Up until April 2008 it was necessary to apply for planning permission in order to install solar panels. The government however wants us all to use more renewable energy and so in 2008 it changed the planning rules in order to make it easier to do so.
Planning rules are however often open to interpretation and it falls on the local authority to interpret them. Some councils it seems did not appreciate the spirit of the rules and chose to interpret them in such a way as to effectively re-impose the obligation apply for permission.
The situation has thankfully been clarified thanks to a recent appeal decision.
The Law on Planning Permission
Section 57 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 imposes a requirement to obtain planning permission for “development” of land. Development is defined in section 55 as “the carrying out of building, engineering, mining or other operations in, on, over or under land, or the making of any material change in the use of any buildings or other land.” That section goes on to define building operations as:
(a) demolition of buildings;
(c) structural alterations of or additions to buildings; and
(d) other operations normally undertaken by a person carrying on business as a builder.
Solar panels are take to be an addition to a building and as such are caught by the definition at paragraph c, so solar panels can’t be installed without planning permission.
General Permitted Development Orders
The Town & Country Planning Act goes on to say, in sections 59 – 61, that the Secretary of State can make orders which automatically grant permission for certain types of development. Such an order, which is still in force today, was made in 1995 and is known as the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995.
Many amendments have been made to this order subsequently, so as to introduce other types of development for which permission is deemed to be granted automatically. In terms of solar panels (and other microgeneration equipment) the relevant amendment was made in the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development)(Amendment) (England) Order 2008, which came into force on 06 April of that year.
Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (Amendment) (England) 2008
This order (which as the title suggests relates only to England) introduced a new part 40 to the 1995 Order.
It states that..
“The installation, alteration or replacement of solar PV or solar thermal equipment on—
(a) a dwellinghouse; or
(b) a building situated within the curtilage of a dwellinghouse” is classed as permitted development and does not require specific permission, however it goes on to set out the following exceptions:
“Development is not permitted by Class A, in the case of solar PV or solar thermal equipment installed on an existing wall or roof of a dwellinghouse or a building within its curtilage if -
(a) the solar PV or solar thermal equipment would protrude more than 200 millimetres beyond the plane of the wall or the roof slope when measured from the perpendicular with the external surface of the wall or roof slope;
(b) it would result in the highest part of the solar PV or solar thermal equipment being higher than the highest part of the roof (excluding any chimney);
(c) in the case of land within a conservation area or which is a World Heritage Site, the solar PV or solar thermal equipment would be installed—
(i) on a wall forming the principal or side elevation of the dwellinghouse and would be visible from a highway; or
(ii) on a wall or roof slope of a building within the curtilage of the dwellinghouse and would be visible from a highway; or
(d) the solar PV or solar thermal equipment would be installed on a building within the curtilage of the dwellinghouse if the dwellinghouse is a listed building.”
So these exceptions mean that if the panels protrude outwards more than 200 millimetres (which is 20cms or around 8 inches), they are higher than the apex of the roof, they are to be installed on a building within a conservation area or World Heritage Site and will be visible from the road or they are to be installed anywhere on a listed building, an application for planning permission will be needed.
Conditions Attached to the General Permitted Development Order
So far then everything seems straightforward; however the 2008 Order imposes conditions on the automatic grant of permission, as follows:
“Development is permitted by Class A subject to the following conditions—
(a) solar PV or solar thermal equipment installed on a building shall, so far as practicable, be sited so as to minimise its effect on the external appearance of the building;
(b) solar PV or solar thermal equipment shall, so far as practicable, be sited so as to minimise its effect on the amenity of the area; and
(c) solar PV or solar thermal equipment no longer needed for micro generation shall be removed as soon as reasonably practicable.”
Some councils have looked at points a and b and taken the view that planning applications are required to ensure that the panels are not too large or too visible from the highway. This was a disappointing approach since it seemed to be at odds with the spirit of the new legislation. Fortunately, the planning process incorporates a right of appeal, and such an appeal was made against a decision in Poole earlier this year.
The 2010 Poole Council Appeal Decision
Following a decision by Poole council that a homeowner was obliged to make an application for planning permission to install solar panels, the home owner decided to appeal to the planning inspector. On 21 July 2010 the planning inspector ruled in favour of the homeowner, i.e. that Poole council were mistaken and in fact no planning application was required to install the solar panels in question.
On the subject of the size of an installation, the planning inspector said “As to size, plainly a smaller array would have a lesser effect, but that could be said of any installation; condition (a) is concerned with siting, not size. Had Parliament intended to impose a size limitation it would have been a simple matter to do so.”, and on the subject of visual amenity “Condition (b) is that solar PV or solar thermal equipment shall, so far as practicable, be sited so as to minimise its effect on the amenity of the area. In this case the only effect on amenity is visual – the appearance of the building – and accordingly I conclude that this condition also would be met.”
As a result of this very welcome decision local authorities around England have little choice but to reconsider their policies on solar panels and refrain from insisting on a specific application being made except where the exceptions at Part 40 Class A (1) of the 1995 Order (as amended by the 2008 Order) apply or where the installation is significantly larger than a typical domestic installation or is otherwise unusual in appearance.
The Situation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Regarding Planning Permission for Solar Panels
Planning legislation is a devolved responsibility therefore the law in other parts of the UK is often different to the law in England, however the Scottish Parliament have introduced the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (Domestic Microgeneration) (Scotland) Amendment Order 2009 and the Welsh Assembly the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (Amendment) (Wales) Order 2009, both of which are very similar in effect to the English Order and will presumably therefore produce the same results.
The Northern Irish have the matter under review and legislation is expected shortly but for the time being, an application will need to be made before installing solar panels in Northern Ireland.