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Planning for solar panels

Posted by Cathy Debenham on 6 March 2009 at 11:59 am

Living in a listed building or conservation area doesn't mean that you can't have solar panels, as Anne Robbins' experience shows. You may, however, need determination and energy, and money for an appeal, if you want to leap over all the planning hurdles.

Anne lives in a conservation area in Greenwich. Her house is perfect for solar hot water. The back faces south, and is not shaded by trees or neighbouring buildings. But, by law, she had to apply for planning permission. Much to her surprise - given that the panels would be on the back of the house - the application was turned down.

'Their principal reason was that the rear elevation can be seen from a public highway,’ says Anne. 'That’s true - but only obliquely, and from perhaps 20 metres of a nearby road. Because the house is a locally-listed building in a conservation area, visual impact was considered an overriding factor. However, we wanted to do something tangible to lessen our carbon use. We were motivated by more than just saving money. So we decided to appeal.'

Greenwich council is in favour of solar power. It had installed panels in its own houses nearby, both within and outside of the conservation area, and there are lots of references in the Unitary Development Plan for Greenwich to energy efficiency and small scale generation of power.

Anne hired Planning Aid for London, part of a wide network which provides community organizations with free independent help, advice and support on planning issues as well as taking paid cases. With its help she prepared her appeal and sent it off to the Secretary of State for the Environment. The process took around six months, and in that time household renewable projects became permitted development - except on locally-listed buildings in conservation areas.

In due course, a representative of the planning inspectorate came to look at the site for the panels, and approved the appeal. 'It would be a modern addition that would have no significant impact on the wider area,' he wrote in his letter granting planning permission. After nearly a year of red tape and nearly £900 of additional cost, Anne was free to go ahead and install the panels.

Anne adds, ‘what I wish I had known is that I could have put in a revised application, for example with a different type of collector, and asked for the planning committee to hear the case, rather than leave the decision to planning officers. The application would probably have been successful.’ Such advice was hard to come by, though. 'Our local councillors are all on the planning committee, so they can't offer planning advice to their constituents,' says Anne.

It meant a lot to Anne to win her appeal, and she hopes that others will be able to point to the decision if they get into a planning battle over renewables in conservation areas.

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