High Court Upholds Planning Permission for Solar Farm Despite Resident Group's Opposition - Key Legal Principles Explored

Citation: [2023] EWHC 2842 (Admin)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the recent case of Bramley Solar Farm Residents Group v Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities & Ors, the High Court of Justice King’s Bench Division Planning Court delivered a ruling that sheds light on several significant planning law principles. The case surrounded the development of a solar farm and the subsequent judicial review of the planning inspector’s decision to grant planning permission. This article will dissect the key legal principles derived from the case, reflecting on how they were applied to the specific facts.

Key Facts

The Bramley Solar Farm Residents Group (“the Claimant”) challenged the decision to permit a renewable led energy generating station on 85 ha of land in Hampshire. The group, representing over 450 local residents, opposed the development due to concerns regarding landscape character, visual amenity, heritage implications, and the selection process for the site, which involved agricultural land.

The Inspector’s decision was contested primarily on seven grounds: amendment of the original scheme, procedural fairness in consultation, decision-making before the inquiry, project access via Bramley Road, interpretation of paragraph 174(b) of the National Planning Policy Framework (Framework), consideration of valued landscape and battery storage, and the lack of consideration for alternative sites.

Amendments During Appeal and Consultation

The case revisited the ‘Wheatcroft Principles’ which allow for amendments during the appeal process. The Inspector determined the modifications to the proposed project were minor and conducted additional consultation, which was deemed procedurally fair as it provided an opportunity for the public to address issues.

Procedural Fairness and Case Management

The Inspector’s approach to consider both the original and revised schemes at the Inquiry was scrutinized. However, it was held that knowing the case to meet and having a reasonable opportunity to respond contributed to procedural fairness and, therefore, did not constitute an error in law.

Access to Development Site

The Inspector’s acceptance of no objection from the local transport officer and the county council’s highways officer concerning access to the development site via Bramley Road was challenged. The court found that the Inspector provided sufficient reasoning, complying with the legal standard for decision letters.

Valued Landscape and Framework Interpretation

The Inspector’s understanding of the Framework, particularly in recognizing the intrinsic character and beauty of undeveloped countryside, was called into question. The court affirmed that the Inspector did not misinterpret this provision, adequately protecting the countryside’s intrinsic characteristics despite it not being designated as a valued landscape.

Consideration of Alternatives

The Claimant’s assertion that the PPG mandated a sequential approach to site selection was rejected. The court emphasized that the PPG serves as guidance, not as policy, and does not impose a legal requirement to consider alternatives.

Battery Storage as a Public Benefit

The Inspector’s treatment of the battery storage element of the proposed development was challenged for lack of adequate reasons to counter the Claimant’s narrative. It was held that the Inspector correctly treated battery storage as a neutral factor since it did not bear upon the development’s public benefit assessment.

Outcomes

Throughout the judgment, the principles of planning law were reaffirmed, particularly concerning the flexibility of amending applications during appeal, the role of consultation, and the need for clear reasoning to underpin decisions. The court trusted the expertise of planning officers and inspectors, acknowledging the difference in the degrees of protection for valued landscapes versus non-designated countryside, and the broad discretion of planning authorities in considering alternative sites while acknowledging climate change imperatives.

Conclusion

The High Court’s dismissal of the Bramley Solar Farm Residents Group’s claim articulates the nuanced application of planning law principles. The judgment underscores the necessity for decision-makers to provide clear and logically structured reasons, the permissibility of amending proposals on appeal, the importance of consultation, and the discretionary nature of considering alternative sites. The case serves as a pertinent guide for practitioners understanding the current landscape of UK planning law and its implications on local development processes.

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