The Long Grass (c) Miles King
Today West Dorset District Council informed various people (including myself) that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (CLG), the Right Hon Eric Pickles, has directed West Dorset District Council “not to grant planning permission” for the Solar Factory at Rampisham Down SSSI “without specific authorisation.” This means that nothing can happen at Rampisham until Mr Pickles decides whether to call-in the planning permission for a Public Inquiry. Here’s the letter.
What is particularly interesting is the speed with which CLG have acted – they sent their decision last Friday. Also of note is the speed with which West Dorset have publicised the announcement.
CLG have not waited until the end of the three week “cooling off period” following the permission being granted on a SSSI, before acting. We do not know yet whether Natural England has written to CLG asking for the permission to be called in, although to my mind it would be inconceivable that they would not make this request, bearing in mind the strength of their objections to the planning application.
Similarly the Dorset Wildlife Trust, RSPB, Butterfly Conservation and presumably many other NGOs will still be preparing their submissions, so CLG will not have acted in response to their submissions. It is of course fantastic that, at the time CLG were writing to West Dorset District Council, 4000 people had already written to Mr Pickles asking for him to call in the permission. And though I am sure he is a champion of community engagement in planning, I still doubt that these swayed their decision to act so quickly.
I suspect the real reason why CLG acted so quickly was to avoid more embarrassing publicity around the weaknesses in the planning system and particularly the enthusiasm with which Two planning committees have ignored expert advice and approved developments on SSSI. Having been through what must have been a very bruising period last Autumn with a high profile campaign to get CLG to consider calling in the Lodge Hill planning permission, Pickles et al will have wanted to avoid a re-run, and decided to kick the Rampisham decision quickly and firmly into the long grass.
As to West Dorset – I can only assume the officers were keen to get the information out there locally, as a damage limitation exercise. To have a planning permission crunched so quickly and so unceremoniously from on high will be very embarrassing for West Dorset (a staunchly Tory council and home to Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Letwin) and I imagine the Planning Committee member Councillors will now be getting quite nervous about the implications of their actions.
It seems inconceivable that CLG will decide whether to call in this planning permission or not, before the General Election. In which case the decision may be made by a different Secretary of State, even a different Government.
Anyone reading this who hasn’t signed up to the E-action at the Wildlife Trust website – please do sign up. Even though the holding direction has been issued, we still need as many names as possible to have written. So far, it’s up to 6287 – let’s try and get to 8000 before the deadline on Friday.