What is it?
Cleve Hill Solar Park is a proposed development of solar photovoltaic (solar panels) covering an area of approximately 360 hectares (890 acres).
Where is it?
The proposed site is located on the north Kent coast, roughly 1 mile northeast of Faversham, 3 miles west of Whitstable and situated closest to the village of Graveney.
It is surrounded by habitats designated for their wildlife value at a National and International level (shown in green on the map below). ‘The Swale’ has three levels of designation: Site of Special Scientific Interest, a national designation; Special Protection Area, a European designation; and Ramsar (a wetland of international importance designated under the Ramsar Convention). The Swale Estuary is also a Marine Conservation Zone (a national designation), though at present it seems unlikely the solar farm will impact on this.
How is it different from other solar parks?
Cleve Hill Solar Park is huge. It is about five times bigger than anything else currently built or planned in the UK. Most notably it is also of a very different design to other solar developments – rather than south-facing panels, they will face east and west, meaning they can be installed much closer together. This new design is likely to increase the impacts and significantly reduce the opportunities for wildlife compared to ‘traditional’ designs.
What are Kent Wildlife Trust’s concerns?
With the information we have at present, our concerns fall into two main categories: loss of ‘functionally linked’ habitat, and direct impacts on the habitats within the development site.
Loss of ‘functionally linked’ habitat
While the development site itself has no wildlife designations, at certain times it does support species that the surrounding habitats are designated as important for. As such, it is ‘functionally linked’ to these designated areas, and its loss may have an impact on the species in question. The developers will have to undertake a ‘Habitats Regulations Assessment’ to determine the impacts on these species, what mitigation may be necessary, and ultimately demonstrate that any impacts will not be significant.
Direct impacts on habitats within the development site
It is fairly clear that there will be a significant loss of habitat for those species that rely on the open farmland in this area (e.g. skylarks). What is less clear is what impact the solar panels will have on the areas of the site that will not be lost – the ditches in particular, which are home to water voles and reed buntings, for example. As we have not seen a solar farm designed like this in the UK before, we have more questions than answers at the moment.
In addition, we are also concerned about the potential loss of connectivity, and loss of opportunity for habitat and landscape enhancement that this site provides. Such a significant area surrounded by designated habitat provides one of the best opportunities we know to restore lost coastal habitats in North Kent.
Isn’t solar power good?
Kent Wildlife Trust is not opposed to solar farms, and we have extensive experience in advising on wildlife enhancements for such sites. We are also supportive of initiatives to reduce human reliance on fossil fuel energy generation. This must not be at the expense of other aspects of the natural environment, however. As with many development issues, it can be as much about ‘where’ as it is ‘what’. There are potentially significant issues with these particular proposals in this particular location, as detailed above.
Putting aside the potential impacts mentioned above for a moment, we also recognise that there may be opportunities to enhance certain areas of the site that will not end up under solar panels – the ditch network for example, and any ‘buffer’ areas.
What will Kent Wildlife Trust be doing?
As well as making sure our ability to manage South Swale Nature Reserve isn’t compromised (and ideally is improved), we will be scrutinising the survey work to ensure it is adequate and appropriate to assess the impacts of these proposals on the wildlife and habitats within and around it. We will be seeking to influence any decisions made to get the best possible outcome for wildlife. This is a very important area for wildlife, we need to ensure that it stays that way and becomes richer and better for nature in the future. We site on a 'Habitat Management Steering Group' convened by the applicant, alongside Natural England and the RSPB.
A 'Phase 2 Public Consultation' ran from the 31st May to the 13th July 2018. Kent Wildlife Trust's response to this consultation can be downloaded at the bottom of this page.
What can other people do?
These proposals have been classed as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project and as such will be determined in a different way to a ‘normal’ planning application. The developer has undertaken a couple of rounds of consultation with relevant stakeholders, including local people, including a A 'Phase 2 Public Consultation' that ran from the 31st May until the 13th July 2018. We are now expecting an actual application to be submitted to the planning inspectorate by the end of 2018. See the developer’s website for more information.
When they submit their application, they will need to convince the Planning Inspectorate (an independent government body) that they have given sufficient opportunity for others to have their say, and have taken these views into account in their plans (e.g. have attempted to deal with the various grounds for objection raised by members of the public). Assuming the application is accepted, Planning Inspectors will then examine it, a process which may include further written representations and a hearing, and make a recommendation to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State will then make the final decision.