Daniel Gerber, of Gifford Hall, describes his campaign against a 22 hectare solar farm in Broughton Gifford

This case is about the Wiltshire Council not following a prescribed, legal planning process. But it also about what it means to live in the countryside and what we leave for the next generation. With help, one family was able to challenge a multi-billion pound U.S. company and a local council with a 350 million pound overall budget. That shows the UK legal system works and should encourage other individuals to stand up against inappropriately sited, large-scale development.

I believe that the Wiltshire Council has acted incredibly irresponsibly during this whole process. You can imagine my shock and horror in March 2014, when I left my house with my two year old to take a walk through our garden into the open countryside. I could not believe the scale of development that had started and immediately rushed back inside to phone the Wiltshire Council.

I eventually found out that for a 22.1 hectare, industrial, large-scale, solar farm development within the setting of a Grade II* listed building, no one from the Wiltshire Council had bothered to inform us or visit us; there was no site notice placed in the usual locations; English Heritage was not consulted and no Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was undertaken. Incredibly, we subsequently found out that outside of Norrington Common, the Wiltshire Council only sent one neighbour notification letter to someone in Broughton Gifford - and that was to the farmer that owns the land the solar farm was built on. The decision to place a 22.1 hectare solar farm on productive farmland, next to a Conservation Area and in beautiful, open countryside was made by one person – the Planning Officer. A decision to build a massive, industrial development in the countryside should have gone to the Planning Committee.

During the Judicial Review process, the Wiltshire Council and TerraForm Power (the owner of the solar farm) refused to admit that there were clear legal errors made during and after the planning process. I always felt that the solar farm itself was unlawful. Mr Justice Dove agreed with me. Furthermore, I found out that the developer constructed an unlawful fence that is seven times the length of the Titanic. It is also clear from the aerial photographs taken in June 2014 - and submitted as evidence - that the developer materially breached the planning permission at the time by installing between 50-75 per cent too many rows of panels in the fields. One simply has to look at the specific drawings approved by the Council at the time - and compare those to the number of rows that have actually been constructed in each field. The Wiltshire Council has confirmed that they have this information and placed it in an Enforcement File that is open in relation to the site.

In accordance with Mr Justice Dove’s decision on March 5th, 2015, the Norrington Solar Farm is an unlawful development, as it has no planning permission. OFGEM needs to act on the Norrington Solar Farm immediately. Although the solar farm has no planning permission, it is still receiving government subsidies in the form of OFGEM-regulated schemes (ROCs and LECs). A site without planning permission should not be accredited by OFGEM and should not receiving these government subsidies. This solar farm should return these government subsidies received since June 2014, as the High Court judgment means that it has not had planning permission since inception. Furthermore, from April 1, 2015, the Renewable Obligation (RO) scheme will be closed to solar farms that are over 5MW. If the TerraForm Power reapplies for planning permission, the Renewable Obligation scheme will no longer be applicable to the Norrington Solar Farm, as it is over 5MW. There are three situations in which an operator will be granted a grace period. The Norrington Solar Farm will not fulfill the criteria for any of the three options. If the company attempts to split it up into several applications to get the subsidies for developments under 5MW, the planning process would then become farcical and a circus.

TerraForm Power is a multi-billion pound U.S. company, predominantly owned by U.S. hedge funds and investment funds. The company is the owner of the Norrington Solar Farm and may also be the eventual owner of the Little Chalfield development. The Little Chalfield site is under appeal at the Planning Inspectorate and is potentially the third solar farm to be built in Broughton Gifford. TerraForm Power joined the Wiltshire Council as an Interested Party in the High Court case on the Norrington site. TerraForm Power now faces the very real possibility of losing their initial investment, as well as potentially losing decades of government subsidies and revenue from the generation of electricity. The subsidies are hugely material as in certain months; over 60 per cent of the revenue from this solar farm comes directly from these subsidies. During the two days of the High Court case, the company itself repeatedly highlighted the material prejudice that they will face, if the planning permission was quashed. However, as Mr Justice Dove affirmed, the obvious legal errors definitely outweigh the prejudice to TerraForm Power. In the publicly available, Final Judgment from the High Court, Mr Justice Dove cited TerraForm Power’s statements that they did not feel the need to disclose the litigation to the SEC (the U.S. regulatory body), as the chance of the court both allowing the Judicial Review and quashing the planning permission was ‘low’. I realise that the quashing of the planning permission is not the end of the story and I will continue to battle against inappropriately sited solar farms in Wiltshire. This is not easy at times. It was incredibly deflating to attend a Planning Committee meeting at the Wiltshire Council and witness first-hand the close relationship the Wiltshire Planning Officers maintain with the developers. For example, on September 3, 2014, the Wiltshire Council Western Area Planning Committee refused permission for an amendment regarding the Norrington solar farm (primarily because of the impact on the setting of the Conservation Area and Gifford Hall). I and other Broughton Gifford residents were surprised to see the representatives of SunEdison (the majority owner of TerraForm Power) immediately leave the auditorium with the Planning Officers and enter a restricted area to discuss the developments. The residents of Broughton Gifford certainly did not feel that the Planning Officers were representing us at all, at that point.

The future of the Norrington solar farm is bleak. As of Thursday, March 5th, 2015, the whole development does not have planning permission and is unlawful. It is clearly inappropriately sited, destroying what were once productive and beautiful, open, agricultural fields. Primarily because of the massive subsidies involved, the binding 2020 Renewable Energy targets for the UK and Wiltshire Council have already been exceeded, if one (rightly) considers installed, in construction and approved generation capacity. Thus, these targets should no longer be used as a distinct justification in the planning process. The government has clearly stated the preference for brownfield solar sites. And to top it off, another developer is constructing a second, massive solar farm right next to the Norrington development. One can clearly see both the unlawful, Norrington site and the second, large-scale, Broughton Gifford site together, as they must be only approximately 0.5 km away from each other. This surely is the very definition of Cumulative Impact/Effect. Finally, Mr Justice Dove’s ruling on the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) can potentially have major ramifications for other, large-scale solar developments.

Broughton Gifford has been treated unfairly by the Wiltshire Planning Department. These Planning Officers pushed to approve three, large-scale, industrial solar farms in one, idyllic, beautiful village. Other than the excellent Fox and Bell Pubs, these once beautiful fields were where I was privileged to meet other residents of Broughton Gifford. It is a friendly village and families used to enjoy walking these once open, productive fields with their dogs. That is impossible now with a fenced-in, 22.1 hectare solar farm. And believe me; I have not once seen a sheep grazing in this solar monstrosity, as claimed by the Planning Officers and developers.

My family has not undertaken this endeavor alone. Local residents such as Clive Taylor and Martin Freeman have provided tremendous help and guidance. Jack Churchill of Wiltshire Protect has also provided assistance and support. The Renewable Energy Foundation (REF) is producing unbiased and insightful research into renewable energy in the UK. Sara Phoa has produced a similar report on Wiltshire. Our local councillor, Terry Chivers, has been a voice of reason and a tremendous representative for the residents of Broughton Gifford. If Terry were in office at the time, he would have ensured the legality of the process. Finally, Duncan Hames MP has been a staunch supporter. Lisa Foster from Richard Buxton Solicitors and Jenny Wigley of No 5 Chambers have done a tremendous job in fighting for an individual’s rights against a multi-billion pound U.S. company – and a County Council unwilling to admit that they have committed material and serious legal errors.

We all are in favour of renewable energy, if the planning process is lawful and the development is appropriately sited. This was not the case with the Norrington Solar Farm.