I don’t generally write up Planning Committee meetings but, as Tuesday night’s one has proved controversial and I’ve been getting lots of questions about it – both via e-mail and directed to me on social media – I thought it’d be simpler and easier to write it up for my website. So here goes.
For those unaware, I’m Vice-Chairman of Basildon Council’s Planning Committee. On Tuesday 25th November, the Committee debated Planning Application 14/00948/FULL – namely, “installation, on a 26-year lease, of a series of ground-mounted solar photovoltaic arrays together with control/transformation enclosures, underground cabling, security fencing, CCTV poles and cameras and other associated development”… in other words, what is commonly known as a ‘solar farm’. The location of this proposed development is within 26.4 hectares of Green Belt land off Outwood Farm Road in my Billericay East ward.
As a ward councillor for the area, I obviously took a particular interest in this application, though it’s important to stress members of the Committee act in a quasi-judicial capacity and judge applications on planning merits. It’s also important to stress members are not ‘whipped’ by their parties though, inevitably given parties tend to contain like-minds, voting (as in this case) often follows party lines (but not always).
I didn’t take notes during the meeting and they aren’t audio-recorded, so I’ll avoid trying to quote other members of the Committee and concentrate on my own thoughts on the application, though I’ll obviously comment on how the vote went generally. As most of you reading this will by now know, despite being presented with an officer recommendation to refuse the application, the Committee voted to overrule that recommendation and grant this application. Along with my two colleagues, Chairman Cllr Carole Morris (Con, Wickford N) and Cllr Stephen Hillier (Con, Langdon Hills), I voted in line with the officer recommendation to refuse planning permission. Sadly, however, we were outvoted by the two Labour members – Cllrs Adele Brown (Lab, Fryerns) and Aidan McGurran (Lab, Pitsea S-E) – and the two UKIP members – Cllrs Frank Ferguson (UKIP, Lee Chapel North) and David Sheppard (UKIP, Fryerns).
Firstly, a word on the officer report. The Planning Officer in this case was Clive Simpson, a very experienced planning officer. Mr Simpson delivered a finely balanced report looking into the pros and cons of the development and particular weight was placed on the supposed environmental benefits, in terms of renewable energy production. There was also a strong argument in its favour from the point of view of biodiversity. The Essex Wildlife Trust, in particular, were very supportive of the scheme, as they believe it will improve the biodiversity of the area by transferring the site from intensely-farmed arable land into one that provides the opportunity for creation of new habitats. I have to say, I found this quite a compelling argument. It was also stressed repeatedly that the site would not be highly visible and would have a minimal impact on local residents and those using the nearby footpath (# 164). Great stock was also placed on the assurances given that this would be a ‘temporary’ installation, reverting back to Green Belt in twenty-six years’ time.
It’s important to note, while there were objections from Chelmsford City Council and Billericay Town Council (both on Green Belt grounds) and around seventy local residents, there were no objections from Essex County Council, Highways and Transportation, the Environment Agency, Natural England, Great Burstead & South Green Village Council, Billericay District Residents’ Association, the Essex Wildlife Trust or the Environmental Health Services. There were also three letters from the public supportive of the development and three speakers attended the meeting to speak in favour of it, against just two who turned up to speak out against it. This last point, I think, had an impact upon the other members of the Committee. Had more local residents turned up to speak against it, I think that might have affected the outcome.
Ultimately, Mr Simpson’s report dealt with all the major issues and, it must be said, by and large the application overcame each and every one – it makes a contribution towards renewable energy, reducing carbon emissions, the impact on the Green Belt’s openness was acknowledged as pretty limited, although it obviously meant a loss of agricultural land it had to be conceded the development would assist in agricultural diversity, that the visual impact would be minimal, relatively low impact upon amenity, etc. What the whole debate really rested on – and the reason why despite all of the above, the officers ultimately recommended the Committee refuse permission – was the inescapable fact that this application represents an inappropriate development on 26.4 hectares of Green Belt land in Billericay.
The reason I voted to refuse the application was exactly for this reason. The purpose of the Green Belt is to be green and to be open and to separate settlements and prevent urban sprawl. Its value and primary function lies precisely in its openness. This site forms a major part of an important ‘green buffer zone’ separating Billericay, and the village of South Green (where, incidentally, I grew up), and the nearby settlement of Ramsden Bellhouse. Although the loss of Green Belt was felt to be relatively small, I still felt it was far too large (the size of thirty-three football fields, or so I gather, and the enclosures will be the size of shipping containers). I was not satisfied by the so-called ‘temporariness’ of the site. I felt all this stuff about grazing sheep and planting hedgerows was just a fig leaf to disguise ‘creeping industrialisation’. It occurred to me the idea of twenty-six years (which is my wife’s age!) being ‘temporary’ is kind of an odd concept. It’s a very long time! As one member of the public said, “It’s a generation”. What guarantees do we really have this site will be restored to Green Belt? Councillor Ferguson seemed to place great emphasis, in taking his decision to support the application, upon its supposed temporariness but, as I pointed out to him, when Income Tax was first introduced it was a “temporary tax”… and that was over 260 years ago. The tolls at the Dartford Crossing were meant to be ‘temporary’ but they are still there (much to my late grandfather’s eternal chagrin). We were all assured Pitsea Tip would be ‘temporary’ but it keeps having its licensed renewed. The flyover at Gallows Corner was built as a temporary structure back in the ‘70s and is still there to this day. I just find the idea that in three decades’ time this site is going to revert to Green Belt lacks all credibility. Like many others, I suspect it is a backdoor way for the landowner to downgrade the land for future development.
Another point that weighed heavily on me was that, while the effect of the site may be minimal, people’s enjoyment of Footpath # 164 will necessarily be diminished. This is of important amenity value to my residents and not just local residents – people come from all around to enjoy walks along the footpaths and bridleways of Billericay. Even if the site is screened in many directions, as the report states, “the development will nevertheless comprise substantial development where none presently exists”.
The only factor that can mitigate in favour of development in the Green Belt is if there’s deemed to be ‘very special circumstances’ justifying the development. Whilst I’m not opposed to this technology, I don’t accept its value outweighs the importance of protecting Green Belt. This scheme brings no employment to the area and I don’t deem that such a huge area (which will only power around 3,000 homes) is an acceptable sacrifice. Moreover, I think the current Government have made their preference abundantly clear so far as renewable energy sites like this are concerned, namely that they should be sited wherever possible on brownfield, reclaimed industrial sites and in urban areas on rooftops. I don’t find it acceptable to tear up tens of thousands of acres of green fields to accommodate solar arrays and obnoxious wind turbines.
Both I and my two colleagues argued vigorously against the application but, sadly, were unable to convince the two Labour and two UKIP councillors, and the application was granted by four votes to three. It’s important to reiterate councillors on Planning are not whipped and so this vote was not strictly ‘political’, though it obviously and unavoidably has a party political dimension. In the sense that I was never personally in any doubt Cllrs Brown and McGurran would vote in favour of the application, notwithstanding the officer recommendation to refuse. Councillor Brown, in particular, has made it crystal clear in the past she is “perfectly comfortable” with development in Green Belt. The Labour Party, in my experience, generally has a fundamentally different attitude to Green Belt policy than the Tories. I thought their views might be tempered by the fact they’re both, as it happens, Billericay residents but it quickly became apparent this wasn’t the case, so their votes were no great surprise.
The great unknown quantity, as always, was the UKIP members. Since Basildon Council became ‘hung’ in the May elections, on which side of the fence they fall is crucial. The Tory Administration no longer commands majorities on any of the committees (as committees of the Council are appointed on the basis of ‘proportionality’, ie dependent on each party’s strength on the Council itself). I was, needless to say, disappointed Cllrs Ferguson and Sheppard decided to vote with Labour to grant this application. And, while it may not have been a party political vote, it does reveal disingenuousness on the part of UKIP and their vocal protestations about protecting Green Belt. Both UKIP councillors expressed a clear view that Green Belt is “not sacrosanct” and seemed satisfied by the biodiversity arguments, green benefits (odd for a party characterised by climate scepticism) and temporariness of the site. Oddly, Councillor Sheppard also suggested his keenness on the basis he preferred a solar farm to ‘wind turbines’, which I found puzzling considering no wind farm was proposed. I tried to point out to him that this was “not a choice between a solar farm or a wind farm but rather between a solar farm and a green field” but he remained, sadly, unmoved.
So there you have it. The deed is done. We argued the case but, in the end, were outvoted by the combination of UKIP and Labour. Now we will just have to live with the consequences.