Developers and council butt heads as inquiry into controversial Steeraway solar farm plans begins
Two solar farms proposed close to a much-loved beauty spot would devastate the prized local landscape, said residents, campaigners and some interest groups at a public inquiry that began today.
One of the big renewable energy plans - for a contested site off New Works Lane, at the base of The Wrekin - was said to be within days of a decision being made as public inquiry proceedings got underway for a second controversial site at nearby Steeraway Farm.
A three-day public inquiry into the Steeraway site, off Limekiln Lane in Wellington, began today at the Ironbridge Suite at AFC Telford's ground.
David Hardy KC, for the appellants RE Projects Development (REPD) Limited & Steerway Solar, told the inspector, Matthew Shrigley, that the decision on the plan for New Works Lane was set for March 30. That would be only days after the Steeraway inquiry finishes and could have a bearing on the closing statements of both parties.
The inspector, Telford & Wrekin Council, which refused planning permission, agrees with the developers that the main issue they will be locking legal horns over in the next few days is the harm to the landscape. Steeraway alone would cover the equivalent of 80 football pitches.
Mr Hardy accepts that harm would be caused to the landscape but that would be overwhelmed by the benefits Steeraway would bring.
Calling for an end to a "hopscotch" approach where some solar farms are granted and others are not Mr Hardy said it was time to "get on" with tackling climate change.
"There is a need to get on with renewable energy generation, we absolutely have to get on," he said. He called to an end to an approach where solar farms are always expected to be "somewhere else."
"It is not possible to make an omelette without breaking eggs but we have to get on, we've got to accept change," said Mr Hardy.
Estelle Dehon KC, for Telford & Wrekin Council, which had refused planning permission, rejected that the authority's approach had been "hopscotch". She agreed that the council recognised the climate emergency and the need to "get on".
"The council has its own solar farm and has approved 86 solar farms since 1987." But she added that "it must be the right scheme and in the right location. That is not about 'hopscotch'."
The site is in the Wrekin Forest Strategic Landscape and close to the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural beauty.
The Steeraway plan has 77,200 photovoltaic panels – something the firm behind the plans say would generate enough electricity to power around 11,000 homes, reducing carbon emissions by 7,000 tonnes annually.
Ms Dehon KC said that some schemes would "damage the cause of renewables" and added "this is the right development but it's in the wrong place."
Some 30 members of the public, including councillors, campaigners, walkers, and horse riders attended the inquiry's opening day at the Ironbridge Suite at AFC Telford United's ground in Wellington.
Anne Suffolk, of local Ramblers groups, said: "Solar farms are not farms.
"If the plan at New Works Lane and this one are granted it would change this area into one continuous built-up landscape."
And speaking of the importance of exposure to the countryside to mental health, she added: "We have a public health emergency as well as a climate emergency."
She added that she had made no objections to solar farms in other areas.
She appealed for the inspector to support the Telford & Wrekin Local Plan and its democratic process.
"Or what is the point in having the local plan in the first place?" she said.
Councillor Jacqui Seymour, who represents Wrockwardine, spoke of the need to protect agricultural land and worried about the impact on property prices of the 3m-tall steel fences that would be needed to protect it.
Chris Deaves, chair of trustees for Zero Carbon Shropshire, supports the scheme on the need to reduce carbon emissions.
"Whilst there is some harm, mitigations are available," he said. "There is a need for renewables and the need for speed.
"This is partly a national decision, not just confined to the local environment and to local people."
Councillor Angela McClements said Limekiln Lane is her ward's piece of the countryside, which is vital for residents' mental health.
"It is important to have access to green spaces," she said. "It is difficult to find a more sensitive site."
Wellington mayor, Dorothy Roberts, is a supporter of walking and the boost it gives to the local economy.
She said: "This will be very detrimental to the walking experience."
Councillor Dave Cooper, of Little Wenlock Parish Council, said the council itself has declared a climate emergency and has heat pumps and solar panels at the village hall. He is an owner of an electric vehicle.
But he said: "This would be a detrimental change to the strategic landscape and be a significant harm to the area.
"Proposed mitigation is insufficient, this is not a brownfield site."
He appealed to the inspector to lobby for a change to planning policy so that energy generation was made at the point of use, through panels on roofs.
Jocelyn Lewis, a resident of Little Wenlock, said: "Policy does not support solar at any cost."
She slammed the developers as "businessmen with no connection to the local area."
And Paul Kalinauckas, of Bowring Park Runners and Walkers, said during lockdown "people streamed up there and discovered this Narnia. It is very very popular.
"It will destroy the ambiance of Limekiln Lane, no doubt about it."
Claiming not be a "nimby or a dinosaur" John Yorke, of Lawley village, said if granted it would create a "carbuncle solar farm."
"It would be the biggest, unsightliest carbuncle imaginable. We strongly ask that this appeal is refused."
Greg Sinclair, of the CPRE in Telford & Wrekin, said: "Solar has a role to play but it must be balanced with the need to protect the countryside and agricultural land.
"Government policy does not support solar at any cost."
He added that the table of people giving evidence on behalf of the developers were representing "a few shareholders who have never been to the site."
And Lawley resident Sarah Fahy said Steeraway is an important site for "generations who care about this landscape."
She said people were against "the destruction of biodiversity in favour of money" by those who were "under the guise of people wanting to give us energy".
"If local opinion counts for anything, this appeal should be refused."
The public inquiry is set to continue on Thursday and Friday.