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Planning Inspectorate examination into building Cleve Hill Solar Park on Graveney marshes near Faversham closes

Campaigners opposing plans to build Britain's biggest solar farm on stunning countryside on the outskirts of Faversham are hoping enough has been done to deter the application being recommended for approval.

Controversial plans by Cleve Hill Solar Park Ltd (CHSPL) to construct a solar energy park across almost 1,000 acres of land on Graveney marshes have been the subject of a six-month long government-appointed inquiry - which comes to an end today.

Helen Whately with campaigners at Westminster
Helen Whately with campaigners at Westminster

If approved, it would see panels the height of double decker buses erected on an area equal to the size of 700 football pitches - which has been branded "industrial destruction" by protesters.

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).

On May 30, a government-appointed inquiry into plans began with a preliminary meeting at the Alexander Centre.

Since then, campaigners have been out in force at every meeting and hearing in their battle to halt the development.

Concerns have been raised on a number of issues, including the impact of wildlife, the primary schools, the village's road, and residents, while worries have have been outlined about planned battery usage and insurance for the development.

In September, protesters took the fight against plans to Parliament with then-MP Helen Whately, where they put their questions to environment minister Zac Goldsmith.

The examination officially closes today and the Planning Inspectorate will then make a recommendation to Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary Andrea Leadsom within three months, who then in turn has three months to make the final decision on the proposal.

The whole project will cost an estimated £450 million, and is about five times bigger than anything else built or planned in the UK. It would power about 91,000 homes, with a lifespan of a minimum of 40 years.

Graveney marsh, where Britain's biggest solar farm could be built
Graveney marsh, where Britain's biggest solar farm could be built

Public exhibitions were held in December 2017 and June 2018, and the Planning Inspectorate invited people to make representations before a deadline in January.

In all, 867 were received – and just 15 supported the project.

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.

CHSPL hopes to start construction in the spring of 2021.

Reflection on the examination, Lut Stewart, of the Graveney Rural Environment Action Team says their "fight is not over yet".

She added: "Should the proposals be accepted - we will fight them on the beaches and the marshes because the proposed development is far too large.

"It would industrialise the environment and there are better places to put solar and battery which does not harm wildlife and nature.

"This landscape which is loved and used by thousands of people.

"Our wish and hope for the New Year is a firm refusal of the proposal.

Lut Stewart of the Graveney Rural Environment Action Team
Lut Stewart of the Graveney Rural Environment Action Team

Wildlife and countryside

Surveys recorded dozens of bird breeding species in and around the development site and surrounding habitats, including marsh harrier, lapwing, bearded tit, skylark, dunnock, house sparrow, barn owl, yellow wagtail, meadow pipit, linnet and reed bunting.

A pair of peregrines were also seen frequently.

Other animals identified include great crested newts, bats, water voles and other reptiles.

Conservative election candidate Helen Whately says the development could have a "devastating impact" on the environment in the area.

"Clearly renewable energy is a good thing," she said.

"But at what cost will there be to the local environment - is this the right way and right place to produce renewable energy, given that the alternative is that the Environment Agency plans to re-flood much of the marshes around Graveney and recreate an amazing wetland environment.

"There are already lots of rare birds breeding in the area, so this could become the most amazing habitat and also act as a carbon sink - wouldn't that be better than an industrial scale solar plant?

Campaigners at the opening meeting of the examination in May
Campaigners at the opening meeting of the examination in May

Batteries

Fears still surround the safety risks posed by the huge battery storage site at the centre of the project, with concerns a wide-scale fire would be catastrophic and could claim the lives of people living nearby.

Leading physics professor Sir David Melville, who is Faversham Society's vice-chairman, says there is a "high probability" of more than one battery catching alight during the solar farm's 40-year life span.

The former University of Kent vice-chancellor believes a fire in one of the proposed 120 battery containers could start a "runaway fire".

"If you have a fire in a Tesla car, it is an isolated fire, and quite often they just let it burn out as it is difficult to put out," he said.

"But when you've got the equivalent of thousands of Tesla cars stacked up altogether, it is a much more difficult issue and there is a potential for what is called a runaway fire - which is one setting on fire, then the next one and so on, becoming increasingly difficult to put out.

"That is the major concern that we have, that there is a established likelihood that one of those batteries is going to set on fire, in fact, from the probability, several are likely to set on fire in a period of a year or so.

"There's an indication that it looks like it's about 1% of the batteries are failing. So when you've got thousands of batteries, you actually have a high probability of one or more setting on fire within a certain time period.

"The main point is that it is untested, nobody has anything as big as this, and we could have it on our doorstep."

The battery units would be supplied by Swiss-based company Leclanché, with a total capacity of 700MWH to store the energy the solar panels generate. This is larger than any battery storage built.

Daniel Föhr, chief engineer of VP system engineering at Leclanché, has defended the project's safety.

He said: "As a battery system manufacturer with more than 100 years' experience of providing high quality energy storage solutions internationally, we design every solution to ensure we achieve the very highest levels of safety for both people and the wider environment."

Sir David Melville has concerns about the number of batteries planned
Sir David Melville has concerns about the number of batteries planned

Insurance

The company behind the controversial plans admit they have yet to find someone to insure it.

Concerns have been raised by campaigners that due to the sheer size of the development, and because batteries have been untested at this scale, it will not be possible to find an insurer.

But developers say insurance will only be sought should be application be given the green light and deny they will have any issue securing it.

A spokesman for Cleve Hill said: "The Cleve Hill Solar Park will be securing insurance for the solar park and energy storage project should the scheme go ahead.

"As with any infrastructure project, be it solar, wind, nuclear, rail, etc, insurance is required and available.

"The developers are in discussions with insurance brokers to be able to secure insurance for the project."

Plans to build the solar park on stunning countryside has been the subject of a six month examination
Plans to build the solar park on stunning countryside has been the subject of a six month examination

Roads

Roads in a village where the solar park could be built are "not equipped" to deal with traffic influx the development would bring, campaigners argue.

Protesters fear part of the route could become a "death trap" should the scheme go ahead due to the number of construction workers needed on site for a significant amount of time.

Veteran campaigner Lut Stewart, of Great, says she feels the village is "regarded as being of no importance."

"The construction traffic was a major disruption in the London Array Project and one that villagers are very anxious about," she said.

"There are more than 100 elderly residents that live close to or along the main road and the traffic will have a significant impact on their well-being."

Campaigners on the marshes in Graveney
Campaigners on the marshes in Graveney

Construction of the development would take place over two phases. The first would take 18 months to complete and includes the solar park and a habitat management area.

Phase two would see the construction of the energy storage facility. It would take six months to build, but work could start before the end of phase one.

Core working hours are proposed to be between 7am and 7pm, Monday to Friday, and 7am to 1pm on a Saturday.

Ms Stewart says the construction time scales are "unreasonable."

"The noise, dust, air pollution and vibration will take place over a very long period of time," she added.

"Graveney is not equipped to deal with this massive traffic influx."

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