Why didn’t Hastings Council consult Natural England before suggesting a solar array in the country park?

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From: Cllr Andy Patmore, Deputy leader, Conservative Group, Hastings Borough Council

These are the reasons I think Hastings Borough Council were wrong to bring the prospect (by means of a feasibility study) of developing a ground solar panel array in our Country Park to Cabinet on Monday January 8.

The idea of developing anything in Hastings Country Park is ALWAYS going to draw attention from the public because it is in the North Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and most of the park is designated as an SSSI (site of special scientific interest). Although development of this site is within the remit of Hastings Borough Council it must pass a planning application where HBC would have to consult a very important statutory body, Natural England. Natural England have the power to object on environmental grounds and their objection would almost certainly scupper ANY plan to develop on or near an SSSI.

My main question at Cabinet was, “Have you consulted Natural England?”

The answer was, “no”.

Which leads to the logical question of; why would you put an idea out in the public domain without having a chat/letter/email with the statutory body who could really make the whole notion meaningless. Natural England charge a fee for questions but I guarantee the fee is considerably less than paying consultants to do a feasibility study.

The entire idea of putting solar panels in the Country Park is flawed as I see it. This opinion has nothing to do with aesthetics or NIMBYism and it has nothing to do with saving the planet or HBC income generation.

If you read Natural England’s publication titled Evidence Review of the Impact of Solar Farms on Birds, Bats and General Ecology, published March 2017, you would have thought it might set alarm bells ringing with regards to PV array development near SSSIs.

I quote, “When considering site selection for utility scale solar developments it is generally agreed that protected areas should be avoided. This is reflected in the scientific literature where modelling approaches include many factors such as economic considerations and visual impact but also often avoid protected areas such as Special Protection Areas. This is echoed by organisations such as Natural England and the RSPB that recommend that solar PV developments should not be built on or near protected areas.”

The report goes on to say, “Solar PV developments have the potential to negatively impact a broad range of taxa including birds, bats, mammals, insects and plants. In light of this, it is highly recommended that research is undertaken into the ecological impacts of solar PV arrays across a broad range of taxa at multiple geographical scales.”

This means that we shouldn’t be building ground solar arrays next to SSSIs without doing a wider national study in to how they might be affected.

Of course the move towards renewable energy sources is progressive and admirable, however more needs to be done to understand the interaction between these new technologies and the ecology that they are ultimately designed to protect. For now, in other words, look elsewhere to develop solar arrays other than on or near SSSIs.

Leader of the council Peter Chowney agreed to add an amendment which said HBC would ask Natural England for their opinion before spending up to £80,000 on consultants. But this was only ‘added’ to the flawed recommendation put in front of Cabinet, so Cllr. Lee and I were unable to support the amendment.