This week the news that that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has announced the Government’s decision to grant permission for a solar power station at the former Wroughton airfield in the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) was met with shock and dismay by those who had fought to prevent this harmful development.
The development will cover around 67 hectares, mainly of grassland, with 150,000 solar photovoltaic panels generating around 41MW of power. The application, by Swindon Commercial Services Ltd, was approved by Swindon Borough Council but called in for examination at a Public Inquiry in September 2014 because it raised issues of national importance.
Henry Oliver, North Wessex Down AONB Director, reacted to the announcement by saying:
“We’re obviously bitterly disappointed. This is a deeply depressing decision, which the Government has taken in the face of clear opposition from its own advisors on landscape, heritage and the natural environment.
“It’s particularly disappointing that in his report the Inspector has consistently downplayed the harm this development will do to the landscape – not least the breathtaking views from the Downs and the Ridgeway National Trail, and the the setting of Barbury Castle.”
National policy says applicants must demonstrate “exceptional circumstances” for major developments like this to be allowed in AONBs and National Parks. The Inspector concluded that the Science Museum’s need for a reliable income stream - to make up for cuts in its Government grant - met that test. We are proud to have the Science Museum in the North Wessex Downs and sympathetic to their needs, but we are dismayed that the Government deems the Science Museum’s financial plight a good enough reason to override the ‘great weight’ that planing policy gives to protection of the AONB landscape.”
On paper, the North Wessex Downs AONB has the highest level of protection our planning system can give. However, in practice the Government has approved this huge development anyway. It underlines what’s become increasingly obvious since the major changes to planning policy in 2012: that even our most beautiful and protected landscapes are now acutely vulnerable to the overwhelming pressure for development”.