Solar Farms – One Rule for Developers, Another for Cornwall Council?

During the last few months the bulk of work carried out by the Strategic Planning Committee has been about Solar Farms. Last Friday this Committee had a further nine to deal with. The reason I believe for the sudden rush is because developers want to get their planning permission all sorted before the deadline of August the 1st. This deadline is the Governments cut-off point to the generous Feed in Tariff (FiT) that’s paid for any energy produced. After this date the FiT dramatically drops, and in most cases will mean Solar Farms would be unviable.

Generally most applications are passed due to the strong local support and planning policy that favours renewable energy. Unlike Wind Farms, developers of Solar Farms have realised one major key to success is the community benefit the local population receives. The ‘standard price’ is £5,000 per MW per year and with the average farm being 5MW, the benefit can be as much £20,000 per year. It does not take a mathematician to work out that £20k per year over 25 years is a considerable pot of money that a community can spend on projects of it’s choosing.

This figure had been working well, that’s until Cornwall Council put in it’s own application for a Solar Farm. In the report the community benefit seemed on face value ok, it was only when questions were asked the benefits turns out not to be very much. It was claimed in this report that there would be a Visitor Centre for use for educational purposes. This turned out not to be a building, but a virtual centre that most people in the real world would call a web-site.

It was when we got onto the amount of money this application would give to the community things got a little unstuck. This application offered £20k, not per year, but for the whole of the 25 year lifespan of the farm. This point rankled many of the Committee, not just because it was a pittance of £800 per year, but more worryingly this could been seem as favouritism because it was a Council application. Developers could (and many would) have claimed they were being asked to pay a ‘standard price’ and Cornwall Council not having to pay the same price. The perception of not being treated fairly and equally because it was a Cornwall Council application and it was being dealt by Cornwall Council Committee.

This point was backed up by legal advice when this question was asked by members of the Committee. I will though point out that it was claimed any profit from this Solar Farm would be put into front line services, which If true I very much welcome. Even if all profits were put into services there is still no reason why similar application should be treated differently.

In the end the application was deferred for those concerns to be worked out before any permission is given. You may feel that a Planning Committee would just rubber-stamp any application by it’s own Council, but this is far from the case. From my experience, Councillors will make sure every application is treated fairly and there is consistency when it comes to similar applications.

I am not sure how the Executive took this news, but I can imagine one or two WTFs were said aloud when hearing this news.

One comment

  • Mathew Morgan

    This is such an interesting point!

    I am currently working on my dissertation comparing community and commercial developments in the SW, so have a good understanding of community funds and benefits from renewable projects.

    Firstly, it is great to see that a level of £5000 per MW for solar is being offered by developers, as in the past wind projects have offered at most £2000 per MW. Maybe developers have finally realised that having the community support prevents issues through planning!

    After my summer internship working for a local community wind developer I spent a lot of time trying to understand community benefits. Once I understood them, it was a given. The people being affected by projects should benefit.

    I also attended a few planning meetings for various Cornwall based wind projects and it soon came apparent that the opposition groups just wanted some sort of community benefit. On these grounds, councillors and planning officials found it hard to support the applications from developers.

    But for Cornwall Council then to go against their own policies and guidelines by offering such a pittance for a community fund is incredible! I feel that Cornwall Council (and all the councils nationwide) need some education on the profits that developments can make and what the community should receive in terms of benefits.

    With a greater understanding it could be said that everyone would win; Community fund leading to regeneration, renewable development helping to meet 2020 targets and easier planning with less opposition.

    Community funds are the way forward, for Cornwall Council to be going backwards and not leading the way seems ridiculous to me.

    Mathew Morgan

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