Permission has been granted on appeal for what will be the UK’s largest solar farm near Faversham in Kent. The proposal is sadly lacking in the design department, says Paul Finch
Former RIBA councillor Bob Giles makes a good point about the huge new solar development, Cleve Hill Solar Park, on the North Kent coast: where is the architecture?
Presumably there is a landscape architect, though I failed to find out who it is from a review of the various websites associated with the project and its announcement. The title page of drawings in the planning inspectorate report shows the names of the promoters and their financial backer. Presumably there is a designer somewhere who had something to do with it.
Permission for the project was granted on appeal. For connoisseurs of planning inspectorate reports, there is simple enjoyment to be had from the following:
4.4 The Secretary of State notes that, while the application is a ‘Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project’ as defined in sections 14 and 15 of the Planning Act 2008 by virtue of being an onshore generating station with a generating capacity of greater than 50MW, there is no National Policy Statement for energy infrastructure which explicitly covers solar powered electricity generation or battery storage such as the Cleve Hill Solar Park.
Oh dear! Happily there were a few hundred other planning rules which allowed the inspector to reach a conclusion in favour of the development, but it makes you realise what a rum business planning law can be if it has yet to consider the importance of major solar power generators and the significance of batteries. Perhaps Elon Musk could offer a crash course.
I am all in favour of solar power and the more solar farms we have, the better. The Council for the Preservation of Rural England (that body’s now replaced but accurate name) condemned the proposal and suggested the panels would better have been placed on people’s roofs. This fatuous objection ignores the benefits of concentration, and of course roofs could carry panels as well, eventually.
Even environmentalists have fallen out over the development: one group is all in favour because of the carbon implications of the proposal (excellent), while others are belly-aching about the impact on land, biodiversity, bats, mice and creepy-crawlies in general. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has weighed in against the proposal because it always assumes that birds are less intelligent than humans when it comes to finding alternative habitats.
Anyway, this piece of key infrastructure now has its permission, no doubt setting a precedent for similar projects across the country. Since it will generate enough power for 90,000 dwellings for a year, this sounds like a good thing.
However, as with many large infrastructure projects, including power stations, sewage processing plants and major roads, there is always a danger that, left to their own devices, these engineering-led projects are great pieces of engineering, but significantly lacking on the design front.
This is why Highways England very sensibly has a design panel. So does the National Infrastructure Commission. But any project the size of Cleve Hill Solar Park does not simply need design reviews, it needs good designers appointed in the first place. That is because at the many interfaces such a project will have with the public, it is not enough for them to be afterthoughts, which from experience is what they often turn out to be.
There is no need to fall into the trap of claiming that everything can be made beautiful. It is enough for major project to be well-designed – which means using architects and landscape architects who are up to it. And the bigger the project, the better they need to be.
In writing this column I can’t help but remember a famous headline about solar energy, probably devised when The Sweeney was a popular TV show: ‘All right sunshine, you’re nicked’! We must find amusement where we can in these troubled times.