It’s been a very long day. Shropshire Council’s South Planning Committee met at 2pm this afternoon and finished deliberations just before 7pm this evening. With two solar farms, a riding school for the disabled and clutch of controversial housing schemes up for decision, it was always going to be a long meeting. Around 150 people came to witness the marathon. They were so numerous, they had to come in and out of the committee room in shifts.
The biggest contingents of supporters and protesters were for the solar farms at Acton Scott and Whitton. We’d visited both in the morning. Both schemes were later rejected to huge applause (tut, tut, no clapping at planning meetings please!). But the most difficult decision was the application for a riding school for the disabled at Bradley Farm, outside Much Wenlock.
During the solar farm debates no one at the committee spoke against the need for renewable energy and most spoke in favour. We were also keen on the community benefits that come with these schemes and the biodiversity improvement plans.
The proposed 6.5MW solar farm Acton Scott is on poor quality agricultural land and partly screened by trees. It has an excellent biodiversity scheme attached, based on the first class Building Research Establishment guidelines. But it lies within the area of outstanding natural beauty and the AONB has the highest level of landscape protection in Shropshire. We were reluctant to breach that. We also established that there were many viewpoints from which the solar panels, ancillary buildings and fencing would be visible. Despite officers recommending that the scheme be approved, we turned it down on grounds of damage to the countryside and a breach of planning rules protecting AONBs.
At the Whitton 8.6MW solar farm site, we were met by around 30 protesters from Save South Shropshire Countryside, as well as the promoters of the scheme. Another contingent from the protest group stood on a nearby footpath, which made it easy for us to see how close it ran to the site. In the committee meeting, we established that the lush pasture on the site was Grade 3a agricultural land – land that is considered the “most flexible, productive and efficient in response to inputs and which can best deliver food and non-food crops for future generations.” That counted against the proposal, as did its adjacency to the AONB. The biodiversity improvement plan for the solar farm was good, but not as good as at Acton Scott. After legal argument by the applicant, we were not allowed to take into account any community benefits the scheme would bring. Those would have counted in favour of the scheme, so I am puzzled why the argument was made. We identified that the site would be clearly visible from a number of points nearby and from as distant a location as Climbing Jack Common in the Mortimer Forest. We rejected the scheme against officers’ recommendations because of the damage it would cause to the countryside and landscape, and the loss of important agricultural land.
The Bradley Farm scheme was far more difficult for us. This project for the Perry riding and driving group is wonderful. We were all agreed on that. It’s not an ideal location in terms of landscape, archaeology and the Shropshire Way, but we decided we could live with that for a scheme that could achieve so much for disabled people. The difficulty was access to the site along a very narrow lane. Despite an improved junction with the A4169 and new passing places along the road to Bradley Farm, we were not convinced that the road could cope safely. The Jack Mytton Way also passes along the same stretch of narrow lane. Even though the town council and a lot of local people have objected to this scheme, as a committee we said we are minded to approve it. But we want some further work on the plans to try to resolve the highways issues. We hope to see improvements at the next meeting in November and at that point approve this scheme.
We rejected two housing schemes at Bishop’s Castle because they were not included in the SAMDev local plan and because traffic issues had not been resolved to our satisfaction. Critical in the decision on the Lavender Bank site was Shropshire Council’s own statement in SAMDev (document EV81-S2). This said: “The stage 2b assessment shows that the landscape sensitivity is medium to high and that the site has no capacity for housing.” SAMDev also asks, is this a realistic site? The answer is “No. The site is sensitive in landscape terms and has no capacity for housing.”
We also threw out an office conversion to housing and offices in King Street, Much Wenlock because it was over-development and damaging to the conservation area. An excessive extension to a house in Broseley was rejected because it damaged the conservation area and would lead to the loss of two trees. All these decisions were against officers’ recommendations. We did approve a small house extension in Cleobury Mortimer on officers’ advice.
This was a challenging meeting, but South Planning is a committee that works well and largely by consensus. There are no party politics involved. The members share common values of protecting our landscapes and townscapes, while recognising the need to build the right houses in the right place and to support jobs. That doesn’t mean we always agree, but where we can we seem to instinctively work towards a consensus.
Planning is sometimes rather dull. When it’s not, and it wasn’t today, we committee members can’t and don’t play to the gallery of supporters or protesters. We have to make decisions that are defensible under planning law, rules and guidance. And we have to defend our decisions.
As the meeting closed, we were told that an application we had turned down a couple of months ago at Oldbury outside Bridgnorth was going to a planning appeal. I volunteered, as did a fellow councillor, to appear at the public hearing to defend our committee’s view that the scheme damages the conservation area.
Planning committee is hard work. This one took me three-and-a-half days to prepare, visit sites and go the committee. But this is all worthwhile if we get the right planning decisions for our county.