A HUGELY unpopular solar farm will be built on a large swathe of Somerset farmland following a successful appeal.

Elgin Energy applied in December 2021 to build a new solar farm north of Tropiquaria Zoo on the A39, near the village of Washford, on land owned by the Wyndham Estate.

Somerset Council’s planning committee west (which makes decisions on major applications for the former Somerset West and Taunton area) threw out the plans in July 2023, citing the damage to protected landscapes and the loss of high-quality agricultural land.

But this decision has now been reversed by the Planning Inspectorate, with the outgoing MP branding the new solar farm “a memorial to corporate greed”.

The solar farm will span several fields north of the Washford transmitting station, running from the B3190 Washford Hill to the Mineral Line active travel route, which connects Washford to the nearby town of Watchet.

Elgin Energy (which first consulted on the proposals back in May 2018) said the solar farm would provide around 25 million kWh of electricity per year – enough to provide power for 7,500 households.

A battery energy storage site will also be created near the site, allowing Elgin Energy to store surplus energy and sell it back to the National Grid at peak times.

Somerset County Gazette: The site of a proposed solar farm to the north of Tropiquaria Zoo.The site of a proposed solar farm to the north of Tropiquaria Zoo. (Image: Google Street View)

In addition to opposition from local residents, the solar farm was also strongly criticised by CPRE Somerset, the Exmoor National Park and the Quantock Hills National Landscape organisation.

Somerset Council’s planning committee west voted unanimously to approve the plans on two grounds:

  • The development “fails to take into account the local visual adverse impact on the landscape”, especially in relation to Exmoor and the Quantock Hills
  • The development would “result in the loss of the best and most versatile agricultural land”, contrary to the West Somerset Local Plan

Planning inspector Cullum Parker visited the site on April 30 and published his detailed ruling on Tuesday (May 28).

Mr Parker said that neither the Exmoor National Park nor the Quantock Hills National Landscape (formerly Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, or AONB) would “not be adversely affected” by the solar farm, due to its distance from the boundaries of both protected areas.

He said concerns about the impact on the natural landscape were undermined by “man-made features” in the local area, including the radio transmission towers near Tropiquaria Zoo and the Hinkley Point C complex.

He said: “Clearly, the insertion of a solar farm with associated infrastructure into what are currently agricultural fields used for pastoral and arable farming, will change their character and appearance for a period of around 40 years.

“However, the views from within Exmoor and the Quantock Hills would not be significantly impacted by the proposal.

“Most viewers would see the proposal as a tiny part of a kinetic experience when travelling through the area, rather than as a visually dominating feature within the landscape.”

Somerset County Gazette: Plans for the new solar farm.Plans for the new solar farm. (Image: RPS Consulting)

Mr Parker said the solar farm was sufficiently far from the main roads to not be overly visible to passing motorists, with the existing hedgerows along the A39 and the B3190 providing ample screening.

He also ruled there would be no adverse impact on the Mineral Line active travel route due to the high levels of vegetation screening the route from the solar farm site.

Reports commissioned by CPRE Somerset and the local tenant farmers stated the land was “some of the better quality arable land in this area of west Somerset”.

But Mr Parker was dismissive of these reports, arguing they “offered no detailed analysis” of the key issues and were “based on little more than a walk over of the fields and high-level maps from the 1980s”.

He added: “Soil samples from the site indicate that the site comprises entirely lower quality agricultural land’.

“While I acknowledge the local knowledge of farmers and the limitations inherent within the number of soil samples taken, I find that the evidence before me points towards the site not comprising land that falls within the category of best and most versatile agricultural land in this case.”

Mr Parker did agree with Historic England that the proposals would result in a “marked change” to the landscape and harm the setting of local heritage assets, such as the grade one listed St Decuman’s Church in Watchet.

However, he decided this harm would be of a “less than substantial magnitude” and could be mitigated through high-quality landscaping.

Regarding the plight of the existing tenant farms on the site, he said: “Personal circumstances are capable of being material considerations, but only exceptionally.

“While the personal circumstances of the tenant farmers and their families are material in this case, I do not find that they provide  justification in themselves for the dismissal of the appeal scheme.”

The ruling has been greeted with dismay by Ian Liddell-Grainger, the outgoing Conservative MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset – which includes the solar farm site.

Mr Liddell-Grainger – who is standing in the Tiverton and Minehead constituency at the upcoming general election – said: “Ironically only last week the government, recognising the harm that was being done by the spread of solar farms, issued new guidance stressing that they should only be allowed on brownfield sites or poor-quality agricultural land – and that planners should have regard to the cumulative impact of several solar installations when grouped together.

“I am deeply disappointed that those guidelines arrived too late to be a factor in this issue.

“Sadly the people of west Somerset will now have to drive past a memorial to the corporate greed currently being displayed by the Wyndham Estate, which in this case has led to the comprehensive desecration of a fine sweep of attractive landscape.”