The recent news that two local businesses are to close has caused a great deal of concern in Bridport. Both cited the rising costs of energy as the reason behind their decision, but one, a bakery, also cited the rising costs of ingredients and the fact they were refused permission to install solar panels on their roof. Solar panels would not have supplied all the energy that the bakery needed, but they could have made a vital difference to its viability.
Unfortunately this refusal was far from an isolated incident. Time and again the local planning authority have refused applications for solar panels on local listed buildings, or buildings lying within local conservation areas. To be fair to the current planning authority, Dorset Council, the bakery’s application was turned down by the previous authority, West Dorset District Council, but this doesn’t let Dorset off the hook. I, together with a sizable number of fellow local councillors, have been getting increasingly frustrated by the conservative (small ‘c’) attitude of Dorset Council’s planning department towards such applications.
And it’s not just councillors who recognise the problem. At last night’s meeting of Dorset Council, for example, a member of the public cited Dorset Climate Action Network’s call for the Council’s policies to take a more flexible approach on renewables and energy conservation on historic buildings and in conservation areas. During public questions the Council was specifically asked whether it will adopt a more flexible approach. The answer, from the Leader of the Council, was, I’m afraid, typically vague and unhelpful. He simply stated the obvious by saying that the Council had a duty to give consideration to conservation issues and that we need to find sensitive solutions to these issues.
The reason usually given for the refusal of applications to install solar panels on these particular buildings is that their installation would cause what planning officers term ‘less than substantial harm to the significance’ of the building or area: harm that is not outweighed by the public benefit. This argument needs challenging on two counts.
First there is the question of whether the harm caused by simply being able to see the panels is outweighed by the public benefit. It terms of solar panels the growing imperative to generate as much renewable energy as possible surely tips the scales in favour of the panels. Solar panels can be removed, businesses forced to close rarely reopen and often the buildings they once inhabited fall into disrepair.
Second, in my experience planning officers never give a statement as to the nature of the significance that is supposedly harmed. National planning guidance defines significance as “The value of a heritage asset to this and future generation because of its heritage interest”. But who determines the value the current generation of West Dorset residents attach to their heritage assets? When was the last time the residents of West Dorset were consulted? For all our planning officers know it may be that most of us will not value our conservation areas any less simply because a few solar panels can be seen.
My point here is that planning officers, and particularly the conservation officers who advise them, need to start consulting residents regarding what they value. This is not just my view. It is also the view Kate Clark, an industrial archaeologist who has had a career in heritage management. It her book Playing With The Past she writes: “Traditionally, heritage specialists have used their expertise to define the significance of heritage sites, but increasingly practitioners will need to behave less like dictators and more like facilitators – listening to people, engaging with communities and helping groups to explore what matters, rather than telling them.”
I very much suspect that many, if not most, local residents would value the presence of viable local shops and businesses over the sight of roof mounted solar panels that happen to lie with in a conservation area. But we won’t know this until we ask them. Preserving the past at the expense of our future wellbeing is not a price worth paying. Allowing town centre buildings to lie empty and neglected is not protecting them for future generations.