We councillors take different line to Shropshire Council in objection to Henley Hall solar farm appeal

Update 26 February 2016

The planning inspectorate has appointed Philip Major as inspector for the appeal.

Update 21 February 2016

On the day, our submission to the planning appeal was accepted (see below), Kronos Solar lodged a hasty code of conduct complaint against me for publishing a letter from its director Alexander Arcache. The letter had asked if I would help him get the application through South Planning Committee. It goes without saying that I am not going to advise or help any developer on an application where I have a vote. The complaint was rejected but I accept that I should have sent the letter to Shropshire Council for publication on the planning portal.

Main article 1 February 2016

There will be a lot of Ludlow people in Craven Arms on 5 April. We’ll be at the Gateway for the appeal hearing into Shropshire Council’s refusal of an application for a 5MW solar farm at Henley Hall on Squirrel Lane. The four of us unitary councillors for Ludlow and Clee will be there, along with residents from the area.

We’ll be facing Kronos Solar, the applicant, which is determined to get this scheme approved. Kronos, based in Munich, has at times taken an unusual approach to this application. Members of the South Planning Committee were rung by a lobbyist acting on behalf of Kronos, who pressed the case for the scheme so hard I put the phone down on him. Alexander Arcache, the managing director, emailed me asking if I could advise him on how to get the application through the South Planning Committee. Of course, I declined. I also declared and read out the email at the planning committee meeting.

That’s not the only usual aspect of this application. It is common practice in Shropshire Council, and as far as I know most other councils, that when a planning application is declined against officers advice, councillors take the lead in the appeal. We thought that would happen in this case.

At the last minute, Shropshire Council put in a statement of case for the council without the involvement of local or planning committee councillors. I was pretty annoyed with that. The council has every right to do this but it is discourteous at best to keep councillors in the dark. It also meant that we councillors were technically out of time to submit our own view.

I explained the sequence of events to the planning inspectorate. I am grateful to the inspectorate for allowing the four of us to submit a late statement of case. It differs in many respects from the council’s submission. We place more emphasis on soils and views, as did the South Planning Committee. We also make the case that this is not a farm diversification project. It is industrial development in the countryside.

All of this will make for a very interesting public inquiry in April. The council will be opposing the solar farm application. So will us councillors. But we will be using different arguments. We are even disagreeing over the details of the South Planning Committee decision.

I cannot think of a precedent for this. I do not think it is good for the reputation of Shropshire Council. But it is our job as councillors for the Ludlow and Clee area to do our best for the local community. That includes fighting this intrusive solar farm.

Henley Hall solar farm: appeal submission from the unitary councillors for Ludlow and Clee

Planning inspectorate reference: APP/L3245/W/15/3132946

Shropshire Council reference: 15/02332/REF

This site is also known as: To the west of Squirrel Lane, Ledwyche, Shropshire.

1. Who we are

1.1. This submission is on behalf of the four Shropshire councillors for Ludlow and Clee: Councillors Andy Boddington (Ludlow North), Vivienne Parry (Ludlow South), Tracey Huffer (Ludlow East) and Richard Huffer (Clee). We collectively represent the area overseen by the Ludlow and Clee Local Joint Committee on Shropshire Council. The proposed solar farm lies in Richard’s electoral division and the other three of us represent divisions adjacent to the site.

1.2. Councillors Andy Boddington and Richard Huffer are members of Shropshire Council’s South Planning Committee. Richard Huffer spoke against the proposal at the South Planning Committee of 11 August 2015 but did not vote in line with the council’s constitution. Andy Boddington proposed the motion to reject this application, which was carried by nine votes to two.

2. The committee reason for refusal

2.1. 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.

3. Landscape and amenity (CS16, MD12)

3.1. This site lies in a plain overlooked by rolling hills. We know this landscape intimately. We also checked specific viewpoints prior to the South Planning Committee meeting.

3.2. Our hills are popular with walkers. One of the attractions of the South Shropshire hills is that viewpoints come into view, are obscured and are then viewed again from a different level and angle. This makes for very attractive walking. Hikers, ramblers and casual walkers stop to admire these views. They are drawn here by the lack of industrialisation in our landscape, its beauty and its tranquility.

3.3. The application site is visible from the top of the Titterstone Clee, which rises to a height of 450 metres. This is six kilometres away. The site will look small from this location but will be noticed because the Titterstone Cee is a vantage point at which walkers stand for long periods identifying details in the landscape.

3.4. The Shropshire Way, our county’s principle footpath, descends from the Titterstone Clee to at Knowbury. Just above the parish church, there is a fine viewpoint towards Ludlow and the application site is clearly visible. This is at a height of 200m and 3.5km from the proposed solar farm.

3.5. Descending across farmed fields on the Shropshire Way, the site is not visible, save for an occasional glimpse, until reaching Caynham hillfort, a scheduled monument.[1] Here the application site is not visible from the Shropshire Way itself, which passes through trees. It is clearly visible from the outer bailey on the west side of the hillfort, a popular area for walkers and picnickers to pause. This vantage point is just 0.8km from the proposed solar farm.

3.6. We now walk into Ludlow town. St Laurence’s Church, often called the cathedral of the Marches, has a fine tower that is ascended by 3,000 people a year. The site application site is clearly visible at a distance of 2.7km.

3.7. Ludlow’s most important viewpoints are from Whitcliffe Common, a conservation area, managed by volunteers. Over many years, vistas towards the historic town have been opened up through the wooded landscape of the common. The application site will be very visible from the common. Whitcliffe lies at the same height (OD) as the proposed solar farm and is 3.2km away.

3.8. Leaving the Shropshire Way, we ascend though the Mortimer Forest, which lies to the south west of Ludlow and the application site. The proposed solar farm is clearly visible from Climbing Jack Common and High Vinnalls, which lies 250 metres above Henley Hall and is 6.7km away.

3.9. The application site is visible from housing in Sheet Village and in the Bakers Close area of Ludlow, as well as housing east of Rocks Green.

3.10. It is difficult to think of a site that would be more visible from key locations around Ludlow than this one.

3.11. Our landscape is central to the sustainability of Ludlow’s tourism and visitor economy. The many small B&B and tourism businesses in and around the town rely on landscape-based tourism. CS16, bullet 5, requires that emphasis will be placed on:

Promoting and preserving the distinctive historic, heritage brand and values of Shrewsbury, the Market Towns and rural areas.

This application is alien and discordant to our locality. It will damage the historic and heritage brand of Ludlow and its hinterland. This is contrary to CS16.

3.12. The application is also contrary to SAMDev MD12, which seeks to protect visual amenity and landscape character and local distinctiveness. MD12 says that developments:

Will only be permitted if it can be clearly demonstrated that:

  1. a) there is no satisfactory alternative means of avoiding such impacts through re-design or by re-locating on an alternative site and;
  2. b) the social or economic benefits of the proposal outweigh the harm to the asset.

3.13. Our analysis is that there are no local social benefits and there are considerable economic disbenefits to this scheme. There is no reason for this development here other than cheap land, a willing landowner and access to the grid.

4. Heritage (NPPF131, CS6, CS17)

4.1. The application conflicts with national and local policies to protect the settings of historic and conservation assets.

4.2. NPPF131 requires that:

In determining planning applications, local planning authorities should take account of… the desirability of new development making a positive contribution to local character and distinctiveness.

4.3. CS6 requires that the council ensures that all development:

Protects, restores, conserves and enhances the natural, built and historic environment and is appropriate in scale, density, pattern and design taking into account the local context and character, and those features which contribute to local character.

CS17 requires that:

All development:

Protects and enhances the diversity, high quality and local character of Shropshire’s natural, built and historic environment, and does not adversely affect the visual, ecological, geological, heritage or recreational values and functions of these assets, their immediate surroundings or their connecting corridors;

Contributes to local distinctiveness, having regard to the quality of Shropshire’s environment, including landscape, biodiversity and heritage assets.

4.4. Protecting and enhancing heritage assets is therefore at the core of national and Shropshire’s planning policies. It is well established though the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, court rulings such as Barnwell Manor, the NPPF (128,129) and Historic England guidance (Planning Note 3) that setting can make a major contribution to the significance of heritage assets and conservation areas.

4.5. This application, by way of its industrial character, makes a notable impact on the settings of the settings of:

  • Caynham Camp, a scheduled ancient monument
  • St Laurence’s Church, Ludlow, Grade I listed
  • Whitcliffe Common, which lies in the Ludlow conservation area.

The harm is to these assets less than substantial but is nevertheless of importance.

4.6. SAMDev S10 states: “All development should protect, conserve and enhance the setting and significance of the historic core of the town.” The setting of the historic core, including of St Laurence’s, the Cathedral of the Marches, extends to viewpoints from its magnificent tower. This application will damage that setting.

4.7. The application does not have an impact on the setting of Henley Hall, which has become isolated from its landscape context. In contrast, Caynham Camp, St Laurence’s and Whitcliffe Common are embedded in their landscape context.

5. Economic development and farm diversification (CS5)

5.1. This application is in clear conflict with CS5, which restricts the type of development allowed in Shropshire’s countryside.

5.2. We do not regard this as a farm diversification project. The Henley Hall estate has been broken up by a succession of sales and is not a single farm anymore. The application land is tenant farmed. If this appeal is allowed, the tenant farmer will have to take on land elsewhere to continue economic operation. This application is therefore not supporting farming through diversification but undermining an existing farming business.

5.3. Policy CS5 allows for “small-scale new economic development diversifying the rural economy, including farm diversification schemes.” Setting aside the issue of whether this a small-scale economic development, we make the case that this is not farm diversification. The proposal is to build on farmland for the profit of landowners and an energy company, not to sustain a local farming business. As we have said above, this proposal will actually damage a local farming business.

5.4. Policy CS5 allows for:

Agricultural/horticultural/forestry/mineral related development, although proposals for large scale new development will be required to demonstrate that there are no unacceptable adverse environmental impacts.

This development is not related to agriculture, horticulture, forestry or minerals. For the business interests of the promotors, the development could as easily be located on a business park in Telford, or on the roofs of an industrial estate, with the exception that these sites are not economically viable for solar arrays. The chosen location for this application is a greenfield site outside Ludlow simply because the agricultural land is cheap. We would not allow a housing development of this scale at this location.

5.5. CS13, bullet 9, emphasises that economic development in the countryside “must accord with Policy CS5”.

6. Agricultural land quality (CS6)

6.1. This application breaches policy CS6, which seeks to protect high quality agricultural land.

6.2. CS6 states that planning in Shropshire should aim to “safeguard natural resources including high quality agricultural land.” The core strategy, which predates the NPPF, does not define high quality agricultural land. The best and most versatile definition of agricultural soils has long been in existence. The lack of any reference to specific soil grades in CS6 demonstrates the policy refers to soil quality in general terms, not the specific best and most versatile definition in NPPF112.

6.3. This site had been has been cropped almost every year for the last three decades or more. This shows that the site is without doubt economically viable and sustainable for arable farming over the longer term. The site is therefore high quality agricultural land, even if it fails to make the 3A grade based on the soil samples taken by the applicant.

6.4. This policy distinction was recognised by the South Planning Committee. It decided to use policy CS6 as one of the grounds to reject rejection the application, stating the proposal conflicts with bullet point 4 (protects, restores, conserves and enhances the natural, built and historic environment) and bullet point 7:

Makes the most effective use of land and safeguards natural resources including high quality agricultural land, geology, minerals, air, soil and water.

The committee clearly stated that the proposal damages high quality agricultural land.

6.5. As councillors, we concur with that decision and believe the case is made that this proposal conflicts with the duty in CS6 to protect quality agricultural land.

6.6. The applicants, and the council in its committee paper supporting the scheme, say that the site will continue in agricultural use. Our argument is that sheep grazing is not making the “most effective use” of agricultural land as required by CS6 bullet 7.

7. The ‘transitory’ nature of the scheme

7.1. In determining an appeal for a 22-hectare solar farm near Tunbridge Wells last December, secretary of state Greg Clark dismissed the suggestion that a development set to last 25 years was for a “limited period”. He said: “The Secretary of State takes the view that 25 years is a considerable period of time and the reversibility of the proposal is not a matter he has taken into account in his consideration of whether the scheme should go ahead.”[2]

7.2. We agree with the secretary of state on this principle. A development of this alien and discordant character will have a significant impact on our local landscape for a long period. It cannot reasonably be considered a temporary feature.

Councillors Andy Boddington, Tracey Huffer, Richard Huffer and Viv Parry.

January 2016.

Notes

[1]. The Shropshire Way was extensively rerouted in the south of the county by Shropshire Council several years ago. Caynham Camp is the closest it now gets to the application site. The Ordnance Survey still gives the old route of the footpath.

[2]. APP/M2270/A/14/2226557.