UK’s largest solar farm ‘will destroy north Kent landscape’

Article in today’s Sunday Times Leo Patrizi.

Kent is known as “the Garden of England”, but a swathe of its farmland could be covered with 900,000 panels if the UK’s largest solar farm is approved this week.

Cleve Hill Solar Park, covering 958 acres on Kent’s north coast near the ancient town of Faversham, would have such an impact on the landscape that it has caused a schism among green groups that normally support low-carbon energy schemes.

Friends of the Earth supports it while Greenpeace has joined the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the local Green Party to oppose the “industrialising of the countryside”.

The area for the proposed solar farm covers a large area of farmland on Kent’s north coast

Helen Whately, MP for Faversham, said the scheme “would destroy an entire landscape”. She urged Alok Sharma, the business secretary, who has the final say on such large infrastructure projects, to reject it. He has often spoken in favour of solar power, telling parliament in March that “solar photovoltaics is a UK success story”.

The £400m project has also proved controversial with residents because its developers — Hive Energy, in the UK, and Wirsol, a German group — want to build the world’s largest lithium battery facility to store the energy generated.

Sir David Melville, vice-chairman of the Faversham Society and a former physics professor, said: “We are concerned by the danger of runaway fire, explosion and toxic gas emissions in the event of a battery failure.”

Planning documents say most of the land for the solar park will be rented from the Goodman farming family of Eastwell Park, near Ashford, 10 miles from Cleve Hill.The family did not respond to requests for comment. The developers say Cleve Hill will generate power for 91,000 homes, but locals say they are enriching themselves by destroying the countryside.

Tim Valentine, a Green Party councillor on the local Swale borough council, said he supported solar power but opposed this scheme. “It has massive disadvantages: the industrialisation of the countryside, a dramatic visual impact on a rare landscape and the displacement of wildlife of international significance.”

Greenpeace UK, among the keenest proponents of renewable energy, said it was opposed. “There are much better alternatives,” said John Sauven, its director.

However, in a submission to a planning inquiry held last year, Swale Friends of the Earth supported the project. “I and many members of our group love the marshes around Cleve Hill,” said Anna Stanford, its co-ordinator. “But this landscape and the wildlife it supports will be affected by climate change much more than by a relatively benign renewable energy generating project.”

The Cleve Hill scheme said it “offers a low-cost, safe and low-carbon way of delivering clean power to 91,000 homes”.