Updated: High Court quashes Eric Pickles' solar farm block

Jessica Shankleman

Judge rules against Secretary of State over Lark Energy's Ellough solar park in Suffolk

The High Court has quashed a "perverse" decision by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to block plans for a solar farm at a disused airfield in Suffolk.

Developer Lark Energy today confirmed that it had won a legal battle against the Secretary of State on Friday, in what could become a test case over Pickles' increasing intervention in renewable energy projects.

Last year, Pickles personally called in and then rejected Lark Energy's application to build a 24MW solar farm at Ellough airfield, even though it had been recommended for approval by the local planning inspector.

At the time, he agreed with the planning inspector that the project would not significantly harm the character and appearance of the area. However, he concluded that the project would nevertheless "have an adverse effect" on the character of the site.

Lark Energy's barrister had argued that Pickles reached "a perverse conclusion" in deciding that the "insignificant harm" caused by the solar farm would conflict with the area's development plan.

Justice Lindblom overturned Pickles' decision, highlighting genuine doubt that the minister followed planning regulations, and ruled that the decision showed "substantial prejudice" to Lark Energy.

The High Court subsequently refused the Secretary of State leave to appeal against its ruling. However, a spokeswoman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said it was "actively looking" at whether it can take the case further to the Court of Appeal.

The 24MW solar array was originally rejected in February 2013 by the local planning committee, forcing Lark Energy to divide the project into two phases. The first 14MW phase has since been approved and constructed but the ruling could pave the way for a second 10MW phase to be installed.

But a spokeswoman for Lark Energy could not confirm when the project will be constructed. It is hoping to complete the scheme before the April 2015 deadline when the government has proposed to halt Renewable Obligation subsidies for large solar farms.

However, as the case has now been sent back to the Secretary of State for another determination, Lark Energy is concerned it could get held up in his intray.

The ruling marks a victory for the renewable energy industry against Pickles' apparent campaign to personally block the expansion of UK solar and wind farms. 

He has intervened to block a number of solar and wind farms in recent months, including those that have been recommended for approval by planning officers or have had significant support from local communities. Earlier this month, he called in a planning application for a wind farm that had already been approved by the local council.

Jo Wall, Lark Energy development director, welcomed the decision, but accused the Secretary of State of playing politics with energy policies. "We were always concerned about the legality of the Secretary of State's decision as it appeared to have been made without due regard to the local plan," she said in a statement.

"It was clear to anyone that read the Secretary of State's decision notice that this project was a victim of political expediency rather than rigorous application of planning policy."

The Department for Communities and Local Government was formulating a response to BusinessGreen's request for comment on the ruling at the time of going to press.

Climate Change Minister Greg Barker has pledged to crack down on inappropriately sited "monster solar farms" in the countryside, arguing instead that they should be developed on old industrial sites, former air fields or shielded from view by hedges. 

But Lark Energy argued that its Ellough project on a former WW2 airfield and next to an industrial estate, would not prove a blot on the landscape.

A spokeswoman for the Solar Trade Association told BusinessGreen the case was another example of "Westminster politicians tilting the playing field against solar".

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