Overview

On 15th January 2015 the members of West Dorset District Council’s planning committee voted in favour of an application by British Solar Renewables to build a large solar farm on Rampisham Down, against the advice of their own planning officer and the government wildlife body, Natural England.

A nationally protected site for nature should not be built on unless the development is deemed to be of greater national interest and there is no other suitable development site.  There is an alternative and this is not of national interest.

Thank you to everyone who has sent letters to the Secretary of State. 
 


Adder male Steve DavisWhat has happened?

JUNE 2016:  We have recently received the promising news that the developer who is proposing a solar power station on Rampisham Down SSSI has asked for the Public Inquiry which was planned for September 2016 to be put in abeyance while they seek planning permission for an alternative adjacent site.  We are still waiting to hear the outcome of this. 

1 AUGUST 2015: Dorset Wildlife Trust launched an appeal to help raise funds towards covering the
costs of the legal fees and associated costs to appear at the public inquiry later this year.

30 JUNE 2015:  The Secretary of State 'called in' the decision to build a solar farm on Rampisham Down.  This decision will be taken out of the hands of West Dorset District Council and it will now be made by Greg Clark, MP with the aid of a public inquiry. 

30 JANUARY 2015: In a decision made by the Department for Communities and Local Government, planning permission for Rampisham Down has been put on hold.

This means that West Dorset District Council will have to gain special authorisation to grant planning permission to develop a solar station on Rampisham Down.  The Secretary of State, Eric Pickles will now need to decide whether to "call it in" and will be considering all the available information, which includes feedback from the public. This DOES NOT mean that the decision has been over-turned so we need to continue putting pressure on the Government by sending as many letters to Eric Pickles as possible.  Please help us by sending your letter and sharing this link with friends and family

15 JANUARY 2015: Despite being a legally protected site, on 15th January 2015, the members of West Dorset District Council’s planning committee voted in favour of an application by British Solar Renewables to build a large solar farm on Rampisham Down, against the advice of their own planning officer and the government wildlife body Natural England. 

We attended the planning committee meeting, and we saw for ourselves that government planning policy for protecting wildlife was not discussed by the committee. This national policy states that significant harm to wildlife should be avoided in the first instance by finding alternative sites. That is what should have happened in this case because there is a suitable alternative site across the road which we would not object to. 

A nationally protected site for nature should not be built on unless the development is deemed to be of greater national interest and there is no other suitable development site.  There is an alternative and this is not of national interest.

Why we're concerned

If this planning decision goes ahead, we're deeply concerned not only about the nature which will suffer, but also that the designation of SSSIs will be undermined. Other protected sites in England and the UK would then be under threat from similar developments jeopardising our natural heritage and the health of our environment, which is so important in underpinning growth and development.

Media Coverage

Read what others have been saying here

Who's Supporting the Campaign?

Check out which conservation organisations and conservationists have been showing their support for the #SaveRampisham campaign here

 

Click on the blue tabs above to read more and find out how you can help save Rampisham Down

Questions and answers

Your questions answered about Rampisham Down

In this section you'll find answers to the following questions:

  • Why is Rampisham Down so important? 
  • Rampisham Down doesn’t seem to have many rare flowers so why should we be concerned about its loss?
  • Rampisham is a former BBC transmitter mast site and it doesn’t look very attractive.  Isn’t the re-use of brown field sites like this a good idea?
  • If The Wildlife Trusts are concerned about climate change, why don’t you welcome this solar farm as a means of reducing carbon emissions?  Surely this is an environmentally-friendly proposal and one which will create jobs and income for the local community?
  • Why is saving Rampisham Down so important nationally

Crimson WaxcapWhy is Rampisham Down so important? 

On 3 March 2014, Natural England confirmed Rampisham Down in Dorset as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its special grassland and heathland habitats. 

Located 11 miles North West of Dorchester, Rampisham Down - formerly a BBC World Service transmission station - supports the largest area of lowland acid grassland found in Dorset and is one of the largest areas of its type in the country.  It supports small stands of lowland heathland and transitional grass and heath plant communities.  The large size of this site, which has for the most part escaped any modern-day agricultural improvement, is particularly unusual. 

The extensive acid grassland is typically dominated by fine grasses, such as common bent, sweet vernal-grass, red and sheep’s-fescue and, more locally, heath-grass; as well as frequent field wood-rush.  Characteristic broad-leaved herbaceous plants typical of the unimproved acid grassland include tormentil, heath bedstraw, pignut and birds-foot-trefoil.  Less frequent, but still present in many areas, are heath milkwort, common dog-violet, mouse-ear-hawkweed and heath speedwell.

Of special interest are stands of ‘chalk’ acid grassland with additional grasses, such as quaking and downy oat-grass and herbs of dwarf thistle and ladies bedstraw, this is an extremely rare habitat which has been lost in many former locations.  More on Natural England’s website is available here.


Birds-foot trefoil Ken Dolbear MBERampisham Down doesn’t seem to have many rare flowers so why should we be concerned about its loss?

This kind of lowland dry acid grassland is a naturally impoverished habitat and the number of plant species present is often restricted by the constraints of low fertility and acidity.  So, compared to some other types of grassland, there may be fewer flower species than, for example, in unimproved limestone pastures - or the similar parched lichen-grasslands found in other parts of Dorset and Hampshire. 

However, although not as diverse, the species of acid grassland are different and specially adapted to the particular geology and challenges of growing in acidic soils.  This means their interest in terms of nature conservation and science is just as valuable, significant and worthy of protection in the modern landscape. 

The assemblage of plants that grows together in these conditions is also unusual and special in itself and the habitat has been identified as a national priority by ecologists and the Government.  Lowland dry acid grassland is one of 56 habitats considered to be of principal importance for the conservation of biological diversity in England, under Section 41 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act.  This followed its identification as a priority habitat under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. 

Many of these grasslands are also ancient in origin.  In some cases, they may have developed more than 5,000 ­ 7,000 years ago when people are thought to have initiated woodland clearance. Trees were replaced by a mixture of shrubby heathland and, acid grassland where the shrub cover was suppressed by grazing animals and/or regular fires. The relative proportions of heath and grassland in these areas has probably always varied in response to changes in the prevailing agricultural, economic and cultural systems. The key seems to be that these grasslands have never been improved by re-seeding, applications of fertilisers or subsequently shaded out by a tree canopy.

The significance of surviving sites like Rampisham Down has been greatly increased by the loss of extensive areas of acid grassland across England, particularly since the Second World War.  The main losses have been due to agricultural intensification, afforestation and development.  In other words, this plant community is increasingly rare at a national level and the survival of reasonably large blocks of this type of grassland is highly unusual.  It is estimated that only 3,000-5,000 hectares of this type of acid grassland now survive in England and its area is still reducing. 

Whilst the diversity of flower species may be low, the presence of an open sward but still with a relative abundance of nectar and pollen producing plants, often means that this habitat can be important for invertebrates and other animals.  Many of the invertebrates which are found in acid grassland are specialist species which do not occur in other types of grassland.  The open short nature of this grassland is often characterised by a sward of fine-leaved grasses, mosses and lichens. The associated plants and animals of acid grasslands have declined as their habitats have been lost.

In a number of other places across England, projects have actively worked to re-establish, restore and expand areas of acid grassland like this because they are so highly valued.


Skylark Ken Dolbear MBERampisham is a former BBC transmitter mast site and it doesn’t look very attractive.  Isn’t the re-use of brown field sites like this a good idea?

From a landscape perspective, the decay and collapse of the rusting transmitter masts do detract from the beauty and appearance of Rampisham Down.  However, this could be rectified by their removal, which could be secured through the alternative site just as well as through developing on the SSSI.  At a small-scale, the grassland and its species retain a high level of natural beauty.

The site’s former use by the BBC appears to have had minimal impact on the grassland beyond the physical footprint of the masts, buildings and tracks.  Whilst the site has been given brown field status ie it is defined as land that has previously been developed, actually, the acid grassland was a pre-existing habitat which co-existed with the BBC’s temporary but relatively benign presence.  Beneath the towers, acid grassland with a mosaic of heathland patches has been maintained by a regime of light grazing.  Rampisham Down is therefore not a ‘brown field’ site in the same way in which the term is used in an urban or industrial context.  It is also important to stress that the National Planning Policy Framework encourages the effective use of land by reusing land that has been previously developed (brownfield land), provided that it is not of high environmental value.

New activities which directly damage the grassland or affect its integrity, condition or species composition would not be appropriate for a Site of Special Scientific Interest of national importance. 

The Wildlife Trusts consider that the current proposal for a solar farm would irrevocably damage the integrity and ecological character of this newly designated Site of Special Scientific Interest. 

This is because of:

  • Loss of grassland due to the physical footprint of the installation;
  • Changed micro-climate for any remnant grassland by the presence and operation of the solar panels (shading, changed light wavelength quality even if the panels are translucent, changed moisture levels, altered nutrient levels and disturbance).  There has been no scientific research, evidence or evaluation provided to demonstrate that an extensive array of solar panels will not have deleterious impacts on the acid grassland.
  • Damage from the process of construction;
  • Fragmentation of the site;

Adder male Steve DavisIf The Wildlife Trusts are concerned about climate change, why don’t you welcome this solar farm as a means of reducing carbon emissions?  Surely this is an environmentally-friendly proposal and one which will create jobs and income for the local community?

The Wildlife Trusts are very concerned about climate change and its likely impacts on the natural environment and wildlife.  Wild species are likely to be profoundly affected.   Their resilience and ability to adapt to a changing climate has been greatly reduced by the fragmentation and degradation of the English landscape.  The main response of species to climate change is to move northwards and upwards but the potential for migration of plants and animals has been severely reduced by the many barriers that people have placed in their path.  Local extinction rates are likely to increase as species become trapped behind barriers in unsuitable locations.

In principle, The Wildlife Trusts strongly support initiatives which reduce carbon emissions by promoting sustainable renewable sources of energy to reduce society’s reliance on fossilised carbon.  The Wildlife Trusts are therefore not opposed to solar farms per se.  We also strongly support measures which improve the ability of wild species to adapt to a new climate through living landscapes; a landscape-scale approach to creating connected and coherent ecological networks.

However, the imperative to develop renewable energy does not override at all costs the equally important objective of protecting wild places and the natural environment.  We need a balanced approach.  Our view of renewable energy developments is determined on a case-by-case basis and an assessment of the merits of each proposal based on evidence of its specific impacts on the local natural environment and wildlife.  Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, for example, has installed solar panels on one if its nature reserves.  However, it is not a SSSI and has a low level of biodiversity.  It is also a fraction of the size of the array proposed at Rampisham.   Wildlife Trusts apply the same approach to deciding their views on any type of development proposal; whether it involves housing, transport or industry.

The Wildlife Trusts supports the need to increase prosperity across the country, but not at the expense of our most precious remaining wildlife rich areas.  As a society we are only just scratching the surface of understanding the huge value that sites like Rampisham Down provide in terms of supporting pollination of crops, cleaning our water and providing places for people to connect with nature, with the health benefits that this brings.  As part of the community we understand the challenges facing the local area and are keen to work with others to find the best, most sustainable, answers.

Where there are conflicts between development and important wild places and species, The Wildlife Trusts strongly support and apply a hierarchical approach to planning.  The starting point must be to avoid the impacts if at all possible, especially on sites of international or national importance ­ the jewels in the crown of the UK’s natural heritage assets.  If this can’t be achieved, then mitigation should be provided and compensation should address any residual impacts of the development.

Local planning authorities have statutory obligations to consider biodiversity when determining applications.  The National Planning Policy Framework is clear that developments on protected sites, such as Rampisham, should not go ahead if alternatives are available.  The starting point for any development proposal should be to avoid damage to important wildlife sites and to accept that irreplaceable habitats should not be developed.  Next, it is important to ensure that nature is designed into new development in a meaningful way to mitigate damage.  Only then - and as a final measure - should any compensation measure be considered, to compensate for damage that cannot be avoided or mitigated.  If compensation cannot be achieved because a damaged habitat cannot be created elsewhere, for example, then the development should not go ahead.

The Government's National Planning Policy Framework is very clear that developments on protected sites, such as Rampisham Down, should not go ahead if suitable alternatives are available. 


What's the difference between the Rampisham Down site and Wiltshire Wildlife Trust's Solar Farm site?

The Wildlife Trusts are very concerned about climate change and its likely impacts on the natural environment and wildlife.  Wild species are likely to be profoundly affected.  Their resilience and ability to adapt to a changing climate has been greatly reduced by the fragmentation and degradation of the English landscape.  The main response of species to climate change is to move northwards and upwards but the potential for migration of plants and animals has been severely reduced by the many barriers that people have placed in their path.  Local extinction rates are likely to increase as species become trapped in unsuitable locations.

In principle, The Wildlife Trusts strongly support initiatives which reduce carbon emissions by promoting sustainable renewable sources of energy to reduce society’s reliance on fossilised carbon.  We are therefore not opposed to solar farms per se.  We are also, for example, highly supportive of the Green Building Council's campaign to retrofit green technology to existing housing stock. You can find more details of the campaign here.

However, the imperative to develop renewable energy does not override at all costs the equally important objective of protecting wild places and the natural environment.  We need a balanced approach.  

Our view of renewable energy developments is determined on a case-by-case basis and an assessment of the merits of each proposal based on evidence of its specific impacts on the local natural environment and wildlife.  Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, for example, has installed solar panels on one of its sites.   However, it is not a SSSI and has a low level of biodiversity.  It is also a fraction of the size of the array proposed at Rampisham Down.  Wildlife Trusts apply the same approach to deciding their views on any type of development proposal; whether it involves housing, transport or industry.

Local planning authorities have statutory obligations to consider biodiversity when determining applications. The Government’s National Planning Policy Framework is clear that developments on protected sites, such as Rampisham, should not go ahead if alternatives are available.


Why is saving Rampisham Down so important nationally?

On Thursday 15 January 2015, West Dorset Council’s Planning Committee decided to approve the planning application by British Solar Renewables to build the solar farm on Rampisham Down. 

The decision was taken against the advice of the Council planning officers, Natural England and Dorset Wildlife Trust, despite a suitable alternative site being made available, just across the road. 

The perverse decision goes against the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework and it is vital that this is reviewed and reversed by The Department for Communities and Local Government.

Rampisham Down is a site of national importance - it is a precious and vital part of our national heritage, ranking alongside the very best of England's ancient monuments, art treasures and historic buildings. 

The Wildlife Trusts believe that protection and recovery of the natural environment should be at the heart of all planning decisions.  This Council's decision goes against the statutory obligations of local authorities to protect important designated wildlife sites for future generations.  This is simply the wrong place for this development and Rampisham should be protected.

If the solar farm goes ahead, not only do we lose one of the most important lowland acid grasslands in England, but it also undermines Government tests for every other nationally protected area around the country, meaning that they could be at risk from damaging development or other damaging activities in the future too. 

Media Coverage

Read what others have been saying here

How you can help

How you can help

Thank you to those who have already sent letters to the Secretary of State who has overall responsibility for communities and local Government, asking for the decision to build a solar farm to be 'called in'.  Following an annoucement on June 30th 2015, we are pleased to say that this application has now been 'called in' and will be considered by Greg Clark, MP, with the aid of a public inquiry.   

Dorset Wildlife Trust will be appearing at this inquiry, giving evidence for why Rampisham Down SSSI shoud be saved from development.  In order to do this, we have to cover legal fees and other associated costs, such as comissioning expert advice.  To help, we are currently raising funds to help us with these costs.  We are aiming to raise £10,000, so every donation will make a difference. 

We are very grateful for all donations and look forward to having the opportunity to explain why Rampisham Down should be protected at the public inquiry.  

 

Media Coverage

Read what others have been saying here

Our position

Our Position

We recognise the need to develop renewable energy projects, in locations which do not harm our environment, and there are many areas in Dorset where this could happen. In the case of Rampisham Down, we have objected to this planning application from the very start of the process, but have also worked hard with the developer to find a less harmful alternative.

We have said we are supportive of an alternative location directly opposite which would be suitable for a solar farm.

What have the Wildlife Trusts done so far?

Following the approval of planning permission for a solar station on Rampisham Down by West Dorset District Council back in January 2015, The Wildlife Trusts have pressed the Government to urgently review this decision. Dorset Wildlife Trust asked the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP (now the Rt Hon Greg Clark MP), Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to ‘call in1’ this decision, and for the issues to be examined by an independent inspector. To read our letter click here

We also asked our members and the public to send a message to the Secretary of State asking him to ‘call in’ and reverse the decision.

1 ‘Calling-in’ a planning application refers to the power of the Secretary of State to take the decision-making power on a particular planning application out of the hands of the local planning authority for his own determination.  This can be done at any time during the planning application process, up to the point at which the local planning authority actually makes the decision.  If a planning application is called-in, there will be a public inquiry chaired by a planning inspector, who will make a recommendation to the Secretary of State.  The Secretary of State can choose to reject these recommendations if he wishes and will take the final decision.

What's next?

On 30th June 2015 it was announced that the decision to build a solar power station on Rampisham Down SSSI had been ‘called in’.  Dorset Wildlife Trust will be appearing at the public inquiry which will take place later in 2015.   

How you can help

In order to cover the legal fees and costs of commissioning expert advice, we have launched an appeal to help us raise some funds.  If you are interested in finding out more and donating, visit our donations page here.

 

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