Today was decision day. The culmination of nearly two years work; West Dorset District Council were finally going to decide whether to give planning permission for a 40ha area of over 100,000 solar panels to be constructed on a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
I had been preparing for a while, honing my 3 minute speech, practising for time (I think they turn off the microphone after 3 minutes exactly) honing, revising, adding in bits, taking others out. I was ready to say my piece, on behalf of Dorset Wildlife Trust.
We gathered outside the planning committee chamber in the new West Dorset District Council Offices. There was quite a large group sitting with the owner of British Solar Renewables (BSR), Angus McDonald, including Professor Ghillean Prance, who I discovered was to be speaking immediately before me, in favour of the application. Professor Prance was formerly Director General of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew; he and BSR’s ecological consultant John Feltwell are both trustees of the Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest Trust. Neither of them know much about British wildlife-rich grasslands. I didn’t see Feltwell in the group.
We were called in to the chamber and there was a really good turnout; hopefully plenty of members of the public had decided to attend to see that the planning process was carried out properly. As well as the applicants, Natural England were present to answer any questions from the planning committee members about the impact of the Solar Farm on the SSSI. Dorset Wildlife Trust and CPRE were also there.
Only 9 out of the 12 planning committee members actually turned up for the meeting, but the committee was quorate so the meeting went ahead. I would have thought if you were a member of a planning committee making decisions that affect people’s lives, as well as things like the future of nationally important wildlife sites, you really should turn up to the meetings. I am sure they all had good excuses though.
The meeting began and the chair asked the committee members to confirm that they had not been lobbied by anyone with an interest in the application, and that they had not already made their mind up before the meeting (predermination). Anyone who had given an affirmative answer to either of these questions, would have had to withdraw from the decision making process, but no-one did.
The Planning Officer in charge of the case then explained that two days ago, he had received a report from the applicants. In that report, BSR had provided an update on the monitoring programme they had started earlier in the year. I have already explained why this monitoring programme is meaningless in an earlier post. Nevertheless, based on a bit more data, the applicant apparently sought to claim that they now had proof that the solar panels with windows would do no harm to the SSSI. I say apparently because I have not seen the report. Neither has anyone else, except BSR, the planning officer, oh and the members of the planning committee. For when the Planning Officer asked them whether they had received and read the report, several of them waved it in the air to confirm they had it. BSR (or someone on their behalf) had sent, by post, to each member of the planning committee, a report introducing new information about the application.
At this point the Planning Officer explained that, if the Councillors took a decision on the application, taking this new evidence into account, they would be in direct contravention of Regulation 22 of the EIA (Town and Country Planning Act) Regulations. This states that any additional information provided by an applicant has to be publicised such that all interested parties are able to read and comment on it before the application is determined. When asked how long it might be before the application is reconsidered, the planning officer indicated it would be January at the earliest. Despite being told that it would be illegal to consider the application in light of this, 2 planning committee members still voted against deferring the decision. Now whether these 2 were keen to see the planning application thrown out at this point, or not, is unknown. Let’s hope so.
At this point most of the audience trudged out of the meeting. Angus McDonald BSR’s owner was seen to have his head in his hands as if wondering, “oh my god what have we done?” For in order to qualify for the solar subsidy the solar farm will have to be up and running, generating electricity on March 31st next year. This seems much less likely now.
But the whole thing is so ridiculous, because there is an alternative site, just across the road from Rampisham, with no biodiversity interest, where BSR really could create some “biodiversity gain”, and be far more likely to get their planning permission. Natural Engand has already indicated that, assuming conditions are met, this would be an acceptable site for a solar farm.
Let’s hope BSR finally see sense, withdraw the Rampisham Down application, and apply for planning permission on this alternative site.
The whole affair also reminded me that our European environment directives are useful in surprising ways. If it hadn’t been for the EIA Directive’s publicity requirements, developers could sneak in controversial and unchallenged evidence at the last minute, to influence planning committee members, without allowing objectors any chance to challenge it. The Government is working to increase the threshold at which EIA can apply, to 5 ha, from 0.5ha, for developments of urban housing and industrial estates. But they would like to increase the urban development threshold to 30ha! This would exclude practically every urban development site in the country, from the requirements of the EIA Directive and transposing Regulations, including the requirement of developers to not slip in last minute unchallenged evidence.