Is Kent still the Garden of England….? by Penny Rickards, SOLIS (Save Old Wives Lees from Industrial Solar)

by Penny Rickards, SOLIS (Save Old Wives Lees from Industrial Solar)

Editor’s note: This article represents the opinions of many local residents in Old Wives Lees. It is published because it raises issues of the environment, energy and food self-sufficiency, all of which will shape the future landscape of Canterbury’s surrounds. It should not be read as reflecting the views of the editor or Canterbury Society.

Aerial photograph of Old Wives Lees

Aerial photograph of Old Wives Lees

Why are a group of locals living in Old Wives Lees objecting to plans to turn traditional orchards into a solar farm when the whole country is being affected by the current fuel emergency, and government are looking to renewable energy as the way forward? Is this yet another example of self-interest and NIMBYism, or are there much wider and deeper consequences for Canterbury, Kent and wider society?

Old Wives Lees near Chilham lies on top of the rolling North Downs, with access via steep hills and very narrow lanes which are unsuited to heavy traffic and are characteristic of the area. Orchards, arable land, hop gardens and woodland surround the village. All this would be irrevocably changed if the plan to cover 114 acres (roughly the size of 86 football pitches) of Grade 2 farmland with solar panels at North Court FRUIT farm is successful. The land has traditionally been used as orchards for over fifty years!

The North Downs Area of Natural Beauty (ANOB) around Old Wives Lees and Chilham is cherished by many walkers, not just locals but national and international tourists as well as people from local neighbouring areas. The North Downs Way is an ancient, renowned and important pilgrimage route from Winchester to Canterbury is internationally renowned for its’ wonderful views and gives people the opportunity to find peace, tranquility and transformation in nature. As a result, the path plays a key role in supporting the local tourism industry. The North Downs Way would be directly negatively affected as the footpath would be surrounded by solar panels in places and visible from other nearby viewpoints within the ANOB.

Solar farm developers regularly promote schemes on high grade agricultural land. The use of productive farm land is in breach of the guidance from their own trade association and flies in the face of government agricultural and planning policy. However, developers will take the easiest and cheapest option, which is to seek out landowners who are willing to sell, together with ease of access to the national grid and submit speculative planning applications. Landowners can earn far more through leasing their land out as a solar “farm” than selling their assets. Agricultural land is selling around £8,800 per acre depending on the quality of the soil, but a landowner can earn a guaranteed income of up to £1,000 per acre, per year, for the whole lifetime of the development, without any initial outlay and the costs of farming the land. Another way that a landowner will benefit is if they decide to sell their freehold interests in the completed solar “farm”. Solar installations can increase the value of the land by up to three times.

The developer of North Court Solar Farm, Green Switch Capital, their investors and others in the solar farm industry are keen to profit from Kent sunshine with this project which means money for them and the farmer who’s land it is, but noise pollution, destruction of wildlife habitat and ugly acres of steel, glass and high fences with ‘danger of death’ signs will replace acres of apple orchards surrounded by ancient hedgerows and distinct field patterns. Developers are keen to reassure communities that the structures are temporary; that land will be returned to agriculture at the end of the 30/40 year lease, and that solar farms are environmentally friendly. However, it is highly unlikely and unproven that the land can be returned to agriculture in 40 years time; any reinstatement bonds are worthless given potential for changes of ownership, there is no plan for recycling at the dismantling stage, and the long and complex supply chain is fragmented and open to abuses.

.Solar energy has a part to play in supplying renewable energy where appropriate. Solar panels should be sited on the roofs of houses, factories and offices not on food producing land. According to the Solar Campaign Alliance (https://www.solarcampaignalliance.info/)
in 2019 it cost £11.5 billion to import just fruit and vegetables, we are losing good quality land due to pressure from industrialisation, plus residential and infrastructure demands.

Horticultural land at Old Wives Lees used for solar will be out of food production for 40 years, which comes at a time when even the Governor of the Bank of England has sounded an ‘apocalyptic’ warning over the looming food shortages caused by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. This coupled with Brexit and soaring food prices, Britain needs to become less dependent on imported food, we need to grow more to feed our own population. It is complete folly to hand over good land to an outside company which cares little for Kent residents or the natural landscape. There is a clear policy conflict within government which seeks to protect and enhance our domestic production to maintain food security, but is encouraging the growth of renewable energy on valuable farmland and areas of high amenity.

This is why protests are going on up and down the country from a number of action groups and individuals opposed to unregulated inappropriate solar development across the UK, and there are demands for a proper Land Management policy to protect farmland threatened by indiscriminate solar companies.

The human costs to this ‘urbanisation’ of the countryside is also being felt by residents living near the 250 acre solar park north of Canterbury between Hoath and Chislet, 900 acres at Cleve Hill near Faversham, 50 acres at Littlebourne, 38.9 acres at Knowlton, 46 acres at Sandwich and now a ‘Call for Sites Submission’ to turn the whole of Nickle farm by Mansfields at Chartham near Canterbury is also on the cards. What is happening to the ‘Garden of England’ that all of us cherish?

We understand a planning application for North Court Solar Farm is set to go before Ashford Borough Council by July this year.

For more information please contact: info@sowlis.org

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