Guest blog – Graveney Marshes by Rosalind Coward

Ros Coward is an author, journalist, Emerita Professor of Journalism and nature lover. She was a columnist on the Guardian for many years often writing on environmental issues. She is author of, amongst other books, The Whole Truth: the myth of alternative health (Faber) and Nature Matters; collected articles on the environment  (Desman Books).

The Threat to Graveney Marshes. When renewables aren’t always clean.

Most of us believe that the future of our energy supply has to include a large element of renewables. But does that mean the renewables industry is always squeaky clean? Or that its developments are always environmentally sound?  The many people who love Graveney Marshes, an area in Kent of stark beauty with a rare feeling of remoteness in the crowded south east, answer those questions with a resounding ‘NO!’.  The marshes are currently under threat from plans to build a vast solar plant which will devastate the landscape and its wildlife. Renewable developments can sometimes be very dirty indeed.

For anyone who loves marshy landscapes, and the birdlife that lives there, Graveney Marshes is a special place.  I often walk here following the Saxon shore way as it traces the coast passing along the northern edge of the marshes.  Whatever the weather, its always a wonderful walk with wide skies, the occasional sight of a Thames  barge in the distance, and a sense of emptiness.  It’s also a walk that always brings exciting bird sightings. It’s not unusual to see a marsh harrier hanging in the air over the reedbeds on the landward side of the sea wall, while in winter there are huge groups of brent geese, sometimes resting in the fields, sometimes gathering in huge noisy flocks on the sea. There are other delights too: lapwings and golden plovers in the fields in winter, skylarks in spring, reed buntings in the reeds, and a wheatear often accompanies me, keeping a few metres ahead of us on the sea wall.  Not surprisingly, with such rich birdlife, the land on three sides of the Graveney Marshes has important wildlife designations; a RAMSAR site, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and an SPA.

But this lovely area is currently the location of plans to build the biggest-ever solar plant in the British Isles. The proposal, from Hive Energy and Wirsol, is to cover 1000 acres (the size of 640 football pitches) with massive panels.  The area to be taken is so big it’s the same footfall as the market town of nearby Faversham.  Cleve Hill Solar Farm is a purely commercial development, not looking for funding or subsidy, and  because of its size and the amount of electricity it claims it will feed into the grid, it is being put forward as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Development.  These NSID proposals don’t have to go through the normal local planning laws and instead are submitted to the Planning Inspectorate for decisions to be made by the Department of State for Energy.

To make this a commercially viable, unsubsidised, project the developers are adopting a controversial design to fit in as many panels as possible. The panels will be the height of double decker buses and laid in an east-west orientation creating, in effect, a lid, like the solar farms seen in deserts.  In addition, huge battery storage will be needed so energy can be held and  released when it is at its most expensive, designed to encourage speculators into the industry.

The area of Graveney Marshes subject to these plans is currently farmland. The developers claim this is of poor quality having been subject to intensive agriculture. They claim they can improve its biodiversity as it is not at the moment very important for wildlife. Nothing could be further from the truth. The area is, as already mentioned, surrounded by an SSSI, a Ramsar site and an SPA which is the most important international designation. My amateurish bird spotting of many interesting birds on these fields is backed up by expert observation. At least six Schedule 1 birds including snow bunting, hen harrier, marsh harrier, peregrine, bearded tit, and Cetti’s warbler, have been recorded in the fields. In short, the area is crucial to the functional integrity of the designated areas.  Some farmers in the area, working with RSPB, have proved their land, already widely used by birds,  can pretty quickly be improved with remarkable results.  This summer black-winged stilt nested in the area. This is improving biodiversity on farmland not building an industrial plant on it.

The claims from developers that they can improve biodiversity are typical of what environmental campaigners are up against these days. Most developers now splash greenwash liberally around.  Here the developers claim they  will ‘mitigate’ any negative environmental effects, using  the area beneath the panels for grazing, and introducing areas with enhanced biodiversity (some of which areas are already a Local Nature Reserve). It’s all just words. How can you mitigate loss of land vital to the functional integrity of these important protected areas? In any case, solar farms on this scale aren’t without environmental critics. It’s known that most such farms  are sprayed  with herbicide to reduce ‘weeds’ around panels, and that closely aligned panels in a lid formation can cause desertification. Worries have been expressed by American researchers that the lid effect of glittering panels can confuse wading birds which try to land of them believing it’s water (the lake effect). That seems plausible given that snipe are sometimes trapped by laying out silver paper.  There are even suggestions that huge developments of this kind can create a mini climate change, warming up the immediate area.

It’s not just the greenwash which infuriates me. It’s the danger that proposals  like this might bypass democratic accountability. Campaigners against this development as well as local councillors point out that the south east is under incredible development pressure. This particular area has numerous huge housing developments already under construction. Why, the campaigners  are demanding, can’t developers of these housing estates be compelled to fit solar panels onto the roofs of these new builds? And why shouldn’t this solar plant be built on a brownfield site: there’s the decommissioned Kingsnorth power station nearby as well as the under-occupied Pfizer campus at Sandwich.

But will the Secretary of State for Energy consider this proposal in relation to its alternatives? And in relation to all the other development in the area? Or in the context of what more could be done domestically to increase solar energy before building on a beautiful and special area?  Does the Department have an overall strategy for making sure such developments are in the right place and not environmentally damaging themselves?  We can hope so. But we should also fear this decision might be considered in isolation, on its own terms, which means of course, its economic terms.

What’s particularly depressing about this proposal is that there is an alternative – exciting – vision for this area. In 1953 there were catastrophic floods all along the Thames Estuary and this area remains particularly at risk. There’s a sea wall and the beach area has been built up with shingle. But the long term prognosis is not great. With climate change and lack of shingle to feed the beach in perpetuity, this area had been designated by the Environment Agency, in consultation with local stakeholders, for managed realignment. This means allowing the sea wall to be breached and the land behind returned to salt marsh. In the long run this will give the best protection for local towns like Faversham and Whitstable as it would soak up flood water.  And environmentalists also see in this an amazing opportunity – to let this area  go wild like the north Norfolk coast creating a unique re-wilded area in Kent.

The developers are claiming they’ll take over maintenance of the sea wall in order to protect this development, thus stopping in its tracks the ecologically exciting idea of a saltmarsh and a natural coastline. I’m still hoping  that the opposition put up by organisations like RSPB and Kent Wildlife Trust will put enough effort into stopping the development.  Because this is the kind of future our wildlife needs, not degraded grazing land under a solar panel lid.

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12 Replies to “Guest blog – Graveney Marshes by Rosalind Coward”

  1. I am glad to see this potentially devastating development highlighted here. Cleve Hill is not a hill by the way; that is a made-up name to disguise the fact it is an ancient flood plain. As Ros says, this is a wholly commercial project. As I understand it, the electricity generated will be sold to the highest bidder; it could be sold abroad, so there is no guarantee that UK consumers will benefit in the slightest. The only beneficiaries will be the project shareholders. The environmental damage will be massive - 1000 acres of agricultural soil will be turned to sterile dust; there will be absolutely no opportunity for livestock grazing under 1 MILLION tightly-packed solar panels; the sea wall will be reinforced, subjecting the local town of Faversham and all the new housing developments it supports to ever-increasing flooding. Noise pollution from the vast battery installations will be huge. But hey, don’t worry, the Secretary of State will decide on the proposal.

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  2. I have great faith in solar energy and believe that in time, with efficient storage, solar will be the key to future energy needs of the planet. We haven’t even come close yet to realising it’s full potential.
    However, this plan is simply mad. For so many reasons this is a bad plan that needs preventing.
    The south east needs this green lung. Wildlife needs this amazing area. The planet needs this space.

    While withdrawing the subsidy on renewable energy, the government is pushing ahead with its proposals for yet more subsidised fossil fuels to be extracted. Yet more bowing to vested interest. But there surely is another way.
    Only a few miles away, off the M25, are two huge retail parks, Bluewater and Thurrock, on either side of the Thames, but barely a solar panel in sight. Why is the government allowing such huge developments to take place without measures in place to provide at least part of their own energy?
    Why are our builders still allowed to create huge housing developments without solar efficient roofing.

    There are millions of acres of retail, farm, housing, and industrial buildings that have the correct orientation to allow solar panels to be installed. It’s unused space, it’s free space. Think of every car park in the land under a roof of solar panels.
    Ensure that in future, all new buildings have to supply at least some of their own energy.
    But we need to help people do this. Forget fracking and other fossil fuels and bring back a decent incentive for owners of existing buildings to install solar. Ensure that all future building is energy efficient with legislation.
    We have already seen the price of solar come down massively in the past few years, if the correct incentives were put in place, then another huge drop would be the result.

    Covering open spaces needed for farming, wildlife, recreation and relaxation is madness until all of the above proposals have been properly explored.
    Once again, it’s an easy option. The depressing thing is that governments, particularly this one, like easy options.

    This needs fighting and if someone (Rosalind?) hasn’t already thought of a petition on one of the major sites such as 38degrees or Change.org, they need to do so now.

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    1. Yes exactly - why aren't solar panels obligatory on new builds, insane that they aren't massive roof space crying out for them rather than this monstrosity. I'd also love to see rainwater collection/toilet flushing features built in to new housing.

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  3. Irrespective of where the electricity is finally consumed, solar power has an important contribution to make to reducing our reliance on fossil fuels - a crucially important task. However, this appears to be the wrong project in the wrong place. There are thousands of acres of large roofs across the country on distribution centres, industrial buildings and the like and there is surely an opportunity to use these as the substrate for many MW worth of solar panels even allowing for the fact that some will not be facing in the right direction.

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  4. Solar farms might as well be concrete. Isn't it extraordinary that farmers who tell us we'll all starve if any land goes wild for wildlife have no objection at all to these farms which in reality are urbanisation ? Nor for that matter to getting £ millions to build houses. Renewables have been bedevilled by the lack of national policy - crass insensitivity to landscape and the impact on people nearby finished off onshore wind. This proposal is firmly rooted in a past where marshes were seen as wasteland. Natural Capital accounting clarly shows that going with the punches is the right answer to coastal protection - we may not be in quite the danger faced by tropical countries that have trashed their mangrove fringes, but putting a bit more saltmarsh in the way of future surges makes far more sense than this sort of ill conceived project.

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  5. I know Graveney Marshes. It is a wonderful wild area and totally unsuited to this monsterous solar panel development. It would devastate the area as a whole. I do hope the proposal is turned down absolutely flat.

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  6. Three major concerns that I would add to the above list of objections to the Cleve Hill proposals are:-

    Knowledge - it’s early days in solar technology, particularly on this scale, and the apparent lack of published, proven research that is available about the effects that this type of scheme could have on the local ecology is remarkably little. Either the scientific evidence does not exist and the necessary work has not been carried out, or there is a lack of transparency and relevant reports are not being made available. I don’t think that we have enough information to support the claims made by the developers on the potential of this design and its long term effects on the ecosystem.
    Timescale - Obviously the period for construction and commissioning would cause considerable disruption for local residents as well as threatening the health and welfare of our children. However of more long-term significance is the need to know how long the anticipated Operational Phase would last. This is vital information because the land would be out of commission for all other purposes during this period and subject to degradation and loss of amenity. It would be essential that guarantees are in place to eventually return the land to its former state at the cost of the developer.
    Decommissioning - The developer states - ‘When the operational phase ends (?) the development will require decommissioning.’ They claim that all the PV modules will be recycled or ‘disposed of in accordance with good practice’. It is essential that this is clarified in terms of cost, recyclability and timing. As far as I am aware, at this time, there is no effective clean technology for destroying or recycling these panels and I think that it is essential, given the development would have a finite operational life, that it should not be constructed unless there is demonstrably efficient and clean technology in place to handle its demise. If this problem is ignored at the planning stage one can envisage the problems and costs that could be faced by future generations. Assuming this is successfully answered we also need to know the details of the state of the land at this decommissioning stage because the prospects of the developers simply leaving a virtual desert are strong.
    I am deeply concerned about our wild life heritage and the preservation of our unique landscape for future generations. I think that all solar developments should be subject to close scrutiny. This proposition serves to highlight these matters simply by its size and location.

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  7. What about the length of the "operational phase" for all the domestic panels sprouting on rooftops ,
    do people know what they are letting themselves in for, with regards to disposal and recycling?.
    No doubt I am showing my ignorance here, and will be corrected by somebody.
    Talk on this subject in the mess room recently, led to a claim by one of the lads, that he had read
    about light sensitive road surfacing material, that could do a similar job to these panels, anyone
    heard of this one?.
    I have always been of the opinion, that however far down the renewables road we get, Nuclear
    backup will be essential, and nothing I have read has changed that .

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    1. Trapit - I have a vague recollection of solar roadways too. And I tend to agree with you about nuclear - I'll be thrown out of the environmentalist club for saying so though.

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  8. Fantastic feedback and the original blog... I have some faith in the future of Graveney Marshes.. somewhere I call home, although I don’t live there.
    Change the way we humans live and ‘use’ the planet... living more environmentally aware and adopting a plant based diet could mean less damage to the planet and therefore no need for these types of proposals.
    The natural world and all species should coexist

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  9. Complete madness to trash 1000 acres of beautiful marshes to provide "green" energy --- not a blade of grass will be left if we leave it up to the developers.

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  10. Excellent blog, still worth re-reading as we progress through the hearings in the NSIP Examination of this out-of-scale, unnecessary proposal. It is now clear that there are also many other reasons why this solar power station should not go ahead. See the Faversham Society's many submissions to the Examination: https://favershamsociety.org/blog/

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