Henley Hall solar farm on Ludlow outskirts thrown out by planning committee – we got this right

Update: 14 August 2015

The formal reason for refusal of the scheme has now been published:

The proposal constitutes large scale industrial development and is inappropriate in terms of location, fails to protect and enhance the natural and historic environment and the character and high quality of the local countryside and setting of Ludlow, and would have an adverse impact on leisure and tourism. The renewable energy benefits of the proposal are significantly and demonstrably outweighed by the adverse impacts and as such would be contrary to Core Strategy Policies CS5, CS6, CS13, CS16 and CS17 and paragraphs 14, 17, 28 and 109, of the National Planning Policy Framework.

Main Article: 11 August 2015

The application from Kronos Solar to build a solar farm off Squirrel at Little Ledwyche was today rejected by Shropshire Council’s South Planning Committee by a majority vote after a short debate.

Planning meetings begin with formalities, including disclosure of pecuniary interests. If a member has such an interest, for example, a financial stake in a project, they can’t take part in the debate and vote on it. They must leave the room for that agenda item.

It is the custom for committee members to state any other interests or conflicts. Richard Huffer declared that he is the councillor for the solar farm site and would speak and leave the table during the subsequent debate. Cecelia Motley explained she knew the landowner but had not discussed this application with the owner and had no conflicts. It is essential we do this to ensure that we do not face any accusations of being biased in favour or against an application.

I used this opportunity to explain that I had been contacted by Alexander Arcache of Kronos Solar who emailed to ask if I could advise on how to get this application the South Planning Committee. I was really angry about this. It is not my task to help any developer get through the planning committee. If I was ever to do so, I would lose my right to vote. I felt the very fact I received this email was in danger of compromising me. I did not respond.

I had also been rung (twice) by a PR agent engaged by Kronos. The second time, he threatened that we would lose a planning appeal if we turned this scheme down and the council would have to pay costs. I told him I did not want to continue the call. When he continued I terminated the call.

Most members of the committee had been lobbied by this PR company. All were annoyed by this approach. We are used to lobbying. We get huge numbers of emails and letters. But this was beyond the pale.

I made it clear that I have been no way influenced by this lobbying, either for or against this scheme. People know that I am stickler for planning rules. I listen carefully to arguments whoever is making them. But I decide on how to vote on planning grounds.

As we got into the debate, a local resident, and representatives from Bitterley and Ludford councils spoke. Alexander Arcache of Kronos presented a clear and passionate case. He answered questions with clarity and dignity.

Richard Huffer spoke as the local councillor making clear the universal opposition to this scheme, not just from residents, but also Bitterley, Cayman, Ludford and Ludlow councils. He said that this was not farm diversification and the tenant farmer will actually lose land that is profitable for him because the soil is good.

I led the main debate which was shorter than I expected, even though I personally spoke at length. I would not normally propose acceptance or rejection of an application without hearing views around the table. But the reasons for rejecting this application are crystal clear and I wanted to be able to specify them in detail.

I am never sure whether the audience, around forty people for this agenda item, can follow the technicalities when we do this – but it is always a mistake to underestimate the knowledge of objectors. I won’t explain the technical arguments on this post.

I talked of soils, that the land is productive. It fails to meet the best and most versatile test but local policies protect good soil. There is always a good crop here. Why else has it been cropped every year in living memory rather than used for sheep grazing?

I gave a travelogue of a journey from the top of the Titterstone Clee to High Vinnals, pointing out where there were substantial views on this site that can never be screened by trees. This conflicts with key planning policies that protect the views from heritage features like Caynham Camp, Ludlow St Laurence’s and Whitcliffe Common.

I made technical arguments about what developments are allowed in the countryside and how god views and walking are protected under local policies. My reading is that industrialisation is out. And I said that this scheme would damage tourism.

Then the debate was remarkably short. No one had spoken in favour of the development, including the three that eventually voted for it. I was a bit surprised at that.

I had proposed rejection and gave the technical grounds for doing so. Cecelia Motley seconded. There were six votes for rejection and three to oppose rejection.

Now we go to appeal.

I passed Alexander Arcache as the customary comfort break took place. He was not happy. I have shook hands with a lot of developers and their agents after planning meetings, whichever way the decision went. We are both doing a job and we respect that we each work hard on what we do. Regrettably Alexander just walked past in a thunder. I quipped: “See you at the appeal”. He snapped: “Yes. And the council will pay costs when we win.”

I am totally convinced that we have made the right decision on this occasion. Of course, this will go to appeal. Most appeals are dealt with by an exchange of letters – written representations as it is called. If there is a hearing or a public inquiry, where we face the planning inspector in person, I’ll be there.

We got this right today. This scheme would have caused serious damage to our precious countryside and tourism industry. This is a victory for good planning and for Ludlow.