Regular readers will recall that I was vehemently opposed to the 2014 application to build a solar farm covering over 26 hectares on Green Belt land off Outwood Farm Road in Billericay. This was granted permission by the Planning Committee, despite an officer recommendation to refuse and opposition from Billericay Town Council, Chelmsford City Council and around seventy local residents. On that occasion, myself and two Conservative colleagues voted against but were outvoted by two UKIP and two Labour members, who voted against the officer recommendation and granted permission for a 26-year lease.
Tuesday’s meeting of the Planning Committee considered an application to vary a condition on the 2014 permission, specifically seeking a six-year extension to the scheme, taking this ‘temporary permission’ into the 2040s! You can listen to the debate here and my speech opposing the variation is at 35mins 30secs in.
To be clear, it was not just that I opposed the original application – it was flatly the wrong decision. In fact, I would say without hesitation, it was the worst, most naff decision I have seen the Committee make in the roughly three and half years I have served on Planning. Indeed, to date, the only motion I have ever put before Full Council was one deprecating that decision. I would like to think that the Committee today is a more mature Committee. Members are a bit more ‘seasoned’ (and, crucially, Cllr Frank Ferguson and former councillor Aidan McGurran are no longer members!). I would like to think that if the 2014 application were to come before the Committee today, we would agree with the officer recommendation, recognise that it is clearly inappropriate development to despoil 26 hectares of Green Belt land where there are no exceptional circumstances, and throw it out. But, sadly, that is not what the Committee did and we all have to live with the consequences of that wrong-headed decision.
I believe the facts behind this application are obvious. The need for this application to vary the original permission arises for one simple reason. The economic viability of this scheme is dubious at best. It has changed owners several times since the application was granted. They were unable to build all that they wanted, and had permission to build, before the Government very wisely slashed the obscene subsidies that were being paid to these companies to deface our countryside. All they have got is what they could physically build before the deadline, which I believe was around April 2016, and what they have got is only around half of what was planned. And the fact is, unless the subsidies come back (which they won’t), I suspect they will have to stick with what they have got, hence they want more time.
The application on Tuesday should have been refused to limit the harm the Committee did to the openness of the Green Belt. Much stock was placed in the mitigation measures the 2014 permission stipulated to address the visual impact of the scheme – namely a screening hedge that was supposed to be essential. Unfortunately, the site was not built in accordance with the approved plans and is too close to the footpath. Again, regular readers will recall that I had to run the Planning Enforcement team ragged to address these breeches of planning, not altogether successfully.
So we now have an unscreenable fence, CCTV, and gates where the new road (which also wasn’t in the original plans) crosses the public footpath. It should have been built 5m from the fence-line but this was not done. It has been built far too close to the Public Right of Way, so the mitigation measures not only have not been implemented, they never will be either. Not that I was allowed to talk about any of this, because the Labour Chairman prevented me from speaking about it or questioning officers about the applicant’s non-compliance with the original plans.
I argued that the Council has an ongoing duty to lessen the impact of the scheme. I feel that Green Belt considerations should still apply. We have a duty to preserve the openness of the Green Belt. The temporariness of the scheme was a significant factor in the granting of the previous permission. This extension reduces that temporariness and, as such, without exceptional circumstances, should be refused. I did not hear any compelling reason being given as to why this temporary permission should be extended and, indeed, it was clear that the applicants believe they have a permission that is, and I quote, “temporary in perpetuity”. I have serious doubts as to whether this land will ever actually be restored to Green Belt. Alas, these arguments fell on deaf ears. Whilst I was supported by my Conservative colleagues – Cllrs Stephen Hillier (Con, Langdon Hills), Carole Morris (Con, Wickford North) and Stuart Allen (Con, Crouch) – the application was supported by Cllrs Adele Brown (Lab, Fryerns) and David Sheppard (UKIP, Fryerns) – who both unrepentantly voted for the 2014 application as well – and Cllrs Alan Bennett (Lab, Lee Chapel North) and Alan Ball (WI, Wickford Castledon). As a consequence of the vote being tied, the Labour Chairman used her casting vote to pass the application.