Date Published

27/06/2022

In November 2020, Lancaster University declared a climate change emergency and pledged to become carbon-neutral by 2035. The university developed a number of schemes to adapt their operation towards achieving this goal, including building a solar farm. 

Once in operation the site will be capable of generating 16.5MWp of renewable energy –equivalent to powering 3,125 four-bed homes – saving approximately 2,654 tonnes of CO2 emission annually, equivalent to taking 600 average cars off the road. The electricity produced will feed into the university campus through a dedicated private connection.

The university’s priority was to obtain a planning decision as quickly as possible to enable them to begin addressing their pressing environmental concerns. They needed a bespoke level of service from the pre-application stage all the way through to discharging planning conditions – which Lancaster City Council weren't able to provide due to capacity constraints within their team. We were approached by the council to act as a case officer on the application, using our experience and skillset in dealing with large, complex applications to process the solar farm application through to formal determination. 

The applicant and Lancaster City Council entered into a Planning Performance Agreement (PPA) which set out the relevant timescale, actions and resources. The City Council engaged Capita to provide a dedicated case officer to ensure the application was determined according to the PPA. This unique funding mechanism ensures that the City Council can engage proactively with developers on processing complex applications in accordance with a bespoke timetable at no cost to the local planning authority – because the cost of a dedicated case officer is covered by the PPA fee – and without detriment to performance of service as a whole. 

Pre-application phase

Before submitting a planning application, the applicant worked collaboratively with our case officer to identify, understand and resolve issues associated with the proposed development. We also conducted a pre-application site visit with council officers to appraise the development site and local surroundings. We provided written planning advice to the developer and engaged with them through the council’s Member Engagement Forum, which presented members with the opportunity to fully understand the scheme and ask any questions prior to the application being submitted for formal consideration.

The developer took all advice and information that emerged from the pre-application process into consideration, amended the scheme as appropriate and submitted the application. 

Planning application phase

During the planning application process itself, we worked in partnership with Lancaster City Council to validate the planning application, making sure that all documentation required to support the application had been submitted.

Any solar farm’s size and visibility make its visual impact a key consideration. Usually situated in rural areas, they can constitute a major change in the character of the landscape. Lancaster University’s site is located within 1km of the Forest of Bowland, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, so any visual impacts to the landscape were of primary concern. 

The case officer assessed the application in collaboration with various technical experts. Among others we consulted with the Environment Agency, the Lead Local Flood Authority (which performs a flood risk assessment), Natural England, National Highways (which assesses the impact of glint and glare from the solar panels), an arboricultural officer, County Archaeology and experts conducting landscape and biodiversity assessments, as well as local residents and parish councils. This public consultation complies with DMPO (development management procedure order) legislation, which requires us to publicise the planning application and notify any interested parties.

Throughout the planning process, the case officer took into account all of these material considerations and factors to determine whether the scheme would be acceptable in the context of Lancaster City Council’s development plan for the area.

Presentation to the planning committee

A committee report outlined our assessment of the scheme against the Development Plan. We presented the scheme to the planning committee, answering questions from councillors, before they made a formal decision to approve the application. We will continue to work with Lancaster City Council and the developer to process discharge of condition applications which we anticipate will commence shortly to allow the developer to start on site.

Key milestones

  • Validation of the application. (about three days)
  • Period of consultation and comments from the public and technical experts.(three weeks)
  • Case officer’s negotiation with the applicant to make the scheme acceptable in planning terms. (as required)
  • Local authority’s final decision.
  • Submission to planning committee for a formal decision.

 

The future

We continue to collaborate with Lancaster City Council providing planning case officer resources across three live projects, including:

  1. A hybrid planning application for the construction of 1,000 dwellings.
  2. A hybrid planning application for the erection of 58 dwellings, as well as associated landscaping, infrastructure, open public space and access arrangements, extra care provision and a local centre.
  3. A reserved matters application for the construction of 96 dwellings.

Mark Cassidy, Head of Planning and Place at Lancaster City Council, said: “Our continuing relationship with Capita on planning application matters has proved invaluable during periods where our staffing resources have been temporarily reduced. In this particular case, the case officer worked proactively with council officers and managers, and with statutory consultees and other interested parties to ensure that the planning application appraisal and determination process was as seamless as possible. Our collaborative working arrangements with Capita allow us to front-load the development process, which provides greater certainty for the applicant and for stakeholders.” 

For help with your planning application at no cost to the local authority, please contact Jonathan Pennick, Account Development Director at Capita Local Public Services, at jonathan.pennick@capita.com 

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