You don't know what you've got till it's gone

Photo:A wind farm will create the equivalent of a barbed wire fence across what were previously unlimited horizons

A wind farm will create the equivalent of a barbed wire fence across what were previously unlimited horizons

Solar panels, satellite dishes and wind farms

By Diane Warburton and Nigel Ordish

As former residents of North Laine we were both impressed and astonished to read in the last issue of the North Laine Runner (May-June 2015) that the NLCA had challenged the installation of solar panels on a house in Upper Gardner Street - impressed because NLCA is still fighting for the character of North Laine against all the odds; astonished because almost no-one dares to challenge any renewable energy developments these days.

Challenging solar panels in North Laine

We noticed that NLCA challenged the solar panels on the basis that "Although support for alternative energy should be welcomed, this cannot be at the cost of damage to the visual amenity of the environment". This makes a vital point powerfully and clearly.

Protecting the character

Conservation Areas are defined as places of "special architectural or historic interest that should be preserved and enhanced". North Laine, like West Hill where we now live, is even more important and special than a usual Conservation Area; both areas are covered by the even stricter controls of an Article 4 Direction. That means that additional permission is needed for certain alterations - including any changes to house frontages such as windows, doors, roof coverings and chimney stacks. Even satellite dishes need planning permission, which the official guidance says would not normally be given if they are visible from the street. These regulations are in place precisely to protect the character and quality of the place.

What contributes to the character?

The Council's study of North Laine updating the Conservation Area rules in 1995[1] points out that the street patterns, the terraces of houses, architectural styles, materials and rooflines all contribute to the character of the area. It was declared a Conservation Area  in 1976 because it is an "attractive townscape with a distinctive ambience worthy of preservation ... it is the quality of the townscape as a whole which is important".  Changes to individual houses, for whatever reason, affect that townscape.

Why aren't solar panels restricted?

Why are solar panels any different from satellite dishes? If you can see them from the street and they change the roofscape, they affect the character of the house, street and neighbourhood. It is hard to understand why they would not fall under the same restrictions as other changes.

The debate about renewable energy

The difference seems to be the nature of the debate around renewable energy. It has become almost impossible to even gently question renewable energy developments without vitriolic backlash from those in favour. There are passionate views on all sides on the subject, and very few dare to challenge a technology which helps tackle climate change.

We do support sustainability

As passionate supporters of sustainability, we totally support renewable energy in principle. Like NLCA though, we do question some of the current technological solutions, which are already fast becoming obsolete. Much better alternative materials (like solar slates) are already available which are not visually intrusive and would not spoil the quality and character of North Laine. There are so many other restrictions on the use of specific materials in Conservation Areas, why not on renewable technologies too?

Similar dilemma with the Rampion Wind Farm

North Laine's dilemma on this issue is reflected on a much larger scale just a short distance away on Brighton and Hove Heritage Coast, as the Rampion Wind Farm is being built. There are even more concerns about effects on 'the visual amenity of the environment' here.  Rampion will involve the construction of up to 175 turbines, each 140 metres tall to the tip of the blades - that is 459 feet tall. They will be eight miles offshore. That sounds a long way until you remember that, from Dover cliffs on a clear day, you can see cars driving along the seafront in Calais - over 20 miles away. These turbines will be constantly very visible indeed, right across the sea.

Many questions remain

In spite of the enormous impacts of this development during and after construction, undisputed facts are hard to find and there remain many questions. How efficient are the turbines? Estimates range from 30% up to a maximum of 50% efficiency. How long will the turbines last? Official figures say up to 25 years although some say that efficiency declines significantly after the first couple of years partly because of mechanical failure. What happens after the turbines fail? What is the full carbon footprint of a turbine (such as the concrete used, the transportation over long distances)? What is the real cost of subsidies to the public purse and on our fuel bills?

Debate on negative impacts stifled

Renewable energy technologies could help transform energy generation in the UK, but there is a real sense that debate on the details and any possible negative impacts is stifled and questions like these forbidden. There are exactly the same issues with the wind farm off the coast as with solar panels on roofs in North Laine. It is not just a problem for local residents, it is a problem for the future of renewable energy in the UK.

A full and open debate needed

Without a full and open debate to address the important concerns people have - about the effects on our living environment, efficiency and costs as well as the benefits - community support will never be possible and the future for renewables could be lost. Public subsidies for onshore wind were withdrawn in June 2015 - partly because of local opposition to wind farms. The need for public debate on the principles and practical use of current renewable energy technologies is absolutely vital right now. It does not seem wise to plough on with current technologies without that debate - in terms of potential long term damage to both the future for renewable energy generation in the UK and to the character of our city and our coast.

A mix of metropolitan buzz and the sea

Brighton is a very special place. It has enormous vitality and creative energy, open-heartedness and imagination. That comes from the people in this very particular place - a unique mix of metropolitan buzz and the wide open sea. We live on the edge and that affects the special character and quality of Brighton. Being on the South Coast means everything.

The character is precious and fragile

The character of places is precious and fragile, and very easily lost. How will it feel to residents and to visitors to have a wind farm creating the equivalent of a barbed wire fence across what were previously unlimited horizons? How will that affect our place as the classic British seaside, when we will be looking at an enormous power station every time we look out to sea?

A unique architectural masterpiece

For Brighton as a whole as in North Laine, there is a lot to lose if we are not very careful. The study for the North Laine Conservation Area talks about Brighton as a whole as well as North Laine. It says "Brighton is a unique architectural masterpiece ... It is this heritage which attracts many visitors upon whom the prosperity of the town as a resort ... depends" - how will that prosperity be affected? The seashore around Brighton and Hove is part of the Heritage Coast - how will the magnificent features of that coast be affected? Preparatory work began in May 2015 on 14km cable through the South Downs National Park, who say "We were disappointed that E.ON did not fully mitigate the impact of the Rampion Windfarm on the South Downs". The worries about the impacts of these specific energy developments are wide and deep, but the push for these energy sources seems to allow little or no wider public debate.

NLCA prepared to challenge orthodox opinion

By challenging the applications for individual household solar panels, NLCA has proved it is prepared to challenge orthodox opinion and to question developments that damage the local visual amenity and the character of the area. It was this courage that saved North Laine from dereliction and potential demolition in the 1970s and the Associaiton is bravely continuing to fight any damaging development to save that character into the future. The NLCA has also opened up a vital debate and all of Brighton - and beyond - should be enormously grateful.




[Previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 235, July/August 2015]

This page was added on 23/08/2015.

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