Michael Gove has sent a last-minute letter to a North Herts Council, opening up the possibility he could throw out plans for a solar farm in Bygrave, amid an inquiry into a separate solar farm in Great Wymondley.

The levelling up secretary is already tasked with ruling on the plans for an 88-hectare solar farm at Great Wymondley.

He could now “call in” plans for a separate, 53.6ha plant in Bygrave, near Baldock, put forward by a different developer.

Cllr Val Bryant, chair of North Herts Council’s planning committee, revealed the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities had decided to use a legal power which would block the authority from signing off on planning permission for Tophams Solar Farm.

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Cllr Bryant told the committee she received the letter “about half an hour” before councillors were due to debate the Bygrave project – when they were already in the chamber for their Thursday, September 14 meeting.

The government told the authority it could refuse planning permission.

But using a 2015 statutory instrument, while the committee could indicate support for the proposal, the back office would not have been able to formally grant permission.

The government’s order can remain in place “indefinitely”.

The Comet: How the Tophams Solar site near Bygrave, Hertfordshire looks nowHow the Tophams Solar site near Bygrave, Hertfordshire looks now (Image: PACE/North Herts Council)

Mr Gove could force the authority to hand decision making powers over the application to Whitehall.

Campaigners warn of ‘decimated’ landscape

Committee members heard from the applicants, a supporter of the solar site, and the Bygrave Action Group.

The Bygrave Action Group urged North Herts Council to reject the solar farm proposal, which would be twice the size of Letchworth’s Norton Common.

Its chair, James Colegrave, told the committee: “We all wholeheartedly support the need to reduce our allowance on fossil fuels, through investing in all types of clean energy production in the UK and locally.

“However, this energy production must take place in the right locations.

“Bygrave already hosts the Biogen anaerobic digester adjacent to the A505, and we would support the siting of a solar farm of wind turbine close to Bygrave, as long as they are in an appropriate location.”

Mr Colegrave claimed the land beneath the solar panels could grow enough wheat to supply everybody in North Hertfordshire with Weetabix – roughly 133,000 bowls – every day for 15 weeks.

He said crop-growing land would be lost over the 40-year site lifespan, and the sheep which are proposed to graze beneath the panels would not make up the lost food production.

Mr Colegrave added there is a “humming sound” at some solar farms.

His colleague Julie Stothard alleged the proposal would not meet a national planning aim to “protect tranquil areas which have remained relatively undisturbed by noise and are prized for their recreational and amenity value”.

Landscape and vistas would be “decimated” by the panels, she claimed.

Cry of ‘classic nimbyism’

But one speaker in favour of the plant, Stewart Reddaway, said: “No site is perfect and there are some valid disadvantages.”

He added: “Some will not like this [development], but some will be interested and pleased to see renewable energy being generated.

“BAG says the site is the right idea but the wrong location. That is the classic nimby (not in my backyard) argument.”

Mr Reddaway warned the alternative is “government policy involving drilling for oil in the North Sea”, which he said is a “much worse option”.

Rob Shaw, representing applicant Pathfinder Clean Energy (PACE), said: “Our vision is to help the country avoid the worst effects of the climate emergency and to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

“Our additional priority here is to help reduce the loss of biodiversity in the local area.”

The applicant promises hedgerow and tree planting.

Mr Shaw added the developers are prepared to start work once North Herts Council – or the Westminster government – grants planning permission.

He explained the site is near a connection point to the National Grid and that the team “sieved out” sites which are in green belt and unsuitable.

“Our solar farm will generate both low-cost energy and make a crucial contribution to the council’s target of a net-zero district by 2040,” he said.

Decision deferred without debate

North Herts Council’s committee failed to indicate its support or opposition to the application.

Cllr Sean Nolan said: “It feels futile to carry on with this when we can’t actually grant permission, if this were to go in that direction.”

He said the decision should be deferred “until some other decision has been made at a higher level”.

The committee formally voted to defer their decision as a result of the late timing of the letter, a series of late application documents, the need for a noise probe, and a need to understand the traffic impacts of the development.

A planning inspector is hosting an inquiry into the 88-hectare solar farm at Great Wymondley, around six miles away, due to end on Friday, September 22.

For that scheme, only Mr Gove can grant or refuse permission after a recommendation from the inspector.