Donnachadh McCarthy: The Home Ecologist

Council planners don't like solar panels. Have they not heard about climate change?
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The aim of this column is to provide practical encouragement on how to reduce our environmental footprints. However, my optimism took a body blow with the news that a quarter of the summer Arctic ice disappeared this year. At this rate, it will all be gone in four years instead of 2070, which was the previous prediction by many scientists.

It thus appears that the Arctic has passed a terrifying tipping point of irreversible melting, putting Greenland's ice cap at risk of melting far faster than feared. When such information is passed on, it makes it hard to understand how some council planners and the government actually make it more difficult for ordinary people to do their bit.

For instance, I get emails from all over the UK from people who want to install solar panels but their local councils have refused them planning permission. Some National Park authorities, who you would think would understand the crisis, are even more ruthless in turning down applications, with up to 50 per cent of applications being refused.

In last year's budget Gordon Brown announced he would help more homeowners to install renewable energy systems. What actually happened was the Government slashed the individual grants and changed the rules, so that you have to get planning permission before applying for the grant. This means homeowners have to gamble £135 on planning, before knowing whether that can get a grant. The result has been a 70 per cent drop in applications. Thanks, Gordon.

This recent change in the Arctic ice cap makes it all the more urgent that councils make it easier for homeowners to get planning permission. Thankfully, not all councils are Luddites, and some of the more enlightened local authorities state that if the panels do not change the roofline and are not in a conservation area, they do not need planning permission. I tried for four years to get my local council, the London borough of Southwark, to do the same. But despite winning at a public inquiry, for a long while its planning officers still insisted on people gaining permission if panels overlooked the street. They finally surrendered this week, thanks to extra lobbying by a local councillor, Richard Thomas.

Among the various authorities that despairing readers have written to me about are the Heritage Foundation, Letchworth Garden City, the Peak District National Park and Hillingdon Borough Council in London, which has turned down nearly 50 per cent of all solar panel applications.

When I spoke to a planning officer at the Peak District about the reasons for the rejections, he described solar panels as "bolt-on industrial infrastructure" and spoke about the park's duty to "protect the environment" of the Peak District. I gently suggested that solar panels did exactly that.

Having started on a glum note, however, I can finish in a more upbeat manner. Thanks to engineering ingenuity, there are now ways to get around the nay-sayers, provided your home is not covered by heritage legislation. Solar electric roof-tiles have been around for a couple of years but now an innovative company called Solex has even come up with solar hot-water roof-tiles, which not only look beautiful but require no planning permission, as they are completely in line with the roofline.

So, just maybe, human ingenuity of this type will help stop the collapsing Arctic ice-shelf.

Solar electric roof-tiles:; Solar hot-water roof tiles: McCarthy works as an eco-auditor and is author of Saving The Planet Without Costing the Earth.