Ministers have green-lit plans for an 84.7-hectare solar farm near Hitchin despite fears of “serious harm” to heritage landscapes.

Local government minister Simon Hoare – on behalf of Levelling Up secretary Michael Gove – has gone against an inspector’s recommendation to refuse permission for the power station.

The panels, in Green Belt near Great Wymondley, will generate 49.995 megawatts of power at its peak.

It is the highest export which a solar farm can have without the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero’s approval.

Planning inspector Richard Clegg had put together a 46-page report weighing up the planning application, submitted by AGR 4 Solar Limited.

In it, he concluded planning permission for the development should be refused.

Mr Clegg wrote: “The proposal would amount to inappropriate development.

“It would result in a significant loss of openness over a considerable period of time and it would conflict with several of the purposes of including land in the green belt.

“There would be serious harm to the setting of several important heritage assets.

“Additionally, the development of a solar farm to the east of Great Wymondley would harm the character and appearance of the area.

“I attach significant weight to the adverse impact on the landscape of the site and its immediate surroundings.

“Insofar as visual amenity is concerned the adverse impact on views from The Hertfordshire Way [footpath] and Graveley Lane merits considerable weight, and there would be some additional harm to viewpoints to the north and southwest.

“I am concerned there is insufficient certainty about the mitigation proposed for displaced skylarks, and I attach moderate weight to this aspect of the scheme.”

Historic buildings nearby include Wymondley Priory, which is Grade I-listed and founded between 1205 and 1207.

St Mary’s Church, the tithe barn at Wymondley Priory and Graveley Hall are also nearby.

Mr Clegg wrote the agricultural setting “assist in the appreciation of Great Wymondley as a small rural settlement set in an open landscape”.

Solar panels can be put on the site for a maximum 40 years, then the plant must be returned to its former condition.

Developers promise a 205 per cent net gain in habitat units on the site and a 102 per cent uplift in hedgerow units.

“There is an immediate and pressing need for the deployment of renewable energy generating infrastructure across the U, which is intrinsically linked to the legally binding obligations to reach net zero by 2050,” Mr Clegg added as part of the “balancing” process.

“The proposed development would make a material contribution to meeting [climate change targets].”

Public benefits ‘outweigh’ harm, say ministers

Ministers said they “disagree” that the proposal would cause serious harm to the setting of historic sites.

In a Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities letter dated Monday, March 11, officers set out “the proposed development retains a visual separation between the priory complex, and the farmland setting would remain as a result of the proposed development, as would the ability to appreciate the contribution of that setting to the significance of the priory complex”.

Ministers added “the public benefits of the proposal do outweigh” harms to the green belt and heritage sites.

They said the developers had selected the site following a “robust and reasonable” approach and opted to grant planning permission.

North Herts Council had previously heard the application and granted planning permission at a meeting in November 2022.

But Mr Gove “called in” the proposal, which triggered an inquiry, held in Letchworth last September.

Paul Harding, a resident of Great Wymondley since 1982, represented the Joint Objectors Group (JOG) at the hearings – comprising the parish council and the Great Wymondley Village Association.

He told the inquiry: “Open countryside views are the very essence of our village and community.”

He added: “The main London to Edinburgh railway passes through the parish, partially visible and part in as cutting, and of course, we have a [National Grid] electricity substation on the edge of Little Wymondley.

“These are not, however, reasons to write off our landscape and open views, and neither are they reasons to assume that it makes the parish a natural home for even more infrastructure.”

But David Hardy, lawyer on behalf of AGR 4 Solar, said: “Every council should seek to maximise renewable energy generation in its administrative area.”