Ancient grassland at Rampisham Down SSSI, West Dorset, that will soon be shaded over by solar panels unless the planning application is 'called in'. Photo: RSPB.
Pickles must protect Rampisham Down SSSI from solar farm
5th February 2015
An ancient grassland SSSI at Rampisham could be saved following a government decision to put an 'hold' notice on the West Dorset Council's planning consent for a huge solar farm, writes Martin Harper. Now Eric Pickles must 'call in' the case to a public inquiry, or set a truly dreadful precedent for our most precious nature sites.
The protection of the natural environment should be at the heart of all planning decisions. This Council's decision goes against the statutory obligations of local authorities to protect important designated wildlife sites for future generations.
Ancient grassland at Rampisham could be saved following a government decision to put an 'hold' notice on the West Dorset Council's planning consent for a huge solar farm, writes Martin Harper.
From 1939 until its closure in October 2011, the array of over thirty radio masts at Rampisham Down in Dorset broadcast the BBC World Service.
In these 70 plus years the masts transmitted daily news of a world that was changing dramatically. However, beneath the masts, within the security fences, something precious remained, protected from the changing world outside.
Free from the wholesale farm intensification all around, the grassland around the masts remained untouched save for the attentions of a few sheep to stop it scrubbing over.
And in this 'unimproved' state, the grassland remained rich in plant species - species that most of us would nowadays have to make a special journey to find: species with names redolent of an England now passed - sweet vernal grass, sheep's fescue and hawkweeds, quaking oat grass, pignut and bedstraw.
These sorts of grasslands are often of ancient origin, dating back up to 7,000 years to the times of the first forest clearances. And they come in numerous flavours. At Rampisham botanists describe the grassland as 'lowland acid grassland', and ascribe it the code 'U4' due to the very particular mix of species. U4, an unappealing title for this plant community, is, to say the least, rare with only 3-4,000 ha in the UK. And Rampisham has one of the largest areas of this type in the country.
A suitable site for 120,000 solar panels?
Rampisham (pronounced 'Ransom') was sold by the BBC in 1997 to a management buyout, then sold on in 2001 to Vosper Thornycroft who subsequently were taken over by Babcock International Group.
Then in December 2012 an application was submitted by British Solar Renewables to construct on the Down a "40MW solar park following demolition of 32 of 35 existing masts and towers ... ".
The proposal involves the erection of some 119,280 photovoltaic panels mounted on steel frames fixed by short driven piles. These assemblies are to be arranged in rows along an east-west axis, with the panels facing south. It is proposed that approximately 40.5ha of the site (56%) will be covered in this way, leaving 33ha undeveloped.
Unauthorised building work began on site in January 2013, which the local planning authority stopped, but sadly some damage had already been caused to the site.
At the same time, as part of the Environmental Impact Assessment, the site was thoroughly surveyed. As a result, the national significance of the grassland, to date hidden behind security fences, was revealed. It was thus notified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest in August 2013.
With this, Rampisham became part of our national network of precious wildlife sites, sites that are as the nature equivalent of protected buildings, the likes of Stonehenge or our great cathedrals. Its designation meant, or at least, should have meant, that it be given special consideration when faced with a threatening development.
The principle, as reiterated in the recently produced National Planning Policy Framework, is crystal clear: "proposed development on land within or outside a Site of Special Scientific Interest likely to have an adverse effect on a Site of Special Scientific Interest ... should not normally be permitted.
"Where an adverse effect on the site's notified special interest features is likely, an exception should only be made where the benefits of the development, at this site, clearly outweigh both the impacts that it is likely to have on the features of the site that make it of special scientific interest and any broader impacts on the national network of Sites of Special Scientific Interest."
While solar panels can even be beneficial for wildlife in places, that's definitely not the case here. The 'special interest' of Rampisham Down arises from the exposed nature of the site, open to wind, rain and the fierce summer sun. The shade and shelter created by the panels would substantially alter the habitat and damage the rare and precious ecosystem.
West Dorset's disgraceful decision
However, on 15th January 2015, West Dorset Council's Planning Committee voted to approve the application by British Solar Renewables to build a solar farm on Rampisham Down. Reacting to the news the Wildlife Trusts described the decision as both "astonishing" and "perverse". Paul Wilkinson, Head of Living Landscapes for the Wildlife Trusts said:
"The protection and recovery of the natural environment should be at the heart of all planning decisions. This Council's decision goes against the statutory obligations of local authorities to protect important designated wildlife sites for future generations. This is simply the wrong place for this development and Rampisham should be protected not destroyed."
Although the RSPB had not been directly involved in Rampisham to this point, this would set a terrible precedent for future development and it was immediately clear to us that this decision needed challenge.
As with wind farms the RSPB is in principle supportive of renewable energy developments. But as with wind farms our line is simple - they must be built in the right places, and must avoid damaging sensitive wildlife sites.
So it comes as very welcome news that Eric Pickles MP, the Secretary for Communities and Local Government, has made his admirably swift decision to put West Dorset Council's grant of planning permission on hold, with an 'Article 25' notice "not to grant planning permission on this application without specific authorisation."
This now gives him time to consider whether to call in the application to a public inquiry. And as far as I'm concerned, there's only one reasonable outcome - of course it has to be called in.
The planning system is not working!
But Rampisham Down is not the only SSSI at risk following a perverse planing decision. Indeed the Rampisham case has remarkable parallels with another case currently close to our hearts - the threat looming over Lodge Hill in Kent. Here too is a site that has what could be described as 'urban' elements - though in this case military infrastructure rather than radio masts.
It is a site where the activity of its old owners had historically lent protection. It is a site that was sold off, a site that then had a proposed development, but on investigation linked to the application was found to be of huge wildlife interest, and thus declared a SSSI by Natural England. And it is a site where, despite its newfound protected status, a planning application was approved by the local council - Medway, in the case of Lodge Hill.
Both these cases strike to the core of issues involving the planning system and the protection of our best wildlife sites. As shown above, the planning framework is clear - there should be a presumption against development on SSSIs and development should only proceed when the benefits significantly outweigh the costs.
I am unable to understand how these developments are compatible with the Government's stated ambition to pass on the natural environment in an enhanced state to the next generation when everyone knows that nature conservation starts with existing protected areas.
Indeed, the Government has a commitment, through its own biodiversity strategy, to improve the condition of our SSSIs - for 50% to be in favourable condition by 2020.
The RSPB believes both of these cases are of national importance, because of what the decisions to date reveal about attitudes towards SSSIs. If they were to go ahead, they would also set a terrible precedent for future development.
As such they should both be called in, and their cases heard at a public inquiry before a decision made by the Secretary of State. This would be consistent with the will of Parliament that just ruled out fracking operations on SSSIs, national parks and 'areas of outstanding natural beauty'.
Urgent action: support the Wildlife Trusts e-action to call on Eric Pickles to 'call in' the Rampisham Down planning application. And be quick: we only have until the end of today Thursday 5th February, to make our voices heard.
Martin Harper is Conservation Director of RSPB. He blogs on the RSPB website.
More information: visit the Wildlife Trusts pages, or read more from Tony Whitehead on our Saving Spaces blog. Also Miles King's blog provides some useful background and an independent view on the decision to approve Rampisham.
This article is an updated version of a post on the RSPB blog.
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