Council’s own planning polices should have ruled out solar scheme from the start… and saved £32k on expert reports!

“I thank – from behind tears of joy – everyone who has helped in this campaign…” Michael Moor Chair, The Friends of Hastings Country Park.

Officially the borough council’s decision to abandon its plans to site solar panels on Hastings Country Park and Nature Reserve was down to a ‘review’ being carried out by the council’s new leadership team but in truth it might have had a little more to do with a letter the council received at the beginning of this month from Natural England (NE) that told them the plans for a solar farm broke all their own planning policies.

Findings by Natural England (NE) effectively support the message that Michael Moor, Chair of Friends of Hastings Country Park, sent to Hastings Borough Council (HBC) last June when he told them their plans were ‘breathtakingly inconsistent’ and ‘reckless’. 

But it has taken almost a year and more than £32,000 for the council to reach the same conclusion.

How Hastings Borough Council spent £32,445 of your money on a scheme everyone told them was fundamentally flawed…

Public Power Solutions (PPS)

Liaison with UK Power Networks to obtain budget quote £1,250

Site visits and report £3,900

DAS studies procurement, analysis and DAS application £4,500

Total to PPS £9,650

DAS Studies

Landscape and Visual Impact Assessment – Harper Landscape Architecture £8,850

Ecology – Urban Edge £3,950

Heritage – Archaeology South East £6,245

Agriculture Land Assessment – Soli Environmental Services £3,640

DAS Studies total £22,685

Application fee for Discretionary Advice Service with Natural England £110

Total costs£32,445

Councillor Rob Lee who heads the Conservative opposition group on HBC and who has ben consistently opposed to the scheme said yesterday: “It’s staggering that the Labour administration thought that it was appropriate to spend this amount of money on a unpopular pet project that was never going to happen, while at the same time bemoaning the amount of funding they get from government. 

“This is a slap in the face to the people that this Labour run council made redundant this year due to their poor financial planning.”

“…if the council had bothered to refer to it’s own planning policies it could have come to it’s own conclusions…” Julia Hilton, Hastings Green Party.

HBC announced on Tuesday evening that plans for the ten acre solar farm on the country park were being scrapped. When the idea was first raised at the start of 2019 there was an immediate backlash not just from Friends of the Country Park but from the Green Party, opposition councillors, the then MP Amber Rudd and the public in general.

Hastings Country Park and Nature Reserve is designated as an Area of Natural Beauty and parts of it, some of those close to the proposed site of the solar panels, are also designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Both classifications should make it especially difficult to obtain planning permission for any kind of development on the land.

We must fight for the preservation of this precious asset… We owe that to future generations.” Andrew Mier, Rother councillor.

It was a letter sent to HBC on May 1st by NE by Natural England that finally scuppered the project saying: “Given the sites’ location within the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), my letter provides some general advice on development within the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), followed by specific advice in relation to the landscape/visual impacts and ecological considerations of the proposals at each location.

“National policy affords the highest level of protection to AONBs, and this is reinforced by policies your local plan and the Management plan for the High Weald AONB. 

“This is a slap in the face to the people that this Labour run council made redundant this year due to their poor financial planning.” Rob Lee, HBC.

“National planning policy provides clear guidance on major developments in AONBs, and it is the decision of your authority whether a proposal would constitute major development. National planning policy framework (NPPF) paragraph 172 refers to the considerations that should be applied where major development is proposed in a designated landscape. This includes the requirement for consideration of alternative locations outside of the designated landscape. 

“I advise that the decision to take forward any proposals for solar development in a designated landscape is guided by national and local policy in the first instance. Overarching policy and guidance on development in designated landscapes should be considered first, before examining the specifics for individual sites. 

On a fact finding mission last November to find out more about the proposed sites.

“I agree that development of ground mounted solar arrays would result in significant landscape and visual impacts at both sites, some of which are major adverse.

“Given the nature of solar development, mitigation is very difficult, particularly for landscape impacts. Mitigation of visual impacts is also challenging where there are open and/or close range views of the site.

“The landscape character of a site is important in its own right and valued for its intrinsic qualities whether the site is visible or not.”

Read the full letter from Natural England here

https://www.hastings.gov.uk/content/regeneration/pdfs/HBC_Solar_Arrays_DAS_Report_Redacted.pdf

Michael Moor said this week: “Over the past 16 months The Friends of Hastings Country Park has presented the case for protecting the Country Park from this industrial scale development.

“Finally, the Council has come to the conclusion that the project is neither financially feasible nor, after consulting NE, in accordance with the protection that the Country Park has as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, area of Special Scientific Interest and Nature Reserve. 

“We have presented reasoned arguments to the council and to NE. This rational painstaking evidence gathering work has won the day.

“On behalf of all the people who love the Country Park and of future generations I thank – from behind tears of joy – everyone who has helped in this campaign. It’s been a campaign not only to protect the landscape but also the biodiversity of the eco-systems of our shared Nature Reserve. 

“It’s been particularly hard work for the members of our working group, supported by our committee. In particular those who have written the words, those who have undertaken the research and those who have applied their legal and financial minds to the issue.

“The last 16 months have also been a reminder of the need for membership organisations like our Friends Group to be able to focus on the complex issues involved.

“Over recent years there have been huge increases in the generation of renewable energy, which must continue, but industrial development must be in the right place. A nature reserve was the wrong place and I am delighted that HBC, under new leadership, has made a sensible rational decision to protect our precious natural environment.”

Julia Hilton from Hastings Green Party told Hastings In Focus: “Hastings Green Party is delighted that the council has finally seen sense and realised that the country park was never going to be the right place for an industrial scale solar farm. 

“Conversations on the doorstep prior to the lockdown confirmed that many people understand the urgent need for new sources of locally owned renewable energy but expressed dismay that the council would consider such a precious landscape asset as a suitable site. 

“On reading the response from NE it seems that if the council had bothered to refer to it’s own planning policies it could have come to it’s own conclusions that trying to build a solar farm in a site of outstanding natural beauty would have a highly adverse affect on the landscape and saved itself the expense of employing yet more consultants.

Where the solar panels might have gone.

“This money could have been used to do a proper engagement with the whole town community to come up with a climate action plan that we could all get behind. It is essential that the council works with the community to achieve the very ambitious but necessary task of reducing our town’s carbon footprint to net zero by 2030. It’s time they started holding meetings again using the digital technology that we are all becoming used to. This is a great opportunity to start engaging with residents about what sort of town we want to be as we start to build a post Covid 19 world.

“We would also like to acknowledge the great work done by Michael Moor, and the Friends of Hastings Country Park who have been so active making clear the arguments against this proposal and highlighting the unique value of the country park.”

Andrew Mier, Liberal Democrat Councillor for Southern Rother, is delighted that HBC has abandoned its plans. He has been a long time opponent of the scheme, from when he was vice-chair of the Fairlight Parish Council Mr Mier said this week: “The proposal had met with opposition from the Friends of Hastings Country Park, local MPs, the Hastings Green Party and Lib Dems among others. It appears the straw which broke the camel’s back was the opinion of NE – the sites were in close proximity to the Glens and Site of Special Scientific Interest. 

“The arrays, though on farmland, would have been visually intrusive to users of the Country Park – an area set aside for its beauty and natural environment and for the enjoyment and recreation of the public. That, and the effect on the natural environment, clearly outweighs any small contribution to the reduction of Co2 emissions.

“I appreciate HBC’s need to finance the Country Park, an asset of regional as well as local importance. That was undoubtedly one of the motivations behind the scheme. In the event even that seems to have been a chimera.

“For the future let us hope central government will recognise the importance of the Country Park and allow proper funding without an undue burden on Hastings’ finances. We must fight for the preservation of this precious asset – the ‘Jewel in Hastings’ Crown’ – and avoid creeping industrialisation and suburbanisation. We owe that to future generations.”

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