Plans for a giant solar farm in the middle of a cherished rural Blackmore Vale landscape have been given the green light by Dorset councillors despite a recommendation for refusal by planning officers.
The application by Voltalia for land at Higher Stockbridge Farm, three miles to the south of Sherborne and about five miles south east of Yeovil, has been under discussion for over two years.
The site covering 80 hectares (197 acres) – around 1.4 kilometres long – had been slimmed down by 20 per cent from the original proposal on which the renewable energy company first consulted in 2019 and which attracted nearly 370 opposing representations.
The revised application was referred to Dorset Council’s strategic planning committee, on the basis of the significant scale of the application and the clear level of public interest in the decision, and committee members had held a site visit a week before the day of the meeting.
The renewable energy scheme of ground mounted photovoltaic solar arrays has a maximum export capacity of 35MW, equating to the generation of clean renewable energy for approximately 10,605 homes and anticipated CO2 displacement of around 11,610 tonnes a year.
Officers considered that the public benefits of the development were not sufficient to outweigh the cumulative harm caused by its industrial character and scale which would be visually intrusive to the character of the valued landscape, the setting of heritage assets and their relationship with the rural landscape.
But the harm to the significance of heritage assets was described as ‘less than substantial’, and the landscape, although highly representative and of high conservation and recreational value, was not rare within Dorset or nationally.
The Natural Environment Team considered that the measures proposed would ensure the development would avoid detrimental impacts and result in an overall net gain for biodiversity.
Representations against the scheme were heard Cam Vale Parish Council and from individual Michael Gates, Richard Pinney and Mark Ashley-Miller, who described the proposal as ‘trashing the beautiful local environment’.
But Peter Roberts supported the ‘international battle to safeguard the world for future generations’, and speakers for the applicant described it as a project of strategic importance for Dorset.
The scheme was described by Councillor David Tooke, member for Cranborne and Alderholt, as being ‘balanced on a knife-edge’ between opposing harmful impacts and responding to the climate emergency declared at the council’s first ever meeting.
Chairman Robin Cook said they had to weigh their duty to protect the heritage of Dorset, not just buildings but the countryside as a whole which is “quintessentially Dorset”, against the important need for renewable energy.
Councillor Belinda Ridout (Gillingham) proposed acceptance of the officers’ recommended refusal, and was seconded by local ward member Councillor Mary Penfold, but it was defeated by six votes to two.
The committee voted by the same margin to support Bridport councillor Kelvin Clayton’s counter-proposal for approval, seconded by Councillor Tooke, on the grounds that the public benefits identified with regard to most planning issues far outweighed the ‘less than substantial harm’ to the landscape and heritage assets.
By Nicci Brown