Planners Challenge Roof Panels In Ore

The planning department of Hastings Borough Council (HBC) has raised objections to solar panels being installed on the south-facing roofs of a church in Ore and of a nearby school, on the grounds that their visibility from the street would cause “harm” to their respective conservation values  – despite apparent overwhelming local support for the projects and the council’s supposed favouring of carbon-neutral energy initiatives. 

Energise South Society Limited, registered under the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014, has raised £400,000 to undertake the installation of roof panels across a swathe of schools, churches and other business and community buildings in Hastings and St Leonards. They have already gone up since the beginning of this year on roofs at Hastings Academy, Baird Academy and Churchwood Academy. Further imminent installations are planned within the next month for St Leonards Academy, the Innovation Centre and Hastings Furniture Service. But those proposed in Ore for Christ Church, which is a Victorian Grade II listed building, and Dudley Infant Academy, which is within the Old Hastings conservation area, have been challenged.

New solar panels at Hastings Academy
PICTURE: Kate Meakin

Planning Objections

On 20th January HBC Planning Services Manager Eleanor Evans wrote to East Sussex County Council, the owners of the Dudley school site, informing them that, while installation of solar panels was welcomed in principle, the 32 proposed for the south-facing roof would be “extremely prominent in the streetscene” giving rise to “a negative impact on the character and appearance of the area”. HBC therefore refused the planning application, though it “would not raise an objection to the remaining 32 panels on the northernmost roof”. 

In respect of Christ Church, the Energise South co-ordinator Richard Watson was called to a meeting on 31st January with HBC’s Conservation Team. The acting officer Jane Stephen told him that she had identified “significant harm” in the proposals for the church building which was “not outweighed by public benefit”.  According to Ms Stephen, where the panels are “prominent or visible from the street”, the visual impact, including potential “glare factor”, would “harm” either the building itself or its surroundings.

In written comments lodged last week in respect of the Christ Church planning application Ms Stephen amplified her objections.  While acknowledging the climate change emergency, she argued that “the proposal to site an array of solar panels on the steeply pitched, highly visible front roof slope of the church will disrupt key views of the church roof and this will cause harm to the significance of the listed church building. The proposals will also harm local and familiar townscape views within Ore village”.

Rev Lee Duckett with Christ Church parishioners
PICTURE: Richard Watson

Community Opinion

Backing this aesthetic judgment Ms Stephen recorded that “the church building is also an important focus of community activity, and shared memories of the life events of members of the local community, which provides communal interest”. 

What she doesn’t seem to have had any regard for is the views of current members of the community, including, in particular, members of the church concerned. They have lodged a petition in support of the installation, pointing out the prospective benefits of solar energy to themselves as worshippers in the church itself, to the many community groups that use the hall alongside, and also to local residents, many of whom suffer from “fuel poverty”. The visibility of the panels is the very reason why they should be installed, they say – having “maximum exposure to the sun creating optimum levels of solar power, a consideration which a town declaring a climate change emergency would appreciate”. 

Out of 20 other written submissions sent in by other local residents and other concerned individuals, all 20 support the proposals. And Mr Watson points out that, unlike most structural or other material changes to the appearance of listed buildings or a conservation area, the installation of solar panels does no long-term damage to their architectural integrity. They are “a temporary solution to an existential emergency that can be removed at a later date”.

As to the glare issue, Mr Watson points out that panels are designed to absorb light and minimise reflection, so as to capture the solar energy most efficiently; they come with an anti-glare coating. His understanding is that reflection levels are typically less than 5% of incident light.

Feed-In Tariff Expiry

In respect of the installation at Dudley Infant School, Energise South decided for immediate purposes to compromise with the planners, and earlier this month obtained a modified permission from HBC to proceed with a smaller number of south-facing panels as well as those that face north. They will, however, notwithstanding the conservation officer’s objections, pursue their original application for the Christ Church roof at a full hearing of the planning committee next Wednesday (4th March).

The reason for their haste is that there is a cut-off date of 25th March for completion of installations to benefit from the government’s Feed-In Tariff (FIT) scheme. Under FIT, small non-domestic installations gain an ‘export tariff’ of 50% of the energy produced, i.e. the owners are credited with that amount of value for feeding into the national grid. From the end of next month onwards this scheme is being replaced by a Smart Export Guarantee scheme, which Mr Watson believes will prove far less beneficial. The two projects in Ore are only marginally viable in terms of energy generation and on-site usage, and the loss of FIT may pitch them into loss. 

However, Energise South are committed to proceeding at Christ Church even if they lose out on FIT, not least because the former local vicar Rev Lee Duckett (now Dean of St Mary’s, Battle) and church members have been vociferous supporters of the projects.  Mr Watson feels that the social return within the community, plus the example to other parishes, make the investment worthwhile.

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