Large solar farm approved on organic farmland in West Midlands Green Belt

Solar Farm

Following a 4-day public inquiry in January, a planning inspector has granted planning permission for a 22MW solar farm on agricultural land to the east of Telford in the West Midlands Green Belt. The scheme will provide enough electricity to power some 6,000 homes a year.

The local planning authority, Shropshire Council, had refused planning permission, claiming that the proposal would have an unacceptable impact on the openness of the Green Belt and result in the potential loss of an agricultural enterprise. Until recently, the land had been used as pastureland by an adjacent organic dairy farm.

In her appeal decision, the inspector agreed with the developer, Vattenfall, that the “very special circumstances” test for “inappropriate development” in the Green Belt was met in this case. The inspector concluded that the proposal would result in only slight harm to the openness of the Green Belt in visual and spatial terms and only “limited” harm to the purposes of including land in the Green Belt.

Of potential wider interest were the inspector’s reasons for concluding that the proposal would not result in unacceptable harm to agricultural land. The inspector noted that the developer still proposed to use the land around the solar panels for the grazing of sheep. Responding to the Council’s concern that this would still reduce the productivity and versatility of the Grade 3a/3b agricultural land for a significant period, the inspector concluded that “the specific way agricultural land is farmed is not a matter that is subject to planning controls”. As a result, “there would be nothing in planning terms to prevent the owners using the fields that form the appeal site for the grazing of sheep at present or even leaving them fallow” (para. 50).

Whilst the adjacent dairy farm had been using the land for some 20 years, the inspector agreed with the developer that the Council’s refusal of planning permission was based on a material error of fact in thinking that the farm had security of tenure on the land. In fact, the dairy farm was renting the land on an annual basis with no such security.

In the final planning balance, the inspector agreed with the developer that the significant contribution that the proposal would make to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and to improving energy resilience and security would, alongside the landscape and biodiversity enhancements of the scheme, clearly outweigh its harms. Very special circumstances were therefore present.

The appeal decision is available here

The decision is reported on BBC News here.

Gwion Lewis KC acted for the successful appellant, Vattenfall. 

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