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Village hits out at solar farm ‘mess’ as owners go bust

ABROUGHTONGifford solar farm, which has attracted non-stop controversy since being built, is causing new worries after its owner filed for bankruptcy last month. 

The solar farm on Norrington Common, ultimately owned by SunEdison,  has caused anger among local residents citing apparent planning breaches, disruption when it was built, and a refusal to pay community benefit funds.

SunEdison filed for bankruptcy after running up multi-billion dollar debts. The move has raised questions about if and how problems at Norrington will be dealt with in the future.

Melksham Without and Broughton Gifford parish councils revealed to Melksham News that they had expected nearly £40,000 in community benefit funds, but have yet to receive a penny.

Chair of Broughton Gifford Parish Council, councillor Mark Sullivan, said the authority was offered £32,000 by SunEdison but has received nothing, and has had limited communication from the company.

A statement from the parish council said, “In 2014 the Broughton community was experiencing huge problems with the installation itself as there were many breaches of conditions, interminable noise and disturbance, and very little respect for residents in the way lanes and verges were carved up and footpaths spoilt for ever.

“The general feeling  in Broughton at that time was that the amount being offered was a really poor compensation for large scale industrial development on what had previously been green agricultural land.”

Melksham Without Parish Council had also expected funds for a defibrillator to be installed in Shaw, and asked for contributions of around £7,000 to improve the village’s facilities.

Parish clerk Teresa Strange said residents of Shaw had been particularly affected during construction, as heavy traffic regularly used the village and foreign drivers knocked on residents’ doors asking for directions at unsociable hours.

Broughton Gifford resident Dan Gerber has been fighting the development since before it was built. His court case arguing that planning rules were breached was thrown out at an appeal. He maintains that the solar farm is nearly 170% of the size permitted, and has repeatedly asked Wiltshire Council to enforce its planning conditions. Dan Gerber says that a council officer told him in March this year that his claim would be investigated.

MP for Chippenham, Michelle Donelan, has also written to the council and asked it to ensure the solar farm conforms with planning permissions.

Wiltshire Council declined to comment when asked by Melksham News. 

Dan Gerber said, “Wiltshire Council is fully aware that the Norrington solar installation is 70% larger than it should be – and that an unlawful, industrial fence was built that is seven times the length of the Titanic. The council must fulfil  its legal obligation to take enforcement action.

“I think most people are quite angry at the stealth and deceit in the manner that this and other solar installations were meant for Broughton Gifford. The council also just approved six large diesel generators to be placed in one of the village’s solar installations.

“I am worried about SunEdison’s bankruptcy. The company was already supposed to have rectified the material breaches, and is supposed to maintain the solar installation. What happens when they stop doing so? The thing already is a mess.

“The Wiltshire Council failed in its duty to follow planning law for the initial proposal and is again failing in its legal obligation to enforce.”

Renewable energy watchdog www.variablepitch.co.uk estimates that the solar farm on Norrington Common generated over £1million in income between March 2015 and February 2016.

A recent village survey showed that solar development was the second biggest concern for people in Broughton Gifford, second only to road surfaces.

Village resident and parish councillor Martin Freeman spoke on his personal views and said, “We are fed up with Wiltshire Council’s reluctance to enforce the planning conditions that they originally made themselves.

“The council has already acknowledged that SunEdison breached these conditions, so we can’t understand why they are dragging their feet.

“SunEdison’s bankruptcy gives us extra uncertainty. This could have been avoided if the council had acted more quickly.

“In the meantime, we’ve got a mess in our backyard with too many panels and an obtrusive, industrial fence. What signal does this send to developers?  That they can ignore planning conditions and build what they want with impunity?”

Norrington Common solar farm is owned and operated by USA-based company TerraForm Power, a subsidiary of SunEdison.

TerraForm Power did not respond to Melksham News’s request for comment.