What is it?
Cleve Hill Solar Park was granted consent by the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on the 28th May. The development will consist 800,000 of solar panels covering an area of approximately 360 hectares (890 acres) of former grazing marsh.
Where is it?
The 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: it is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a national designation; a Special Protection Area, a European designation; and Ramsar site, a wetland of international importance. The Swale estuary is also a Marine Conservation Zone, a national designation.
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 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. Owing to the flood risk, the panels will also be placed quite high and will be almost 4 metres tall in places, leading to quite an industrial landscape.
Why did Kent Wildlife Trust oppose the application?
Kent Wildlife Trust is not opposed to solar parks, and is supportive of initiatives to reduce reliance on fossil fuels - but this must not be at the expense of other aspects of the natural environment. As with many development issues, it is as much about ‘where’ as ‘what’ and in this case the development site is ‘functionally linked’ to the surrounding habitats, and plays a vital role in supporting the species for which the area has been designated. In particular, significant numbers of Brent geese, lapwing and golden plover use the farmland. Marsh harrier breed and feed in the area, and may be displaced by the presence of the solar panels.
When Graveney Marshes was drained to create the arable land we see there now, a gap in the ecological network was created, and this farmland is one of the only undesignated coastal areas between Whitstable and the Medway Towns. The development site provides the biggest and best opportunity to undo some of the damage done over the past decades, by returning the land to the grazing marsh, saltmarsh and mudflat we have lost, for a #WilderKent and a #WilderFuture, for the benefit of wildlife and people.
How did Kent Wildlife Trust engage in the planning process?
The proposals were classed as a 'Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project' and went through a process called 'examination'. During this process an independent planning inspector heard arguments both for and against the solar park before recommending that the Secretary of State give consent to the development. The decision was made to grant consent to the solar farm on 28th May 2020.
Kent Wildlife Trust engaged fully in the examination process to try to get the best possible outcome for wildlife, attending hearings and submitting written representations, and some of our detailed responses can be downloaded below. Whilst we are disappointed that this scheme will be going ahead, there is a silver lining in that we secured larger buffers to the ditches, more mitigation land and better management. These achievements mean that the consented development is a marked improvement from the initial application, and some species may even be better off.
Throughout the process we spoke to local people and other campaign groups who have been representing issues like landscape and heritage, such as Graveney Rural Environment Action Team, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Faversham Society and the local MP, to best coordinate our efforts.
What can Kent Wildlife Trust do now?
Following the public announcement that there are no legal grounds to challenge the decision to consent the solar park we must now turn our attention to ensuring that the developer complies with the Development Consent Order and that the scheme maximises benefits for wildlife. To achieve this we are committed to providing technical advice to Swale Borough Council and will continue to work closely with other campaign groups.