WHEN you think of solar panels, a few pieces of glass on a neighbour’s roof usually springs to mind. But acres of land are being covered by panels. Now the Oxfordshire branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England wants councils to draw up a policy to control them.

DR HELEN Marshall, director of CPRE Oxfordshire, said she was concerned at the level of applications in the pipeline for solar farms and believes it is “industrialisation” of farmland.

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  • CPRE branch chairman Dr Helen Marshall

She said: “The cumulative impact of all these sites could be enormous.

“It is something we are urging district councils to take into account.

“We believe it is an industrialisation of our landscape and an inappropriate use of agricultural land when we are already importing so much food.

“I think the message about the unsuitability of wind turbines in many locations has finally got through, but developers are now turning to solar farms as the next option.

“The subsidies can make it seem like an attractive proposition.

“As a farmer, if you are suddenly offered the chance to make a financial killing on a bit of your land, you would naturally be tempted.

“However, the point of the planning system is to balance these issues and to help protect the landscape and environment for everyone.”

Because solar farms are fairly new it is unclear what could happen to the land once they reach the end of their lifespan.

The CPRE is also concerned solar farms could set a precedent and be viewed as brownfield sites, which in future could pave the way to permission for further development.

Dr Marshall said in order to protect farmland, councils should be setting policies.

She said: “We would like each district council to set a robust local policy on solar farms, setting out where and where not they will be considered, and bearing in mind the cumulative impact.

“Our own view is they should only be allowed on the roofs of existing buildings or in other sites where they are effectively concealed by existing development or the lie of the land, and do not involve the loss of land useful for agriculture, recreation or biodiversity. CPRE Oxfordshire believes renewable energy is desirable but not at unacceptable cost to the countryside or to the economy.

“We are particularly opposed to solar farms in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the Green Belt.

“We do not consider that the minimal benefit they offer in terms of renewable energy is sufficient to offset the environmental harm they create or the otherwise useful land that is lost.

“There are enormous levels of development being proposed for Oxfordshire – 100,000 houses within 17 years. Surely, with some joined up thinking, we can build in renewable energy generation to these plans without giving up yet more of our precious countryside.”

Benefiting community not energy firms

Oxford-based social enterprise The Low Carbon Hub is using solar panels to benefit local communities instead of energy firms.

It is promoting a scheme whereby schools across the county put solar panels on their roofs to cover a large proportion of the cost of electricity for running the school.

At peak sun times in the summer holidays the electricity is sold to the national grid.

These smaller schemes are paid for by selling shares in the scheme to the community.

St Barnabas School, in Jericho, Oxford, is the most recent school to have PV panels installed, costing £37,000.

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  • Als Parker and Adriano Figueiredo, of Oxford Community Hub at St Barnabas School in Jericho, where solar panels have been fitted to the roof

Low Carbon Hub operations director Adriano Figueiredo said: “We did a share offer and raised all the money. A lot of local people invested.”

Shareholders get a dividend on their investment of up to 8.5 per cent and any surplus cash is ploughed back into low carbon community projects.

So far 33 schools have signed up – Mr Figueiredo said surveys would take place and he expected about 25 of those roofs would be capable of holding the panels.

The Low Carbon Hub has launched a similar business initiative in Bicester surveying firms roofs and is working to get companies on board.

It hopes business roofs could soon hold about 10,000 solar panels to help create a greener town.

Green Belt site approved on appeal

ONE controversial solar farm site in the Oxfordshire Green Belt at Bletchingdon, near Bicester, has been approved on appeal.

The move has led to Dr Marshall firing off a letter to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles urging him to call in the decision.

The plans, by ROC Energy, include a solar farm, equipment rooms, security fencing up to 2m high and landscaping across just over eight hectares of land at Rowles Farm.

A report said the site would generate enough electricity to power 2,500 homes and offset almost 5,300 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year. In his ruling, Inspector Paul Griffiths said the considerable benefits of the proposal outweighed the harm.

But Dr Marshall said: “We are opposed to the solar farm at Bletchingdon because of the detrimental effect on the local landscape and the loss of agricultural land.

“We are particularly concerned because the site is within the Oxford Green Belt on the edge of the Otmoor Basin.

“This would be the first solar farm permitted within the Oxford Green Belt and would therefore set a dangerous precedent.

“The application was originally turned down by Cherwell District Council and we were shocked the inspector overturned this decision at appeal.”

Dr Marshall added: “This seems to fly in the face of recent government guidance restating the importance of the Green Belt and the need for exceptional circumstances before such development should be allowed.

“We cannot see what exceptional circumstances apply in this case.

“We have therefore written to Eric Pickles asking him to review the decision.

“We hope anyone who shares our concern will do the same.”

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