Planning seminar: the highlights from a fascinating day

A growing issue: how do you respond to applications for solar farms? (pic Low Carbon)

Andrew Wood, former CPRE planner, returned to his former haunts (spiritually if not geographically) when he led a workshop in Chelmsford entitled How the planning system works, and how to influence it.
Held at the Essex Record Office Conference Centre, Chelmsford, on Friday, May 19, the workshop proved an undoubted success as everyone present got fully involved and clearly found it useful.

The morning session was devoted to policy:

  • How the planning system works
  • What is planning for?
  • Understanding and assessing planning policies
  • Local case study

After lunch it was time to look at influencing planning applications:

  • How different types of policy shape a planning decision
  • Impact, mitigation and net gain
  • Local case study

We were split into groups of four to set three real-life planning applications (we were only told their outcomes later) against planning policies. These were an application for a drive-through fast-food outlet, dental surgery and flats in a disused police station in a deprived area; another for a solar farm in an attractive rural landscape; and the third for 300 homes to replace a derelict factory in the Sheffield Green Belt.
Doubtless everyone would have taken their own standouts, but among them was the fact that a planning application should only be refused if acceptability issues can’t be resolved by conditions.
Also, at each stage of a consultation process, participants’ room for manoeuvre is reduced (by the time of a Local Plan’s Main Modifications, for example, you’re down to the final minutiae).
And of course the importance of checking Local Plans for relevant policies and, as ever, the National Planning Policy Framework was stressed. These need to be quoted in responses to help give decision-makers the information they need.
As an amusing (or not!) aside, Andrew referred to the nebulous if ostensibly harmless wording of the consultation document for the proposed Tendring Colchester Borders Garden Community… “I can’t see any value in this policy document,” he said ever so drolly.
After enthusiastic chomping on sandwiches and sausage rolls, we used the planning application to Epping Forest District Council for a 68-hectare solar farm in the Green Belt between Roydon and Harlow as a case study in how to formulate a response.
Elements relating to the proposal include:

  • It has a stated output of 49.9MW output (conveniently just within the 50MW threshold at which it would be treated as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project)
  • It has a stated lifespan of 40 years, after which point it will be returned to agricultural land (currently listed as a mix of Grade 2 and 3b arable)
  • A package of landscape and biodiversity measures has been included
  • The solar farm would be grazed by sheep between the panels (they are usually grazed on Grade 5 land). There were two ways of looking at this: firstly, sheep-farming would re-energise the land, but, alternatively, why graze sheep on land that could produce crops?
  • It is on slightly north-facing ground

Andrew bid us look at what the Epping Forest Local Plan told us. The premier constraint is the site’s location in the Green Belt, while it would cover much of the land between Roydon and Harlow Business Park. Unusually, much of the site is an open-area conservation area – most conservation areas are in towns – but a combination of the proposed solar farm and Water Lane Strategic Masterplan Area would result in the Harlow Green Belt boundaries being moved.
The applicant said that rights of way would be maintained and planted with hedgerows, while grassland habitats would be extended and the World’s End woodland retained should the proposal proceed.
We were asked to think about “motivated reasoning” – how would advocates and opponents of the proposal react differently to the landscape interventions?
Solar energy is relatively new, so policy varies widely from place to place. National policy is essentially still developing, with each case to be judged on its merits. In the case of EFDC, however, there is a clearly worded policy relating to solar.
At this point, Andrew pointed out a new trend for policy to be framed positively, eg ‘We will support where the scheme doesn’t…’
EFDC would need to consider whether the scheme harmed the Green Belt. If it did, there would have to be special circumstances for it to progress – and, if there were, could harm to the Green Belt be negated? Other positive and negative impacts would be considered before a balance could be determined.
It was suggested that the council’s declaration of a climate emergency could be regarded as a special circumstance, but we were told that special circumstance depends on how much harm is being done to the Green Belt.
The area in which the solar farm is being proposed is fulfilling the five functions of Green Belt, while one participant argued that there was no opportunity for ‘new’ Green Belt in the district.
The developer could not pretend that the scheme was completely harmless to landscape, although it would argue that screening and planting would enhance Green Belt enjoyment, even if it would take time for the planted trees to mature.
One participant cited the line often used by developers that a particular site was ‘of no great landscape value’ – often the answer to that was ‘It’s the only bit of green we’ve got, so it’s important’.
Those making the final decision would need to evaluate whether there were special circumstances to build in the Green Belt; whether the harm to the Green Belt was too great to mitigate; and whether the Green Belt was fulfilling its functions (note that loss of farmland is not a Green Belt issue).
Andrew told us he’s a strong believer that it’s better to put a strong planning argument rather than throw the kitchen sink at something. Too many wasted words will simply frustrate the inspector, who in this case might end up thinking you’re just a climate denier who doesn’t like solar farms.
There was nothing in solar policy requiring a developer to show they had looked at alternatives, such as rooftops. Instead, the application would be considered solely on its independent merits or otherwise.
One of the issues with solar farms is, of course, the impact on landscape, but how do we quantify enjoyment of landscape? A first port of call could be a visit to the Landscape Institute website, although the use of a landscape professional would be advisable.
As ever, as participants in a planning application or inquiry we should focus on the strongest point of our argument and the weakest part of ‘theirs’.
Strength and volume of objection is not a planning consideration. What matters is if a lot of people have cottoned on to a good planning argument. Of course the danger is that we can lose a planning appeal if we pursue a bad planning argument.
Far more was discussed during the day than can be given justice to here, but we’ll close with a final thought from Andrew:
The time to wave your placards is on the day the council’s planning committee meets… the political scare can sometimes be enough.

PS: And the three case studies from the morning?
The solar farm had clearly been approved (the photograph kind of gave that one away); the refurbishment of the disused police station and replacement with a fast-food outlet, dental surgery and flats was refused but after some redesigning resubmitted and given the go-ahead even though it was near a secondary school but just outside an exclusion-zone policy designed to reduce the siting of ‘unhealthy food’ suppliers close to schools; the application for 300 homes on a brownfield site was refused because of harm to the Green Belt.

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