Welcome to the latest edition of the Colne Stour Countryside Association (CSCA) annual magazine, in its rightful place in print format. Many thanks are owed to the committee for all their efforts over the last couple of years, but notably to Christy Simson, our editor, and Emma Stewart-Smith for her articles, and coordinating with advertisers for this issue. This the first print version since April 2019 and how the world has changed since then but mercifully, the worst of the pandemic appears to be behind us.
It may have been impossible to do many things during the 2020 lockdown but developers putting in speculative applications was not among them, alas. At the time of writing, Braintree District Council is awaiting the final report from the planning inspectors on section two of its draft local plan (the same inspectors are also considering the final draft of Colchester’s plan). We are hoping that the report will be received in time for Braintree’s meeting in May, so that the local plan can be adopted. This will then give Braintree an up-to-date local plan.
The main aim of Braintree’s local plan has been to concentrate housing around the towns of Braintree, Witham and Halstead, with the largest strategic sites being on the outskirts of Braintree (including near Black Notley in what is known as the Great Notley mirror) and to the north and south of Witham. Some of the larger villages such as Earls Colne, Coggeshall and Kelvedon have also seen significant development. The plan has however sought to protect the rural areas and smaller villages.
An up-to-date local plan should mean that Braintree will be in a better position to resist speculative planning applications on sites that have not been allocated, but the council must also demonstrate a five-year supply of deliverable houses, i.e., prove that the number of houses that should be built in the next five-year period will, in fact, be built. This is being challenged constantly by developers and the situation remains tenuous. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the main problem is land banking by developers.
Another problem that is causing concern is the increasing number of applications for solar farms. There are plans for a huge solar farm called Longfield Solar north of Chelmsford and another immediately to the west of Great Notley. In the CSCA area, planning permission was granted for a solar farm at Pentlow and we are aware of another likely application at Ashen.
The main limiting factor seems to be the ability to connect to the local electricity network. Some substations have little capacity to accept power generated by solar farms. Connection to the network is also a cost and sites nearest substations are the most viable, resulting in clustering. Avoidance of valley sides and landscaping will be vital to limit visual impact. We continue to monitor and oppose applications, where appropriate.
National Grid’s electricity grid reinforcement project from Bramford to Twinstead has recently become a critical issue for the valley landscapes that we cherish. This project has the potential to change permanently the very nature of our countryside.
This energy giant’s project is designed to resolve a longstanding bottleneck on the national electricity grid. That bottleneck has become a significant problem since we started generating our electricity on the east coast, instead of the Midlands and the north of Britain. All that electricity from the windfarms and nuclear generators must be delivered into the London area. We live at the heart of this geography, and so we will host that electricity transmission route.
A quarter of the UK’s electricity is destined to pass through a valley near you. The Bramford to Twinstead project comprises pylons, underground cables and a new substation at Twinstead, near Sudbury. This will affect us all. The pylons will bring the electricity to the Dedham Vale and Stour Valley.
The proposed underground cable, instead of more pylons across the Stour Valley, is essential to seeing the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) extended to include the landscapes that inspired Thomas Gainsborough’s masterpieces. AONB designation provides powerful protections against inappropriate development in these landscapes and in particular, energy industry development. Soon after this edition goes to press, the CSCA and the Dedham Vale Society, among others, are hoping to meet the minister in charge to press our case.
The proposed Twinstead substation will be configured to supply the Sudbury area with energy from the east coast, instead of Hertfordshire as now. Solar farms generally connect to local distribution networks. There has hitherto not been capacity on this local network to accept all the energy solar that proposals could produce. The substation will change that. Solar farm developers are offering landowners guaranteed income by leasing them their land that is far beyond what they could earn from agriculture.
Without the protection of AONB status and the protections it confers, this powerful economic pressure will drive creeping energy industrialisation of our valleys.
Thousands of acres of our region are already under threat of being blanketed in black panels. We must work to ensure that our most valuable landscapes with their natural beauty and cultural heritage associations are protected. Our landscapes are beautiful because they have historically been shaped by the agriculture industry but we stand on the brink of an energy industrial revolution. It has the potential to transform our countryside with industrialisation that dominates and blights natural beauty.
It is essential National Grid understands that underground cabling of the section of the route across the Stour Valley is of the highest importance to protect these culturally significant and beautiful landscapes. National Grid’s formal consultation ended on March 21. I would like to thank CSCA member David Holland for his relentless campaigning on the pylons. This is a call to arms and should form a big part of a membership drive by the committee this year and beyond. We must appeal to reason with strength in numbers; this will help as we try to put pressure on politicians.
In other news, the 2018 plan from landowners for 8,500 houses around Halstead resurfaced on to the agenda, after a developer spent three years putting together an application for 200 houses at Bournebridge Hill, Greenstead Green. Braintree District Council refused permission on March 8; it was outside any village boundary on an unallocated site. This could have provided a gateway for the first stage of a bypass of the town, which has already taken 14% of the council’s housing supply. Watch this space for the inevitable appeal but we should take such small victories as they come.
Our annual general meeting — the first in person since 2019 — will take place at Ferriers Barn on Thursday 26th May (details can be found elsewhere in this magazine) and we are very lucky to have Charlie Hart, a local gardening author, to talk about his books. I can highly recommend “Skymeadow: Notes from an English gardener”, a very entertaining read.
It was wonderful to fit our annual garden party in at Knights Farm last summer as we emerged from lockdown (thanks to the Courtauld family for hosting us when they were worried about how beautiful a garden would look in August; it looked wonderful) and John and Joanne Bleach have kindly agreed to host this year’s party on July 6. I look forward to seeing many of you there.