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Committee revolt gives Christ Church its solar panels

When unstoppable utility meets administrative fixity, something’s got to give. Bernard McGinley, who also took the photos, looks at the Planning Committee’s recent decision to approve the installation of solar panels on the roof of a listed church in Ore against the advice of planners.

Shortly before the lockdown, some applications for solar panels on Christ Church Ore were assessed by Hastings Borough Council (HBC). Application HS/FA/19/01004  was for the installation of 26 solar panels on the south-facing (but low) roof  of Christ Church hall, immediately north of the church. It was approved as recommended, under delegated powers.  

Application HS/FA/19/00889, along with HS/LB/19/00890 for listed building consent, proposed putting 30 solar panels on the church roof. Unusually, the officers’ recommendation was for Refusal, for reasons of conservation and heritage.  Even more unusually, the advice was not taken.

A changing church

Christ Church Ore (not to be confused with its namesakes in Blacklands and central St Leonards) is ‘Decorated Gothic’ and has been Grade II listed since 1976. Its architect, in 1858, was Alexander Dick Gough, who in London also did St Pancras Old Church and (according to the great authority Pevsner) De Beauvoir Square.  Gough’s details at Ore included roof vents to let gaslighting fumes out: Victorian innovation given changing technology.

As the church had already made the transition from gas to electricity, many parishioners felt that further change to 21st century technology was a consistent and acceptable step. Scores of people wrote in to state their endorsement for the proposals, and there was a petition of support. The benefits of lower electricity costs were emphasised, and how Christ Church Ore as a ‘solar hub’ would benefit not just the community (in the much-used hall, for instance) but help local people experiencing fuel poverty. The fit with the Council’s Climate Emergency mandate was pointed out.

Solar panels on the church hall, though its exposure is relatively poor.

Considerations

The planning decision hinged on whether there was benefit from the proposals that outweighed the identified harm to the listed building. The officers thought not.  Remarkably, though many paragraphs of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) were cited in the committee report, neither Section 14 (‘Meeting the challenge of climate change’) nor paragraphs 148-54 on the same subject were mentioned. The proposals were found to be contrary to paragraphs 127-30 (on good design), and 189-202 (‘Proposals affecting heritage assets’). Various policies from the Local Plan were also not found to be met, including DM1 (on design principles), EN1 (on the built and historic environment) and HN1 (on harming the significance of a heritage asset). 

Also cited was Policy SC6 [the minutes say FC6] from the Local Plan. The planning services manager explained that the policy supported renewable energy unless a): the scale, form and impact [etc.] were not compatible with (among other things) listed buildings, and b): the proposals would adversely affect the local community, economy or historic interests. 

Some members disagreed on community benefit. Other opinion on the case was that the requirements of the NPPF are very clear in Section 14 on ‘Meeting the Climate Challenge’ for instance, paragraph 148’s requirement that 

the planning system should support the transition to a low carbon future in a changing climate,

and

support renewable and low carbon energy and associated infrastructure.

The head petitioner, Val Smith, a church warden, spoke in favour of the application and then answered members’ questions. Among other matters she explained that there was no intention to risk damaging the church’s expensive new roof. 

Schematic showing the 30 solar panels on the church roof (image: HS/LB/19/00890 Elevation Drawing).

On the fine question of compliance, the application’s Heritage Statement had pointed out that ‘as the proposal was to provide a discreet installation in a major effort to combat climate change, therefore the requirements of the Local Plan were also fully met and satisfied’.

Emergency detour

The climate change/global emergency background is important. In February 2019, Full Council unanimously declared a climate emergency:

Hastings Council takes this matter so seriously that we’re committed to taking a lead on this and set[ting] a target for Hastings to become carbon neutral.

Among its provisions was to

Appoint a member-level ‘Climate Change Champion’ to oversee the implementation of the above commitments and monitor the progress of the council’s progress towards doing all it can to make Hastings a carbon-neutral town. 

Even in April 2020 a Council press release stated (following a special Council meeting in March):

The vision is to make Hastings carbon neutral by 2030.

The less seen side of Christ Church.

However, the Cabinet-level ‘Climate Change Champion’ was discontinued in the recent HBC reshuffle under the new leader, Cllr Forward.  Cllr Maya Evans is no longer responsible for ‘Climate Change, Biodiversity and Sustainable Development’, but ‘Natural Environment and Leisure Portfolio Holder’, which sounds vaguer and less urgent.

 

Committee decision

Areas of concern about the Christ Church Ore application were explored, including ‘protection’, ‘harm’, ‘character’ in a heritage asset, and degrees of confidence in assurances offered by various experts. The problem of ‘glint and glare’ was one such issue, met by the specification that the panels would be dark grey and matt. Load and roof stability was another, verified by a structural engineer’s report.  

Local councillor Andrew Battley was of the view that the Council’s plans to make the Borough carbon neutral and energy self-sufficient, to help deal with climate change, helped vindicate the application. 

The view that emerged at the Planning Committee was that an application that tried to address this vital matter had support in both national  and local policy. A motion to refuse the Christ Church Ore application was proposed by Councillor Phil Scott and seconded by Councillor Sorrell Marlow-Eastwood. This was rejected by six votes to four. Eventually the motion to approve was made by Cllr Warren Davies and seconded by Cllr Mike Edwards, and carried by six votes to four. 

Energise Sussex Coast and Energise South

The terms of the solar panel deal involve both Energise Sussex Coast, the ‘local energy co-op, community benefit society’, and its solar energy arm, Energise South (for solar energy for East Sussex). The supply, installation and maintenance of the panels is at no cost to the church, under a 25-year licence.  

The electricity generated is to be supplied to the church at a reduced rate (12.5p per kilowatt hour (kWh), though the Committee report says 8.5p) and reviewed annually, in line with inflation. Energise South will sell unused units to the national grid at a Fixed Income Tariff (FIT) of 4p per kWh, less generous than previous arrangements. From this income Energise South will pay back the investment on the panels over the scheme’s lifetime. The project is one of several financed by a community share offer launched last year.

ESC are in Silchester Mews, St Leonards, and have connexions to many local organisations. They work with local service providers, community energy groups, social housing enterprises and local authorities, including HBC, with which they have an agreement to work on tackling the impact of climate change.

The solar panels have already been installed on the church hall and Energy South expects to install them on the church this summer — as long as they are in place by September, the project qualifies for the FIT.

The church’s intention is to be a beacon in the local community, willing to take action on climate change and to influence other churches and the local area. With its new fuel source, Christ Church Ore could make an admirable eco-church, a champion of green energy. By the time its panels are no longer usable, the technology will very likely have moved on again.

Meanwhile half a dozen other churches in the diocese, including some with listed buildings, have contacted ESC to express an interest in having rooftop solar installed.

Christ Church, with the War Memorial on the right.

 

Posted 12:25 Thursday, Jun 25, 2020 In: Home Ground

2 Comments

Please read our comment guidelines before posting on HOT

  1. Matthew

    It’d be more efficient to put the money in one of the pre-existing renewable energy investment funds that’d be free to put solar in the Sahara or wind offshore. Renewable energy is much more efficient on a larger scale and England isn’t really the optimal place for solar

    Comment by Matthew — Thursday, Jul 2, 2020 @ 17:36

  2. David Woolf

    One of the benefits of solar panels on old roofs is that they do not detract in the long term from the heritage asset. If, in twenty or so years the human race has not managed to polish itself off but has come up with a better solution to energy generation, the panels can be removed and roof will be much as it ever was.

    As one living in a historic building I accept that the look of our quaint old town may need to change for a while. Indeed, the desire to preserve so much of our inefficient and inappropriate building stock is standing in the way of reducing one of the biggest area of carbon consumption. Planning law and practice will need to change, as well as the ‘theme park Britain’ attitude if climate change is to reversed.

    Comment by David Woolf — Monday, Jun 29, 2020 @ 09:54

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