WHY A PLANNING APPLICATION FOR THE NORTH DAIRY FARM SOLAR POWER PLANT SHOULD BE REFUSED
“The Vale’s towns, in particular Shaftesbury and Sturminster Newton, draw visitors for their history and beauty, but perhaps the best way to appreciate the Blackmore Vale is to get out and walk its pristine countryside and hike the surrounding hills for a bird’s-eye view. For generations, the scenery has inspired artists, such as John Constable; writers, such as Thomas Hardy; and poets, such as William Barnes.”
The developers (North Dairy Farm Solar Park Limited c/o BSR Energy Limited) have now applied for full planning permission to use 190 acres of productive farmland as a solar power station at North Dairy Farm, between the Conservation areas of Mappowder, Hazelbury Bryan and the village of Pulham, in the Blackmore Vale.
The industrial sized electricity generation plant would be in full view from the nationally protected Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and on agricultural land which is prone to regular flooding.
The proposed site is in a valued landscape that Dorset Council have considered requesting be designated as a National Park. It is also within the impact zone of the Blackmoor Vale Commons and Moors Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), the Rooksmoor Copse Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and Alner Gorse Butterfly Reserve.
Save Hardy’s Vale – Some material planning matters (more to follow the arrival of the planning application)
- North Dairy Farm Solar Park Ltd is proposing to cover 190 acres of productive farmland with solar panels near the protected Conservation Areas of Mappowder, Hazelbury Bryan and the village of Pulham in the Blackmore Vale.
- The industrial-sized electricity generation plant would be in full view from the highly protected Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and on productive agricultural land, parts of which are prone to flooding. (The site, which is equivalent to 150 Wembley football pitches, is indicated in red in the image above.)
- There is an urgent need and clear public benefit in producing the UK’s energy using low carbon ‘green’ methods. However, The Government has announced (October 6th) that in future, offshore wind turbines will provide sufficient low carbon energy to supply all homes in the UK.1. Increased electrical demand will come from domestic heat pumps mainly in winter, and electric commercial vehicles recharging mainly at night. Both are far better met by wind power than by day time solar power.
- The suggestion, made by the developer, that the key reason they are seeking planning permission for this solar power station is to help Dorset Council reach their green energy targets is disingenuous. The main reason is to secure a financial return on their investment.
- Dorset Council (and greater Dorset) have already exceeded the green energy target set for them by the Government.2.
- This is not a ‘community-led’ energy development3. and the public benefits of the proposal (low carbon energy) will mainly be enjoyed by others outside the Blackmore Vale community.
- The UK planning system is about the use of land in the public interest – or, in other words, for the public good. While there may be some minor short term local economic benefits during the four-month intensive construction phase, almost all the financial benefits of the power station go to the developer, the overseas manufacturers of the 100,000 solar panels, the owners of the station and the landowner. This is a purely private benefit and cannot be weighed in favour of approving the application.
- The BSR community consultations (COVID affected) were not extensive or truly representative of the resident’s views. The online Webinar received 14 emails and “only a few” questions were posed during the 2-hour meeting.
- The proposed power station would cause harm to the landscape character, the settings of protected landscape, Conservation Areas and the listed buildings in them. It should be noted that heritage assets and protected areas do not have to be seen together with the industrial site for it to cause them or their settings significant harm.
- The applicants acknowledge that industrial development would cause visual harm to the highly protected Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and harm its setting in the landscape – contrary to national planning and local guidance.
- The developers claim that “No protected landscape, heritage or ecological designations will be affected by the solar farm” is not true.
- If approved, the power station would completely, and detrimentally change the landscape characteristics of the proposed site and the surrounding valued landscape.
- It would detrimentally affect the peaceful enjoyment of the special and protected landscape by residents and visitors. In particular, it would reduce and harm the enjoyment of residents and visitors using the multiplicity of Public Rights of Way that run through and surround the proposed site, and which currently provide open and panoramic views of the landscape.
- The Public Rights of Way surrounding and within the proposed site have high recreational value.
- Views from the footpaths that run through the proposed site would, in places, obliterate the existing long views of the unique backdrop to the Vale, and the high rolling escarpments including Chitcombe Down, Woolland Hill, Bulbarrow Hill, The Dorsetshire Gap, Nettlecombe Tout (and its hill Fort) Ball Hill, Church Hill, The Knoll and Dungeon Hill.
- The public views of the high escarpment backdrop to the site, and the villages in the Vale, is highlighted as being of great importance in the Hazelbury Bryan Neighbourhood Plan It stresses the importance to the community of the existing views across the open agricultural fields between the villages.4.
- The escarpment hills to the east, south and southeast of the proposed site are densely laced with important Footpaths and bridleways, including Hardy’s Way and the Wessex Ridgway. These, and many of the other Public Rights of Way, offer direct and uninterrupted panoramic views across the special landscape of the Vale into, or around, the proposed 190-acre power station.
- The applicant wrongly states “There are only two viewpoints where there is intervisibility between the AONB and the Site from publicly accessible areas.” There are others including two at Bulbarrow.
- It is not accurate to suggest “There are also limited instances where the Site forms part of the view from the surrounding landscape looking into/ towards the AONB.” There are only a few few areas close to the site where the high surrounding escarpments within the AONB cannot be seen.
- The applicant’s provisional Landscape and Visual Impact Assessment (LIVA) notes that the: “Magnitude of change to the key characteristics of the Dorset AONB (panoramic views out of and into the AONB and the AONB setting) is likely to be “moderate adverse”.
- Important views have been referred to by Hardy, Barnes and painted by John Constable and are a key feature in the mix of elements that make the Blackmore Vale countryside special.
- The Blackmore Vale, its villages, landscape and footpaths feature large in Hardy’s ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles and visitors from around the world pay homage to Hardy by following in the footsteps of Angel and Tess.
- Many local farmers and landowners, residents and visitors are opposed to the proposal to build a solar power station in this special landscape, on productive farmland.
- The applicants have also noted in the Landscape and Visual Impact Assessment that: “Landscape resources which make a notable contribution to the character and cannot be replaced or substituted, will be of high sensitivity” to development.
- The high escarpment which forms part of the landscape backdrop to Hazelbury Bryan is specifically referred to in their Neighbourhood Plan. The Dorset Council have made it clear that this area of the Vale is “very highly sensitive” to development.
- “Settlements (and their residents) in the area are generally located on the higher-lying ground, minor ridgelines and low-lying hills.” The site will be very clearly seen, especially by walkers, cyclists, riders and passengers in vehicles travelling from the surrounding villages to the larger towns which surround and sustain the area.
- BSR state “There is a sense of tranquillity to the wider landscape due to the sparse settlement, however, this is often interrupted by the sound of a tractor or military aircraft flying overhead.” To claim that military aircraft “often” fly overhead is missleading. In fact, they use the low flying area very infrequently.5. Modern tractors are relatively quiet when working in the fields and form a normal, expected and almost ‘natural’ part of everyday rural life in the Vale. A 190-acre solar Power Station 9.5 kilometres of security fencing and a small village of shipping containers would not be!
- The applicants note that Dorset’s “management plan is to conserve the patterns that contribute to the rural, tranquil landscape and conserve and enhance the diverse pattern of trees, woodland, hedgerow and small-scale fields – and that the key characteristics are (of the site) are the undulating and rolling farmland hills forming a transition zone between the Blackmore Vale and the chalk escarpment.”
- They also state there is ‘A unique mosaic of woods, straight hedgerows and grassland fields ‘dotted’ with distinctive mature hedgerow Oaks, with open views across the undulating to flat pastoral landscape to the chalk escarpment backdrop’.
- Natural England’s National Character Assessment (NCA) identifies the site is within NCA 133: Blackmore Vale and Vale of Wardour, which is described as “predominantly in pasture, the vale has a generally even pattern of regular hedged fields, scattered woodlands, dense hedgerows and frequent hedgerow trees. Willow and alder along the many streams imbue an almost wetland atmosphere, particularly in the winter, when water often stands in the poorly drained fields.”
- The Planning Inspector described a similar solar development (in his Decision refusing approval in the Higher Farm, Fifehead Magdalen, Dorset Appeal6.) as follows: “The proposed development would introduce very many rows/arrays of solar panels within the site. Also, numerous metal-clad inverter cabins (approx. 12m x 3m x 3.2m high), a substation, communication buildings, storage/battery containers, a switchgear building, 4m wide access track, 2m high perimeter deer fencing and CCTV cameras would be provided.”
- The Inspector noted the: “proposal would markedly change the character and appearance of the site. The attractive, unspoilt green open qualities and pleasing natural attributes would be replaced by regimented rows of uniform solar panels mounted on metal frames, with a scatter of various ancillary buildings and set inside a fenced compound. This overtly utilitarian form of development would considerably erode the rural and pastoral character of these fields and diminish their contribution to the key landscape characteristics of the North Dorset Limestone Ridges Landscape Character Assessment”
- “Instead of continuing to experience and enjoy walking across pleasant open fields with views across the rural landscape, in future, ‘high sensitivity’ receptors (i.e. people) would, at close quarter, experience row upon row of solar panels and a significant loss of amenity when using the public rights of way across the site. ”
- “Some of the ancillary buildings would appear as conspicuous and incongruous additions to this open elevated plateau and considerably detract from the appearance of this part of the countryside.“
- Despite the conclusions in the Flood Risk Screening Appraisal, there remain some significant concerns about surface flooding, the impact on flood zones 2 and 3 and increased downstream flooding.
“Here, in the valley, the world seems to be constructed upon a smaller and more delicate scale; the fields are mere paddocks, so reduced that from this height their hedgerows appear a network of dark green threads overspreading the paler green of the grass. The atmosphere beneath is languorous, and is so tinged with azure that what artists call the middle distance partakes also of that hue, while the horizon beyond is of the deepest ultramarine. Arable lands are few and limited; with but slight exceptions the prospect is a broad rich mass of grass and trees, mantling minor hills and dales within the major. Such is the Vale of Blackmore.”
1.New plans to make UK world leader in green energy – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) Business and Energy Secretary Alok Sharma said: The offshore wind sector is a major British success story, providing cheap, green electricity while supporting thousands of good-quality jobs. Powering every home in the country through offshore wind is hugely ambitious, but it’s exactly this kind of ambition which will mean we can build back greener and reach net zero emissions by 2050.
2.As stated clearly in the CPRE document the renewable energy installed in West Dorset is already 120% of the target capacity and for Dorset Council is already 128% of Target. In “Greater Dorset” it even exceeds 100%. Therefore, with all the statements in Dorset and Government planning documents stating that we should protect our natural environment, there is no justification to go further in pursuing renewable energy in Dorset. So as to protect our wildlife, prevent further loss and enhance our natural environment this project must be rejected.
3. Community energy projects have an emphasis on local engagement, local leadership and control and the local community benefiting collectively from the outcomes. Community Energy – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
4. Hazelbury Bryan Neighbourhood Plan Final Version, November 2018 page 157. Locally Distinctive Hamlets and Important Gaps. The seven hamlets have remained distinct entities with open countryside between. However, together they form a cohesive modern community. A key natural landmark is Bulbarrow, which is visible on the skyline from many parts of the hamlets
5. Dorset does not even make the timetable for this month! Operational low flying training timetable 14 to 18 December 2020 – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
Image 8. A site layout showing the fields ringed with security fencing, inverter/transformer units and grid connection equipment.