In the news: GVA’s Ben Lewis

Written by: Adam Branson
Published on: 23 Apr 2014

Ben Lewis

Last week the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) gave the go-ahead to a solar farm on an 11-hectare site Pembrokeshire in west Wales, concluding that the development would not cause undue harm to the character of the site and its surroundings.

Energy developer Elgin Energy EsCo Ltd had appealed Pembrokeshire County Council’s decision to refuse permission for the proposed 5MW scheme, including 19,000 panels, on open countryside at Wogaston Farm to the south east of Rhoscrowther.

Ben Lewis, an associate director for planning, development and regeneration in GVA's Cardiff office, worked on behalf of Elgin Energy and explains how he and his client went about securing the permission.

When did you get involved in the project?

I was involved from the outset. We advised Elgin throughout the planning process. We do a planning appraisal of the sites they pick up, which covers off general planning policy and any possible constraints that would need to be addressed through the planning process. That was the case with Wogaston Farm.

So were you expecting to run into difficulties with Pembrokeshire County Council?

You never know with solar farms. The approach we take with Elgin is that we’ll always put proposals out for public consultation before submission. We ran a public consultation event and invited neighbouring property owners so that they could understand the proposals and get a better idea of what is being put forward. That identified a couple of local residents who felt that their views of the scheme could be mitigated by additional tree planting, so we added that to the proposal. Part of the pre-application process was also to undertake a landscape assessment and on the back of that we removed one of the proposed fields from the submission to try and ensure that we were giving ourselves the best chance of winning approval.

So where did the difficulties arise?

The council’s view was that 10-15 years ago there was a wind turbine proposed for the same bit of land, which they refused and was also dismissed at appeal. Their view was that the impact was comparable. We made the point that generally speaking you can see wind turbines from miles around whereas solar farms have a much more localised impact. The site is predominantly flat, hedgerows generally screen the area and over its lifetime the hedges will grow further. We knew that the site was within a mile of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park and knew that might be a potential issue, but we felt that we had addressed everything and put together a robust set of photomontages that showed that the impact was acceptable.

Did you adapt your approach in order to make your case to the inspector?

No, we ran the same argument. We never plan for appeal. The aim is always to get approval first time around. The only additional work that we put in was that while the impact on tourism wasn’t given as reason in the refusal, it was clear from some of the dialogue that we had with the authority that they were concerned that the proximity of the site to what they class as a major tourist route to the beaches could have negative consequences. So we did some research and found that Cornwall County Council had done some research last year where they interviewed holidaymakers and found that the majority of people weren’t bothered about the presence of solar farms and that they had no impact on whether people would visit the county again. That issue was raised at one of the hearing sessions, but we were able to bat it away because we had the research in our back pocket.