Woman to launch challenge against ban on solar panels on her home

A view of the property where solar panels were added without planning permissionar panels were fitted
The homeowner's home is located to the rear of these terraced houses in Ashbourne (Image credit: Google Street View)

A homeowner has said she is challenging her local council after being told to remove solar panels from the roof of her home. 

Mary Smail, 63, originally asked Derbyshire Dales District Council for permission to add solar panels to the roof of her home in Ashbourne in the Peak District in 2020, but was refused on the grounds that her home is listed and inside a conservation area. 

Mrs Smail, who is a climate activist, went ahead and installed the solar panels anyway, calling the situation "blind bureaucracy" given the national push to switch to carbon neutral alternatives and the district council's own declaration of a "climate emergency". 

The case is a curious one, raising questions about the preservation of historic buildings and conservation areas versus the green agenda.

Why activist ignored council over solar panels

Most homes in Britain can install solar panels without planning permission. However, there are a few limitations that our planning expert Simon Rix explains in his extensive piece about planning permission for solar panels and this includes cases when a listed building or conservation area is involved.

Mrs Smail required planning permission when installing solar panels as her home in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, is both listed and inside the Ashbourne conservation area. As a result, the passionate climate campaigner asked the authority for planning permission in 2019. She then chose to carry out the work, fitting solar panels to the north east and south west sides of her sloping roof, without authorisation while she was waiting for a decision. 

Planning permission was then refused and the council ordered her to remove the solar panels via an enforcement order.

She told the Derby Telegraph: "I challenged them and told them that I wanted solar panels and sent them a whole list of reasons why they should let me have them and they said 'we probably won't give you planning permission but you'll have to put in an official planning permission in.

"So I thought 'well they've already told me they won't give me permission so I'll just bloody do it, so I just bloody did it.'"

solar panels on roof of brick house

Solar panels often can be installed under permitted development rights, but not in the case of listed buildings or buildings in a conservation area (Image credit: Getty Images)

Why she was ordered to remove the solar panels

The council declined Mrs Smail's planning permission because her home, located to the rear of a row of terraced homes, is a listed building and inside a conservation area. The solar panels were not visible from street level but this did not change their decision.

In its decision, a planning officer wrote: "It is considered by the Local Planning Authority that the installation of the solar panels affect the character and appearance of the building as one of 'special architectural or historic interest' and affects the character and appearance of the Ashbourne Conservation Area."

An enforcement notice was issued ordering her to remove them under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 as they are a planning breach of section 171A(1)(a).

Why she is now challenging the decision

Mrs Smail says the decision not to give planning permission for solar panels contradicts Derbyshire Dales District Council declaring a Climate Emergency in May 2019 and pledging to make the authority carbon neutral by 2030. 

Nevertheless, she was served an injunction on December 8 but still refuses to take the solar panels down. "On many grounds, I think they haven't got a leg to stand on but they're costing me tens of thousands of pounds but I'm fighting this battle with this blind bureaucracy that won't listen to their own declaration of climate emergency," she adds.

Mrs Smail chose not to attend the injunction hearing as she said she was instead in another court supporting her terminally ill husband after he was arrested for climbing the gantry on the M25.

Mrs Smail's actions come as the UK endures eye-watering energy prices, with electricity now 65.4% more expensive than a year earlier and gas rocketing up by 128.9%. The cost of solar panels can help mitigate against this.

A view of Mrs Smail's home from above

The solar panels are not visible from the street (Image credit: Google Maps)

How climate targets are at odds with preservation

Last year the UK government put into law a climate change target to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels. However, its own figures recently revealed it is wildly off-track to reach the target. This in part is perhaps because of a large percentage of UK homes being difficult to retrofit with carbon friendly measures, as well as the preservation of historic homes being at odds with some of the eco-solutions such as solar PV and solar thermal being put forward.

As concerns over the climate crisis grow, many homeowners and developers will be watching for the outcome of Mrs Smail's case. Some may see denying planning permission to much-needed renewable energy installations on conservation grounds as counterintuitive and short-sighted, while others might agree with the council in its bid to preserve historic housing stock and scenery.

Derbyshire District Council has been contacted by the Homebuilding & Renovating team for comment but has not yet responded.

Sam Webb

Sam is based in Coventry and has been a news reporter for nearly 20 years. His work has featured in the Mirror, The Sun, MailOnline, the Independent, and news outlets throughout the world.  As a copywriter, he has written for clients as diverse as Saint-Gobain, Michelin, Halfords Autocentre, Great British Heating, and Irwin Industrial Tools. During the pandemic, he converted a van into a mini-camper and is currently planning to convert his shed into an office and Star Wars shrine.