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Green light given for solar panels at St Peter Mancroft, Norwich

02 February 2024

Creative Commons/Ben Keating

St Peter Mancroft, Norwich

St Peter Mancroft, Norwich

THE Vicar and churchwardens of St Peter Mancroft (SPM), a Grade I listed medieval building founded in 1075 and a landmark in the centre of Norwich, have been granted a faculty to install clamp-fixed arrays of solar panels on the roof of the south aisle.

The faculty also includes permission to install six storage batteries in the former organ-blower room, and two external heat-pump evaporator units, and allows for associated cabling and wiring alterations in the main church electrical-distribution boards.

In common with many churches, SPM has reviewed, on a continuing basis, how it can reduce the carbon footprint to net zero by 2030 in line with the Church of England’s target. The church considers it to be not just a question of cost-effectiveness, but principally a wider moral issue in avoiding, or at least mitigating, catastrophic climate change.

In 2020, the PCC had considered the issue of solar panels when renovating the lead roof, but had rejected the idea because of the church’s energy output and the probably limited benefits of solar panels without storage batteries. The use and availability of solar panels, combined with storage batteries, however, had increased in the past three years, and it was now considered that that would provide significant advantages for the church.

The petitioners reasoned that the church was well lit by natural daylight, and the electrical output would be mostly for lighting, which could be stored, so that the viability of solar panels was greater now than they had concluded in 2020. They also stated that the storage would enable higher power demands (kettles, organ, etc.) without needing to draw power from the grid.

The law that applied to the proposals in the petition for the faculty is colloquially known as the Duffield test. It required the Consistory Court to ask itself, first, whether the proposals, if implemented, would result in harm to the significance of the church as a building of special architectural or historical interest. If the answer to that question was yes, then it was necessary to ask how serious the harm would be, and to assess how clear and convincing the justification was for the proposals.

The Chancellor, the Worshipful David Etherington KC, said that, in reaching his decision, he recognised that, to reach the target of net zero by 2030, “painful decisions” would have to be made. In the context of modifications to listed buildings, it might “look like a battle between attempts to lessen, halt, or reverse climate change on the one hand, and the proper conserving of listed buildings on the other”.

But that was a “fallacy”, the Chancellor said, because the unchecked effects of global warming were likely to lead to “catastrophic climate change within a shorter time frame than we realise”, and had the “potential to cause untold damage to listed buildings”, and “should it lead to economic collapse as well, then the money will not be there to protect and maintain them”.

The Chancellor said that his decision had been made easier by the “detailed, professional, and balanced way” in which the Vicar, Canon Edward Carter, and the churchwardens had presented their petition for a faculty.

Turning to the first question in the Duffield test: the proposals would, if implemented, result in harm to the church as a building of special architectural or historical interest. The harm identified was to the visual appreciation of the church, which, in turn, damaged architectural and historical significance.

But, the Chancellor concluded, the level of damage to the architectural and historical significance of the church was “low to very low”, and the justification for the proposals was clear and convincing. The petitioners had done all that they reasonably could to reduce the church’s carbon footprint already, and the proposal was to realise further energy-saving.

One concern that courts sometimes had, when changes were proposed resulting from technological advances, was how permanent the technology being introduced would be. “We live in an age of extremely rapid technological development,” the Chancellor said, so that these solar panels “would doubtless be improved upon or even become redundant in favour of even more inventive techniques to capture solar energy over their lifetime”.

The fact that they were wholly reversible without causing damage to the fabric of the church was, in the Chancellor’s judgment, “an answer to that particular concern”.

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