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JMB Solar Projects appeals against Melton Borough Council’s refusal of solar farm near Belvoir Castle





A rejected plan for a solar farm near Belvoir Castle could come to fruition after the developer behind it lodged an appeal against the refusal.

The almost 100 hectare solar farm in fields off Muston Lane, near Easthorpe, was refused planning permission in September last year by Melton Borough Council’s planning committee.

However, the councillors on the committee were told at the time by the authority’s own officers that their decision was “not robust” and could be seen as “unreasonable”. Sarah Legge, assistant director for planning in the borough, warned elected members that she did not expect their reasons for refusal would hold up should applicant JBM Solar Projects decide to take the matter to an appeal.

Belvoir Castle
Belvoir Castle

JMB Solar confirmed at the time it would indeed be lodging that challenge. Now, it has followed through with the promise.

The planning committee members at the time raised four grounds on which they believed the application should be denied: the loss of agricultural land; the cumulative impact of all the new solar farms in the area; the impact on public rights of way through the site; and the harm to local heritage assets, including Belvoir Castle. The solar farm would have been within the castle’s estate.

Ms Legge acknowledged that the development would cause some harm. However, she said the temporary nature of the solar farm, as well as the benefits of renewable energy production at a time of a climate crisis, would be considered of greater weight when it came to an appeal.

Over its lifespan, it is estimated enough energy would have been created for 19,000 homes from the panels. The land was not considered “the best and most versatile” agricultural land, added Ms Legge, and would only be used as a solar farm for 40 years under the conditions of the application. At that point, the site would be expected to be returned to its original state and the soil would have had time to “rest and improve”, she said.

Some farming use could continue during the 40 years, she added, such as sheep grazing. Planning documents also suggested that long distance views of the farm would be largely screened by trees and hedges, reducing impact on the surrounding countryside and the nearby historic buildings.

Walkers would still be able to move through and around the area, the application added, and outdoor classrooms and picnic spaces were proposed along the route. Beehives were also suggested for the space as well as bat and bird boxes.

Public opinion was more divided. Some 257 comments were received from members of the public in response to the application. Of those, 136 objected to the scheme, 117 were in favour of it and four presented neutral comments.

Those objecting said the solar farm would be a “blot on a beautiful landscape” and said solar panels should be on houses or brownfield – previously developed – sites, rather than “ruining good farmland”. Those supporting the scheme were glad of the possibility of renewable energy creation and said solar farms were “less unsightly” than wind turbines. They also said it would give the soil “time to recover after years of over intensive farming” and would increase biodiversity.

Ultimately, councillors voted to reject the scheme, with seven voting against it and two for it. But their decision came with a warning from the local authority’s solicitor, Tom Pickwell. He said it was not, in his mind, a “robust decision”. Councillors were at risk of being accused of “unreasonable behaviour” because they were “going against planning officers’ professional opinions”, he added. They could be at risk of “significant costs being applied” should an appeal by the developer lead to their decision being overruled.

JBM Solar said at the time that it would be seeking an award of costs should it win the appeal. Conor McAllister, project manager for JBM Solar, said: “This is a well-considered scheme, set back from homes to avoid visual impact, and of an appropriate size to deliver much needed green energy without being a blight on the landscape. It is extremely disappointing that Melton Borough Council members have chosen to refuse an application that would help lower energy bills, improve the UK’s energy security and significantly contribute to a reduction in carbon emissions.

“What’s even more surprising is that councillors refused to listen to their own council’s expert advice, which will unfortunately now result in JBM Solar appealing to the Planning Inspectorate to overturn the decision as well as seeking an award of costs. At a time when council funds are stretched enough, it is extremely disappointing that councillors consider this a good use of public money.”

Dates have not yet been set for a hearing or for when a decision can be expected. Anyone wishing to weigh in on the appeal will need to do so in writing to The Planning Inspectorate, Temple Quay House, 2 The Square, Bristol, BS1 6PN before Wednesday, May 15.



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