Few south planning meetings are easy. The meeting of the Southern Planning Committee on 27 September was at times difficult. At times it was an extraordinary meeting.
Two solar farms were on the agenda, both in Ludlow’s hinterland. One application was rejected because it was on good quality farming land. The other was deferred after a debate about whether the best quality land could be avoided if the solar farm was be redesigned.
This week, the new environment secretary, Ranil Jayawardena is reported to be aiming to exclude more agricultural land from being used for solar farms. The extension of the best and most versatile categorisation to 3b would effectively ban solar farms from around 58% of agricultural land. Ministerial talk does not however constitute planning policy and will not affect current applications.
Should we use our fields to produce energy or to produce food? It is one the great debates of our time.
The Ledwyche solar farm was rejected on the grounds that it was on good quality agricultural land. The battle between production of food and energy is one we are likely to encounter many times in the next few years.
The discussion on the proposed solar farm at Brick House Farm, Greete was more complex and far from satisfactory. A decision on the application was deferred until a later meeting. I think it should have been rejected.
Ledwyche solar farm
The meeting was told that Shropshire Council Climate Change Task Force has written in support of the application. That is not the case. The Task Force had written about the climate issue and concluded that it “recognises” that the scheme would contribute 12MW towards the approximate total of 5,000MW required to make the county self-sufficient in renewable energy. Fair enough but that is not an expression of support.
This was not the only misleading information the meeting was to receive.
The meeting was told that the electricity grid in Shropshire is heavily constrained and the opportunity to obtain a connection to supply power to the grid limited. Ledwyche is one of the few locations that meet all the applicant’s criteria. But the fact that we have a lot of interest for solar farms east and south east of Ludlow shows that not to be the case.
The applicant and planning officers talked down the agricultural quality of the land, which is classified as 3a, saying wetness meant the site meant was difficult to farm and freeing up this land would allow other land on the estate to be farmed more efficiently. And the land use is reversible. If solar farms eventually use 05.% of UK land space, that will only be half that used by golf courses. Solar farms would not significantly affect national levels of food production.
And there lay the nub of the matter. The local development plan (Core Strategy and SAMDev) is between eight and 13 years old. It is hugely out of date and a replacement is currently being examined by planning inspectors. Both Bitterley Parish Council and CPRE have pointed out the policy vacuum and have suggested that a decision should not be made until a local policy framework is in place. As I told the meeting, we do not have that luxury and we are obliged to make decisions under existing policies.
Committee members were told objections are not strong enough to overturn paragraph 158 of the NPPF which indicates that applications that accord with development policies should be supported.
The committee took a different view saying that it is on best and most versatile land and will have an impact on views from the AONB and nearby rights of way, conflicting with NPPF 174b, CS6 and DP26 in the emerging local plan. Eight councillors voted for rejection and six against.
I am sure this application will go to appeal.
Greete solar farm (Brick House Farm)
The discussion on the Greete solar farm was more difficult, not least because of comments made by one Greete resident. The resident should not have been allowed to proceed once the theme of the presentation became known. I objected after the meeting to the council’s chief monitoring officer. The video of the meeting was removed from the council website while the resident’s presentation edited out. The video was republished last Thursday (hence this late write up of the meeting).
Councillor Richard Huffer, himself a farmer, said the ground at Greete is in good heart: “Don’t tell me this is poor land”. He said there was resentment about the loss of land for food production among farmers locally. “There is no way I can give any quarter to this application.”
The debate, like that for Ledwyche concentrated on the quality of the soil. Councillor Claire Wilde leapt in immediately, before debate, to say the application should be deferred to see if the best quality land could be taken out of the application. It was clear that many members, including Wilde, had not seen the map included the application which showed the quality of the soil. An officer walked around showing the map on his laptop. That is the first time that has happened in my eight years as a councillor and is frankly rubbish when it comes to decision making. If the committee had approved the application, it would have been in the high court fighting a judicial review.
There was some not well informed discussion, in which officers and councillors suggested that farmers automatically farm land to the lowest grade. That is not the case with modern technology and farming practices. Claire Wilde again said the application should be deferred for a revised application that avoided best and most versatile land. This was seconded within seconds by David Evans the committee chair.
The vote was again split with eight votes for deferral and three against.
As I complete this post, I see that the Greete application has been revised and is coming back to next Tuesday’s planning meeting. I’ll write on that once the full details are published.