Large Solar Farms

– in the House of Commons at 7:32 pm on 21st March 2023.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Andrew Stephenson.)

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister without Portfolio 7:33 pm, 21st March 2023

I very much welcome the opportunity that this evening’s debate gives me to raise the matter of large-scale solar farms. There have been previous debates on the subject in Westminster Hall, and I know that many right hon. and hon. Members have raised concerns about the loss of food production and the planning process. I note that there are one or two colleagues in the Chamber this evening who may want to chip in.

Food security and energy security are competing requirements in our economy, and we must recognise that. No doubt someone listening to this debate—it is usually some sort of blogger on some eco-site—will report that we are all anti-renewable energy, which, of course, is not what the debate is about and could not be further from the truth; it is, in fact, quite the opposite.

Let me start by saying that electricity generation from solar has been a major success, and has come a long way in the last 12 years. Last Sunday at noon, 5.74 GW out of a total of 33.1 GW delivered by the national grid was from solar. Total solar generating capacity is now about 14.6 GW, and the energy strategy objective is to increase that fivefold to 70 GW by 2035. I understand that, by the end of January 2023, there were 1,360 operational solar farms covering about 100,000 acres. It is estimated that a further 160 solar farms have been approved and there are several hundred more planning applications in the pipeline, including at least seven nationally significant infrastructure planning applications which are over 50 MW. That planning and construction pipeline could be equivalent to a further 150,000 acres of solar panels, the majority of which would be ground-mounted on farmland.

To date, this solar expansion has received a good level of public support. In my constituency, the first applications, in 2015, were approved with the benefit of public support. They were typically 5 MW, and located near industrial estates. By 2018, 20 MW applications were coming forward, and by 2020, typical applications were just under 50 MW—the maximum under which the local planning authority was responsible for deciding the applications. Now there is public concern about the increasing number of applications, and the more than tenfold increase in the size of some of them.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Conservative, West Suffolk

As a supporter of solar energy, I think the central point is that, if there is no local support for projects because they are in the wrong place, that will undermine support for renewable energy. In my constituency, I have supported many solar projects and continue to support them now, but the Sunnica project goes right round villages and destroys local amenity. The consultation has been woeful, and both county and local councils are against the project, as is the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, whose constituency it also covers. Is not the point that those who support solar should support it in the right place, and not get people’s backs up with terrible consultation and projects that should be sent back to the drawing board?

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister without Portfolio

My right hon. Friend is correct. I know how seriously he takes solar energy in his own constituency, because we have talked about this before. The public must be on board, and it is important for there to be clarity for them in the planning process. I will say more about some of the points he has raised later in my speech.

Photo of Robert Courts Robert Courts Conservative, Witney

My right hon. Friend has made some excellent points which will certainly have been heard by my constituents in West Oxfordshire who are subject to the Botley West proposal, or, as it has been called locally, the Blenheim power station. He has referred to large-scale solar farms. The one proposed in my constituency is to be the size of Heathrow—the biggest, if allowed, in Europe, and the biggest ever allowed on farmland—and 76% of it will be on green belt land. What he has just said about public support is entirely right. We all support solar energy, but when projects are this size and when they have an irreversible impact on local areas, that will subtract from public support. Does he agree that, as well as protecting power, we must ensure that we protect amenity, farmland, food security and the character of rural areas?

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister without Portfolio

My hon. Friend is right: we must do all those things and, especially given the conflicts that are taking place around the world, we must ensure that our food security is protected. In my constituency, there are a number of large breweries, which depend heavily on local growers for their supply chains. My hon. Friend has made a brilliant point. He also referred to farmland. As the size of these proposed solar farm increases, so does the amount of productive farmland—

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister without Portfolio

It would be rude if I did not give way to my very hon. Friend Jim Shannon.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for bringing this forward. Where there is agreement with the community, yes we can do this, but where there is not agreement with the community, we should not be doing it. Robert Courts mentioned productive farmland. That is important because at some stage we want to become self-sufficient, but we can only become self-sufficient if we keep the good land for productive purposes. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that solar farms must be on unproductive land, and not on the productive land that can help us to be self-sufficient and not have to import from the rest of the world?

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister without Portfolio

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on.

As I said, as these solar farms increase in size, so will the amount of productive farmland being taken up by them. The description “best and most versatile” farmland is often included in these proposals. I understand that the National Farmers Union says that solar farms should avoid agricultural land of classification 1, 2 and 3A, which is the “best and most versatile” land. The NFU advises that that land should be avoided where practical. It is also my understanding that the new national planning policy framework guidelines may explicitly state that land used for food production gains additional protection in the planning system. I think that is something that many Members here today would like to see, and so would our constituents. That would also offer absolute clarity for local planning authorities. This is a key question that my constituents and landowners want answers to. So my question to the Minister—there will be one or two more—is, when can we have clear guidance? I appreciate that this might not be a matter for her Department, but it would be most welcome if she could tell us when we are going to get that guidance and the changes to the NPPF.

Developers often state that land under and around solar panels can be used to graze animals. The last time I looked, grass for grazing required sunlight to grow, but the objective of a solar farm is obviously to capture as much sunlight as possible, so I would argue that the grass under solar panels is therefore of very low quality and that the proposition lacks credibility. Also, the requirement for security fencing and CCTV surveillance has increased, because solar farms have suffered thefts of panels and ancillary agreement. In 2021, 220 solar panels were stolen from a farm in Lincolnshire.

The need to locate solar farms as close as possible to a grid connection is leading to clusters of solar farm proposals. In July 2022, a 50 MW solar farm was approved close to Camblesforth, which happens to be the village I grew up and went to school in. It is very close to the Drax power station. The application received only two objections and was supported by the parish council. The same developer has since applied for another 50 MW solar farm to the south of the village, and another developer, Helios, is preparing an application for a 250 MW, 1,850 acre solar farm to the west of the village. Then, just to the east, Boom Power is consulting on a fourth solar farm of 400 MW, which would cover nearly 3,000 acres in the constituency of my right hon. Friend Mr Davis.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Conservative, Haltemprice and Howden

I agree with everything that has been said so far, but it is not just about preserving productive land; it is also about preserving amenity. This 3,000-acre proposal will surround a number of villages in what is currently a beautiful piece of rural English countryside, and the proposal is essentially anti-democratic because it will not be decided by the local council—it will eventually go to the chief inspector. I have asked for the views of all the residents of those villages, and so far 50% have come back, with 78% of them wanting the proposal stopped. However, as it stands, there is no mechanism to do so.

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister without Portfolio

I agree with my right hon. Friend and neighbour. We need Ministers from, I suspect, several Departments to provide absolute clarity to right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, and to local planning authorities, given the cumulative impact of these large-scale solar farms. My right hon. Friend has a village that, if all these planning applications go ahead, is likely to be surrounded by solar farms, as could the village of Camblesforth. By the way, Camblesforth has approved a solar farm close by, but the cumulative impact of huge solar farms causes understandable concern for residents.

All four solar farms include containers full of batteries on farmland. The land to be used for the proposed Helios farm is almost all “best and most versatile”—category 2 and 3a—land that currently grows cereals and root crops. About 60% of the land in the Boom Power proposal is best and most versatile, as is 58% of the land in the Wade House Lane proposal. In contrast, the three applications submitted in 2015 were all on category 3b land, and therefore not within this classification, hence they did not receive the number of objections that these large-scale proposals have received. With these four solar farms, we are talking about a total of 5,500 acres, or nearly 9 square miles, with a large percentage of it being best and most versatile agricultural land.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

The concern of my constituents is precisely that the solar farm described by my hon. Friend Robert Courts is just the tip of the iceberg, and that Oxford colleges will look to have a huge network of solar farms that will blight the Oxfordshire countryside for years to come.

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister without Portfolio

My hon. Friend makes a good point, as have most colleagues this evening. It would be interesting to know how many people who work at those colleges, which I guess are the developers, would be prepared to live in the middle of the site.

I also note that there is a changing public response to solar farm proposals. There has definitely been an abrupt change in public opinion from support to opposition. There were only two objections to the first solar farm near Camblesforth, but the residents group I met a few weeks ago that opposes the latest proposal has almost 500 members. The most common objection to the project concerns the loss of productive farmland. They say the land for the Helios proposal could grow more than 4,000 tonnes of wheat a year, or 10,000 tonnes of root crops such as carrots or parsnips. They point to brownfield sites, of which there are several in the Selby district, or the roofs of buildings. Crikey, we have a number of ex-coalmine sites in the Selby district, and some large farm buildings have already been fitted with solar panels, which has the added advantage of providing power for energy-intensive operations such as grain drying.

I appreciate that we have only half an hour and the Minister needs to respond, but residents have lots of other considerations when they raise objections to large-scale solar, including the loss of residential amenities, especially where homes are going to be surrounded by solar farms. There are concerns about safety in the light of fires and explosions at large battery storage units.

There is also the fact that applications receive temporary approval. It was initially 25 years, but I understand it is now 40 years. I remember when the Selby coalfield was given approval. That land was supposed to be returned back to farmland when mining stopped but, guess what, that has not happened.

People have these concerns I am outlining. They are concerned about the noise from the switchgear; the visual impact of the fences and the cameras; and the low credibility of some of the biodiversity net gain proposals. I could go on, but I will not, because I know that the Minister is itching to get to her feet to tell us when we are going to have answers to some of the questions colleagues have raised.

Solar power has reached the point where it makes a significant contribution to our power generation, and it can continue to do so, but we have to make sure it is done sensitively. This is not just about using words; we need clear guidance. I am encouraged by some of the noises made about what could be in the revised wording of the national planning policy framework, but the proposals for solar that are coming forward now are much larger than we have previously seen. We are seeing an increasing level of opposition to them; we do not normally get this many colleagues in the House for an Adjournment debate. If that opposition from communities and Members of Parliament continues, this will impede our progress in getting towards net zero. The points I have raised need to be addressed by the Minister, and I appreciate that input may also be required from Ministers in other Departments.

Photo of Amanda Solloway Amanda Solloway Government Whip, Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero) 7:51 pm, 21st March 2023

I thank my right hon. Friend Nigel Adams for securing this important debate on large solar farms. Let me say in advance that if I am unable to answer any of his questions, I will get back to him at a later stage. I also wish to acknowledge all the other contributions from right hon. and hon. Members on this important subject.

Decarbonising and securing the UK’s energy supply is one of the biggest challenges facing us today. Two years ago, the Government adopted their sixth carbon budget: the world’s most ambitious climate change goal of reducing emissions by 77% by 2035 compared with 1990 levels. Of course, 2035 is not that far away—the clock is ticking—which is why in our net zero strategy the Government committed to securing and fully decarbonising the UK’s electricity supply. That will require a sustained increase in deploying low-carbon technologies such as solar, alongside wind, new nuclear, battery storage, and carbon capture utilisation and storage.

The dramatic rise in global energy prices following the covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has only served to emphasise the urgency here and demonstrate how crucial it is that we build a strong, home-grown renewable energy sector to further reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and limit consumer bills. In the British energy security strategy, the Government committed to enabling a fivefold increase in solar deployment of up to 70 GW in capacity by 2035, which will require a step change in deployment. Large-scale solar farms and smaller-scale commercial and domestic rooftop installations are all essential to meeting that commitment.

Solar is a safe, mature, resilient and versatile technology that can be quickly deployed in a range of locations. Its carbon footprint is much lower than that of coal or gas. Solar is key to the Government’s strategy to decarbonise the UK’s energy supply at low cost. Large-scale solar is one of the UK’s cheapest electricity generating technologies. The Government recognise that deploying large solar projects, as with any new infrastructure, will have local impacts. Although Government surveys indicate that solar is one of the most popular renewable energy sources, we fully appreciate that people living in the vicinity of proposed developments may be concerned about the effects on their local amenity. That point was eloquently explained by my right hon. Friend and it is why solar developments of all sizes are subject to robust planning controls to protect local communities and the environment.

My right hon. Friend will understand that given the Department’s statutory responsibility for determining individual planning applications for energy projects, Ministers are unable to comment on the specifics of individual applications. I can set out, however, how the planning controls work for solar in general terms.

Planning applications for projects up to 50 MW capacity in England are determined by local planning authorities. Most solar projects in England fall into that category. Local authorities will consider a range of factors when assessing applications, including environmental impacts. Projects up to 350 MW in Wales are devolved and decisions are made either by local authorities or the Welsh Government. Planning in Scotland and Northern Ireland is fully devolved.

For projects over 50 MW in England and over 350 MW in Wales, planning decisions are made by the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero through the NSIP—nationally significant infrastructure project—regime, which allows for rigorous scrutiny of such projects.

The planning system sets out how decision makers should consider the impacts on local communities and amenities, particularly where a number of solar projects are deployed in close proximity. If designed carefully, the visual impact of a well-planned and well-screened solar project can be properly addressed within the landscape. Under local and NSIP planning systems, developers must complete considerable community engagement as part of the application process. Members of the public can submit their views to the planning authorities and significant concerns will be taken into account as part of the local decision-making process.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Conservative, Haltemprice and Howden

My hon. Friend used the phrase “if designed carefully”. It is not possible to design carefully a 3,000-acre site that surrounds four or five villages. By definition, that will cause a massive assault on the amenity of individuals living in that area.

Photo of Amanda Solloway Amanda Solloway Government Whip, Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention; I have taken note of it and will report it back to the relevant Minister.

For NSIP projects, communities can participate in the formal examination process run by the Planning Inspectorate. That gives communities the opportunity to make their views known on and influence projects before decisions are taken.

All large solar developers must complete an environmental statement for any application—

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Conservative, West Suffolk

I am grateful. Does that mean that if a solar farm project is not well designed, it will not be passed? The Sunnica proposal in my West Suffolk constituency is very badly designed. It looks completely nuts from first principles because it is all over the place and around these villages. It damages the amenity of Newmarket and its globally significant racing industry. Nobody could argue that it is well designed, so will she confirm that that should be at the forefront of the Minister’s mind when the statutory decision is taken?

Photo of Amanda Solloway Amanda Solloway Government Whip, Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

I thank my right hon. Friend for the question. He will understand that I do not know the “nuts” project that he is talking about, but again, I will pass that on to the relevant Minister.

All large solar developments must complete an environmental statement, as I was saying. Decision makers will consider a range of factors, such as whether the project proposal allows for continued agricultural use where relevant or encourages biodiversity improvements around the proposed site. Solar farms are temporary in nature and most solar panel components and equipment can be recycled.

Photo of Robert Courts Robert Courts Conservative, Witney

I will be quick. The Minister says solar farms are designed to be temporary in nature, but in the case of the Botley West solar farm, the proposal is for about 40 years. That is not temporary but long term, and is it not the case that those areas will never be the same again?

Photo of Amanda Solloway Amanda Solloway Government Whip, Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

Again, with my hon. Friend’s permission, I will take that point back to the relevant Minister and get back to him with an answer. I am aware that I only have a few minutes left, so with your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will continue.

Solar projects and agricultural practice can co-exist. Many solar projects are designed to enable continued livestock grazing. There is also a science of agrivoltaics developing, in which solar is integrated with arable farming in innovative ways. Solar energy can be an important way for farmers to increase their revenue from land less suited to higher-value crop production. There is also evidence that solar can improve biodiversity where it is installed on agricultural land.

Protecting our environment, backing British farmers and delivering long-term energy security with more low-carbon energy are all at the heart of His Majesty’s Government’s manifesto. It is possible to maintain and increase our food production in a more sustainable way in some areas, and to see land use change occur in others.

Striking the right balance between different land uses is a challenging task and will involve trade-offs. There are many uses of our land that we need to anticipate for the future, such as growing food, hosting low-carbon energy projects, planting trees, building homes, natural habitats, land for infrastructure, and leisure and recreation. In the Government’s food strategy we committed to publish a land use framework for England in 2023, which will help to inform how we manage those trade-offs. In terms of the safety of these systems, when installed, maintained and decommissioned correctly, electricity storage poses minimal risks.

To conclude, solar is a UK success story. Over 99% of the UK’s solar capacity has been deployed since 2010. The technology’s flexibility, low costs and rapid deployment can help us to reach our challenging net zero targets, strengthen our energy security, and bring new green jobs and economic growth. It is clear that that growth must be sustained and enabled by a robust planning system that balances those wider benefits against the local impacts.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.