A council decision to grant planning permission for a large solar farm in the County Durham countryside was "unlawful", a High Court judge has ruled. 

The proposal to build the 92-hectare site on farmland near Burnhope was approved by Durham County Council in March 2023 despite residents’ concerns it would devastate the nearby community. 

But campaigners refused to be beaten and launched a legal challenge later in the year, arguing that the proposed site was too big and the council wrongfully approved the application after changes were made to its size. 

Lightsource BP, the applicant, said up to 14 fields would be covered in panels including those surrounding the Chapman’s Well Local Nature Reserve - known as one of the best bird-watching sites in the region - and up to 14,000 homes would benefit from the energy provided. 

The Northern Echo: Campaigners against a proposed solar panel farm near their homes in BurnhopeCampaigners against a proposed solar panel farm near their homes in Burnhope (Image: Chris Booth)Ian Galloway, a Burnhope resident who initiated the judicial review, said the plans were changed without proper scrutiny from the council. He found they had been altered from 89,860 Longi 540 panels with a 48.5MW DC power output to 110,620 Trina 685 panels at 75.8MW DC.

He said such a change would invalidate all the reports that were written on the impact of the scheme on wildlife and landscape and likened it to “giving permission for an office block and not knowing how many floors it will have”.

Mr Galloway added: “This is too big for the council to give planning permission. Councils can only give planning permission for schemes up to a maximum output of 50MW.”

In a judgment published this week following the hearing in January, Mr Justice Fordham ordered the planning permission be quashed because it is unlawful. 

The decision read: “The planning permission, correctly interpreted, did approve such a very large number and area of solar panels that they could only have a capacity under 50MW if the panels were considerably below the power of panels conventionally used and available.

“The planning permission is unlawful because the council failed to take into account an obviously material consideration, namely addressing whether it was approving more panels over a larger area than were required to produce the stated (and a lawful) electricity generating capacity.

“I will quash the planning permission, so that the decision is remitted to the planning committee, as primary decision-maker, to ask itself this question: in granting the planning permission, are we approving more panels over a larger area than are required to produce a 49.9MW solar farm? It may be that the developer will now want to provide planning officers and the committee with information about its approach to measuring capacity.”

The Northern Echo: plans submitted by Lightsource BP show how the solar farm, near Burnhope, could lookplans submitted by Lightsource BP show how the solar farm, near Burnhope, could look (Image: Lightsource BP)

Durham County Council was ordered to pay Mr Galloway’s £32,000 costs of the proceedings. 

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Reacting to the outcome, Mr Galloway said the campaign group’s hard work has paid off, for now. He said: “We’ve stood up to people who aren’t interested in our health and wellbeing, who aren’t interested in local jobs for local people, who aren’t interested in the landscape, and the walks, and the wildlife, but just wanted to exploit our environment to make money for themselves.”

But while the judge’s decision is good news, he warned the solar farm hasn’t been scrapped, adding: “This doesn’t mean that our job is done because we don’t know what BP will do next.”

Michael Kelleher, Durham County Council’s head of planning and housing, said: “We are aware of the outcome of the Judicial Review and, whilst we are disappointed at the outcome, accept the High Court’s decision and will proceed to a redetermination of the planning application.”