Published: 06:00, 30 May 2019
| Updated: 08:15, 30 May 2019
A "David and Goliath fight" to save almost 1,000 acres of picturesque farmland and marshes from "industrial destruction" begins today.
A government-appointed inquiry into controversial plans to build the UK’s biggest solar farm on the edge of the Canterbury district is expected to last up to six months.
If approved, solar panels the height of double decker buses would be erected across an area in Graveney the size of 700 football pitches.
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The proposals - which include a huge energy storage facility - have been met with almost universal opposition, with just 15 of the 867 representations made to the Planning Inspectorate indicating support for the Cleve Hill Solar Park.
Campaigners have branded it a “monstrous scar on the north Kent landscape” and accused developers of profiteering.
But the firm behind the plans - Cleve Hill Solar Park Ltd (CHSPL) - claims the project, which will power 91,000 homes, is vital to reduce carbon emissions and a reliance on non-renewable energy.
WATCH: Campaigners fight against huge solar farm plan
Given the unprecedented size of the park, planning powers have been taken out of the hands of the local authority, Swale Borough Council, as the scheme is classified as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP).
A final decision will instead be made by energy secretary Greg Clark, who will receive a recommendation from the Planning Inspectorate by the end of November.
It will follow a lengthy examination of CHSPL’s application for planning permission through what is called a Development Consent Order.
Starting this morning with a preliminary meeting at the Alexander Centre in Faversham, it will also look at the hundreds of objections from opponents.
The majority of concerns centre on the scale and location of the development, the destruction of the landscape, the loss of farmland, and the damaging effect on wildlife.
Among those fighting the plans is Wendy Pryke, whose house backs onto part of the development site.
“As a family who have lived in this beautiful spot for over 40 years, who have raised children and run a business from our home and who treasure this landscape of productive agricultural land, marshland and the array of wildlife deeply, we feel heartbroken at the thought of this now becoming an industrial power generation site,” she said.
Her fears are echoed by literally hundreds more who share an affinity with the land.
The Kent branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England is among those to have highlighted the sensitivity of the site.
“We are not talking about your average marshy area here,” it said.
“It supports a huge array of threatened species and as we all know, nature is becoming extinct at an unprecedented rate.
“The 360-degree landscape views will be lost and the sheer tranquillity of the site will also be gone forever with the humming from the inverters and the battery storage. The site needs to be protected at all costs.”
Lut Stewart, who lives in the village and is the deputy chair of Graveney Rural Environment Action Team, says campaigners will challenge the proposals until the bitter end.
“It’s definitely a David and Goliath fight,” she said.
“They have had people working on this full-time since 2014, and have millions of pounds and all of the expertise.
“In Graveney there are a fair few people of a ripe old age, but everyone has come together to offer all they can to fight this solar park.”
Should the DCO be approved, construction could start as early as the spring of 2021.
Faversham Town Council has voiced its concerns to the Planning Inspectorate.
“We support the principle of green energy for the good of the planet,” it said. “But not at the expense of the one thing it is meant to saving – the environment. The site of this power station is larger than the nearest town.”
A spokesman for CHSPL says the solar park will power 91,000 homes and save over 2.2 million tonnes of CO2.
They added: “This is at a time when a quarter of the UK’s energy generating capacity derived from coal-fired power stations is due to close by 2025.
"More renewable energy generation is needed to achieve the UK’s goal of reducing our carbon emissions by 80% and to support a low carbon economy.
"The transition to a low-carbon energy system is necessary to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change.
“The UK’s climate change ambitions are among the highest in Europe.
"Kent County Council itself has declared a climate emergency.
"More clean, green renewable energy is needed to deliver reliable homegrown power to our homes and businesses.
"The Cleve Hill Solar Park can deliver this.”