Decision Maker: Officer Delegated Decision
Decision status: Recommendations Approved
Is Key decision?: No
Is subject to call in?: No
That planning application WD/D/19/003181, for development on land at Higher Stockbridge Farm, Stockbridge, should be approved, subject to agreement of the detailed wording of proposed conditions, with the wording of the conditions to be agreed with the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Strategic Planning Committee.
The proposed development is described as follows:
Installation of a renewable energy scheme comprising ground mounted photovoltaic solar arrays together with substation; transformer stations; access; internal access track; landscaping; biodiversity measures; security fencing; security measures; access gate; access improvement and ancillary infrastructure.
This decision was taken by myself, in my role as nominated officer, during the Strategic Planning Committee meeting on 22 November 2021. The decision was taken under arrangements which were put in place following the full Council meeting held on 4 May 2021. At this full Council meeting, it was agreed that all Council meetings that are not executive in nature would continue to be held virtually, with committee members expressing a ‘minded to’ decision, and with specific officers (including service managers) being authorised to exercise delegated powers to make decisions in light of the ‘minded to’ decisions expressed by members. These arrangements were subsequently extended by decision notices issued by the Chief Executive on 22 July 2021 and 4 October 2021.
This application was considered by the Strategic Planning Committee at its meeting on 22 November 2021. The officer recommendation was to refuse the application. The reasons for the recommendation are set out in the officer’s report (paragraph 3.0) as follows:
· The public benefits of the development are not considered to outweigh the cumulative harm caused to the character of the valued landscape and its importance to the setting of heritage assets and their relationship with the rural landscape.
· The proposed development cannot be successfully assimilated into the receiving valued landscape. It will be visually intrusive because of its industrial character and scale and will be harmful to the setting of heritage assets and to the character of the wider landscape.
· Given the above the proposed development does not comply with local plan policy COM 11.
In considering the planning balance, the officers report identifies that the proposal will lead to less than substantial harm to both designated and non-designated heritage assets. However, it notes that, this less than substantial harm, when considered in isolation, would not be considered to outweigh the public benefits of the scheme. Rather, it is the officer’s view that in combination, the landscape impacts of the scheme, and the importance of the rural landscape to the setting of the heritage assets, are such as to outweigh the public benefits. This is summarised in paragraph 15.35 of the officer’s report as follows: “In this case it is considered that the proposed development cannot be successfully assimilated into the receiving valued landscape part of which is the setting of the heritage assets. It will be visually intrusive because of its industrial character and scale and will be harmful to character of the wider landscape”.
The officer’s report goes on to confirm that the proposed development is acceptable in relation to biodiversity, highway safety, flooding and drainage and the neighbouring amenity subject to planning conditions.
At the committee meeting, the presenting officer delivered a comprehensive presentation, which recognised the significant environmental benefits of the proposals, including an estimated 64% biodiversity net gain, significant proposed new tree and hedge planting, and significant renewable energy generation. However, the presenting officer’s conclusion was that, on balance, these benefits were outweighed by the cumulative harm to designated heritage assets in combination with harm to a valued landscape.
It was clear during the committee debate that members felt that there was a finely balanced judgement to make for this application. The draft minutes of the meeting state that members “felt that the scheme was balanced on a knife edge, on one hand Dorset Council had declared a climate emergency which had to be balanced against the cumulative harm to the landscape and the heritage assets, plus the loss of recreational value”. The draft minutes go on to state that “Members felt they had to balance the impact on the whole landscape whilst maintaining the need to put great weight on renewable energy”.
During the committee debate it was clear that members applied a great deal of weight to the climate and ecological emergency, and the biodiversity enhancements offered by the scheme. Members’ questions and comments during the debate indicated that they were giving careful consideration to the impacts on designated heritage assets and the landscape. It was noted, in particular, that the proposals would retain existing hedge lines and most of the existing trees, and therefore the solar panels would effectively be ‘broken-up’ which would mitigate harm to the landscape.
It was initially proposed by Cllr Ridout and seconded by Cllr Penfold, that the application be refused on the basis that the benefits did not outweigh the cumulative harm to the landscape and heritage assets. This proposal was lost.
It was subsequently proposed by Cllr Clayton, and seconded by Cllr Tooke that the application be approved. In setting out his reasons for the proposal, Cllr Clayton noted that the officer’s report identifies benefits for most of the key planning issues identified, with the exception of landscape and heritage assets. The officer identified less than substantial harm to heritage assets, and in accordance with paragraph 202 of the NPPF, the less than substantial harm has to be weighed against the public benefits of the proposal. Cllr Clayton considered that the public benefits of the proposal far outweighed the less than substantial harm.
Following a vote, this proposal was supported by the committee, and hence the committee’s ‘minded to’ resolution was to approve the application, subject to agreement of the detailed wording of the conditions.
In reaching my decision, I considered the officer’s report, the officer’s presentation to the Committee, the Committee’s debate and the reasons for the Committee’s ‘minded to’ decision. I also attended the committee site visit on 18 November 2021. In my view, it is reasonable for the committee to have reached the ‘minded to’ resolution to approve the application for the reasons it gave.
When reaching my decision, I considered the harm to heritage assets. I agree with the case officer and the Committee that the proposal would cause less than substantial harm to the designated and non-designated heritage assets. I gave this harm great weight. I also considered whether there are any public benefits which would significantly and demonstrably outweigh that harm. I consider the public benefits are: renewable energy generation for approximately 10,605 homes a year; significant biodiversity enhancements and; additional tree planting. In my opinion these are significant public benefits which are so significant as to clearly and demonstrably outweigh the identified harm to the heritage assets.
The officer’s report also identifies a conflict with adopted Local Plan policies, on the basis of cumulative landscape and heritage impacts and so I need to consider whether any material planning considerations are such as to outweigh that conflict. I consider that the public benefits set out above are material planning considerations which outweigh the conflict with the Local Plan. I agree with the officer’s report that the application is acceptable in relation to biodiversity, highway safety, flooding and drainage and the neighbouring amenity subject to planning conditions.
Therefore, having taken all the above into consideration, I confirmed at the meeting on 22 November 2021 that the application would be approved in line with the committee’s ‘minded to’ resolution, subject to agreement of the detailed wording of the conditions.
The alternative option would be to refuse the planning application, contrary to the ‘minded to’ resolution of the Strategic Planning Committee. The report to full Council on 4 May 2021, which introduced the ‘minded to’ arrangements, sets out that “an officer should only make a decision contrary to the ‘minded to’ view of members for clear and compelling reasons and if the decision cannot reasonably be deferred until a time when it can be made by Councillors”. In this case, I consider that planning permission should be granted for the reasons set out above and I am not aware of any clear and compelling reasons to differ from the committee’s ‘minded to’ resolution. The alternative option of refusing the application contrary to the committee’s ‘minded-to’ resolution would not be appropriate in this case.
No declarations of interest were made by any of the committee members who took part in the debate.
Publication date: 10/01/2022
Date of decision: 22/11/2021