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Solar PV, conservation area and planning permission: a case study

Posted by Cathy Debenham on 26 September 2011 at 8:28 am

Steve Plater's, story has a happy ending, but it perfectly illustrates that despite being a "permitted development" the path of a solar pv panel installation doesn't always run smoothly:

Our house is metres inside a conservation area (CA) boundary, only because it is built on land which used to be part of the next door care home's grounds. The reality is that the house is part of a street and estate which are outside the CA. It is not visible from within the CA because it's screened by tall trees, and for the same reason the only part of the CA visible from the street is the front of our house.

Nonetheless, the district council (Sevenoaks) required us to apply for planning permission @ £150 a time: first for our solar thermal collector, permission granted ; then for solar PV. Permission for the latter was refused on grounds of "excessive number of panels" which would harm the appearance and character of the (not in sight, recall) conservation area.

I appealed. The inspector agreed with all my arguments but then sided with the planners. Grounds: impact on the "street scene", and "possible precedent" usable by others in the conservation area. Both nonsense, since PV is permitted development under the 2008 Order and the street is outside the CA, and each application must be treated on its merits, hence there can be no precedent created.

The planners chose to ignore several Planning Policy Statements in favour of microgeneration, and national, regional and indeed their own local policy of promoting renewables to help combat climate change. Instead they focused on the sole consideration of protection of heritage and conservation area character. They just don't get it. How can solar energy be incompatible with conservation? How can there be "too many" PV panels on a roof? It is ironic that our MP is Michael Fallon, whose private member's bill became the Planning & Energy Act 2008.

We are inching towards a compromise solution allowing us 8 panels on west roof + 6 (instead of 13 proposed) on south facing roof. I'm waiting to see whether they try to force me to pay yet another planning application fee for the revised proposal. It is more than 12 months after the original one – only because of successive delays in getting responses from the planning department.

Then, out of the blue, an e-mail arrived from the planning officer, saying that he'd realised that our proposed PV installation was "likely to be permitted development". Not clear why "likely", I would have thought either it is or isn't, but never mind.

So my revised planning application falls away; instead the planning officer encourages me to apply for a certificate of lawful development. However, that would cost £75 and take 8 weeks. Having already missed a chunk of the prime generating season, and thus of feed-in tariff income since the 'FiT year' runs April-March, I'm going with his other option: just go ahead and do what we want.

The government's Planning Portal now states the following:

Roof and Wall Mounted Solar Panels

The following limits apply to roof and wall mounted solar panels:

- Panels should not be installed above the ridgeline and should project no more than 200mm from the roof or wall surface.

- If your property is a listed building installation is likely to require an application for listed building consent, even where planning permission is not needed.

- Wall mounted only - if your property is in a conservation area, or in a World Heritage Site, planning consent is required when panels are to be fitted on the principal or side elevation walls and they are visible from the highway. If panels are to be fitted to a building in your garden or grounds they should not be visible from the highway.

There is a small but significant change regarding PV in conservation areas: it now requires planning permission only if the panels are to be mounted on a wall, i.e. vertically. For roof-mounted panels, permission is only required if on a listed building.

I don't know whether this change is already, or will be, enshrined in a new Order in Council; or whether it is simply a change in guidance from central government, and our planning officer at least is following it. In any case, we seem to be in the clear. 9 panels for our south facing roof are on order [they were installed at the end of July 2011].


If you have a question about anything in the above blog, please ask it in the comments section below.

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6 comments - read them below or add one


Alchemist2001Comment left on: 25 October 2011 at 11:07 pm

My story has a happy ending.

Following my phone call to the senior planning officer I received a letter asking what alternative locations had been considered and why the panels were not put there.  (It looked to me that they were looking for a way out without losing face)

My reply pointed out that 3 companies had spent considerable time looking at my property and all agreed that the shaded north, east and west facing roofs were not suitable and that there was nowhere in my garden to put a rack mounted system that met the 5 metres from any boundary requirement and that was not shaded.  Really I was just stating the obvious!!

A week later I got a letter saying that they agreed that alternative locations had been considered and that the panels had been installed in the only practical location so they were 'permitted development' and planning consent was not required.

Steve7oaks Thanks for your comment. I looked it up and was holding it up my sleeve just in case they didn't back down.

My system is still performing well and looks on course to meeting the projected output.

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steve7oaksComment left on: 25 October 2011 at 12:21 pm

I'd like to make clear that the planning officer in our case described in this blog acted all along in good faith, and I have no issue with him. There used to be a Conservation Officer too (job since cut), who may have exerted influence.

To Alchemist2001: the "visual amenity" argument was shot down in June 2010, when the Planning Inspectorate ruled in householder's favour on a case in Poole. The inspector held that PV panels of standard design constitute sufficient effort to minimise visual impact, and that Poole council could not use that as grounds to refuse the development.

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Alchemist2001Comment left on: 30 September 2011 at 11:37 am

I live in the conservation area in a small Oxfordshire village.  The houses opposite me are not in the conservation area.  My south facing roof faces the highway.

Before installing solar PV panels I took a comprehensive set of photos into my local planning office (Cherwell District Council) and was assured by a planning officer that I did not need planning permission.  A document from the government planning portal was produced to back up the information.  On that basis I placed and order and the panels were installed and are producing well.

Following a complaint from a village resident the council wrote to me saying that I DID need planning consent because of the 'effect on the visual amenity of the area'

A senior officer has told me that he will 'look into' the matter but that the rules surrounding Solar PV are a very difficult grey area.

I'm still waiting to hear back from him, but I will fight this all the way if necessary.  If you cannot rely on the advice of a planning officer there is no point in the public being able to consult them in the first place.

Or maybe this is just a ploy to make me apply so they can get a £150 fee from me!

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Katharineof London

Katharineof LondonComment left on: 27 September 2011 at 3:01 pm

I asked a question of Islington Council recently, as my house with south facing roof (rear would not be suitable) is in a conservation area. I got this reply:

"Although I understand there are permitted development rights covered by the 2008 Order, all of Islington's residential conservation areas are covered by what is called an Article 4 Direction which removes certain permitted development rights. My understanding is that the Article 4 Directions in place generally remove the rights pertaining to alteration fronting a highway and that any alterations to roofs and elevations where they front the street would, therefore, require planning permission. The application would be exempt of a fee though.

 In relation to the solar tiles you have mentioned, although their appearance is better than normal solar panels (which normally look very chunky), they still differ very significantly from the traditional palette of materials in the historic environment. They have different colour, texture and finish. They have a reflective characteristic which is very different from the natural slate finish.

 We would, therefore, encourage the use of such tiles on rear roof slopes. Maintaining the quality of the front roof slopes in terms of their form, shape and materials is very important in order to preserve the special character and appearance of our conservation areas."

So, no fee if you apply in a conservation area, but they may not grant permission.  However, on researching Article 4 direction, i see that the council may have to pay compensation if they use this to prevent a permitted development.  Can anyone clarify whether this is likely to be successful?

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SimonmComment left on: 26 September 2011 at 9:59 am

Back in 2002 I went through this before PV was a permitted development and had almost the same reaction from the planners. Knowing how the local planners have the motto "The answer is no, now what's the question"  I did some prior work. Wrote to the director of development extolling the virtues of solar and how this could be promoted as the 1st in the council's area.

Emphasised to the planners that there ws only one householder that might see my panels, they face a large prairy type field and selected solar 'slates' for my slate roof. ie not only would the panels not be seen but they would be effectively invisible! Even got my local councillors on my side, and the local conservation groups.

Of course they were refused! 

Same day the refusla came through, man from the development department visited (teh planners bosses boss, said it was an excellent idea, no problem with going forward and to ignore the planners, they were idiots.  He wouldn't put the comment about being idiots in writing but did confirm in writing to go ahead.

This is why Solat PV has been made a permitted development. Its because planners are invariably idiots and if they remained in control of this element of planning there would be no Solar PV on our roofs.  

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mikem0Comment left on: 26 September 2011 at 9:50 am

My 4Kw system was installed in a Cotswold conservations area.  The only restriction was that the panels must not be more than 150mm off the roof and the panels must not be visible above the existing roof sightline. 

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