A leading heritage charity has objected to solar farm plans near a historic railway line on a landscape "as important as Hadrian's Wall".

Darlington Borough Council’s commitment to promoting the heritage of the world’s oldest modern railway will be seriously questioned if it allows a solar farm to be built right up to the historic line, according to the charity and its supporters.

The council's planning officers have recommended approval of Aura Power Developments' scheme for a 40-year solar farm on land north of Burtree Lane, Darlington between Whessoe and Coatham Mundeville.

They say in a council report: "The considerable environmental and public benefits of the scheme for the generation of renewable energy are considered to outweigh any harmful impacts of the development."

They point to benefits including an urgent contribution to clean energy, reducing carbon emissions equal to about 10,900 tonnes of CO2 per year, providing the equivalent of 14,000 Darlington households' energy needs, creating up to 235 jobs and boosting the local economy and biodiversity.

Read more: Darlington Council approves plans to build 27 new homes despite anger

However the Friends of the Stockton & Darlington Railway argue the proposed solar farm to the north of the town breaches the council’s own planning policy to promote the 1825 line at every opportunity as an attraction of international significance.

Niall Hammond, chairman of the Friends, said: “The officers’ recommendation to grant permission to the solar farm is extremely disappointing, especially as it comes so soon after earlier questionable planning decisions which have seen the loss of the Fighting Cocks, an original lineside pub at Middleton St George, to Sainsbury’s, and the extension of gardens over the trackbed of the 1830 Croft branchline, a popular walking route.

“This landscape is as important in historic terms as Hadrian’s Wall. No one in Northumberland would grant permission for a solar farm with panels practically touching the Roman stones, and yet that, effectively, is what Darlington Council is doing here.

The Northern Echo: Niall Hammond, chair of the Friends of the Stockton & Darlington Railway. Picture: Northern Echo.Niall Hammond, chair of the Friends of the Stockton & Darlington Railway. Picture: Northern Echo.

“You really do have to question whether the council is genuinely committed to creating an attraction of global significance.

"It says it wants to create a walking and cycling route along the line in partnership with Durham and Stockton councils, but who would want to walk it if they have to wade through head-high solar panels to see anything?”

Councillors on the planning committee will make the decision whether or not to follow their officers' recommendation to approve the plan at their meeting on Wednesday.

“The council don’t even appear to have taken any independent specialist advice,” said Mr Hammond.

“If they had, they would know that for George Stephenson building this stretch of line over a bog at Myers Flat was a major engineering achievement and that today, it is almost unique on the line’s 26 miles as being as it was in 1825.

"Nearly 200 years later, people can still experience it as he did – but he wouldn’t be able to recognise it if it is in the shadow of 21st Century solar panels.”

Read more: Six warehouses to be built in Chester-le-Street Drum Industrial Estate

The Friends say they are not opposed to the solar farm in principle and recognise the need for renewable energy. In documents submitted to the council, they suggest creating a 30m buffer zone to protect the line and its setting for visitors and local communities to enjoy.

In their objection, they raise the harmful impact on the railway setting, the Grade II listed overbridge at Whessoeville, Myers Flat embankment and Coatham Grange bridge, saying the plan's scale should be reduced.

The Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) also objected, supporting the Friends over heritage and expressing concern about the industrialisation of land. Durham Bird Group, Hellens Land and Homes England objected too.

Council officers said in their report: "While there would be some harm to the character, quality, and distinctiveness of the local landscape which in some localised areas would be substantial, this is limited to a small area within close proximity of the site and to the visual amenities to a small number of residents.

"There would be no harm to important views or features."

Read more: 'Renewable energy superhighway' approved by Durham Council

Officers said the solar farm had the potential to affect the railway setting and other heritage assets, but the plans had been changed to take out or reduce arrays of panels.

The report says: "There would be extensive views of the arrays from trains on the northern part of the railway, but these would be both transitory and seen against the backdrop of the A1(M).

"Despite the proximity of the proposals any impacts upon the setting of the railway line and embankments would be limited to its western side.

"While the landscape setting would be altered, no effects upon the understanding of the historical significance of the railway are predicted.

"It is considered that the residual effects of the proposed development would result in less than substantial harm to those heritage assets affected."

The officers said this harm would be temporary and was outweighed by the social, economic and environmental benefits.

They said they considered the Friends' objection but were "satisfied that the proposal has been thoroughly considered".

Read next:

Starbucks among Durham and Darlington plans approved in October

Darlington: Locomotion No 1 replica to be bicentenary 'star of the show'


Peterlee Town Council apologises after 'poor' 2022 firework display

What do you think of the plans? Why not leave a comment on this story. Go to the top of this story and leave your thoughts. 

If you want to read more great stories, why not subscribe to your Northern Echo for as little as £1.25 a week. Click here.