Councils are voting through plans for “menacing” solar farms that blight the countryside because they are so afraid of being taken to court by developers, a minister has admitted.
Greg Barker, the energy minister, said that town halls are too often prepared to “roll over rather than looking at the balance of community interest and visual impact” over fears that they will face costly legal battles in the High Court.
The Government is rushing through changes to planning guidelines that for the first time give councils and residents the power to veto large solar farms.
The new guidance on renewable energy, to be issued to local councils later in the summer, will make clear that the need for green energy, including solar farms, “does not automatically override environmental protections and the planning concerns of local communities”.
Mr Barker said there is a “sense of urgency” over the new guidelines.
“I believe that flexibility is already there for local authorities to exercise discretion, but we need to make that crystal clear,” Mr Barker told MPs last week.
“There is some concern, and too often local authorities, out of fear of being challenged in the High Court, just roll over, rather than looking at the balance of community interest and visual impact, which they are quite properly able to do.
“We need to spell that out in a crystal-clear way that ensures that localism—local opinion—is reflected in the planning guidance.”
Mr Barker said that the Government is changing the guidance to tackle the “menace of inappropriate large-scale arrays.”
Dozens of large solar farms have been the go-ahead in recent years because farmers can earn up to £50,000 a year in green subsidies.
More than 100 new planning applications are currently going through the system. The solar farms can be as large as 44 acres and regularly face opposition from local residents.
The revised guidance on solar farms will also state that “care should be taken to preserve heritage assets, including the impact of planning proposals on views important to their setting”.
Mr Barker wants to encourage solar panels on public buildings but avoid large arrays in areas of natural beauty.
He told MPs that even brownfield sites could be unsuitable for solar farms.
“We could just demand that large-scale development occur only on brownfield sites,” he said. “But the simple statement ‘Brownfield good, greenfield bad’ does not stand up to scrutiny.
“A brownfield site could contain a site of special scientific interest or be contained within an area of outstanding national beauty.
“It could be in a part of the landscape—on a hill or the side of a hill—where it can be seen for miles around. Likewise, even plots of the highest-grade agricultural land could have areas that are lower grade and could be legitimately used for solar deployment.”
It comes after the Government last month unveiled plans to give local communities the power to block wind farms.
Ministers will announce that residents will have to be consulted over new wind farms with applications barred if there is significant opposition.
Currently, councils can be forced to accept new wind farms as national planning guidance states that renewable energy schemes should usually be permitted.
Sheryll Murray, the Conservative MP for South East Cornwall, warned that local communities “cannot wait until the autumn” for the new guidelines on solar farms.
“There is already a race to get a planning application in and through now,” she said. “We will see our countryside destroyed unless something is done immediately.”
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