Rampisham Down SSSI (c) Miles King
While we wait to hear whether Brandon Lewis will decide to call in the planning permission granted by Medway District Council for the new town on Lodge Hill, another District Council planning committee, this time in West Dorset, has decided to approve the development of a Solar Farm on one of the largest areas of wildlife-rich acid grassland in England. You may recall I have written on a number of occasions about Rampisham Down and the tale of the Solar Farm development – here, here and here, for example. The site was well known as a County Wildlife Site, but proposals to develop it as a solar farm, provided the evidence that it was SSSI quality and Natural England duly notified it.
British Solar Renewables, the developers, have argued that their new solar panels with windows in them, will mean enough light can pass through the panels so there will be no impact on the grassland communities underneath. They even employed some ecological consultants to do some experiments to look at whether there were any changes. After as many as six months monitoring, they decided there was no change and the panel windows worked. Natural England were entirely unconvinced and said so in their objection letter.
Today British Solar Renewables made their case to the West Dorset District Council planning committee. Professor Ghillean Prance, former director of Kew Gardens, was their star witness. He explained that he had written hundreds of papers and many books and therefore when he said that the site was “degraded, impacted habitat” I expect he thought the Councillors would feel he must be right. He explained that the shading experiments were terribly valuable and have a significance “far beyond Rampisham”. He explained that the translucent panels greatly reduced any effect on the vegetation, and even this little effect could be mitigated through grazing by sheep.
Prance suggested that Dorset Wildlife Trust had a “less credible understanding of the environment”, than himself presumably, and he went on to explain that there were “no botanical species of great concern” at Rampisham and repeated that the site was “highly impacted.” He reassured the councillors that the solar farm would actually improve the nature value of the site, that in any case only 50% of the site would be affected, and that BSR were “doing all they can for the environment.”
Then there were several speeches supporting the development from local councillors. They thought anything would be better than the transmitting station with its enormous masts, which had dominated the landscape of that part of West Dorset for 70 years. One councillor suggested that the site could not be unimproved grassland because she knew that part of it had been sprayed with herbicide, and another part fertilised. And she’s right, parts of the site show evidence of agricultural improvement, but large areas of the site are unimproved.
She also suggested that without the solar farm, the site would “go to scrub”. Now there’s nothing to put the fear of god into people than raising the spectre of Scrub is there? It’s like invoking some sort of vegetal demon. Of course, since the site is SSSI, it’s unlikely to go to scrub, unlike the bad old days, because Natural England has powers to enforce management, under the CROW act. Natural England did point out this fact, in vain.
Many councillors and others repeated that because it was a brownfield site, it should therefore be developed. The planning officer for the case, repeatedly reminded the councillors that the NPPF was very clear, that the presumption in favour of development on brownfield sites did not apply if they were SSSIs, to no avail. Natural England have rightly argued that most of the site is not brownfield, but semi-natural grassland. This has fallen on deaf ears.
One Councillor said that Rampisham Down became a brownfield site when it had been converted into a radio transmitting station in 1939. He also described how it was a brownfield site in 2 ways now, because the lack of sheep grazing last year had caused the down to turn brown, on account of the “brown from all the seedheads”. I assume this was meant to be a joke. No-one laughed. He also complained about Natural England (or English Nature, several Councillors still thought EN was around) saying “it was a bit rich of NE to come here now – what were they doing before that – they weren’t bothered”, as if there was some sort of statute of limitations, which prevented Natural England from notifying sites too late in a planning process. There isn’t. Another Councillor complained about Natural England “turning up at the last minute to notify the site – why so late?”
NE notified the site because the applicants own ecologists collected data which showed how important the site was.
Many of the Councillors felt that creation of renewable energy was the most important thing about the solar farm at Rampisham Down – one planning committee member said that as she was a great supporter of renewable energy and as “45% of the site would be left where we will have this unique acid grassland”, the sum total of the two would be “significant environmental benefits.”
So, despite Natural England’s evidence and despite a very comprehensive assessment of the planning situation from the West Dorset Planning Officer, the planning committee unanimously approved the application. The Planning Officer explained to the planning committee that there is a 21 day deadline for Natural England and others to apply for the planning permission to be called-in by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles. This is what needs to happen now.
If you think all this sounds familiar – that is because it bears some similarities with the situation at Lodge Hill in Kent. Both are formerly defence infrastructure sites, both support large areas of unimproved grassland; both were notified as SSSI under threat from development; and both have had planning applications approved which would result in the destruction of a large part of each site. The difference is that Lodge Hill has Nightingales on it – Rampisham was notified for its flowers.