PLANS to create a pioneering £30m solar farm across farmland equivalent to almost 130 football pitches near Richmond has started to generate controversy in several nearby communities.

Ritchie Bland Energy Limited and Harmony Energy Limited have submitted an application to Richmondshire District Council to install enough photovoltaic cells to power more than 9,000 homes, between Richmond, Skeeby, Easby and Brompton on Swale.

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Among the dozens of studies and documents lodged for the 69.5-hectare greenfield site south of Darlington Road, agents for the developers have claimed the installation would off-set up to 17,200 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year.

The application states: "Given the technology they intend to utilise, this could become one of the first UK subsidy-free projects and a major milestone in the fight against climate change."

The papers state planning permission is being sought for the solar farm for up to 40 years due to its close proximity to a viable grid connection, after which the solar equipment would be removed and the site would revert to agricultural use.

Previously, councillors in North Yorkshire have moved to approve similar schemes in remote or well screened locations.

Government guidance states large-scale solar farms can have a negative impact on the rural environment, particularly in undulating landscapes, but their visual impact can be properly addressed if planned sensitively.

The developers state landscaping proposals would assist not only in effectively screening the proposed development from view, but provide biodiversity enhancements across the site.

They said a study had shown road users and residents would not significantly suffer from glint and glare impacts.

The papers also highlighted their community consultation exercise, in which residents were asked if they were concerned about climate change before being asked for their views on the solar scheme, saw 90 per cent in favour of the proposals.

In a letter of support resident Rebecca Poole said: "I think this is a brilliant idea, and a huge step in the right direction - moving forward with sustainable energy."

However, objecting to the plans, Tim Sells said: "As I visit most weekends to photograph and walk I would like to register a strong objection as I feel it would have an adverse effect on the surrounding area not only as a beauty spot but to the wildlife as well."

Councillor Philip Wicks, chair of Richmondshire council's climate change working group, said he welcomed the proposals for the environmental benefits they would bring.

He said: "I think it is a very efficient form of power generation.

"As long as this is done sympathetically, I think we have to accept that we are in a climate crisis so we need to facilitate this, not fight against it, and revise the way we look at things like views.

"There has been a lot of resistance to wind generation, but now it's common to see wind generators."

Nevertheless fellow Richmond councillor Stuart Parsons said some people were supporting the scheme in the hope of getting funding for community projects, such as re-establishing a pub in Skeeby or improvements at Richmond Football Club, but that would not address the proposal's long-term viability.

He said he understood establishing the principle of development on the site could enable it to be earmarked for housing estates in future, adding there were many and regular examples elsewhere in the county of developers agreeing to planning conditions to return an area to farmland decades before submitting proposals to industrialise the site.

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Cllr Parsons added: "I know it's a huge investment and they can't just be doing it for a possibility in 30 years time when it outlives its life cycle that they get planning permission for housing, but until the land is protected until its final end there's too much danger there.

"If the sun doesn't produce the power that's needed it becomes economically unviable and they would have grounds to dismantle it.

"We need alternative energy sources, but not at any and every cost to the environment and immediate vicinity of Richmond and Scot's Dyke.

"It will probably be very visible as it is slap bang in the open countryside.

"Once they give permission for one it's going to be very difficult to refuse others, so are we going to end up with a parade of solar panels on the way to the national park?"

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