Battle lines are drawn over plans for 80-acre solar plant in West valley
One of the country’s largest arrays of solar panels could be built in Devon if two planning applications are approved – Martin Hesp has been to Morebath to gauge the mood of the community.
Residents of a remote Devon village are preparing to fight two planning applications in their valley which could see the building of the region's largest cluster of solar power stations.
Objectors say the two neighbouring solar parks combined would cover more than 80 acres – an area large enough to house eight Wembley Stadiums.
And the majority of Morebath residents are worried the two projects' estimated 45,000 solar panels would ruin agricultural land and drive tourists away from the scenic area located just over a mile from the border of Exmoor National Park.
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Mid Devon Council has received an application for the installation of a photovoltaic solar farm to provide up to five megawatts (MW) of renewable electricity at Loyton Farm, a mile east of Morebath, and a second application – from a separate company and landowner – to build a 5.7MW scheme at Keens Farm, closer to the village.
The two schemes combined could – in sunny weather – provide power to 2,000 homes, but local protesters are preparing their battle lines. The village is littered with posters bearing edicts like "Green Not Greed", letters have been written to local and national politicians and protesters have even mounted an ongoing petition aimed at stopping the proliferation of solar power stations on the Prime Minister's No. 10 website.
Parish councillor Tony Conway believes most people in his community are outraged by the two plans.
He says: "There are about 330 people who dwell in this village and I would say the vast majority are against – the only people I have met who agree with it are the landowners involved."
He and his fellow protesters now believe the Morebath solar power station debacle will act as a test case across the region and beyond.
"This is the thin end of a wedge," said local resident Alan Jones, who happens to be a professional planning consultant.
"Small communities like this are soft targets for developers.
"But there are perfectly acceptable solutions for generating energy by solar power that would not damage the landscape or the local economy, which is mostly based on agriculture and tourism here. This kind of development certainly will.
He added: "It is driven by profit. But there are good alternatives. You should put solar panels on brownfield land adjacent to urban areas, where it's easier to plug in to the grid – places where the usage is. They should go on sites such as the large flat roofs of industrial and retail buildings.
"This is not a first in the region, but it is the biggest we've seen so far – 80 acres is a very big site. Most people won't understand how big that is, but we've got an aerial photograph on which we've superimposed eight Wembley Stadiums – that's how big it is."
Mr Jones and other protesters point out that Devon's official planning policies call for a target figure for the generation of renewable energy within the county. But he added: "No one, either from the county or the Mid Devon Council, knows how close we are to meeting that target. I've checked.
"And if you don't know that, it would be unsafe to give the go-ahead to these developments."
The overall target of 151MW includes generation from domestic solar panels on house roofs as well as commercial schemes.
"If you add it all together, maybe Devon has already exceeded its target," said Mr Jones, who believes there would be no need to despoil open countryside with giant solar power stations if that is the case.
It seems Morebath was predestined to host a cluster of solar generation plants – the valley not only runs east to west, meaning a lengthy area of south-facing slope – but, buried in its rich Devon soil, is a major grid cable. This holds an important key for potential generators, as a representative for one of the applicant generation companies told the WMN.
"There are a number of criteria we use to select an appropriate site. One is a good connection – whether the network can take as much electricity as we can generate," said Johnny Wearmouth, a spokesman for Wessex Solar Energy, which has put forward the Loyton Farm application.
"That cable has been part of our selection process – it has a suitable voltage," he said, adding that on-site connection to such a cable would save a generation company money when it came to connecting to the grid.
He added that brownfield sites were not always suitable for solar power generation, but would not be drawn on whether or not Morebath could act as a test case for the whole region.
Mr Wearmouth added: "Obviously we can't comment on other people's plans – but one thing that will limit the amount of applications is the lack of good grid connection."
Alan Kerr, of Wessex Solar Energy, claimed his company had a track record in building sensitively located and well-constructed solar parks.
"We have received 100% success on our applications for planning – perhaps the only large-scale developer with this accolade," he said.
"The proposed solar park at Loyton is little different from our other parks in this regard: it is carefully located, after having been handpicked from hundreds of sites we surveyed."
A spokesman for Mid Devon Council, which will be hearing the applications from Wessex Solar and Juwi Renewable Energies in January, pointed to the Devon Structure Plan 2001-2016 on renewable energy developments. This states that approval for solar schemes should be "subject to the consideration of their impact upon the qualities and special features of the landscape and upon the conditions of those living and working nearby.
"Development of renewable energy capacity is supported where local impact is acceptable with particular reference to visual, nearby residents and wildlife."
Morebath's protesters believe those two paragraphs alone ought to be enough to halt the two proposed schemes.
Peter Gibson, one of the residents organising the fight against the solar panels, told the WMN: "Locally we are watching the sort of planing decisions being made (several smaller schemes were discussed by Mid Devon Council yesterday), but on a national scale we've written to the Prime Minister voicing our concern that there is no real policy or guidance given to local authorities when it comes to solar panels.
"We are taking farmland away from farming and food production – and this is a ticking time bomb," said Mr Gibson.
"Everyone knows we are facing food shortages in the future.
"And what happens to these panels when they come to the end of their life?" he added. "They are made of toxic chemicals and as yet the EU has not got its act together – and won't do until 2014 when it will tell people what they have to do with waste panels.
"We are encouraging people to contact the Mid Devon planning committee – there are about 400 objections so far to these schemes. We also have a No. 10 petition at: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petition/42419."
This week Winston Baker's bungalow, located in a sylvan corner in the middle of this most rural of valleys, looked very far away indeed from London's Downing Street. Flocks of birds came to feed on Mr Baker's various bird-tables as he looked out over the countryside and shook his head.
"I've lived here for years but now, suddenly, we're told we could be more surrounded by these panels than anyone else," he said, pointing to a nearby hedge where a two-metre security fence would shroud the potential power station.
"We often see the deer here and we've got lots of birdlife, but I think the wildlife would be severely affected. Then we get walkers, horse-riders and cyclists – they won't like it," he added.
Looking at another part of his garden where yet more security fencing would surround another part of the installation, he said: "Of course, it would devalue my property… I don't know if we would leave or not, because I just don't dare think of it happening.
"It came as a big shock to me and my wife. We've been stunned."
And so the battle-lines are drawn – and it might be noted that Morebath is a village famed for its will to put up a good fight.
During the bloody Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549, centred on Exeter, villagers raised money for a group of young local men to join the rebel camp.
Not all of the lads came back, but Morebath still remembers them – and the fighting spirit which sent them on their way.