A solar development company has taken the unusual step of going public on a planning authority’s apparent choice of decision makers for its application to develop a site in rural Dorset.
Elected councillors on the county’s planning authority, and not its planning officers, should take the final decision on a proposed 11.8 MWp PV park in the Frome Valley, an area of outstanding natural beauty, says developer Enviromena.
If permitted, Cruxton Farm on 40 acres south of Maiden Newton – see image -, could on completion provide clean power to over 4,800 homes every year, and offset a claimed 3,000 tonnes of carbon, according to its backers.
Officers in the county’s planning department have, after amendments by the company, indicated they’ll reject the project, citing loss of visual amenity in the plot’s area of outstanding natural beauty.
According to its application on the county’s planning portal, the latest version of Cruxton Farm remains out to consultation until 11 September.
Now the developer’s CEO Cabell Fisher has gone public with a demand that the county’s elected lay councillors, and not planning officers, should reach a final decision on the venture.
Enviromena’s unusual step in seeking publicity comes amid reports that PV farm applications across Britain are facing their highest levels of rejection from planning authorities for six years.
Planning consultants Turley released research last week, counting 23 projects across Britain which failed to secure permission in the 18 months to July. In contrast, only four solar farms were rejected in all of the four years up to 2020, the firm reported.
During hustings for the Tory leadership last month, front-runner Liz Truss, Britain’s likely prime minister next week, described solar farms in British fields as ‘paraphenalia’. She expressed her desire that they proliferate no further, and alleged they take space from crop cultivation. Trade body SolarEnergyUK issued a swift rebuttal to the foreign secretary’s claim.
Truss’ sound-bite to representatives of her party, many of them country-dwellers, appears to contradict the government’s energy security strategy, unveiled in April. It set out a goal for 70GW of solar technology to be generating by 2035.
Enviromena’s boss Fisher objects that, in his view, rejections of Cruxton Farm have all emanated from the same Dorset planning officer, whom he names publicly.
He asks that instead, elected lay members of the county’s planning committee should decide the latest version of his firm’s proposal.
In March 2021, the council ruled that Cruxton Farm merited a separate environmental impact assessment.
In late February this year, says Fisher, the same planning officer informed Enviromena that her final report would recommend Cruxton Farm’s rejection, on grounds of visual impact and of not meeting the threshold for development in an area of outstanding natural beauty.
In his statement, Fisher says Enviromena has been at pains to accommodate other parties’ further concerns.
“The company has made a significant investment in both management time and capital over the last twelve months to ensure the site is acceptable to all stakeholders, including National Highways, the local community, and Maiden Newton Parish Council, who are all supportive of the application and the benefits it would bring to the area and local community”, Fisher’s statement asserts.
”And yet the official’s recommendation to refuse remains the same”.
Fisher describes the planning officer’s current decisive role as a “scandal”. Elected lay members of Dorset’s planning committee should instead take the final decision on Cruxton Farm, he argues, in the firm’s release to media.
“With economic forecasts suggesting the UK will be in a recession by the end of this year, the Cruxton Farm project can support local jobs and businesses during its expected construction phase from April to July of 2023”, Fisher argues.
“Enviromena’s stated philosophy is to always strive to leave the communities we touch in better condition than when we arrive. A key part of that mission involves supporting the local businesses and areas around our projects”.
After the consultation closes on 11 September, Dorset’s western and southern area planning committee is scheduled to meet next on 10 October. Its twelve elected members include four Conservatives, three LibDems, a Green, and one Labour councillor.
Reading-based Enviromena claims the largest installed capacity of grid-connected PV projects in the Middle East and North Africa with over 43 MWp across 36 projects in six countries, and an additional 28MWp currently under construction in Egypt, Jordan and Morocco.
Enviromena Power Systems UK is a member of Solar Energy UK, the national lobbying body formerly known as the Solar Trade Association. A spokesperson commented:
“Solar Energy UK is aware of over 200 successful planning applications for solar farms since 2021 alone. These total 6.5 gigawatts, adding to current installed capacity of around 9.8GW, two thirds of all solar power in operation nationally”.
The spokesperson added: “The solar industry is concerned about the misleading impression given by reports indicating that refusals are rising. The vast majority of planning applications for solar farms are being approved, recognising how popular they are with the public – even members of the Conservative Party – , as a recent YouGov poll proved.”