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These solar panels on a Chiswick back street are "a clear & present threat to this and future generations" - and that's official! Photo: Paula Owen.
These solar panels on a Chiswick back street are "a clear & present threat to this and future generations" - and that's official! Photo: Paula Owen.
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Solar panels: a clear & present threat to this and future generations?

Paula Owen

18th August 2014

An array of solar panels on a Chiswick side street, facing a brewery wall, constitute a threat to the quality of life of future generations, according to the council and a planning inspector. Paula Owen begs to differ, and wonders - exactly what kind of mushroom have they been smoking?

It has not been satisfactorily demonstrated that the solar panel will produce more energy than other renewable energy sources, or that it cannot be situated elsewhere in the site.

Ok, first things first, my name is not Alice, and, as far as I can tell, I haven't fallen down any rabbit holes lately, but I have recently been made aware of a situation so bizarre that maybe, just maybe, I have inadvertently tumbled into said bunny warren and found myself in a truly surreal 'wonderland' created by the likes of (Lord) Nigel Lawson, where the character of the mad Queen has be replaced by a local council and the logic emerging is as equally bonkers as the original Lewis Carroll storyline.

I have recently made the acquaintance of a lovely gentleman, by the name of James Skinner, through an event we both attended. James made an comment in the Q&A where he, in passing, mentioned a current tussle with his local council, in which the council was objecting to his installation of solar panels on the grounds that they may harm the current generation, and indeed, all those generations yet to come!

Intrigued and bemused, and thinking he must be slightly mad, I sought him out to enquire into what possible objections a local council could have to perfectly innocuous, pollution free, green energy producing solar panels? Let's face it, we are not talking - whisper it now - an onshore wind turbine situation are we?

Up against a brick wall

So, the story goes like this. James lives in Chiswick. He, indeed, lives in a very lovely part of Chiswick that is, most fittingly, designated a 'conservation area'.

James himself, however, does not live in a listed building, in fact the side wall of his home where the panels are situated, he will openly admit, is utterly unremarkable, as it has been built up over the last 40 years in very ordinary brick work - it is, truly, a building of no external conservation merit whatsoever.

The side wall is emphatically 'not interesting'. Additionally, the side wall faces an equally uninteresting, industrial façade of an old brewery. No domestic windows face onto James' side wall, there are no features of historical merit on the brewery wall, nada, nothing, zilch.

The side road overlooked by the panels is used as a drop off point for numerous lorries and beer barrels and is seemingly unloved by the council, given the state of repair of the tarmac pavement, and utilitarian street lighting, compared to the love and attention obviously showered upon neighbouring the streets in the rest of the surrounding conservation area.

A 'monstrous affront to humanity' and future generations

Two years ago James decided to install solar PV panels, as part of his general concern about environmental sustainability and the need for alternative source of clean, green energy. And therein lies his first mistake.

Instead of applying for planning permission (not usually needed for solar panels, but James lives in a conservation area remember), he and his wife sought verbal confirmation from various people in the council planning departments that it would be ok to install the panels.

The verbal assurances that all would be fine gave them the confidence to go ahead and install panels both upon their roof and the façade of their building.

That's when the trouble really started! The council, in direct contradiction of their previous assurances, quickly made plain their disgruntlement at such an affront to humanity!

Did James not realise this was a conservation area? Did he not comprehend the damage this could do to the 'enjoyment' of this and future generation's 'quality of life'? Obviously not! And accordingly the council gave it to him with both barrels.

A jarring and incongruous feature

Two years later, and the fight continues. The Skinners have lodged appeals against the council's rulings, but so far have come up empty. The council maintain that:

"The development [the PV panels] through its inappropriate size and positioning does not preserve or enhance the character and appearance of the Old Chiswick Conservation Area, creating a jarring and incongruous feature in the streetscene.

"It has not been satisfactorily demonstrated that the solar panel will produce more energy than other renewable energy sources, or that it cannot be situated elsewhere in the site."

I highlight the part about not demonstrating that solar panels will produce more energy than other renewable sources, because it begs the obvious question - "what other sources are they are potentially considering here?"

Again, and I whisper it, are they really thinking of urban micro wind turbines?? Heaven forfend in a conversation area! Or maybe they are thinking of ground source heat pumps as an option - Mmm, hardly viable in such a built up area! Maybe it's air source heat pumps they are considering? Truly such an option would be seen as a grotesque carbuncle on the side of a building in a 'conservation area'!!

Or maybe they are thinking of some sort of micro hydro, given James' proximity to the Thames? - their alternative, potentially more efficient renewable energy source solutions, that they obliquely refer to, are just not clear from this planning objection of 2012, so what was James to do?

For: 166 - Against: 2 (plus one Appeals Inspector)

James' fight continued after the first round of objections. Indeed, he conducted his own poll of neighbours, passers-by, and anyone else he could find, to ask them their opinion of these 'monstrous' panels on the side of his home. The poll showed that 166 signed in favour of keeping the panels, and only 2 respondents signed in support of the council.

Buoyed by these findings, James presented them, and other arguments, to the council, but to no avail. His arguments have fallen on deaf ears, despite his offering to pay for an independent poll if the Council do not believe the results of his poll.

In November 2013 the Appeals Inspector dismissed the Appeal, saying:

"18. The harm to the character and appearance of the Old Chiswick Conservation Area is considerable and cannot be made acceptable. Despite the contribution to the imperative of reducing carbon emissions, the benefits of the development do not outweigh the harm.

"19. It is noted that there is considerable local support for the appellant. However that does not negate the harm to the conservation area which, in accordance with paragraph 17 of the Framework, should be conserved so that it can be enjoyed for its contribution to the quality of life of this and future generations."


What the Inspector is saying, in my opinion, is that although the solar panels contribute to the overall UK goal of reducing our dependence on imported fossil fuels, although they reduce (in their own small way) the carbon emissions of the UK in line with our legally binding goals for 2020 and 2050, although they contribute clean, green, secure, pollution-free energy to the UK electricity grid, all of this does not outweigh the harm they do to the 'quality of life' and 'enjoyment' of this present, and future, generations who pass through this unremarkable Chiswick side street and are grievously affronted by the sight of the PV solar panels high above their heads.

The poll result seems to show that the present generation, for one, is not in agreement with the Inspector! I am, literally, rendered speechless! Not something that happens often.

I'm guessing anyone who has read this far would be slightly curiously to see the offending panels and how cruelly and despicably they will destroy the well-being and the quality of life of present, and future, generations of these sensitive Chiswick souls.

Well, readers, you will not be disappointed, as I visited James just this week to have my own life forever scarred by these 'blights on the landscape'. I must warn you however, before you view, I will not take any responsibility for the future harm and distress the sight of these appalling pictures may cause you or your descendants.

You view at your own risk - you have been warned! (see photo top right.)

Jonathon Porritt to the rescue

If you, like me, are dumbfounded by the Council's approach, please sign the petition against the Council's Enforcement Order that the panels must be removed. Let's try to get the council to see sense and to SSS - 'Save the Skinners' Solar'!

They have some high profile supporters in their fight, Jonathon Porritt, who has signed the petition, writes:

"It's difficult to believe that the appeal to keep the solar panels on the side of the Skinners' house was refused on the grounds that the harm done by the visual impact to the quality of life of this and future generations was so great that it outweighed all other considerations. Despite the fact that these panels face a brewery wall where no-one lives!

"The world is changing - rapidly. More than 80% of applications for large-scale, ground-mounted solar developments have been approved over the last two years - and those might well be said to have a real visual impact! Community energy projects are booming everywhere, and the Government now has a formal Community Energy Strategy which it is using to encourage everybody to take a greater interest in potential renewable energy projects at a local level.

"I've seen the results of the poll that the Skinners carried out regarding the attitude of local people. If you don't believe the results of this, then why not take him up on his offer of commissioning an independent poll?

"If not, the only conclusion that can possibly be drawn from your decision to refuse permission here is that it is based on questionable and, possibly, ideological grounds, rather than on planning law - let alone in the spirit of the Localism Act.

"If that proves to be the case, then there would obviously be very significant ramifications as a consequence of such a decision. I for one would be prepared to back the Skinners financially in a further appeal to a higher authority, and I would be urging all my colleagues to do the same.

"In other words, I very much hope that you appreciate that there is a lot at stake here. The direction of travel for the whole of the UK now is to move away from our dependence on fossil fuels and, progressively, to build up the amount of energy we can generate from local and community-based renewable energy schemes. This seems to be an eminently sensible example of contributing to that overall ambition."



Sign: the Save the Skinners' Solar petition.

Paula Owen is Founder and Director of Paula Owen Consulting. An environmental and sustainability specialist with two decades of professional experience in the areas of: sustainable energy; climate change and carbon footprinting & management. Paula has a PhD in climate chemistry from the University of Oxford, and a Masters degree in Information Science from City University, London.

This article was originally published on Paula Owen Consulting.



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