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Objectors hold placards at the Cabinet meeting, saying, "No solar farms in our nature reserve" and "Preserve our reserve."

Objectors hold placards at the Cabinet meeting, saying, “No solar farms in our nature reserve” and “Preserve our reserve.”

Council’s solar farms scheme faces Natural England test

Hastings Borough Council’s Cabinet has decided to give priority to consulting Natural England on its plan to locate solar farms in the Country Park – if the agency gives the thumbs down, the plan will not be able to proceed. Objectors attended the meeting in some numbers, just one indication that the plan is proving controversial. The Greens are holding a public meeting this evening, Thursday 10th, to discuss it. Nick Terdre reports.

Introducing the plan for large-scale solar farms to the Cabinet meeting on 7 January, HBC’s income generation manager Marcus Lawler stressed that work was still at an early stage – it was the best estimate of what might be possible, he said, but the assumptions had not been tested through professional opinion and engaging with other agencies.

The plan proposes building three one megawatt ground-mounted solar arrays, two in the Country Park close to Place Farm and one on Upper Wilting Farm in Crowhurst. The sites, all agricultural land owned by HBC, offer the ability to connect at minimum cost to the grid. The Pebsham landfill site was also considered but ruled out on the grounds that the land is too unstable.

The solar farms scheme comes within the council’s programme of investing £6 million in energy projects up to 2020/21 as part of its income generation strategy – £4.24 million remains to be invested. According to the report to Cabinet, the benefits it offers include the “potential to contribute to Hastings’ fuel poverty issues” and to carbon reduction.

Council leader Peter Chowney chairing the Cabinet, with Tory councillors Any Patmore and Rob Lee to his right.

Council leader Peter Chowney chairing the Cabinet, with Tory councillors Andy Patmore and Rob Lee to his right.

£2.1m investment

The capital requirement would be £2.1 million, and annual gross revenue is estimated at £165,000-430,000 depending on how the power is sold.

The proposal before Cabinet was to approve a budget of £80,400 to prepare the detailed business case. That breaks down into £26,800 to pay for specialist studies on each of the three sites.

Mr Lawler told the meeting that the designated fields in the Country Park were believed to carry the least environmental, archeological and aesthetic impact. The choice of site was challenged by Cllr Rob Lee, leader of the Tory group, who said he could not support putting solar panels in the Country Park.

“We may own the Country Park but we are stewards of it,” he said. “Is it not deeply ironic that to save the environment, we destroy it?” he added, to applause from the two dozen or so objectors among the spectators, who were displaying banners with slogans such as “No solar farm in our nature reserve.”

Labour council leader Peter Chowney, who chaired the meeting, replied that the council was obliged to look at large-scale solar projects as small-scale ones were no longer viable following the removal of the feed-in tariff by the Tory government.

Problems for wildlife

The other Tory councillor Cabinet member, Andy Patmore, said he believed the project would never get the go-ahead from Natural England because of the problems for wildlife caused by solar arrays in the vicinity of protected areas such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest and conservation areas.

The areas shaded red show the proposed locations of the solar farms in the Country Park (source: Business Case: Ground Mounted Solars Arrays, report to Cabinet).

The areas shaded red show the proposed locations of the solar farms in the Country Park (source: Business Case: Ground Mounted Solars Arrays, report to Cabinet).

The point was accepted by Cllr Chowney, who moved an amendment that the next step should be to consult Natural England – if the proposal failed to pass that hurdle, it would have to be dropped. The amended motion was passed, with the five Labour members present voting for it and the two Tories against, but not before Labour Cllr Colin Fitzgerald told Cllr Lee he wouldn’t be taking any lessons from the Tory party which had consistently backed fracking, the use of fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Opposition to the scheme has come from various quarters, including MP Amber Rudd, who has launched a petition against it which at presstime had gained nearly 1,000 signatures. Among other reasons for opposing the scheme, Ms Rudd says it would destroy up to 10 acres of the Country Park which is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the predicted income is wholly unreliable (though she gives no justification for this statement), and there has been no consultation.

Ms Rudd’s intervention has itself been criticised. “In my view, this has had the unfortunate effect of turning the issue into a party political one,” local resident Russell Hall, who has no party political affiliation, told HOT. “It would have been better if a petition had been initiated by a non political organisation such as the Friends of Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve.

“It also smacks of hypocrisy, given Ms Rudd’s support for fracking projects, which cause considerable damage to the countryside.”

Sheep grazing in the westernmost field proposed for a solar array in the Country Park, as seen from the adjacent public footpath.

How visible would the solar farms be? In the case of the westernmost of the proposed fields, there is a direct view from the adjacent public footpath.

“Irresponsible”

The Friends of Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve have also come out against the scheme, which they dub irresponsible. Michael Moor, the chair, said, “The Friends appreciate the importance of renewable energy. However, the Country Park is described in the opening words of The Council’s Development Management plan adopted only in 2015, as being ‘Hastings’ area of true countryside – and it is a very special area of countryside. … This is an area where the natural environment is of paramount importance’.  In other words, the most inappropriate place one could imagine for an industrial installation of this sort.”

Meanwhile Hastings Green Party say they have “serious reservations about the siting of 10 acres of solar panels in our much-loved Hastings Country Park…but few [solar farms] if any have been permitted in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty such as Hastings Country Park. Recently Peter Chowney gave his support for Hastings making a bid for UNESCO world heritage status. How does this square with siting a solar farm on the cliff tops?”

They also express “grave concerns about yet again the complete lack of any prior consultation with local people, and urge the council to work with our local Community Energy Co-op, Energise Sussex Coast, to pre-register solar roofs on public and community buildings that can still benefit from the feed-in-tariff…

“Renewable energy is a huge opportunity to work together as a community to create a safe, affordable and secure locally owned energy supply…It should be possible in the next year to find 2MW of roof space across the town instead of industrialising the country park – for example, various industrial estates and sites like the Conquest Hospital,” they say.

The Greens will discuss their response to the solar farms proposal at an open meeting in White Rock Hotel tonight, 10 January, at 6.30pm.

View of the westernmost proposed site in the Country Park - the farther field, with sheep - from Tilekiln Lane.

View of the westernmost proposed site in the Country Park – the farther field, with sheep – from Tilekiln Lane to the north.

Posted 17:24 Thursday, Jan 10, 2019 In: Energy

3 Comments

Please read our comment guidelines before posting on HOT

  1. Ms.Doubtfire

    Now that Hastings council has dicovered a seemingly bottomless pit of loans available from the Public Works Loan Board there will be no stopping our Leader Cllr. Peter Chowney from borrowing huge sums for very dubious schemes. No doubt he intends obtaining the £2+million needed for these solar panels via these loans..
    There has been much news recently in the national press about the viability of these loans at a time when the retail market is in serious trouble – a senior source at the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy said it was “extremely worried about what might happen to essential services if the property market took a downturn…” This was in reference to Spelthorne Councils huge borrowings. Let us hope that our council is taking advice from reliable sources as to the viability of their borrowings and investments. We hear little about who is reviewing this spending spree within the authority’s team.

    Comment by Ms.Doubtfire — Thursday, Jan 24, 2019 @ 12:01

  2. Richard

    We all need to pray that Natural England step up to the mark and put an end to this horrifying scheme – as I am sure they will. In the meantime HBC will waste £80,000 on “feasibility studies”… surely there are more urgent uses for £80,000 in Hastings and St Leonards?? Not HBC’s finest hour.

    Comment by Richard — Saturday, Jan 19, 2019 @ 17:12

  3. Ms.Doubtfire

    How shameful is this – and how sad that Chowney cannot even use the correct name when he refers to Natural England. He insists of referring to this organisation as English Nature when they changed their name so many years ago. Just shows how in touch and how interested he is in anything to do with our natural world.
    It would appear that even the Green Party is not happy with this plan. How could anyone be happy with it? And why does this council and the Leader persist in making hugely important decisions without any prior consultation with the electorate. This council truly is becoming a dictatorship. Time for the people of Hastings to make a stand and let this council know in no uncertain terms that we have had enough.

    Comment by Ms.Doubtfire — Friday, Jan 11, 2019 @ 19:08

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