UK town may scrap solar farm planning permission

Councilors in the English town of Swindon are discussion plans to scrap the need for planning permission on solar farms so long as any proposed site has been put forward by local residents.

The relaxation of the planning rules would allow local groups to suggest land where solar PV installations could be built, with the council using Local Development Orders to pursue the plans provided they are designed to protect local areas.

Swindon councilor Dale Heenan backs the proposals, having already supported a series of pro-solar initiatives in the town.

"We’re very clear that we’re not imposing solar farms on any community," said Heenan, who stated that proposed solar farms would only be given the go-ahead if they were "uncontroversial" and had the support of local communities.

"It is ambitious, but Swindon is a town known for innovation and this is another one of those ideas where we can lead," said the councilor. Innovative solar solutions in the pipeline include the creation of a "solar sound barrier" to line one of the main routes into the town.

The barrier would comprise the installation of solar panels along the A419 route, bringing solar energy and sound insulation to residents who live alongside the road and are fed-up with traffic noise. Once approved, Heenan plans to extend the barrier to the chief highway – the M4 motorway – that runs across the south of the town.

Merton rule receives green industry backing

Green business leaders in the U.K. meanwhile have rounded on the British government, urging Communities Secretary Eric Pickles not to scrap the Merton Rule – a policy driver that gives local government power to specify renewable energy in new buildings.

The Merton Rule was secured by current Energy Minister Michael Fallon and enable local governments to stipulate higher energy standards for new homes than national Building Regulations currently advise.

However, the Eric Pickles has considered removing or amending the rule in the government’s latest Housing Standards Review consultation – a proposal that has angered green business groups.

"Local authorities often rightly want to reflect local concern to reduce the impact of our built environment on the climate," said Leonie Greene, head of external affairs at the Solar Trade Association. "Forward-thinking authorities also know that modest additional cost at the construction stage is quickly recovered by the homeowner in the form of lower energy bills and results in more money to spend in the local economy."

Greene added: "We now have affordable technologies to build energy bill anxiety out of U.K. homes. Given the political furore over energy costs, the Government should be 100% behind local authorities demanding new homes with very low energy bills."

In the open letter to Pickles, the STA cited statistics that shows how the cost of incorporating PV systems into new homes can be extremely low, at approximately $1,500 per home under the 10% Merton Rule.