PLANS for a huge solar park in West Dorset have been approved.
Members of West Dorset District Council’s development control committee backed an application for a 24-megawatt solar farm at the former transmitting station at Rampisham Down at a meeting today.
The proposal for the 76-hectare site, which once featured 35 masts, will see all towers demolished except for one, which will be retained at a reduced height.
The scheme – worth up to £100m – proposes replacing the masts with 40 hectares of solar panels with the rest of the site remaining as open grassland.
After the meeting, Dorset Wildlife Trust said it was ‘shocked and appalled’ to learn that planning permission had been given for a scheme on such a ‘nationally important wildlife site’.
The council’s case officer Andrew Martin said councillors faced a balancing act between the benefits of the solar farm and removal of masts on the one hand and the impact of the proposed scheme on the landscape and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the other.
Sean Cooch from Natural England said the site, which was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in August 2013, was the largest area of its grassland type – an acid grassland known as U4 – in Dorset and one of the largest in the whole of England.
He added that analysis of the solar farm proposals suggested the scheme would have a damaging impact on the ‘unique’ landscape.
Mr Cooch said: “It will have an adverse impact on the vegetation.”
However, Angus Macdonald from applicants British Solar Renewables, said field trials at the site and analysis from experts countered this view and suggested it would not be damaging to the site.
He said: “This proven science now disproves Natural England’s opinion and undoes the single critical opinion that held this application in the balance.”
Mr Macdonald also urged the committee to consider the benefits the scheme would deliver including an improvement of the site visually, an agreed management plan, job creation and an economic boost for the area and the delivery of renewable energy to power over 10,000 homes.
He said: “This project provides the perfect marriage of sustainability and ecology and it will also provide a great boost to Dorset.”
Local councillor Jill Haynes said the majority of people in the area were in favour of the scheme.
She said: “I think what we have here is a remarkable opportunity to find a use for this brownfield site.”
Committee members agreed to grant temporary permission for a period of 25 years, subject to a number of conditions.
There will also be 21-day ‘cooling off period’ for Natural England to consider any conditions it may wish to apply to the scheme and Dorset Wildlife Trust has already indicated it may refer the matter to the Secretary of State.
Cllr Haynes said after the meeting that she was ‘delighted’ with the outcome.
Also speaking after the meeting, Dorset Wildlife Trust’s Chief Executive, Dr Simon Cripps, said, “With a viable alternative site available, we can’t understand why the council have allowed this important wildlife site to be lost to developers.
“Dorset Wildlife Trust supports renewable energy, in the right place.
“These special, legally protected wildlife sites are few and far between and there’s no need to destroy them, especially in this case, when there is a perfectly acceptable alternative site nearby, which we support.”
He said the site was one of the largest sites of lowland acid grassland remaining in England. It is home to an ‘incredibly rare’ grouping of plants and fungi, including lose wort, eyebright and waxcap fungi, and supports a range of wildlife from adders to skylarks.
DWT said it couldn’t understand why an alternative site for the solar farm on the other side of the road wasn’t supported instead.