The proposal to build a solar park at Cleve Hill has attracted much controversy. Though it is easy to level accusations of nimbyism at those who oppose this plan, the debates happening locally go far deeper. Supporters have argued that this, is the well-needed shift in favour of solar power that is required, but many local people are not convinced that is the neat solution they are being sold.
The concerns that my constituents have come to me with, vary from impact on wildlife to their concerns over how green this scheme really is, from loss of tourism to the impact on local roads during the building works. These are all legitimate concerns; fundamentally, however, the proposal is a question about local democracy.
Formerly farmland, the intended site of the proposal lies in Graveney, between Faversham and Whitstable. If carried out, the development would see the building of large solar panels across an area of the equivalent of 700 football pitches. The transformation of our energy sector from unstainable to green energy is a must. With the looming threat of climate change and the ever-increasing depletion of our ozone layer, the development of a green economy isn’t just ideological want, but a necessity.
This however, cannot be a green light for big business to have their plans waved through no matter how unsuitable, in the name of green energy. Though I welcome any plans to increase green energy production, this proposal needs to be fully investigated before it can go ahead.
It is of great concern to me, that local residents have felt ignored in the entire process of this development. Increasingly, planning decisions are being made by government bodies, ignoring local people. The lack of scrutable process is silencing the voices of residents and seeks to further empower central government. Though it is clear, that the government must have a role in large-scale developments, this should never be at the expense of communities, who will be affected by the adverse effects of developments and building works. Alarmingly, the Localism Act (2011) transferred all nationally significant infrastructure planning (NISP) over to the relevant Secretary of State, in this case for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. This gives an unprecedented level of control over to a minister, who will probably never even visit the sites that they plan to develop. All the while, local people’s voices go unheard.
In 2017, I was elected on a manifesto that pledged to properly resource and bolster planning authorities with fuller powers to put people and communities at its heart. It is clear a balance must be struck between investment in large-scale planning developments from central government and ensuring communities have a voice. That must be recognised in the context of Cleve Hill. However, it is also clear that so much more needs to be done to ensure energy costs are affordable and the energy used is sustainable. I have always been clear that we need to see government action to meet our climate change targets and transition to a low-carbon economy.
Indeed, in the Labour Party, we have seen positive moves to change our policy in favour of a Green New Deal. This would lead to a transformation of our economy, with well-paid, unionised green jobs, large scale investment in renewable energies and a commitment to zero carbon emissions by 2030. These movements in policy, reflect the growing desire among activists for the government to take the environment more seriously.
Moving towards net zero carbon emissions isn’t just important, it’s vital for the future of this planet and it is clear that solar energy plays a huge role in achieving that. However, there is no clear-cut answer to the challenges we face both nationally and locally.
What is clear is that local people need to be listened to and all factors need to be considered. Though I welcome any focus on the environment from the government, this inquiry cannot be a white-washed rubber stamp to give the go-ahead to the development. Instead, it needs to weigh up the benefits and the potential risks and see if this is the most appropriate site for a development of this size.