In January last year the cabinet of Hastings Borough Council (HBC) approved a motion to proceed in principle with proposals to install solar energy farms at one or more of 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. Each farm would consist of a minimum of four to five acres of panels and associated equipment.

HBC say that their aim is to supply 30% of the town’s electricity supply from “sustainable” energy by 2030, and to generate a positive income stream to assist the funding of other services.

To this end, HBC’s Director of Operational Services was authorised, in consultation with Council Leader Peter Chowney, to “develop a detailed business case” for presentation back to the cabinet in June 2019. A sum in excess of £80,000 was earmarked to pay for “professional studies and pre-planning consultation”, with the provision that Natural England (NE), the statutory body charged with advising nationally on the natural environment, “will be the first approached to get professional comment due to concerns about environmental impact”.

PICTURE: David Dennis

A set of external consultants, Public Power Solutions (PPS), was subsequently engaged to undertake surveys and reports which NE required in order to advise. But there has been severe slippage in the timetable for reporting back.

Nothing was presented in June. Cllr Chowney’s Leader’s Report in September confirmed that NE’s Discretionary Advice Service had been engaged to advise on the environmental consequences of the proposed arrays, and that the council would “act on the advice they provide”. He went on to state that “a report will be going to the council’s cabinet meeting later in the year (possibly next month) about the viability and sustainability of the sites we’ve looked at”.

In December HBC’s dedicated web pages for the topic were updated to report that its application to NE has been submitted, and that initial feedback from them is expected “early next year”. Other sources suggest that no substantive reply should be expected for six months or more. 

In the meantime there have been other developments in the selection of potential sites.

Extra site 
Back in August HBC revealed that an extra site, the former helipad site near North’s Seat, also located within Hastings Country Park, had been added to the list of potential locations for solar farm installation being surveyed by PPS. But two of the original three sites – the one west of the Milking Parlour in the Country Park and the one at Upper Wilting Farm – have now been “discounted for further development at the moment”, according to the HBC website, because each falls within a 100m exclusion zone around a military aircraft crash site protected under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 – see adjacent column. A licence would be required from the Ministry of Defence in order to undertake any site survey or other exploration of either.

It is difficult to see why such licences would not be forthcoming if applied for – hands up who thinks that saving the planet from burning up is less urgent than protecting aircraft wreckage of 80-plus years ago. Nevertheless it was confirmed by HBC last week that they are treating the options as “narrowed” to the two sites that don’t require an MOD licence and that no application for either is currently being made.

PICTURE: David Dennis

Friends oppose plans 
On the other hand, Friends of Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve remain adamantly opposed to the siting of a solar farm anywhere within the park boundaries. They made their own submissions to NE in June 2019, and again last month, setting out a detailed environmental case against the Council’s plans which, they say, breach its own planning and environmental policies, infringing sites of Special Scientific Interest, detracting from its prime setting within the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and reducing biodiversity.

The Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 prohibits entry onto any site where a military aircraft has crashed or naval vessel foundered, save by licence from the Ministry of Defence. There is no time limit to this bar.

At the time the legislation was passed, the chief purpose given by its proponents in Parliament was to protect the sanctity of wrecks that contain human remains. Excavations of military aircraft that had crashed in the Second World War had become a hobby for enthusiasts, causing distress, it was said, to relatives and friends of deceased aircrew. There were also other reasons – safety and security – for controlling the access of the general public to the wreckage.

All these considerations might, you would think, be time-limited. Eighty years on from a World War air crash, how many friends or relatives are still alive? What military secrets could still be worth protecting? But these are questions which fly in the face of established protocol. ‘Lest we forget’ is a noble catchphrase that nobody likes to challenge. And the Ministry of Defence is unlikely to forego the custodial role it secured 34 years ago, though it’s not at all clear why it should, or would, refuse a licence for solar panel installation. 

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