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View across the westernmost field proposed for a solar farm towards Place Farm.

View across the westernmost field proposed for a solar farm towards Place Farm.

Solar panels in the Country Park – ecology or politics? II

Hastings Borough Council passed a resolution at the Cabinet meeting on 7 January to spend up to £80,000 investigating whether to install 10 acres of solar panels in two arrays in Hastings Country Park. A third array is proposed for Upper Wilting Farm in Crowhurst. In her second interview on the matter, HOT’s Chandra Masoliver talks to  Michael Moor, chair of The Friends of Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve, which has strenuously opposed the development.

CM: Are you in favour of installing solar panels?

MM: In recent years the UK has substantially increased its generation of electricity from sustainable sources, especially from offshore wind farms. We are now familiar with the view of the turbines from, for example, Brighton, Margate and North Norfolk beaches. This achievement is to be applauded. We are also familiar with solar panels and these are entirely suitable when fixed to roofs, in industrial areas and on brownfield sites.

Hastings Council has decided do something quite different. Their plan is to build 10 acres of ground mounted solar panels with their associated equipment and, no doubt, surrounded by security fencing in Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve.

What do you think of HBC’s chosen site in the Country Park, and should they be more consultative as to suitable sites?

In essence the Country Park is an area of open land which in historic planning terms provides a breather for the public between Hastings and Fairlight. But it’s much more than that. It’s designated as a Local Nature Reserve, within the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and the sites chosen for the 10 acres of solar panels by the Council are directly adjacent to a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation.

We all, including Hastings Council, have to operate within planning rules that are set both nationally and locally.

Michael Moor.

Michael Moor.

The Country Park is described in the opening words of the Council’s own 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”.  So, whilst The Friends of The Country Park Nature Reserve appreciate the importance of renewable energy, this is the most inappropriate place one could imagine for an industrial installation of this sort.

In terms of consultation there has been none. I am a member of the Council’s Management Forum for the Country Park and sit alongside councillors to discuss issues related to the Country Park. We meet three times a year and the last meeting was on 9 November 2018. The very eagle-eyed will have noticed that the Business Case presented to the Cabinet was first circulated to Council officers on 1 November 2018.

I did not learn of the proposal to site 10 acres of solar panels in the Country Park until the Cabinet papers were issued on 1 January. Since then no councillor or officer has contacted me.

Sensibly, on 7 January 2019, whilst approving the recommendation to go ahead and develop the proposal, Hastings Cabinet did finally decide to talk to Natural England.

What is your opinion of Amber Rudd launching an appeal? Is this turning into a political issue?

Your question suggests that there is something inherently wrong with this being a political issue. I don’t find anything wrong with the majority party (Labour) on the Council putting up a proposal and the minority party (Conservative) pointing out what’s wrong with the recommendation. Amber Rudd’s petition was a part of the process of the Conservatives trying to be an effective opposition.

The discussion at the Cabinet meeting was quite respectful and mainly focused on relevant issues.

But, there are three things that are wrong about the political process that we have seen.

First, the Hastings community needs to be confident about the Council’s motives. It is significant that the report to the Cabinet by the Council’s Director of Operational Services is set in the context of the Council’s ability “to make a significant contribution to the objectives of the Income Generation strategy”, not of environmental objectives. Indeed, the report itself does not make it clear that two of the three proposed sites are actually in the Country Park.

We all support the idea of generating energy from renewable sources for the benefit of the environment. But this was not the main objective of the Council until the plan began to attract significant opposition from local people. Then the Council began to apply a veneer of greenwash to cover its real motives for the plan, that of income generation from an industrial scale plant.

Second, we all understand that, in these difficult times for local authority finances, the Council needs to generate extra funds. But it owes it to its electors to respect its own and national planning policies. Householders have to follow the Council’s planning policies and the Council should lead the community by doing the same.

Third, the political process should make it possible for the Council to learn from its mistakes. Your readers may well be aware of what I call the Rocklands fiasco where a totally inappropriate building was allowed directly overlooking Ecclesbourne Glen and the East Hill which are both within the Country Park. The Council should treat its stewardship of the Country Park, a vital community asset, with greater sensitivity.

The Friends of Hastings Country Park will continue their non-party political work fighting for our aim: “To protect, promote and enhance the natural environment of the Reserve, and to encourage others to join us in this work, so that the value of the Reserve and its wildlife are protected for future generations”.

Join us!

 

Friends of Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve website.

 

Posted 11:09 Wednesday, Jan 16, 2019 In: Energy