Given the government’s acknowledgement of a climate emergency, planning policy supports the development of more renewable energy sources. As a High Court case concerning a proposed very large solar energy farm showed, however, the location of such facilities is often a source of intense local controversy.
The proposal was for the installation of about 100,000 solar panels on 85 hectares of agricultural land, together with security fencing, CCTV cameras, a battery storage facility, transformer stations and other infrastructure. The predominantly rural site was on the edge of a village and of archaeological interest. Within the setting of several listed buildings, it was close to a conservation area.
After receiving more than 680 objections to the proposal, the local authority refused planning permission. It said, amongst other things, that the scale of the development would have an adverse impact on the landscape character and visual amenity of the area and would be harmful to the local historic environment.
The would-be developer, however, successfully appealed against that decision to a planning inspector, who granted planning consent. Citing the climate emergency and the government’s target of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050, he found that the development would make a material contribution to the decarbonisation of energy production and would not conflict with the objectives of relevant local and national planning policies when taken as a whole.
The inspector found that the area surrounding the site was of medium landscape value. Controversially from the point of view of objectors, however, he ruled that it was not a ‘valued landscape’ within the meaning of the National Planning Policy Framework. Visual impact – which he assessed as medium or slight – would decrease over time and could be mitigated.
Challenging that outcome, a campaign group comprising 450 local residents made numerous criticisms of the procedure followed by the inspector and his interpretation of planning policies. It argued, amongst other things, that he was wrong to treat certain late revisions to the proposal as only minor. He was also said to have erred in failing to consider alternative locations for the development.
In dismissing those and other complaints, however, the Court detected no material error of law or procedure in the inspector’s approach. He had acknowledged the strong feelings expressed by objectors regarding the esteem in which the local landscape was held. He was not, however, obliged to rehearse every argument and was entitled to conclude that the site did not form part of a valued landscape.