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Thursday, November 30, 2023

Railway heritage charity’s objections to a solar farm in Darlington falls flat

A railway heritage charity’s objections to a solar farm in open countryside did not succeed in persuading councillors to reject the scheme.

Aura Power Developments’ plan for a 40-year solar farm on 62 hectares of agricultural land north of Burtree Lane, Darlington was debated – and approved – by Darlington Borough Council’s planning committee on Wednesday (November 9).

Niall Hammond, chair of the Friends of the Stockton & Darlington Railway which opposed the plan, told councillors the development eroded the heritage of a 19th-Century railway line “as important as Hadrian’s Wall or Stonehenge”.

He said: “It is one of the few things the region has that is known about worldwide. It should therefore be treated as a heritage asset of international significance.

“We want our inspiring heritage of ingenuity and entrepreneurship which is exemplified by our rail heritage to inspire future generations, provide high-quality new development and sustainable economic growth.

“It is all the sadder therefore that we have to object to this scheme which will provide renewable energy, when we would rather support it.”

He said passengers and visitors using a walking and cycling route could currently experience the railway in a rural setting, and asked whether they would appreciate the sight of “solar panels and industrial development”.

“How long before there is very little left to care for?” he asked.

Mr Hammond said the Friends wanted a “green buffer” zone between the railway line and the solar farm.

Planning manager George Wilyman, for Aura, said removing solar panels closer to the line would make a “substantial difference to the energy output”, making it “unviable”.

He argued the farm offered a raft of far-reaching economic, social and environmental benefits with no objections from residents.

He said: “Although it is recognised it will have some impact, it is projected that these will be minor.”

He later said: “The Planning Inspectorate quite rightly said you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, and I think this is the case here. There’s always going to be someone displeased with the outcome of planning.

“We’ve got here a really good solid scheme.

“Yes, I’m doing this as a job, but equally I’m seeking to leave the world a better place than it was before, and this is what this application is seeking to do.”

He said the plan would help tackle the climate emergency and carbon-cutting targets, strengthen energy security and reduce reliance on fossil fuels, providing clean electricity equal to powering 14,400 homes and saving over 10,000 tonnes of CO2 a year.

He said it contained boosts to biodiversity, improved wildlife habitats, grass and marshland, a footpath upgrade, continued grazing on the land and a £20,000-a-year community benefit fund for environmental, social and education projects.

Whessoe Parish Council supported the scheme, while Bedlington resident Geoff Hill also spoke in support, stressing the environmental and energy benefits and saying: “We’re building on top of an old rubbish dump.”

Principal council planning officer Lisa Hutchinson said: “We feel it is an acceptable proposal.”

She said such developments with environmental, energy and employment benefits were deemed in the public interest, and it was a temporary loss of a small parcel of land.

She said there would be some localised landscape harm, substantial in some places, “however this is limited to a small number of residents in a small area which would reduce over time with landscape mitigation”.

It would cause “a degree of harm” to the Stockton and Darlington Railway, but there had been changes to the plans with areas removed, and the harm was “less than substantial” and outweighed by the public benefits, so planning officers recommended approving the plan.

Dave Coates, the council’s head of planning, development and environmental health, said they had listened and negotiated: “Not everybody gets what they want out of the planning process.

“We have gone a long way down this path. We haven’t delivered everything this interest group has wanted, but we’ve delivered a significant part.”

Cllr Cyndi Hughes
Image: Darlington Borough Council

Councillor Cyndi Hughes referred to the forthcoming railway bicentenary celebrations, saying: “We may not agree with officers in relation to the Darlington and Stockton Railway, especially in the lead-up to 2025 and the international significance of that.

“In Darlington and around the world, this is a really big deal. And I’m tending to think that the balance isn’t quite right for me.”

Cllr Libby McCollom said: “I am concerned. It is one of those internationally recognisable assets that we’re very fortunate to have.”

Councillors voted 8-3 to approve the plan with 27 conditions.

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