By Hugh Sullivan

A Hastings Borough Council scheme to install solar energy farms at three sites on the periphery of the town – two of them at the Milking Parlour off Barley Lane within Hastings Country Park, the other at Upper Wilting Farm, Crowhurst – was given qualified backing by the Labour majority members at a council cabinet meeting on Monday despite strong Tory dissent.  

The proposed solar site below Lower Wilting Farm
including Chapel Wood
PICTURE: David Dennis

Lead Councillor Peter Chowney, in the chair, argued that in the context of climate change it was every council’s responsibility to pursue a local policy of sustainable energy generation and to inspect every location for its potential to contribute to this. The only constraint should be economic viability. Council officers had explained that the local electricity  distribution company UK Power Networks would charge high costs to provide distant connections to its supply grid. Accordingly the respective locations had been chosen to take advantage of existing electricity substations at Crowhurst and Barley Lane where connection costs would be minimal. The council now proposed to spend up to £80,000 in entering into further pre-planning investigations and consultations with professional bodies to assess commercial viability and environmental impact at each of the selected sites.

The public gallery was swollen by up to 30 members and supporters of the Friends of Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve, some holding banners with slogans such as “Preserve Our Reserve”. They made their opposition plain, clapping loudly when Conservative councillors Rob Lee and Andy Patmore voiced dissenting opinions in a lively debate. Cllr Lee said that, although there was cross-party support for energy creation, the Country Park could not be the right place to do it. “We don’t just own the Park; we are stewards of it for future generations”, he intoned. Cllr Patmore argued that Natural England was the primary body that would advise on environmental impact, and that, given the proximity of sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) and policies of protecting wildlife in the Country Park, there was no prospect of getting its approval. Moreover the whole issue of ground solar installations was too big for one council to grapple with, and the sum of £80,000 likely to prove quite inadequate to investigate properly.

Cllr Chowney retorted that, at Faversham in Kent, a local authority scheme for a ground solar farm of ten times the size proposed for Hastings had been approved and installed.  However he accepted that Natural England’s view of environmental impact would be critical. He therefore moved an amendment that, while the council should be authorised to incur general costs of up to the full requested figure of £80,000, officers should start with a general approach to Natural England and, by implication at least, back away if that body was found to be unsupportive. Cllrs Lee and Patmore were wholly unpersuaded, but the other Labour councillors –  Andy Batsford, Colin Fitgerald, Judy Rogers and Sue Beaney backed him, the motion being carried by 4 votes to 2. 

It should be noted that the proposed site at Upper Wilting Farm, though on land owned by the council, lies within the jurisdiction of Rother District for planning purposes, so any planning application would need to be made to that authority. For the intriguing history of the farm and its surrounding land, click here.

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