Lark Energy is seeking a judicial review of local government secretary Eric Pickle’s decision to deny planning permission for a 24MW solar farm in Suffolk.

Back in February, Lark Energy unsuccessfully sought planning permission for the development of a 24MW solar farm on land at Ellough Airfield in Suffolk. On appeal the planning inspector in charge of the case recommended that that planning permission be granted. However, Pickles personally intervened and dismissed the appeal, refusing planning permission for the solar farm on the basis that the local landscape would be damaged.

As a consequence, Lark energy is applying for a judicial review on the grounds that the secretary of state made a decision that is contrary to the principles enshrined in national planning law and the national planning framework.

Commenting on the developer’s decision to mount a legal challenge Jonathan Selwyn, managing director of Lark Energy said: “We were naturally disappointed by the Ellough decision as the planning inspector conducted a comprehensive investigation of the scheme, including a detailed site visit, and concluded that it fully complied with DCLG’s own guidance.

“We select our sites for solar farms very carefully. We choose sites which have either had previous industrial uses, such as Ellough, or which are on predominantly low grade agricultural land. We consult extensively with the local community – at Ellough the vast majority were supportive of the project, particularly after we took on board some of their concerns about its proximity to the existing operational airfield. It seems surprising on this occasion that the Minister still found reason to overrule his own planning inspector.”

Speaking to Solar Power Portal, Selwyn said that the decision to pursue a legal challenge was not one the company took lightly, he explained: “This has both financial implications for us as a company and wider implications for the whole renewables sector. In this case, the planning inspector has clearly found that this project is consistent with planning guidelines. If the secretary of state decides to overturn such decisions on these grounds then for any developer, if you develop it according to planning legislation and guidelines and it is still overturned, how are you meant to decide whether you are going to build something or not?

“For the solar industry as a whole we’ve got to know that the secretary of state is acting within planning law and within planning guidelines. That is what the challenge is about really, to confirm whether or not the secretary of state has the power to act in this way. The financial implications are not as important as the principles being established. If it was only about financials that would be one thing but this is about much broader principles that apply to not only us but all renewable companies.”

Selwyn concluded: “I think that it’s important that we continue to engage with Government at all levels. We want to show that the industry is responsible and dedicated to developing the right sites. This review doesn’t change any of that; this is about clarifying what the position is when we have chosen the right site.” 

He added: “We in the solar industry continue to work closely with the government to ensure that large-scale solar has minimal environmental impact and continues to be broadly supported by the public. In our view, the Ellough project fulfilled CLG’s own guidelines, will have little impact upon its surroundings, and was largely supported by the local community.”

The developer expects the case to go to the High Court in March 2014 and will be represented by Andrew Newcombe QC.