Essex: Villages voice fears over plans for three separate solar farms

An aerial view of a solar farm at Parham. Villagers are concerned at the potential impact of three o

An aerial view of a solar farm at Parham. Villagers are concerned at the potential impact of three other solar farm bids on the Suffolk/Essex border

Communities in north Essex are urging the Government to introduce clear planning guidelines that could prevent valuable farmland from being swamped by solar panels.

People living in the villages of Pentlow, Foxearth, Liston, Belchamp St Paul and Belchamp Otten, just over the border from Sudbury, are worried that up to 300 acres of Grade II arable land has been earmarked for solar farms by at least three different developers.

Sovereign Energy has submitted an application for a 40-acre solar farm at Big Deere Lodge Field, between Pentlow and Belchamp St Paul, which is due to be decided by Braintree District Council next month.

Another firm, Push Energy, has approached the district authority about installing an additional 55 acres on Bunting’s Farm in Pentlow. All of the schemes would connect to the national grid via the Belchamp St Paul substation.

But now the parish councils of the affected villages have banded together to form a joint committee to push for effective planning guidance for renewable energy projects in rural areas.

Around 80 people attended an emergency meeting on Thursday night, including Braintree MP Brooks Newmark, who is to present a petition to Parliament and lobby Local Government Minister Eric Pickles on behalf of the villagers.

Mr Newmark told the EADT: “The solar farms suggested for this area would be sited on Grade II arable land which is in the top 21% of agricultural land in the UK.

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“The idea of placing up to 300 acres of solar panels in such a location is unthinkable. They look more like something you’d expect to see in the Tate Modern than in a rural landscape like this.”

Current Government guidelines for when local planning authorities should seek an environmental impact assessment in relation to an application do not mention the words ‘solar, photovoltaic, large scale or ground based’. And according to Foxearth & Liston Parish Council chairman Clive Waite, this could lead planners to consider that solar farms, regardless of size, are not subject to the guidance.

He said the village residents were not ‘nimbys’ and the parish councils supported the reduction in CO2 emission levels through the adoption of renewable energy technologies.

But he wants the Government to ensure the distribution of solar farms across the landscape is contained at an acceptable level. Alternative brownfield sites in the area should also be considered before giving up prime agricultural land, he said.

“The sheer amount of land in our small locality that could soon go under solar arrays is a very worrying development indeed,” Mr Waite said.

“But when it comes to solar farms, the local planning authority has little relevant policy to turn to and is forced to interpolate intent from existing policy in order to reach a decision.

“This is not acceptable and we must push for a comprehensive and relevant policy that provides for a commensurate level of protection for local communities.

“It seems only reasonable that any scheme we might be asked to consider should be proportionate in size, be sensitively located and should not result in the loss of high quality food producing land for the next quarter of a century.”

Essex County Council leader David Finch, who also attended the meeting said it would be a “travesty” if the solar farm plans went ahead.

He added: “It would be a blot on the landscape and the loss of Grade II agricultural land to a solar farms is not acceptable.”