THE SOCIETY’S STATEMENT ON THE FINAL REPORT DATED 31st JULY 2015 AND PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 2015
This report by an independent Panel chaired by Professor Terry Marsden was commissioned by the Welsh Government “to ensure that our designated landscapes are best equipped to meet current and future challenges while building upon their internationally recognised status”. It deals with both the three National Parks and the five Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Wales. It has been welcomed by the Alliance for National Parks Cymru which represents the interests of the Parks as well as AONBs. The Gower Society is the only voluntary sector body concerned with AONBs and is a member of the Alliance.
The review Panel has used the term National Landscapes of Wales to embrace both the parks and the AONBs. The tenor of is proposals suggest that future Welsh Governments will see much more commonality in their approach to these designated landscapes.
However, the Society welcomes the recommendation, which reverses a previous recommendation in the Panel’s interim report that the names of “National Parks” and “Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty” as the key designations of the “National Landscapes of Wales,” be retained. Additionally, it recommends one set of statutory purposes and an associated single statutory duty for both designations. It is hoped, as a consequence, the status and protection of the Gower AONB, particularly its natural features, will be enhanced.
The Society takes comfort from the Panel emphasising the priority of the Sandford Principle from 1974 that where conservation and recreation cannot be reconciled by skilful management, a greater weight shall be attached to the purpose of conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage. However, following the Principle in practice will continue to be contentious.
The Society also welcomes the recommendations for: continuing strong links between local authorities and AONBs; AONBs being bodies becoming statutory consultees on planning applications with a potentially significant impact on the special qualities of their area; and a statutory duty on local authorities to establish a formal committee, with at least two representatives of the local interest, to oversee the management of the AONB.
The Society’s main reservation concerns the extent of those planning and committee recommendations. It is for the local planning authority to decide, ultimately, which applications to refer, and the committee has to be properly resourced and its recommendations acknowledged.
In the case of Gower, there is a danger of the AONB being less regarded by the local authority, should its area be considerably expanded due to the possible amalgamation with a neighbouring authority.
A working group, chaired by Lord Ellis Thomas, will now consider the implementation of the recommendations. The Alliance will be represented on that group.
APPLICATION FOR SOLAR ARRAY NEAR ILSTON REFUSED
Application by Gower Power Community for Ground Mounted Solar Array at Webbsfield, Near Brookvale, Ilston, Swansea, SA2 7LD.
Much to the concern of local residents and The Gower Society (GS) an application was made in June 2014 for a 1MW solar generation array complete with security fence, cameras, access and associated buildings. The location was in one of three fields purchased by the applicant that are directly opposite Ilston Quarry. Whilst the proposal was not in a prominent location the GS recognised that it was an inappropriate location and if this was allowed by the planners of City and County of Swansea (CCS) it could open up the floodgates for similar schemes throughout the Gower AONB.
As a consequence the GS Planning Team put in a lot of effort at the initial planning stage to show that the application should be refused on two grounds: that it would basically damage the AONB’s natural beauty, and that it was an industrialisation of the landscape. It was also argued that alternative sites outside the AONB had not been investigated. The applicant had designed a tree planting scheme partly to hide the structures but we still thought that they would be seen from various locations. This part of Ilston is a hidden gem, with its river, mature trees, old quarry (that is a SSSI and Nature Reserve) and its closeness to the adjacent commons that are Special Areas of Conservation (SAC). The GS thought it should it not be compromised.
The Planning Officers and the Officers responsible for the AONB recommended approval to the Planning Committee. Thankfully the elected members of the Planning Committee were persuaded otherwise by strong representations from local residents, Ilston Community Council and the GS. The application was refused on 2 September 2014.
We knew that the applicant would not take this decision as final and he appealed to the Planning Inspectorate later in the year which resulted in a busy period over Christmas 2014 for objectors to prepare their submissions to the Inspector. The GS main Committee took the difficult, and potentially expensive, decision to employ a Consultant, Boyer Planning from Cardiff, and Landscape Architects, Tirlun Design Associates from Bridgend, to present the GS case against the scheme. This was not easy because of the Christmas period.
The applicant made a strong and comprehensive case for his scheme and garnered renewed support from over 90 individuals. Analysis of their letters of support showed that many were from outside Gower and some indeed from outside Wales. The similarity of text suggested a standardised letter.
Linked to the applicant’s case was the creation of a community farm that has attracted a a lot of support but we did not accept any relevance of an array to the “farm”. The cost of the land bought for the project by the applicant was some £150 000 and we could never see how a return was to be achieved. Objections on the other hand were all strongly local to Ilston. The CCS case had now to carry out a ‘u turn’ from its original recommendation to the Planning Committee.
The Appeal was heard on 17th March 2015, by the Inspector Hywel Wyn Jones, and representations from appellant and objectors were completed in the day. Then on the 18th March, the Inspector accompanied by both appellant and objectors , embarked upon a comprehensive site visit. A thorough inspection was carried out and the site viewed from various key locations
On the 21 April 2015 the Inspector dismissed the Appeal mainly because of the visual impact upon the AONB. He ruled that the solar panels would be seen from a number of locations and said ” I consider that from these vantage points the rear elevation of the rows of arrays would appear as monolithic, alien features that would be out of scale and character with its countryside and surroundings.” He concluded “I consider that the natural effect on the natural beauty of the landscape and the visual amenity of the area would be harmful. Mindful of the statutory duty in relation to the protection of the AONB, I consider that the extent of theis impact would be significantly harmful.”
The Planning Inspectorate Appeal Reference APP/B6855/A/14/2226732 is available on line.