The Welsh Government has decided to reject planning permission for a huge solar farm on the Gwent Levels.
The controversial plans had predicted the generation of green energy at the levels would have powered more than 32,000 homes annually.
Despite a report from planning inspector Hywel Wyn Jones recommending consent for a 250,000 solar panel project across a 129 hectare site, Minister Lesley Griffiths said it would have an “unacceptable impact” on a landscape of outstanding historic interest.
The company behind the solar farm project, Wentlooge Farmers’ Solar Scheme Ltd, said while it was disappointed at the decision it is now considering its options. While not commenting specifically, this could potentially result in a legal challenge.
The project, which was seeking approval to generate solar power for 40 years before being decommissioned, was earmarked on low lying land south of Marshfield near Newport and between Peterstone Wentlooge and St Brides Wentlooge in the Gwent Levels.
A Welsh Government spokesman said: “Planning permission for the proposed development has been refused. Welsh ministers are unable to provide any further comment on the decision as, under planning law, the Welsh ministers’ decision on the application is final.”
The project aimed to generate 125 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 32,525 homes per year. This was projected to offset around 53,750 tonnes of CO2 per annum and 2.1 million tonnes over its life time.
The project from Wiltshire-based Wentlooge Farmers’ Solar Scheme was backed by some local farmers. The inspector’s report said the scheme would have enabled them to reinvest in their farms, resulting in a boost to the local economy as well as the potential for longer term job creation resulting from more “locally successful farming enterprises subsidised by the solar farm income”.
The inspector’s report added: “The CO2 savings represent a potential 0.12% reduction in Wales’ overall greenhouse gas emissions and 0.3% of the country’s energy supply.
“Such a contribution is significant in the face of the commitment to meeting the internationally agreed targets of reducing CO2 emissions by 40% by 2020 from 1990 levels, and the need for immediate action for decarbonisation of the country’s electricity supply.”
A planning rejection letter from Rural Affairs Minister Mrs Griffiths to Peter Grubb of property advisory firm Savills, which has been acting for Wentlooge Farmers’ Solar Scheme Ltd, has been published by the Welsh Government.
In it the minister says: “I recognise the need for renewable energy in order to combat the climate emergency and I acknowledge the benefits the scheme would provide, particularly in terms of the production of renewable energy and its contribution to the reduction in CO2 emissions.
“However, I agree the scheme would give rise to harm to the character of the LOHI ((landscape of outstanding historic interest), with the greatest impact to the Maerdy HLCA (historic landscape character area). As the inspector states whilst the main impacts would be reversible, it would exist for 40 years.
“This is the equivalent of two generations, a significant period during which an appreciation of the outstanding historic quality of the landscape would be affected. I agree this is a significant harmful impact whilst recognising in relation to the Gwent Levels the extent of that harm is relatively localised.
“In the planning balance and overall conclusion, the inspector affords this harm moderate weight. However, I disagree. I find the impact on the LOHI, in particular on the Maerdy HLCA, to comprise an unacceptable adverse impact on the landscape in relation to policy 18 of Future Wales (Generations Act)..
“Therefore, I find the proposed development fails to accord with policy 18 (1) of Future Wales and LDP (local development plan) policies SP9 and CE4, the scheme also conflicts with paragraph 6.1.20 of PPW (Planning Policy Wales).
In a statement the developers of the project said: “Wentlooge Farmers’ Solar Scheme Ltd is disappointed with the Welsh Government’s decision to refuse consent against the recommendation of the planning inspector, for this important renewable energy scheme. At this stage, we are considering our options.”
Chairman for the Protection of Rural Wales , Jonathan Colchester, welcomed the refusal.
He said: “CPRW congratulates Minister Lesley Griffiths on sending this courageous and clear signal that our precious and unique landscapes in Wales have to be preserved. The Gwent Levels are the green lungs of Severnside that are vital for nature, biodiversity and people.”
Rob Hepworth, CPRW trustee and Gwent Levels resident, said: “We will now continue to press the Welsh Government to follow up on this historic decision to save St Brides from further development by issuing new planning guidance to steer renewable energy proposals away from the Gwent Levels.”
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