Proposed Solar Farm at Penstruthal. PA15/06838
One of the largest turnouts of residents to a parish planning committee meeting of recent times took place in September when the council deliberated its response to the consultation on a solar farm proposed on a 17 acre site at Penstruthal. Because of the great interest in this matter we reproduce here some of our comments on the planning application. Cornwall Council’s Strategic Planning Committee is expected to give its decision in December.
Lanner Parish Council is unable to support this application for a Solar Farm and RECOMMENDS REFUSAL by Cornwall Council.
2. General Policy Matters
2.1. The government has, by statements and actions, critically reduced the importance of solar and on-shore renewables with the phased withdrawal of subsidy and Ministerial pronouncements that solar farms are “trashing the countryside” – and that from the Minister for the Environment in whose constituency this site sits. This shift in policy is a major factor with regard to the sustainability of the project and sustainability is the key test for permitting development. We are not questioning the NEED for renewable energy per se, but a particular form of delivery.
2.2. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) states that the planning system should contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment by protecting and enhancing valued landscape. The site sits on the edge of the World Heritage Site close to the historic Tresavean Trail and mine workings. It is also between two important designated Areas of Great Landscape Value being Carnmenellis and Carn Marth from which it is visible and the development would seriously detract from those valued environs.
The importance of this open landscape is embedded in the recent Refusal at Appeal for a wind turbine at nearby Lancarrow (APP/D0840/A/14/2217516 dated 02 December 2014) which said “Although this (an AGLV) is a local designation it nonetheless can be considered to be expressive of an area of valued landscape”.
The despoliation of the open upland landscape needs additional careful consideration in respect of a potential accumulation of both solar and wind turbine features within the vista. This is a very narrow part of the peninsula with both coasts visible from nearby vantage points and the integrity of the open rural landscape can be destroyed, and is being destroyed, over a substantial area.
2.3. The applicant’s Planning Design and Access Statement (PDA) suggests that the proposal accords with the NPPF’s aim to “support economic growth in rural areas”. We challenge such a statement. The construction process, including materials, will certainly create wealth but principally outside the local community if not the county. It will create relatively expensive energy to be fed into the National Grid and, again, will not help the local economy. Indeed, the document says “maintenance visits will be negligible” so it will not be generating local employment. Also, it is rather disingenuous to call this an agricultural diversification: it is a change of use of agricultural land to an industrial use.
The term “agricultural diversification” was coined to encourage and promote a farmer’s reliance on a single commodity for his income, particularly applicable to dairy farmers, and thereby maintaining social structures and the family farm. This project has nothing to do with that. It is not even a project to support an established agricultural business by reducing energy costs.
2.4. The PDA gives reference to a wide range of other sections within the NPPF as if to strengthen the argument for development here. In fact, these references tend to work the other way. Development should “add to the overall quality of the area, respond to local character and history and reflect the identity of local surroundings and materials”. The proposal fails to tick the box on all or any of these measures. Development should also avoid encouraging crime or the fear of crime: the theft of solar panels from ground installations has hit the headlines on several occasions this year and this site, with its variety of access and egress routes, could make it a relatively soft target and cause anxiety to neighbouring properties.
2.5. The Planning Practice Guidance makes it clear that the need for renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protection or the planning concerns of local communities. Protecting local amenity is an important consideration which should be given proper weight in planning decisions. In our opinion the adverse impacts of granting permission would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits.
3. Local Policy Matters and Consultation
3.1. The emerging Cornwall Local Plan is having a rough ride at present under Examination in Public. Lanner Parish Council is an active participant in the written and oral Hearings now underway. It is suggested that this emerging Plan be given only the most minor weighting, if any, at this time.
3.2. We have also considered the Cornwall Renewable Energy Supplementary Planning Document (SPD). This document stresses the need to avoid top quality agricultural land (Grades 1 – 3a) of which this site is one. It also calls for a whole package of mitigation measures the effectiveness of which, although the applicant seeks to apply them, will always be frustrated by the nature and location of the site – which we discuss later. The SPD also seeks to promote and prioritise renewables schemes which “either meet the needs of local communities and/or are led by local communities.” This proposal is to feed all generated energy into the National Grid: it does not therefore meet the needs of the local community. It is also commercially led versus community led. The proposed offer of “solar bonds” has more to do with raising funds for a rolling development programme than engaging the community in any participatory role, we suggest.
3.2. The Lanner Parish Plan was produced in 2010 following consultation with every household and business in the parish. It supports the principle of renewable energy and, particularly, “solar panels for heating”. By this, we mean panels provided to individual homes, commercial or community properties to generate energy for their own purposes. There is no inherent or implied favour towards solar farms.
3.3. Since the lodging of this application local opinion has been hostile towards it both from within Lanner, from the adjoining parish of Stithians and elsewhere.
3.4. This would seem a useful point to mention the applicant’s consultation process. The applicant states that only 31 people attended the two consultation events which they held and of these only 9 provided feedback forms. From such a low input, the resulting statistical claims and charts developed in the PDA seem extravagant. Notice of these consultation meetings was provided by the applicant through a third party. It is to be noted that people in the outlaying parts of the parish, particularly in the vicinity of the site, all state they received no notification of those consultations and many close to the site have received no direct contact from the applicant.
4.1. The PDA and other documents refer to a “formal Grid offer” being accepted by Western Power (the DNO). We have spoken to Western Power and have received confirmation that the phrase means that they have provided a cost at which they are prepared to connect the supply to the distribution network subject to planning, and any necessary easements and wayleaves. It does NOT mean that the National Grid will accept energy created from this installation. We have also visited Western Power’s website at which this definition has been reinforced.
4.2. It was reported in the Guardian on 10 May 2015 that the Grid is closed in Cornwall to renewables for at least 6 years as there is a lack of capacity by the DNO. The Design and Access Statement is dated only 11 days after that report: presumably it was written well before the 10th. In short, it appears that the application is at least premature since it is unlikely that the site can be operational before the expiry of any permission granted.
4.3. It has been reported that larger operators are still seeking sites with a view to “mothballing” them until such time as the Grid is capable of receiving more energy from renewables. We do not regard this as good planning practice from the community’s point of view.
4.4. The government has demonstrated that it does not wish to invest public money further in land-based wind or in solar renewables, seemingly more interested in fracking and possibly geothermal: an attitude heightened by the marked fall in the price of carbon energy coupled with its marriage to austerity policies. This proposal seems to have been affected or influenced by the virtual closure of FITs after January 2016 to schemes over 5MW (recalling the concept 12 months ago was for a much larger site), the removal of pre-accreditation and the removal of access to the renewable obligation scheme for those under 5MW in April 2016.
Should the rush to solar schemes by the industry to get on board with subsidy (which the PDA admits underpins economic sustainability) necessitate communities and planning authorities to join that rush and accept what would perhaps otherwise be questionable sites?
5. The Application Form
5.1. The form suggests no ROWs will be affected but Footpaths 10 and 12 will certainly be for the period of the works at least and Footpath 11 may be. The integrity of these footpaths would have to be present throughout the construction period and afterwards. The use of footpaths in Lanner is high and well valued by residents and visitors.
Maintaining the standard of footpaths within the parish was one of the leading priorities expressed through the Parish Plan process with 92% of respondents saying that they used them. It was pointed out in the Parish Plan survey that the parish council (through precept) met two –thirds of the cost of upkeep. Notwithstanding that this duty actually rests with Cornwall Council, 80% of respondents wanted the Parish Council to continue with this expenditure. This fully illustrates the value of the footpath network to the community and by extension the established and familiar environment through which they weave.
6. The Selection and Suitability of the Site
6.1. Addressing the overall suitability of the site, the access roads are narrow and tortuous. They are also being subject to increasing use at increasing speeds. This has arisen because of the advent of sat-nav which encourages the use of “short cuts” and the creation of “rat runs”. Of greater legitimacy, the proximity of extensive allotment gardens, boarding kennels and other commercial and quasi-commercial uses has added to traffic volume and frequency. The area is of regular and growing popularity for walkers, cyclists and horse riders for whom the construction process will be particularly disruptive and hazardous but the ongoing impact of the site will also create issues of safety and enjoyment of the countryside. Lanner Parish Council and its partners in the Mining Villages Regeneration Group and Community Network have been working hard over the past 15 years to promote the area generally for recreation and tourism through several joint community funded projects. Permitting this development would damage the aims of those initiatives.
6.2. To be clear, this application is in effect to change the use of land from agricultural to industrial. No one can foresee 30 years hence: it is a whole generation away. Certainly in most people’s understanding 30 years is not “temporary” and Planning Committee Members should avoid thinking that it is. This is not comparable in any way to a 3 or 5 year temporary permission for a caravan or mobile home.
6.3. The applicant’s Agricultural Land and Soil Resources Survey establishes that the land is Grade 3a – among the “best and most versatile of soils” – and that it is ideal for its present purpose of grass growing for livestock. That it is not well suited to growing wheat or potatoes is neither here nor there.
Livestock farming on the uplands with its associated small fields, stone hedges and reliance on environmentally sensitive management is the backbone of the Cornish landscape protecting and enhancing our heritage, biodiversity and the backdrop for our quality of life. It is also the core of our economy both in food production and in attracting tourists from across the world. Chipping away at this asset undermines our foundations.
Most of Cornwall is, in fact, Grade 3 land and it is clear that these fields have been well managed and are productive and in the top banding of Grade 3.
The last paragraph, the conclusion, of this Survey lets it down. It is hypothetical, subjective and says nothing about why renewable energy should take precedent over food production and the local environment.
6.4. The applicant stresses the view that farming can take place alongside solar arrays. There is practical evidence with sheep and poultry in this respect, both of which enjoy the security and shade of the panels. However, whilst there can be no doubt that this works in the short term there is insufficient evidence to be confident that it can continue over the medium to long term as the quality of the herbage and soil becomes affected by restricted sunlight, unpalatability, mineral leaching which cannot be replaced and poaching in patches. To illustrate the point, consider how tree canopies can affect grass growth and encourage weeds. The research has yet to be done on this. In addition, whilst the proposed 9ft high fencing of the site is well designed to keep humans out, it will need to be substantially redesigned to keep out foxes and badgers which would cause havoc to sheep and their lambs or free range hens and their eggs if farming activities are to be entertained.
6.5. The proposed development would seriously disrupt and damage natural ecologies and environments during and after construction. The idea that this type of development will provide net benefits to biodiversity and natural ecologies is difficult to accept. Wildlife corridors and feeding routes will be disrupted for a lengthy period and during winter months. Moreover, there is a wealth of environmental resources in the area for education and recreation purposes with greater flexibility of access and wider opportunities. This scheme will change and damage the immediate and wider environment for a generation: it is discourteous to dress it up as something it isn’t.
6.6. There is little that can be achieved by screening works without destroying or severely compromising the natural environment and ecology of the site and its place within the landscape. Similarly, the introduction of plantings which are not true to what is the natural biodiversity of the site will change the balance in species from the surrounding area. Of the intended 32 seeds within the proposed regrassing mitigation work only 11 are “native” and the mix is not one particularly suited to local acid soils. It is also notable that on Carn Marth on the opposite side of the valley work by University of Exeter has evidenced 109 different plant species indicating the true range of local biodiversity.
The proposed development is what it is: an intrusion into the open countryside. When the PDA says “The arrays have a lake-like appearance” it means they’re blue, shiny and reflective and this will be their effect.
6.7. Far too much of this Assessment and others presented are obviously “cut and paste” desktop “surveys” with little real regard for the site itself or its surroundings. The desktop work has a place in screening alternatives but is not specific evidence to be used for specific sites: its volume merely provides a distraction from what is real on the ground.
The protected Southern Marsh Orchid has been identified on the site (a plant which is threatened by loss of habitat) and barn owls are regularly seen patrolling the area. Late winter disturbance of their hunting grounds could prove fatal to them.
6.8. By no means least, the effect on the development upon neighbouring properties needs to be taken into account. The applicant quotes extensively from legal sources to establish that no one has a right to a view in planning. This is about so much more than “a view” however. There are residents living in the immediate vicinity who have been there for decades and have grown and aged within a valued and embracing environment. Now they are to be subject to three months or more complete disruption ending with the visual cross between an industrial estate and a prison compound for a neighbour. Their quality of life and the desirability of the area as a place to live will deteriorate. Members of the community living in the immediacy of this site require your support and protection.
7. Construction Works
7.1. There are various comments already made relating to the construction works but we would highlight some other particular points of concern. First of these is the traffic to and from the site. The route, apparently approved by Cornwall Highways, is particularly narrow from leaving the A393 for a distance of about half a mile. The ability for two HGV vehicles to pass on most stretches of this road is highly questionable and the given frequency of visits, together with the use of the road by other vehicles including lorries and tractors, will prove very disruptive. The option is left open to any or all of the 40 site workers to travel to the site by other routes no less tortuous or potentially disruptive. This is also an area well used by horse riders, cyclists and walkers (with or without dogs) and these users will be certainly inconvenienced and, at times, potentially at risk.
7.2. We understand that it is intended to lift and remove the top soil. It is feared that, given the proximity of bedrock to the surface, this will have an adverse effect on the agricultural land classification of the site.
7.3. There will be three generators running all night for three months during the construction period. This will make life in the area, and beyond, intolerable.
8.1. The Decommissioning Statement appears to give no detail on the restoration process for basements.
8.2. 30 years is a long time in the commercial world. Will Belectric’s covenant to decommission be backed by a cash bond? Failing this, the community or the freeholder’s estate could be left having to pick up a substantial cost.
We have seen remarkable collapses in previously Blue Chip concerns over the past 30 years. It is also noted that the company’s assets are to be pledged as security to private bond holders investing in future sites: careful structuring of the decommissioning guarantees is recommended to ensure sustainability (that is, future generations are not disadvantaged by present decisions).