As the election draws closer, I thought it would be worth looking at the politics and politicians of Rampisham Down and who supports the development of a Solar Farm on one of Britain’s most important nature sites. There are some surprises, but you’ll have to read to the end to find out.
While Westminster Politics may seem a long way away and one small vote in West Dorset has very little influence, the same is not true of local councils. Here, a Councillor can regularly be elected with a majority of a hundred or less, so every vote really does count.
District Council Elections
All West Dorset District Councillors are up for election this year, including members of the planning committee, so you can vote for who you want to represent you, both as Councillors, and as members of the Planning Committee, who make decisions like the Rampisham Down decision. Of course we don’t know who will end up on the Planning Committee after May, as some Councillors who get re-elected might not want to join that particular committee.
We know one planning committee member will not be there after May – Tony Frost, the only independent Councillor on the planning committee, was elected unopposed ie appointed in 2011. His ward has now been abolished and as far as I can see he is not standing anywhere else. Regular readers will recall it was Frost who wittily remarked, at the planning committee meeting, that Rampisham was a brownfield site, on account of the brown vegetation there. It was a Tumbleweed moment.
There were eight Tory Councillors on the planning committee:
Chair of the committee was Ian Gardner, voted in by Chickerell Ward (a 3 councillor ward). Ex-MoD, he started his political life as a Tory Councillor, but was then voted in as a Libdem councillor in 1997, before moving back to the Tories. Chickerell returned 3 Tories, his majority was 341. Gardner claimed he had abstained from the Rampisham vote, but I was there and he didn’t.
John Russell was voted in for the Burton Bradstock ward (covering Burton Bradstock, Chilcombe, Puncknowle, Shipton Gorge and Swyre). He’s a retired chartered surveyor, and won with a majority of 208 over the LibDems.
Tom Bartlett represents Chesil Bank (covering Abbotsbury, Fleet, Kingston Russell, Langton Herring, Littlebredy, Litton Cheney, Long Bredy, Portesham). He is a farmer and beat the Libdems by 115 votes.
Dominic Elliott is one of two councillors representing Sherborne East, and he has retired from the RAF and has declared that he is a Freemason. His majority was 242 over the LibDems.
Margaret Lawrence represents Yetminster ward. (covering Chetnole, Ryme Intrinseca, Stockwood and Yetminster) She lives at Trill Farm Thornford, so I assume she is a farmer. She had a majority of 141 over the Libdem.
Frances Kathleen McKenzie is one of three Councillors representing Bridport South and Bothenhampton ward. She also had been a LibDem Councillor for many years but left them in 2011 complaining “they no longer appears to stand for Social Justice or caring about the underdog“. Presumably that’s why she joined the Tories, the party well known for caring about those things.
Jacquie Sewell represents Broadwindsor ward (covering Broadwindsor, Burstock, Pilsdon, Seaborough and Stoke Abbott). She has a furniture shop, is involved with Beaminster & villages local area partnership and Broadwindsor and district community enterprise limited. She beat the LibDem by 369 votes. At the planning committee Sewell was particularly enthusiastic about the Solar Farm and dismissive of the nature value at Rampisham. She said that 25 years of Solar Farm was a “good use” of the site and “what harm” would be caused?
George Symonds is one of two Councillors for Lyme Regis ward. He’s an amusment arcade owner in Lyme Regis and member of the Showman’s Guild. His majority was just 76.
The LibDems had three Councillors on the planning committee.
Stella Jones is one of two Dorchester East ward councillors and she’s the WDDC Lib Dem leader. She is a retired teacher and her husband is also a County Councillor. Jones stated at the planning committee that she is “a great supporter of renewable energy” and said that because “45% of the site will be left where we will have this unique acid grassland” this would create “significant environmental benefits”.
The idea of creating significant environmental benefits by destroying over half of a nationally important nature baffles me, but then I’m no politician.
The LibDems walked into the Councillor seats in Dorchester East in 2011, Jones won by 1046 to 478 votes.
Robin Potter is one of the two Dorchester South ward councillors. He is a school governor and a retired teacher. He had a 437 majority in 2011.
Potter joined a West Dorset Local Plan working group on Renewable Energy, as did Tory Councillor Jacquie Sewell. One of the issues this working group explored was this:
There is a conflict between the delivery of renewable energy and the protection of environmental assets, such as areas of ecological importance and areas designated on the basis of their landscape beauty.
The working group concluded that the Local Plan should “not mention which environmental assets should be protected. The group feels that current planning restrictions on renewable energy schemes are too severe, preventing the delivery of renewable energy within West Dorset and Weymouth, and that policy on other issues will be sufficient in protecting the environment.”
However they came up with a solution: “the renewable energy policy should aim to protect the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Renewable energy can be delivered without compromising the landscape qualities of the Dorset AONB by encouraging the development of small community energy schemes and installing solar panels on large scale agricultural buildings, where the landscape impacts are likely to be less severe.”
Two members of the planning committee clearly stated their enthusiasm for solar energy, but not in the AONB. And then both voted in favour of a large industrial solar development in the AONB. Perhaps more worryingly neither mentioned their involvement in the development of this policy when they were asked to declare any conflicts of interest at the Planning Committee.
Robin Legg represents Bradford Abbas ward. (covering Beer Hackett, Bradford Abbas, Clifton Maybank and Thornford). Legg is also South Somerset District Council Solicitor, so of all the people on the planning committee he should know about planning law, as it is part of his job. Legg had a majority of 117 over the Tories in 2011.
Legg also took his own Council to appeal over a development which he was applying for planning permission (to his own planning committee, the decision from which he absented himself). The Council had approved his planning permission but made it a condition that he had to pay a contribution towards affordable housing. They calculated that contribution based on a draft policy from the Local Plan, because West Dorset have so far not had a Local Plan approved. Legg argued the contribution was excessive and that the draft policy had no legal weight. The Council were waiting for the Local Plan to be approved, so he appealed on grounds that the council had failed to determine the application in the legal time period. The Planning Inspector upheld his appeal, but criticised Legg for withdrawing his offer to make a voluntary contribution towards affordable housing. The development had met with stiff opposition from the residents of Bradford Abbas.
It’s ironic to say the least that a Councillor was able to avoid making any affordable housing contribution from his own development, because the policies that should have been in place to require that contribution were not active. And the reason they were not active is because the Council had been delayed in getting its Local Plan in place. Of course I’m not suggesting that Legg played any part in delaying the Local Plan, but he undoubtedly benefitted from it.
The other Councillor who played such a key role in the Rampisham decision is Councillor Jill Haynes, who represents Maiden Newton ward. She has taken it upon herself, to be the local champion for the solar farm development. Haynes works as a field studies tutor at a local Field Studies centre. I assume she doesn’t teach anything about nature. Yet Haynes claimed expertise on the nature at Rampisham when she spoke at the planning committee: she argued that because a tiny area of the site had been fertilised, it meant the nature value of the entire site had been removed: “even if the species are there, they are not particularly of national importance“. She stated that for the acid grassland community U4 Rampisham was a “transitional site” (she did not explain from what it transited or to where it was transiting) and dismissed Rampisham as a “man-made landscape“. History is not her strong point either, since all of Britain’s landscapes are “man-made”.
Haynes, who sits on Toller Porcorum Parish Council, specifically asked that the decision at Rampisham should be made by the planning committee and not by the Planning Officers. Had it been left to the Officers, I am sure it would not have been approved. Haynes is a District and County Councillor, with a 316 majority over the LibDems in 2011.
It’s also worth noting that Julian Brooks of British Solar Renewables/Community Heat and Power worked at South Somerset District Council as Rural Regeneration Officer, alongside Robin Legg. Brooks also stood as a LibDem Councillor for Chard Town Council in 2011. Brooks gave oral evidence to the planning committee meeting on Rampisham, where he stated that Rampisham was a “brownfield blot” whereas the 50ha of solar panels would create a “sliver of blue-grey” in the landscape. Brooks presented himself to the planning committee as a member of the public, and not representing the developers, which I found extraordinary and deeply troubling. I took this up with the COuncil but they didn’t seem too bothered. Perhaps it happens all the time.
Brooks and Legg worked with Keith Wheaton-Green, who is South Somerset District Council climate change officer and is also an enthusiastic proponent of Solar at Rampisham. Wheaton-Green is also a renewable energy consultant and is press officer for North Dorset Green Party.He sits on the Dorset Community Sustainable Energy Group alongside Giles Frampton from British Solar Renewables. Wheaton-Green commented on Peter Marren’s Rampisham Blog thus:
“Peter’s explanation of the situation is excellent. The solar farm would generate the equivalent in a year to more than one quarter of all West Dorset households so this would be a very significant renewable electricity generating station. The vegetation is a plagio-climax (so not as nature intended) that – as Peter pointed out – does not excite the majority of the population. And in any case it will be largely preserved. I believe the threats of climate change to be so urgent that we need to move to 100% renewables ASAP. The calls from nature conservationists to have this application called in and for local democracy to be thwarted does nature conservation a great diservice.”
So that’s the local politicans. But what about the General Election? Where do the various candidates stand on Rampisham? I have met Oliver Letwin and discussed the issue with him, as have many others. As a minister, he was unwilling to give his view on whether Rampisham was the right place to build a solar farm, particularly as we were in the middle of a “quasi-judicial process” (the call-in procedure) being conducted by one of his colleagues at the time. Now he is no longer a minister or an MP, just another candidate for the West Dorset constituency, perhaps he will say what he thinks. He does oppose a local wind farm proposal on landscape grounds, so it would be hypocritical of him to support an industrial scale solar farm right on top of the AONB. We shall see.
I wondered whether the Green Party would be prepared to help oppose the Rampisham proposals and contacted South West Green MEP Molly Scott Cato. Her Dorset replied in surprisingly ambigous tones, saying it was a local matter for the local party to decide themselves. So I pointed out to her the Green Party’s own policies:
According to their own policies, the Green Party is in favour of “a limited
deployment of solar farms.” (EN 214).
The Green Party’s position on protecting the environment, as you might expect, is strong.
In policy NR303 the objective is “To minimise damage, including the
reduction of genetic and ecological diversity, caused to the natural
environment by extracting or growing natural resources for industrial use.”
And in CY400(c) the policy is to “Legislate to stop further destruction of
wildlife habitats, the soil, the landscape, ancient monuments and our
Policy CY501 is quite strong “The Wildlife and Countryside Act
1981 and related legislation will be consolidated and strengthened to remove
loopholes and weaknesses that allow further destruction of wildlife and
habitats. The Green Party will ensure that wildlife-rich sites are adequately
protected and extend a basic level of habitat protection to the whole
countryside. We will ensure that there are sufficient resources to enforce the
In terms of planning, policy CY542 states “The Green Party will strengthen
planning controls for large-scale or damaging land-use changes in the
countryside, in particular, large-scale farm buildings, new and improvement
works by drainage bodies and water authorities, clearances of woodland, works
affecting woodland and large-scale afforestation.”
From these policies I concluded that The Green Party is much more concerned
about protecting wildlife habitats and species, than about encouraging large
scale ground-mounted Solar Farms.
So imagine my surprise when I asked local Green Party candidate Peter Barton, of his view on Rampisham: