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Planning Clash Triggered By Unwelcome Offer of Community Benefit Payments

Published on: 15 Oct, 2015
Updated on: 19 Oct, 2015
Aerial photograph showing the proposed boundary of the Eashing Solar Farm. The A3 can be seen to the left of the image.

Aerial photograph showing the proposed boundary of the Eashing Solar Farm. The A3 and the Milford exit can be seen to the left of the image.

A company making a planning application for a solar energy farm in Eashing offered to make “community benefit” payments to a political party, a parish council and an amenity group, payable if the applications was successful.

The matter has been referred by the political party, the Guildford Greenbelt Group, to Surrey Police. The application was presented at last night’s (October 14) planning committee meeting at Guildford Borough Council (GBC) and refused.

Cllr Susan Parker

Cllr Susan Parker

Cllr Susan Parker (GGG, Send) clearly anxious to state that the Guildford Greenbelt Group would not have accepted such a payment was given permission to make a statement.

Proceedings became heated when, after five minutes, Cllr Parker was stopped by chairman, Cllr Marsha Moseley (Con, Ash Vale), from completing her statement, setting out the history of the payment offers of which, she said, she had no knowledge until called by a Surrey Advertiser reporter last week, on Wednesday, October 7.

Asked who had informed the Surrey Advertiser of the payment proposal, the news editor, Andre Langlois said today (October 15): “No comment.”

Cllr Liz Hogger

Cllr Liz Hogger

Cllr Liz Hogger, (Lib Dem, Effingham) making a point of order said that she had experienced nothing like this in her 16 years as a councillor and suggested that the application be deferred until the matters raised by Cllr Parker had been investigated, a proposal vocally supported by Cllr Angela Gunning (Lab, Stoke).  But Carolyn Forster, senior planning solicitor opined that it was proper to proceed and hear the application.

Cllr Paul Spooner

Cllr Paul Spooner

Cllr Paul Spooner (Ash South & Tongham) raised a further point of order complaining that Cllr Parker had slurred the council Executive in her statement. Another interjection by Cllr Parker in response to this caused the chairman to say to Cllr Parker: “…will you please learn some manners when in committee… be quiet.”

The company making the planning application, Solar Power South Ltd, based in Dorset, wrote to Shackleford Parish Council, in March 2014, offering a donation of £10,000 per annum if planning consent was granted plus a lump sum payment of £25,000 on completion of the installation, both payments to be used at the discretion of the parish council for local environmental improvements.

On September 28 this year (2015) Peter Grubb of Savills estate agents, based in Taunton, representing Solar Power South, wrote to Cllr Tony Rooth (Con) whose Pilgrims ward includes Shackleford.

In an email Mr Grubb said that his clients had been told that their increased offer to the parish council totalling £500,000 was “of no interest” and, having reconsidered, wanted to offer the money to not just the parish council but also the Guildford Greenbelt Group and Surrey Hill AONB Group. “The funds,” wrote Mr Grubb, “could help them to better resource the important work they do in conserving those resources in the county…”

The email, which had been copied to a GBC planning officer Paul Sherman, concluded by asking for Cllr Rooth’s opinion of the revised offer.

In a further letter to Shackleford parish council, dated October 6, the revised offer was put forward: £10,000 annually to the parish council plus £125,000 each to the Guildford Greenbelt Group and Surrey Hills AONB upon completion of the installation.

In the October 6 letter it was stated: “… We [Solar Power South Ltd] recognise that your members may still be concerned about that [environmental] harm and the dislike some members of the public feel about solar farms wherever they are situated.

“For that reason, we feel that it would be appropriate for us to support the Guildford Green Belt Group (sic) and the Surrey Hills AONB as well as your council (albeit not in current need of funds) … As mentioned by Peter Grubb in his letter to Cllr Tony Rooth. this is because we believe that your members are very supportive of these two community groups.”

Addressing the planning committee last night Peter Grubb said: “It is important … to fully understand we put forward the proposals for the ‘Community Benefit Fund’ in good faith in accordance with government guidance for renewable energy projects with the simple objective of trying to maximise the benefits for the local area.

“Any suggestion that this proposal has been put forward in anything other than in those terms is entirely incorrect. The government has produced its own best practice guidance on the issue for wind farms and the solar industry has adopted the same approach.

“We have previously consulted the [parish] council on the draft package but we did not receive a response – but the Community Benefit Fund is still very much part of the proposal.”

Cllr Tony Rooth

Cllr Tony Rooth

Cllr Tony Rooth said that the matter of the offered payments was irrelevant, in his view, to the application and should not form part of the members’ consideration, a view echoed by other speakers.

During the debate by the committee it emerged that there had been a previous failed application for a slightly larger scheme in 2013 which had also been unsuccessful at appeal.

The application which, if allowed, would have resulted in 30,000 solar panels being installed on green belt land by Eashing was unanimously refused by the planning committee.

An email was also sent to the Guildford Greenbelt Group, along with the other two proposed payment recipients on Oct 6, but GGG party leader, Susan Parker said, as a generic email it had been automatically forwarded to the manager of the party website and was left undiscovered in an spam folder until after last night’s meeting.

Satish Mistry the monitoring officer at GBC, responsible for the legal compliance of council business has confirmed today that he first became aware of this issue on Friday, October 9, following the publication of a story in the Surrey Advertiser.

Cllr Tony Rooth told The Dragon on Tuesday (October 13) that he had not reported to the monitoring officer the email detailing the offer to make payments because the email he had received had been copied to a planning officer, Paul Sherman.

See also: Letter – Offer of Community Benefit Package Followed Government Guidance


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Responses to Planning Clash Triggered By Unwelcome Offer of Community Benefit Payments

  1. Dave Middleton Reply

    October 16, 2015 at 9:57 am

    As a mere layman I may well be missing something here and if I am then I apologise, but to me this suggests a clear attempt at bribery of public officials and bodies, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds.

    If this sort of thing is indeed a lawful business practice, then it needs to be outlawed forthwith. I look forward to the outcome of the police investigation into this matter.

  2. Jules Cranwell Reply

    October 16, 2015 at 7:49 pm

    “Learn some manners”? This from someone who prefers to play computer games during council meetings.

    See Surrey Advertiser article: Ash councillor ‘constantly’ played mobile phone games during meeting. Ed.

  3. Ben Paton Reply

    October 18, 2015 at 11:42 am

    Savills put forward the proposal to pay a political party ‘in good faith’?

    Did no one at this very large firm of commercial property advisers knew that GGG is a political party or took the simple steps to ascertain the facts before offering payments?

    I bet Cllr Rooth thinks it’s irrelevant. Just like he thought that the professional qualifications of the deputy leader of the Conservative group were irrelevant, but only after they proved to be non existent.

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