Agenda item

Application No.211081 - Barkham Farms , Barkham, RG40 4EX

Recommendation: Conditional approval subject to legal agreement and subject to receipt of confirmation from the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government that they do not wish to call the application in for determination


Proposal: Full application for EIA development for the proposed installation of a new 52ha solar farm for a temporary period of 25 years including underground grid connection between site and Electricity Distribution Centre, laying of internal access road, the erection of substation building security fencing and associated landscaping with approximately 2.9ha of tree planting for carbon sequestration


Applicant: Wokingham Borough Council (WBC)


The Committee received and reviewed a report about this application, set out in agenda pages 71 to 174.


The Committee were advised that updates contained within the supplementary planning agenda included:


·           Amendments to conditions 2, 3, 6, 8, 15, 16, 18, 24, 25, and 28 to deal with minor errors or the timing of discharge requirements during the phasing of development;

·           A note that an additional neighbour objection had been received, however it did not raise any additional issues that had not already been considered and addressed within the report;

·           Correction to the fourth and fifth entries on the resident objectors list to read Windmill Farm Cottage;

·           Correction to the last point under the heading ‘Principle of Development’ to refer to the Local Plan Update rather than the Local Plan;

·           Clarification that the measurements contained within paragraph 1(c) and 1(d) were length by width by height.


Ian Williams, neighbour, spoke in objection to the application. Ian stated that the application was contrary to national planning policy as it did not avoid the use of best and most versatile land (BMV land), and noted that the applicant considered the benefits of this project to outweigh this harm. Ian was of the opinion that the applicant had ignored elements of national planning policy and guidance, and quoted the Secretary of State by commenting that any proposal for a solar farm on BMV land should only be approved by the most compelling of evidence. Ian was of the opinion that the fact that the grade 3A land was Council owned was not satisfactory justification as to why the development should be located there. Ian added that little had been done to demonstrate that other sites were not suitable, or that the carbon benefit could not be achieved in other ways. Ian felt that the existing farm could not function viably under the proposals, and no diversification was being proposed. Ian stated that whilst it has been suggested that there was a large supply of suitable farming land within the Borough, no survey had been undertaken, and the information provided did not distinguish between 3A and 3B land, and suggested that there was a lack of grade 2 land in the area. Ian added that no cumulative impact assessment regarding the impact of the proposed development and other permitted developments on the supply of BMV land had been undertaken. Relating to heritage, Ian stated intrusive archaeological surveys had not been undertaken which would leave Members unable to undertake the balancing act as set out within the NPPF. In relation to ecology, Ian stated that the assessment of protected species, in particular great crested newts, had not been carried out sufficiently to determine the size of the population present. Ian concluded by commenting that in his opinion there were a number of key information gaps within this application which would inhibit Members from making a balanced and informed decision, and added that WBC should be looking to set a good example as this was their own application.


Gregor Murray, on behalf of the applicant, spoke in support of the application. Gregor stated that for WBC to reach its climate emergency aims, difficult decisions and interventions would have to be made. The climate emergency action plan had committed to four solar farms within the Borough, and the proposed application was the first of the four sites to come forward. Gregor added that this site would produce 29.6 megawatts of power during peak times, whilst reducing just under one percent of the Borough’s total carbon impact per year. Gregor stated that approximately 11,000 trees would be planted as part of this development, with further landscaping, grassland enhancement and hedge way improvements taking place across the site. Gregor stated that there would be local labour opportunities as part of the construction phase of the proposals. Gregor added that extensive consultations had taken place including regarding accommodating the existing farmer. Amendments to the scheme had been implemented to lessen the impact on the heritage site, existing farmer, and the public right of way. Gregor concluded by stating that the development was not without its impact however the impact was temporary and reversible and had to be set against the positive effect on the declared climate emergency.


Chris Bowring queried whether the site was the only suitable site at the moment to develop a solar farm of this size, queried whether a survey had been undertaken related to the supply of grade 2 land, and sought clarification relating to the population size of great crested newts in the area. Simon Taylor, case officer, stated that this application was proposed to be the largest of the solar farm schemes and therefore this was the only suitable site that could accommodate an application of this size. Simon confirmed that a survey had not been undertaken relating to grade 2 land, however WBC owned most of the overall area and there was land in the immediate area being retained for agricultural use. Simon stated that the report had dealt with the issue of great crested newts, and ecology officers had looked at the proposals and found them to be acceptable, subject to further information by condition.


Rebecca Margetts stated that this was a very significant application which would have a severe impact on the landscape of the area. Rebecca added that this space felt like the last area of open green space between the Arborfield and Finchampstead areas. Rebecca noted that despite the impacts of the development, the proposals came with significant positive benefits in terms of addressing the climate emergency. Rebecca sought clarity regarding any potential road closures as a result of this scheme, and sought details regarding the lighting and CCTV proposals. Simon Taylor stated that the report outlined the landscape harm associated with the proposals, and added that whilst screening would be present it would not be totally screened. Simon stated that construction traffic had been a significant concern from residents, and the highways officer has had fairly detailed conversations with the applicant and were in principal supportive, however routing of the HGVs still needed to be agreed and it was to exclude Barkham Street from this routing and to avoid peak hours. The period for the construction and installation of the solar panels would take approximately 3 months, and each HGV would be capable of transporting approximately 1900 solar panels, which would result in fewer HGV movements each day. Barkham Road would be dug up progressively to link the site into the grid, however the road would not be closed. In relation to the lighting proposals, Simon stated that the lighting would be movement activated however the site would not be accessed at night time. Simon stated that there were no details regarding the numbers of CCTV cameras or their locations, however WBC would endeavour to minimise this across the site and place them sensitively.


Rebecca Margetts stated that her main concern was that works would be undertaken on the main route in and out of Finchampstead, where limited public transport provision was available and substantial roadworks were already taking place. Chris Easton, Head of Transport, Drainage and Compliance, stated that whilst this was beyond the scope of the application, roadworks were taking place in the area. Nothing could be done to the highway without street works coordination, and a substantial amount of work was being undertaken to clear the road network in the area up prior to development of the proposed site.


Stephen Conway commented that he was mindful that this application was required to go before the Secretary of State for consideration, and it was therefore in WBC’s own interest to address any underlying problems prior to this. Stephen raised concerns that three statutory consultees had objected to this application (Historic England, Berkshire Archaeology, and the Conservation and Heritage officer) and suggested that a deferral may be suitable to address the concerns of these consultees. Justin Turvey, Operational Manager – Development Management, stated that the application had changed significantly over time, and now five hectares of grade 2 farmland was proposed to return to the farmer. Justin added that the guidance relating to solar farms directed sites generating 50 kilowatt hours and above to use lower grade land, whereas this site would produce approximately 30 kilowatt hours at its peak and was therefore not subject to this guidance. Justin reiterated that the proposals were temporary and reversible, and the land could still potentially be grazed by sheep. Justin stated that Natural England did not object to the scheme and Berkshire Archaeology had some concerns however these had relatively easy solutions. Historic England and WBC’s own heritage and conservation officer had concerns, and officers had included suggested conditions within the agenda including increasing the boundary between the site and the heritage asset from 20m to 25m. Simon Taylor stated that the original application proposed more dense screening of the heritage asset, however this was opposed by consultees as whilst it would screen the asset it would not help with the setting as well as having archaeological implications.


Pauline Jorgensen commented that this was prime agricultural land and a number of statutory consultees had objected to the proposals. Pauline added that she hoped that the fence of the site would not be on the boundary of the monument, and added that the site was set in a beautiful location of countryside. Pauline sought assurances over landscaping details, fencing details, and details regarding condition 28. Simon Taylor stated that the fencing would be between 21m and 22m from the edge of the monument boundary. Simon stated that condition 28 acknowledged that assurances were required within 12 months relating to what would happen in order to restore the site in 25 years’ time, and if circumstances did change then this condition would be used as a mechanism to review and assess any potential future proposals. Justin Turvey added that anything not being applied for as part of this application would need a separate application, which would very likely be taken to the Committee.


Pauline Jorgensen queried whether permission to undertake the works on the road would not be given until there was a suitable alternative route out of Finchampstead. Chris Easton stated that the construction management plan conditions, including routing, would need to be secured prior to any construction works being carried out.


Rachelle Shepherd-DuBey queried why weight was being given regarding Historic England commenting relating to the loss of a view, when homeowners did not have a right to a view unless they owned it. Justin Turvey commented that officers were proposing an on-balance recommended approval notwithstanding of comments submitted.


Andrew Mickleburgh felt that it was important to have a very good application to present to the Secretary of State for consideration. Andrew queried whether there was any scope to relocate some of the solar panels to other parts of the site away from the heritage asset, queried whether additional mitigation measures suggested by Historic England could still be implemented, and queried whether a commitment could be made to explore the potential dual use (grazing) of the site. Simon Taylor stated that the extent of the proposed placement of the photovoltaic panels had been fairly maximised across the site, and as such there was not much potential to move them. Justin Turvey stated that Members needed to consider the scheme in front of them, which had been amended to take into account some of the concerns raised, for example by reducing the total required land from 48 hectares to 43 hectares. Justin added that an informative could be added to ask that the applicant speaks with the farmer regarding what could be done with the land in terms of grazing. Andrew Mickleburgh proposed this additional informative which was seconded by Chris Bowring, carried, and added to the list of informatives.


Andrew Mickleburgh queried whether any issues relating to glint or glare from solar panels on road users had been reported, and queried whether the greenway and footway would be fully accessible for pushchair or wheelchair users. Simon Taylor stated that a glint and glare assessment on road users had been included within the report, with the primary glint and glare occurring to the north of the site on Barkham Ride and that this was found to be acceptable. Simon stated that the greenway would be fully accessible and would be surfaced with permeable material.


Sam Akhtar commented that this application would take many hectares of prime farmland, and queried what mitigation other than tree planting would be included. Simon Taylor stated that the proposals were difficult to mitigate against, however the proposals were temporary and reversible. Simon added that it was feasible that the site could have a dual use, and the proposals were acceptable overall.


Gary Cowan was of the opinion that the application should be deferred until all issues had been resolved, for example determining whether any other suitable sites were available and ensuring that the farm would be viable in future, to allow for as robust a case as possible when the application was forwarded to the Secretary of State for consideration. Justin Turvey stated that the farm had an additional 18 hectares of land at Rooks Nest, in addition to the 5 hectares being proposed in this application.


Carl Doran commented that the view from the historic site formed part of the setting. Carl added that whilst the information relating to carbon reduction achieved through this site was correct within the planning application report, the figures were stated as higher within the WBC climate emergency action plan. Carl added that whilst he wished that this could be delayed to address concerns but that steps needed to be taken now to address the climate emergency. Carl queried whether animals roaming around the site could trigger the sensor lighting. Simon Taylor stated that the details of the lighting would be further reviewed, and his understanding was that the substation and the five transformer building were the only sites which would be lit and these areas would be fenced which would restrict animals entering these areas.


RESOLVED That application number 211081 be approved, subject to conditions and informatives as set out in agenda pages 75 to 87, amendments to conditions 2, 3, 6, 8, 15, 16, 18, 24, 25, and 28 as set out in the supplementary planning agenda, and additional informative relating to asking the applicant to work with the farm tenant regarding the possibility of dual use of the land for grazing purposes as resolved by the Committee.

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