Government policies on light pollution and low carbon energy 2015 stated that Councils should develop a renewable and low carbon energy policy. However, this had not been the case.
In response to a question from Andrew Mickleburgh regarding alternative sites, Mark Croucher commented that the applicant had provided significant information as to how the site had been selected. There were several factors to be considered such as land quality, willingness of the landowner and access to the Grid. Twenty landowners had been contacted and only two had responded. Officers felt that the application accorded with the Development Plan and should be approved on its own merits.
Andrew Mickleburgh queried the height of the solar panels. He questioned whether the hedgerows would be able to ensure full screening from all distant locations, and if not, how many locations would be able to easily see the panels. Mark Croucher confirmed that the panels would 2.43m. With regards to visibility, Catherine Brimble stated that the Landscape and Visual Impact Assessment submitted with the application was very thorough. From long distance and medium distance views, there would not be views of the site because of the topography surrounding the site and the vegetation cover.
Andrew Mickleburgh queried whether all statutory consultees had responded and at what stage in the process had residents of Farley Hill been informed of the public consultation. Simon Weeks stated that 89 letters of objection had been received, which suggested that the application had been known about. Mark Croucher commented that the statutory consultees had all been consulted but he was unsure as to whether they had all responded. With regards to the public consultation there was only the obligation to consult the immediate properties. However, a second round of wider consultation had been carried out. Residents would have had approximately five months in which to submit a consultation response.
Andrew Mickleburgh asked about the restoration of the land to its existing condition after 40 years, and examples of this being done elsewhere to prove that it was possible. Mark Croucher stated that solar energy was relatively new so there were few examples of decommissioning
In response to a question from Rachelle Shepherd-Dubey, Mark Croucher confirmed that having a view was not a right of ownership.
Stephen Conway commented that he and many other Members had voted in favour of the Climate Emergency Action Plan, but that he was unsure whether the proposed site was suitable and sustainable. He still had concerns regarding the harm to the landscape and felt that renewable energy sources should not damage the landscape.
Abdul Loyes asked whether 33KvA was the highest capacity and was informed that it was the minimum that could be tapped into.
Angus Ross commented that he still regretted the loss of agricultural land.
Gary Cowan proposed that the application be refused on the grounds of inadequate plans and drawings. This proposal was not supported.
RESOLVED: That application 200711 be approved subject to prior completion of a legal agreement pursuant to section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (as amended) to secure an Employment Skills Plan, and conditions and informatives as set in pages 3 to 8 of the Supplementary Agenda.