Pickles makes U-turn on Suffolk solar farm

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has made a surprise U-turn decision on the expansion of what would be one of the UK's largest solar farms.

Lark Energy’s 24MW Ellough solar farm, planned to be developed at a disused airfield in Suffolk, was initially refused by Pickles on the basis that “the increase in the amount of renewable energy generated by the appeal scheme does not outweigh the additional harm caused to the character and appearance of the area”.

But 18 months later, Pickles appears to have had a change of heart; instead ruling that “the significant benefits of the proposal outweigh the limited harm to the character and appearance of the countryside”.

In the meantime, Lark Energy had already achieved consent for a smaller 14MWp scheme which has already been constructed and connected to the grid.

Philip Brashaw, Associate at energy and infrastructure specialist LDA Design, acted as expert landscape witness and provided evidence at the Public Enquiry which promoted the solar farm extension to be recovered for determination.

‘Fantastic outcome’

Brashaw said: “In the last 18 months or so since the Government decided to recover a greater number of decisions for renewable energy developments outside the conventional planning system, a large number of solar and wind farms have been turned down by the Secretary of State, often against the recommendation of the Planning Inspectorate.

“The approval for Ellough is a fantastic outcome and sets an important precedent, bringing greater clarity in assessing potential landscape harm against the environmental and other benefits of solar farm development. Until now it has been easy for the Secretary of State to refuse a scheme based on landscape harm, even when it has been recommended for approval after rigorous examination by a Planning Inspector.”

The £18m Ellough solar farm is spread across an expanse of 46 hectares, and will supply energy to nearly 11,000 households for the next 25 years.

Pickles’ past

Commenting on the developer’s decision to mount a legal challenge, Lark Energy managing director Jonathan Selwyn said: “We select our sites for solar farms very carefully. We choose sites which have either had previous industrial uses, such as Ellough, or which are on predominantly low grade agricultural land. We consult extensively with the local community – at Ellough the vast majority were supportive of the project, particularly after we took on board some of their concerns about its proximity to the existing operational airfield.”

Last summer, Pickles rejected planning permission for another Suffolk-based solar farm in Hacheston, while a slightly smaller development in the nearby Tattingstone was dismissed by a week prior. 

The Conservative MP has been the subject of much condemnation from the renewables industry and green groups during his five years in office. Late last year, Pickles was sharply criticised by the renewable energy industry for delaying the approval of many onshore wind energy developments in which he has intervened. He has also been rapped for his ‘incoherent’ managing of Energy Performance Contracts and his stance on weekly bin collections.

Luke Nicholls

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