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Solar farm developer sets out to undermine council's defence for rejecting Steeraway site plan

A developer's barrister gave a council consultant a grilling on the second day of an inquiry into a massive solar farm close to a Shropshire beauty spot.

Fields off Limekiln Lane, Wellington, Telford, next to the M54, where Steeraway solar farm is proposed to be built..
Fields off Limekiln Lane, Wellington, Telford, next to the M54, where Steeraway solar farm is proposed to be built..

Landscape consultant Douglas Harman provided landscape impact assessments to Telford & Wrekin Council which went on to refuse plans for a giant solar farm at Steeraway, off Limekiln Lane in Wellington.

David Hardy KC, for the appellants RE Projects Development (REPD) Limited & Steerway Solar, set out to prove that Mr Harman's assessment has been variously driven by emotion, were without foundation and had over-egged the impact that solar panels would have on the protected landscape.

Both sides in the planning inquiry and the inspector Matthew Shrigley say the main issue to be considered is the impact on the landscape.

The Stop Steeraway Solar Farm group

Mr Hardy said: "At worst people who do not like solar farms will have to metaphorically close their eyes for five minutes as they walk past."

He added that he "did not buy" evidence from a range of people during the first day of the inquiry on Wednesday that their enjoyment of the area would be affected on a short part of their walk.

Mr Harman hit back, saying: "Some people might stop using Limekiln Lane but everyone will see a detrimental impact. There are 3.3km of walking routes where people could see the solar farm."

In another tit-for-tat exchange Mr Hardy said Mr Harman's assessments had not been property assessed. Mr Harman said he clearly set them out to which Mr Hardy responded: "No you don't."

In another locking of horns Mr Hardy suggested he had used emotion when he "smiled" when approaching Limekiln Lane from under the M54 motorway bridge. And he had used the word "useless" to describe a landscape assessment provided by the developer.

Mr Harman said he and a council planning officer had smiled at each other during a visit to the site "because we got it right".

At one point Mr Hardy said: "It's all unravelling Mr Harman."

But Mr Harman responded; "I have been consistent throughout in relation to landscape."

There was another testy exchange when Mr Hardy said the area had an industrial heritage going back centuries, including coal mines and a power station.

"Solar is one of the new ways of generating power in an area rich in industrial heritage," he said.

Mr Harman said this had been "small scale" and since the activity ceased the area has been designated a strategic landscape.

When questioned on why the council did not have a policy against solar farms in the specific area, Mr Harman said: "The thought was captured in principle when we set the policy in 2015. In 2015 solar farms were small in scale and not proposing to cover an area of 75 football pitches.

"We thought there was not much chance of them in a valuable area and here we are today."

They also locked horns on the value of walking in the countryside.

Mr Hardy said: "It will be a fantastic resource even when a solar farm is in place. The T50 walk that was mentioned walks through Telford, but you want the babbling brook and birdsong."

Mr Harman responded: "Walking through countryside is much more beneficial."

The developer's barrister also argued that the solar farm would be beneficial to the area after 40 years of operation.

"The character will remain and it will be better after 40 years. It will improve the hedges and the physical character will be improved," said Mr Hardy.

Mr Harman said that could be the case in terms of the physical appearance but in terms of the aesthetics the solar farm would have a "significant impact".

Estelle Dehon KC, representing Telford & Wrekin Council, took the opportunity to re-examine Mr Harman.

She asked him whether his advice on the impact on the landscape and the area of outstanding natural beauty had been taken into account by planners at the council when they decided to reject the planning application.

Mr Harman said: "Yes. My advice has been followed into practice."

The inquiry continues.

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