Solar panels on listed churches

Now that it is acknowledged that the bird-shredding capability of a well-sited wind turbine is minimal, and the RSPB has given a lead through its decision to install a generator at its headquarters in Sandy, Bedfordshire, most objections to their location are made on visual amenity grounds, as in Devon.  Although the installation of solar panels on churches is more likely to raise the concerns of those who have an interest in the heritage aspects of the building and its surroundings, their possible visual impact is also an important issue.  Under the Church of England’s Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2000 SI 2047, the ecclesiastical courts must balance the local requirements of the church with the national policies of English Heritage and other ‘national amenity societies’, or indeed between the societies themselves.

There is a common perception that church courts are unwilling to grant faculties for solar panels on listed churches, but Church and Earth 2009-2016 contains several examples of their use, and the recent case of In the matter of St George, Kemp Town, Brighton (2nd May 2012) demonstrates the issues that must be taken into consideration, even when there are few objections.  The church of St George is a Grade II building dating from 1824, and is within the East Cliff Conservation Area of Brighton.  The proposed work would involve the installation of photovoltaic solar panels on the main south-facing roof slope, under an agreement with the Brighton Energy Cooperative, who will fund and maintain the system for the first 25 years.

The Diocesan Advisory Committee, (DAC), had made recommendations on the fixing method and certain legal issues, and with the Church Building Council, (CBC), had recommended the proposal, the latter noting that positioning of the panels meant that they would not be visible from the ground.  The three national amenity societies – English Heritage, the Victorian Society, and the Georgian Group – raised the issues of the fixing of panels to the roof, cable runs &c, but in principle expressed no objections to the proposal.

Planning permission had been granted by the Brighton and Hove City Council, which had balanced the various issues of concern:

‘The visual impact of the proposed photovoltaic panels will cause moderate harm to the character of the listed building.  The financial and environmental benefits for the building and the wider community, along with the reversible nature of the development, are considered in this instance to outweigh the harm caused.’

However, its purported grant of listed building consent was invalid on account of the Ecclesiastical Exemption Order 2010 SI 1176, and Council was informed of its lack of jurisdiction in this area and invited to quash the purported consent lest ‘an unfortunate precedent’ be set for this and other churches in the diocese.

Although the sole objector did not wish to exercise his statutory right to become a formal objector, the chancellor, the Worshipful Mark Hill QC, took his correspondence into consideration, and also that from the churchwarden to the petitioners.  In deciding the Bishopsgate Questions on proving the necessity for the proposed works, the chancellor concluded that with the exception of the objector, ‘necessity is clear . . . and universally acknowledged. . . . Even if this conclusion were in doubt, he noted that ‘the balance of discretion under the third [Bishopsgate] question strongly militates in favour of the grant of a faculty’.

The judgement does not give carte blanche to all projects of this nature, but in paragraph 14 sets down the broad criteria on which to determine whether a proposal ‘will adversely affect the character of the church as a building of special architectural and historical interest’, viz.

‘The panels will not be visible from the ground, their fixings and ancillary cabling will be minimally invasive to the structure, and  . . . . . the works will be wholly reversible’.

In addition to these essentially aesthetic issues, equally important practical issues were also addressed:

  • the need for the Brighton Energy Cooperative to be party to the proceedings;
  • the continued involvement of the consistory court in relation to: the approval of the contractual arrangements; acting as adjudicator should any disputes arise; and approving the financial arrangements, including profit sharing;
  • details of the fixing of the panels, for responsibility for approving the detailed proposals was delegated to the an architect member of the DAC nominated by its chairman.

In view of the ‘novel and pioneering nature of the works’, the chancellor imposed a requirement that ‘brief and reports are to be compiled six months, twelve months and five years after completion of the installation and circulated to the Archdeacon, the DAC, CBC, English Heritage and any other interested party who expresses am interest in receiving a copy’.

3 thoughts on “Solar panels on listed churches

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