Those who follow my activities on social media will be aware of a lot of fast-moving developments at the solar farm site off Outwood Farm Road in my Billericay East ward and, as I received a lot of correspondence about this from numerous sources, I thought it would be prudent for me to post a general update here on my blog and share it liberally on Facebook and Twitter, so that hopefully everyone knows where we are at with all this.
First off, although I have heard from a great many residents, I want to thank in particular Messrs Mike Andrews and Clive Aldous, both local residents and members of the Billericay Action Group, and also ROOFS (Rule Out Outwood Farm Solar), for their tremendous vigilance and for keeping me informed of what is going on. I live up the road from the site myself but I have nevertheless been greatly aided by reports coming from residents in the immediate vicinity of the site and these are vital to ensuring that, if we cannot unfortunately stop the development, we can at least hold the developer to account and ensure that the conditions placed on this development when it was (perversely) granted planning permission are abided by.
I have been engaged in an exchange of e-mails with officers at Basildon Council over the past few weeks, as residents have informed me of the recent goings on at the solar farm site. Residents will hopefully recall that when I last provided an update on my official Facebook page back in October, I confirmed that the original applicant, MS Power, would not be proceeding with the scheme but that, unfortunately, the scheme had been taken over by Island Green Power (IGP). This is because planning permission, once granted, is placed upon the land and is not dependent on the same applicant carrying it through. So it is open to anyone to come over and undertake the works for as long as the permission remains extant.
The way I left it with officers at the end of October was that IGP had given the Council an undertaking that it had not yet begun construction works at the site (and assured officers that works reported as taking place at or near the site were being undertaken by the farmer who owns the land and had nothing to do with IGP and were not connected to the solar project) and that all the pre-conditions of the planning permission would be met before any such works commenced.
Since then, I gather ANOTHER company is now involved – Wirsol Energy – to whom IGP have sold the solar farm project (so this project is now on its third energy company!). Council officers are in touch with Wirsol, who have confirmed that they will be implementing the permission. Regarding the pre-conditions, Wirsol are aware of the requirement (Condition 18) for an archaeological watching brief and have engaged the services of Wessex Archaeology, who were the authors of the site’s Written Scheme of Investigation. Wirsol are also attempting to contact Essex Highways regarding the highways condition survey (required under Condition 19). Unfortunately, neither Wirsol or Basildon Council have had any success in contacting a representative of Essex Highways and Wirsol may now have to undertake their own condition survey in order to commence construction. I have let it be known that I find this wholly unacceptable and am enlisting the help of Essex County Council colleagues to establish contact with Highways.
Regarding the site activity that has already been observed, it is difficult for our enforcement officers, as Crays Farm is a working farm and the landowner is currently constructing a consented barn, which might explain the heavy vehicle traffic movements. I am querying this with officers, as I am of the belief that the permission for the barn expired in January and should already have been built by now.
I can confirm that Wirsol have erected the fence beside Public Right of Way No. 164 in order “to safeguard users from any future construction activity”. I have protested against the ‘caged in’ feeling that this engenders for people using the public footpath but am advised by officers that, whilst this fencing is not shown on the approved plans, it does fall within the definition of ‘permitted development’ within the planning legislation, as it comes under the temporary buildings and structures section of the General Permitted Development Order, which includes temporary fencing around building sites. Whilst this is not a normal building site in the traditional sense – because, of course, a massive solar farm has absolutely no business being built in this Green Belt location – the fence is permitted by virtue of this legislation and, on safety grounds, is probably necessary (so I do not think there will be much point in my pursuing any serious objection to it). I have made it clear to both the officers and to Wirsol that I expect, and will insist upon, its immediate removal once the construction is completed and the solar farm becomes operational. Fencing around the solar farm was approved as part of the development but this will be located further from the footpath.
The archaeological survey work required is in the form of a watching brief once the work starts and, as stated above, Wessex Archaeology are undertaking this work, inspecting the preparatory ground works to identify whether there are any items of archaeological interest at the site. My understanding is that Wirsol were due to break ground today (Thursday) under the archaeologists’ supervision.
The diesel fuel tank, which some have identified at the site, is being investigated and the issue of the timing of the erection of the barn is also being looked at but I should stress that these are all matters that being taken up with the farmer who owns the land rather than Wirsol. There seems to be a likelihood that Wirsol are being assumed to be undertaking activities that are in actual fact the responsibility of the landowner. Nevertheless, I would urge residents to continue to be vigilant and let me know of any developments on or around the site, including heaving construction vehicles using Coxes Farm Road and Outwood Farm Road, rather than the agreed route via Outwood Common Road.
I will, of course, endeavour to provide updates as and when I have them but, as I said before, please remain vigilant and report any problems direct to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.