Swindon council votes to relax solar planning rules

Swindon Borough Council has voted through measures that will allow solar farms to be developed on pre-approved sites under Local Development Orders.

Swindon residents will be able to nominate areas of land suitable for solar farm developments which will then be vetted by the council for suitability. If a site is deemed suitable then the council will designate it as permitted development.

Speaking to Solar Power Portal, Dale Heenan, Conservative cabinet member for strategic planning and sustainability explained the council’s move on solar developments. He said: “Swindon Borough Council is taking a new approach to how it tackles solar farms in the borough. We are going to take forward local development orders to relax the planning controls around solar farms.

“Next week we launch a call for sites which is where we ask farmers, landowners, and importantly, parish councils and residents to come foreword and say ‘we would like this field to potentially become a location for a solar farm’.

“We will then review all those sites and identify which ones are not controversial, which ones have wide support and if we think it’s appropriate we will designate them as permitted development for a solar farm – and that will mean that developers will not need a planning application. Developers can go ahead and build within the criteria we set for that site.”

Asked what the new approach will mean for UK solar developers, Heenan said: “The decision gives them a lot of reassurance over the potential for having locations around Swindon where they don’t need to go through the bureaucracy and red tape that exists around building solar sites. They will know right from the start that this site is suitable and we can work with them to ensure that there is minimal impact for residents.

“The other benefit, is that by taking a much more strategic approach, we can go to DNOs [distribution network operators] if there are issues around grid capacity. We know that there all these sites coming forward over the next six years; ‘what are you going to do to sort out the local grid capacity in the area so that we can actually have these schemes come forward?’ We aren’t taking a piecemeal approach; we actually do take a strategic view about the infrastructure that is needed as well.”

The council is the first in the UK to use local development orders to allow permitted developments for solar farms but Heenan hopes that other local authorities could follow suite, he said: “I would certainly hope that other local authorities see what Swindon is doing and, if we can make it a success over the next six months, take note of our results. They can then use that to focus their own renewable energy strategies and we can help enact a step change in delivering renewable sites.” 

“The whole idea around this approach for renewable energy, and solar in particular, is so we can deliver our target of 200MW by 2020. If we can exceed 200MW then I think that is even better for us. Another benefit for us is that the borough council will receive business rates income as well, so another strand is that the government policy is actually helping the borough create this incentivised approach.”

Heenan hopes that the strategic approach to solar farm developments will help address a number of issues facing both developers and residents alike. Indeed, Heenan says that has been contacted by a number of groups currently opposing solar farms who have expressed support for such a system. From a council perspective, Heenan believes that the move will help it reach its 200MW by 2020 target and hopefully exceed it. Another important aspect to the council is the increase in business rate income.

Heenan concluded: “We are definitely open for business, if anyone is interested do please come to Swindon and have the conversation.”