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Concerns councillors could have lost voice on huge Wrexham solar farm plans

Lightsource bp wants to build solar panels on a site on the Plas Power Estate in Wrexham (Pic: Lightsource bp)

CONCERNS have been raised that councillors in Wrexham could have been left without a voice on plans for a huge new solar farm.

Lightsource bp wants to build solar panels on a site covering an area the size of nearly 170 football pitches on the Plas Power Estate off Ruthin Road.

The company said the 57MW facility would produce enough energy to power almost 23,000 homes, covering an area of more than 330 acres stretching from just outside Coedpoeth to near Bersham.

Due to the size of the development, which mostly sits on agricultural land, it will be down to the Welsh Government to decide if the proposals should go ahead.

Details of the scheme were outlined in a report to Wrexham Council’s planning committee ahead of its latest meeting yesterday afternoon (Monday, 3 June).

It came as the local authority’s chief planning officer David Fitzsimon sought delegated powers from members to prepare and submit an impact report on the application.

Although the plans have yet to be formally entered, it’s expected they will be brought forward this month.

Mr Fitzsimon said delegated authority was required so the council’s planning department could respond within a five-week deadline set by Planning and Environment Decisions Wales (PEDW).

He said failing to do so would see the authority miss out on a fee of £7,700 paid out for a timely response.

However, independent council leader Mark Pritchard said giving the responsibility to officers would result in the views of local politicians being ignored.

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The Esclusham councillor, who represents one of the areas impacted by the proposals, also raised concerns over the scale of the plans.

He said: “If you look at what’s being proposed in front of you, it’s a gigantic development. Let’s not underestimate that.

“It concerns me that details on ecology, biodiversity, highways and everything which should be part of this are not in front of us.

“Why would we want to, as elected members, give delegation? I think it’s dangerous and it frightens me actually.

“I don’t like the delegation of powers because in the past, history tells us that once the officers have delegation, they run away with themselves, they do not bring it back to the committee and the development proceeds.”

He added: “To be frank, the money and the finance doesn’t wash with me. You’ve put it in the report as a justification why you should do it.

“It scares me, and it should scare all of us in this room. It should come back to this committee because you’re diluting the planning committee’s decision-making process.”

Officers said the main information contained in the report would concern factual matters, such as the history of the site and any relevant local planning policies.

They said it would not prevent councillors from offering their opinion on the scheme separately.

But planning chair Mike Morris (Cons) said the issue of the impact of the development and whether it was acceptable was more subjective.

Cllr Trevor Bates (Ind), who sits on the committee (Ind), claimed the setting of a deadline to respond was similar to “blackmail”.

He said: “I really think this committee should have a say in the report that goes forward. I certainly wouldn’t be supporting the proposition and why would we?

“It sounds like we’re being blackmailed into a corner here because we’ve got such a tight timescale and we’re going to lose money if we don’t do it.”

Cllr Bates was cautioned on his choice of language and later clarified that he wasn’t accusing officers of blackmailing the committee.

A report to members shows the application will be classed as a “development of national significance” under Welsh Government regulations.

The proposals will therefore need to be submitted to PEDW to be considered by an inspector, before a final decision is made by ministers.

Explaining the reason why delegated powers were required, planning officer Matthew Phillips said: “The reason for requesting this now is very much in anticipation of having that application at some time over the summer and given the time periods within which we work to for the committee.

“The committee reports are prepared by the officers usually around about two weeks before each of these committee meetings.

“We would be under a very tight timescale, particularly over the summer when we don’t have a meeting in August, to be able to meet that five-week deadline.

“Clearly, not doing that would have financial implications for the service.”

He later added: “The financial issue does concern me more than perhaps it does the council leader but that’s simply because budgetary considerations are tight and application fees are what funds this department’s activities, so it is a consideration.”

However, Cllr Graham Rogers (Lab) said he agreed with Cllr Pritchard that finances should not factor into the decision.

He said: “In my opinion, the money is secondary. We’re talking here about £8,000 and in years to come, you possibly won’t be able to buy a beef burger or a hamburger for that amount of money.

“The concern I’ve got is that whatever the outcome is, whether it be in a month’s time or six months’ time, it’s the loss of prime agricultural land. We’re talking about 36 hectares and that’s a hell of a lot.”

Cllr Morris proposed an amendment to the officer’s recommendation to ensure local councillors are consulted on the plans before a local impact report is submitted.

His suggestion was supported by eight votes to five at the end of the debate.

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