Solar panels delayed by planning permission

Although the Petition satisfied criteria imposed by the Church of England, the installation of 28 black solar panels on the south-facing roof of St Anne, Ings, raised concerns from the amenity bodies; it was also refused planning permission by the Lake District National Park Authority (“LDNPA”)[*], despite its assessment of harm as amounting to “less than substantial” [36]. Nevertheless, Fryer-Spedding Ch. granted a faculty subject to conditions that planning consent should first be obtained, after appeal, and that the panels should be removed at the end of their expected lifespan of 26 years.

Re St. Anne Ings [2024] ECC Car 2

In view of the East-West orientation of most Christian churches, the installation of solar panels on church roofs has long been recognized as an opportunity to reduce reliance on other forms of energy, and in some cases, with the potential to generate income for parish. A number of petitions have been considered by the consistory courts, from the high profile installation of 438 panels at Kings College Chapel, Cambridge, to the smaller unlisted church of St Francis of Assisi, Meir Heath, which petitioned for the installation of a similar array to St Anne’s,  an array of 40 black photovoltaic solar panels supported by an inverter and by battery storage installed in the Church tower [2].

The Chancellor observed that it would have been preferable for a Statement of Significance to have been prepared by an architect, presumably on the basis of the independence of the assessment. This course of action was encouraged by the DAC but not followed by the Petitioners [9]. Nevertheless, the Chancellor had no reason to doubt that the factual description of the church [in paragraph 9.2] was an accurate and fair description of the Church and its heritage significance [11], and was consistent with that of Historic England [12].

An important component of the assessment of the petition was the information gathered on the visit of the Chancellor to the church “in order better to understand its architecture, its setting and the impact that the proposed changes might have on the building”. He attended alone, without appointment, and did not meet any of the Petitioners, [14] to [27], and photographs in Appendix I, figures 1 and 2.

In the Statement of Need, the Petitioners anticipated that the proposed works would result in two benefits: the Church would become close to “carbon zero”, thus reducing its environmental impact and assisting the Church of England in its “Net Zero by 2030” aims; the solar panels would impact positively on the financial security of the church, helping safeguard the use of the building for the foreseeable future; the monetary value to the church of a solar panel installation would be around £2,040 per annum [34].

On 27 September 2023, the Petitioners applied for planning permission, but the LDNPA as the local planning authority refused permission by its Notice of Refusal dated 21st November 2023. The Chancellor noted that “stated reasoning is worth setting out in full”, a copy of which is reproduced here. On this he observed:

“[37]. In many cases, the refusal of planning consent would make the pursuit of a faculty application a redundant exercise. I am told that in the present case, however, the Petitioners have it in mind to pursue an appeal against the LDNPA’s decision”.

Whilst the CBC made no objection to the Proposals [39], Historic England emphasised the Grade II* status of the Church and expressed its concerns about the Proposal’s impact on that status [42(b)]. HPAB raised a number of issues and enquired whether there might be some other, less prominent and visually damaging, location on which the solar panels might be placed [43, 44]. The Georgian Group had “significant concerns” with the Proposals on account of the impact it is considered that they would have for the historic character of the Church and its architectural significance [45] to [50]. However, its comments did not have the benefit of a site visit, and relied upon publicly available internet images and photographs.

The DAC unanimously recommended the Proposals for approval, without the imposition of any conditions. It “strongly disagreed” with Historic England’s observation about the way in which the solar panels would visually detract from the authenticity of the Church’s original design and appearance [52(b)]. The DAC considered that harm that would result from the implementation of the Proposals “would be negligible” [52(c)] and took issue with the LDNPA’s approach to the planning application; it stressed the benefit to the church and wider community of making this well-used church more sustainable, striving to achieve Carbon Zero, and reducing its energy bills [52(e)].

Following the approach required by the decision in Re St John the Baptist, Penshurst [2015] (Court of Arches), Fryer-Spedding Ch. considered the special architectural and/or historic interest of this grade II* listed church; in his judgment, this was fairly and accurately stated by Historic England [12, 13], which speaks of the relative rarity of a church of this style in this type of rural situation; its simple, elegant design; and its pleasing, symmetrical composition [54]. In his assessment, and having visited the Church, its southern aspect makes an important contribution to its character;  he agreed with Historic England’s conclusion that it is “one of the comparatively limited number of viewpoints from which the church is experienced.” This elevation exhibits the symmetry of the simple and elegant design of the Church to the public road at Church Lane [57].

He then considered three facets of the DAC’s advice: the slate roof was not the reason for the listing of the Church being part of a Victorian restoration; the roof was said to be only partially visible from Church Lane; and the way in which the building is to be read, in view of the horizontal elements to its composition and of the differences to the stonework around the westernmost window [58] to [62].

After addressing the Duffield questions [63] to [91] and concluding that the implementation of the Proposals would cause moderate, but not significant harm, the Chancellor noted that the issue to be considered was whether the Petitioners had made out a sufficient case that such harm is outweighed by the benefits of the implementation of the Proposals. He noted that the application of the Duffield guidelines may properly import a consideration of missional priorities such as the Fifth Mark of Mission, and took that to have been the approach taken by Leonard Ch, in his decision regarding the installation of solar panels at Kings College Chapel, Re King’s College Chapel Cambridge [2023] ECC Ely 1 at paragraphs 59, 73 and 90.

The assessment of moderate harm was outweighed by the benefits of installing a solar panel system. He arrived at this conclusion in view of the magnitude of the benefits that the Petitioners have identified, and from two further specific factors: missional priority and reversibility of the installation. Of the former

“[93]. …the Church of England expresses its approach to net zero carbon planning principles in immediate and imperative calls to action, directed at “…all parts and levels of the Church of England”, an approach based in theology and an express recognition “…that the global climate emergency is a crisis for God’s creation, and unjust to the poor and future generations…Furthermore, the Church of England embraces “… the call to net zero carbon as an integral part of our mission; caring for creation, achieving climate justice, ending poverty, creating a viable future for ourselves and coming generations, and increasing engagement with our communities.”

However, he clarified that he did not take this to give a “trump card” to petitioners in every case where a measure to pursue net zero carbon in a listed Church is proposed: but, even so, he did find that the Church’s missional approach on the question of climate change is an important matter that he must take into account” [94].

On reversibility, he stated:

“[96]. It seems to me, and I so find, that where proposals are not only capable of being reversed, but must be (by virtue of a condition) undone after a certain period of time, then that is a way in which harm may be restricted

He granted a faculty subject to conditions that planning consent should first be obtained and that the panels should be completely removed after 26 years [102], based upon the DAC’s estimate as to the probable lifespan of the panels (of 25 years) [52(c)].

Comment

It is reported that an appeal had been lodged with the Planning Inspectorate, an executive agency of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.


[*] Planning Permission and the Ecclesiastical Exemption, Guidance: The Operation of the Ecclesiastical Exemption and related planning matters for places of worship in England, DCMS July 2010

[27]. The Ecclesiastical Exemption does not exempt denominations from the need to obtain planning permission for development which affects the exterior of a listed place of worship or of an unlisted place of worship in a conservation area (Ref 14). Planning authorities and the Secretary of State are required to have special regard to the desirability of preserving the structure or its setting or any features of special architectural or historic interest which it possesses when considering whether to grant planning permission for any development which affects a listed building or its setting, including listed buildings subject to the Ecclesiastical Exemption. They also need to have regard to the desirability of preserving or enhancing the character or appearance of a conservation area.

Reference 14: Planning Permission is also needed for a change of use of a church building to a use which falls outside planning class D1 for places of worship, or is not directly related to a church’s charitable activities. This should be taken into account when a new use is being considered for a part of a Church of England church building where the church has been made partially redundant under the Pastoral Amendment Measure.


[Updated: 6 June 2024 at 19:04]

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Solar panels delayed by planning permission" in Law & Religion UK, 5 June 2024, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2024/06/05/solar-panels-delayed-by-planning-permission/

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