Sir Jeremy Wright statement on solar farm inquiry


As a Member of Parliament I recognise that I have no formal role in the planning process and I would not ordinarily intervene in it, but my concern here as the constituency MP for the site affected is not just that this proposed development would be undesirable at the intended location, but also that the decision made by  the Warwick District Council (WDC) Planning Committee to grant the application in this case could create a precedent that substantial inappropriate development in the Green Belt, in this area and beyond, should be approved as a matter of routine where renewable energy generation is the purpose of that development.
This is not just a theoretical concern. I am aware of a number of similar applications for solar farms in my constituency and of one elsewhere in Warwick District where the approval of this application was cited as a precedent for the Planning Committee also approving that application.
The straightforward submission that I want to make is that the decision of the Planning Committee in this case was flawed and that it risks substantial erosion of the important principle that the Green Belt should be protected from inappropriate development in all but the most exceptional circumstances, and therefore that the conclusion of the Secretary of State should be that the application is now refused.
It is common ground that the proposed development the Inquiry is considering would constitute inappropriate development in what is Green Belt land. The key question therefore is whether ‘very special circumstances’ are made out in this case sufficient to clearly outweigh the harm to the Green Belt such inappropriate development would cause. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) seems to me to be clear that inappropriate development is, by definition, harmful to the Green Belt.
I would therefore make the following submissions:
It must be for the applicant to demonstrate that very special circumstances exist, not for any other party to demonstrate that they do not and, in so demonstrating, the applicant has to meet a high standard of proof. The words ‘very special’ suggest in themselves that the necessary circumstances are rare and should be demanding to prove, but I would argue that the wording of the NPPF, in setting out how planning applications of this sort should be approached, also supports this view. Paragraph 153 of the NPPF says that ‘very special circumstances’ will not exist ‘unless the potential harm to the Green Belt by reason of inappropriateness, and any other harm resulting from the proposal, is clearly outweighed by other considerations’ (my emphasis). I emphasise the word ‘clearly’ because it seems to me to illustrate that there should be no real doubt that the applicant has crossed the necessary threshold, and that where those determining an application have any real doubt that the threshold has been met, the right course is to refuse the application.
It cannot be sufficient to demonstrate ‘very special circumstances’ for an applicant simply to identify the benefits of renewable energy generation. I am strongly of the view that renewable energy is desirable and we should have more of it, and I accept that its desirability must be given substantial weight, but that does not to my mind mean that its development must be acceptable on any and all sites in the country. My own view is that we have not yet exploited sufficiently the potential of roof space, especially industrial roofspace, and car park canopies to provide more space for solar panels, but I accept ground level solar farms will still be required. However, I would also argue that we protect Green Belt land for good reason and that it must be possible to provide for the defence of the Green Belt and the promotion of renewable energy at the same time. That can only be so if every Green Belt site is not deemed suitable for a solar farm. Again, my argument is that the wording of the NPPF supports that view. Paragraph 156 of the NPPF sets out that where renewable energy projects comprise inappropriate development – and this is conceded in the application before the Inquiry – developers would need to demonstrate ‘very special circumstances’ and ‘such very special circumstances may include the wider environmental benefits associated with increased production of energy from renewable sources’. The word ‘may’ is used rather than ‘must’ or ‘will’. The NPPF does not therefore say that it is automatic or inevitable that wider benefits of renewable energy generation will always constitute ‘very special circumstances’, only that they may do so. That must mean an applicant will still need to demonstrate that, in the specific circumstances of the site in question, those benefits clearly outweigh the damage done to the Green Belt. Concluding that renewable energy is a good thing cannot be enough. I would also argue that there is no presumption that the applicant can demonstrate this, as distinct from the position where the Secretary of State is determining Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) where renewable energy is concerned, in accordance with National Policy Statements (NPSs), where there does seem to be a presumption that renewable energy generation constitutes per se ‘very special circumstances’. This application is not of course for a NSIP because only solar farms with a generating capacity of more than 50 MW are considered to meet that definition. The applicant’s current application is for 23.1 MW of generating capacity, less than half of the threshold necessary for NPSs to apply, so I would submit that the NPSs are not persuasive in considering this application, save that it could properly be taken into account that the presumption (in NPS EN-1 for example) that solar farms over 50 MW do meet the ‘very special circumstances’ test is not replicated in the wording of the NPPF relating to smaller solar farms. That wording could have been used in the NPPF if it were the intention that that such a presumption should also apply to smaller solar farms but it was not, and I suggest it can be taken therefore that such a presumption should not be applied in the case of applications such as the one before this Inquiry. Instead, the burden is on the applicant to demonstrate, to a high standard, that their proposed development should be considered an exception to the general prohibition on such development in the Green Belt.
So has the applicant demonstrated this? The applicant relies on the argument that alternative sites for solar farms are scarce to support the existence of very special circumstances in this case and, in particular, they cite the benefit of nearby connection to the Grid at Berkswell Substation but, as the WDC Planning Officer points out in his extensive reasoning for recommending refusal of this application, there is little evidence of the applicant exploring connection to a different substation which would avoid Green Belt development. Given the burden and standard of proof which I submit the applicant must meet, this is a significant weakness in their case. The applicant may also argue that a great deal of Warwick District is Green Belt and it would be difficult to avoid it entirely, but there are three points to make to that. First, the threshold for Green Belt development, though doubtless inconvenient in an area like Warwick District, is set high for good reason. Second, that the energy produced by the proposed solar farm will not be used for local supply so there is no particular reason that it needs to be located in Warwick District at all and third that this particular site is in what I think many of my constituents would see as ‘classic’ Green Belt – quintessential countryside, the openness of which Green Belt designation is specifically designed to protect. It should be among the Green Belt land it is hardest to find ‘very special circumstances to develop and, by the same token, if this piece of Green Belt land is suitable for development, there can be little confidence that any part of the Green Belt can be successfully protected.
So my submissions are:
There is a high standard for the applicant to meet to demonstrate that there are ‘very special circumstances’ to justify inappropriate development in the Green Belt.
It cannot be sufficient to demonstrate ‘very special circumstances’ by setting out the benefits of renewable energy alone, something more is required.
The applicant in this case has not met that high standard, nor have they been able to demonstrate, to the standard required, that their application has such exceptional merit that it should be allowed.
It follows that I argue the decision of the Warwick District Council Planning Committee was wrong, but I also argue that it sets a dangerous precedent.
The 3 grounds given for allowing the application were:
The environmental benefits associated with renewable energy production – I have argued that in headline terms this is not sufficient and the Committee have not explained what, beyond general benefits, justifies this particular application, as I submit the applicant would have to show.
The available connection to the substation – this is really part and parcel of the previous ground that renewable energy could be produced on the site and, if it could be considered a separate ground for approval, I suggest the applicant has not met their high burden and standard of proof to demonstrate no alternative to Green Belt development is feasible.
A substantial increase in biodiversity net gain in the area – it seems to me it would be odd to argue that the only way, or even the best way, to deliver biodiversity improvement on the site would be to install a solar farm there, with all the acknowledged harm that will cause to the Green Belt. It does not appear to me that the applicant has demonstrated that inappropriate development is necessary to deliver biodiversity gain and therefore that this argument assists them in establishing ‘very special circumstances’.
If these grounds were really sufficient to allow inappropriate development in the Green Belt to proceed, we would see a large number of similar applications granted and extensive inappropriate development in the Green Belt. That would undermine fundamentally the rationale for Green Belt designation and damage significantly the purpose of the Green Belt itself.
For these reasons, I submit that this application should have been refused by Warwick District Council’s Planning Committee in accordance with the Planning Officer’s recommendation, and should be refused by the Secretary of State.