Before the debate starts, there are quite a lot of speakers. We have had great co-operation from both Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople, who have kindly agreed not to take their allocated 10 minutes. If you are on the list to speak, I urge you, but I cannot force you, to be restrained in making interventions. We will start with a four minute time limit, but if that proves to be too long I will have to drop it.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered large solar farms.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I thank colleagues from across the House who are attending this debate, many of whom will be highlighting issues around large solar farms in their own constituencies. I thank the Minister for attending and all those watching at home on Parliament TV.
I will briefly outline the planning process for solar farms. Solar photovoltaic panels, known as solar panels, generate electricity from the sun, and large-scale solar installations are known as solar farms. Planning is a devolved issue, but energy plants that generate more than 100 MW for offshore and 50 MW for onshore generation are treated as nationally significant infrastructure projects and a development consent order must be sought from the Secretary of State for them; solar farms that generate power below that threshold require planning permission only from the local planning authority.
The national planning policy framework provides the framework in which local planning authorities draw up local plans and determine planning applications, and encourages them to promote renewable development and identify appropriate sites for it. The goal, which is admirable, is to meet the challenges of climate change, flooding and coastal change, including our transition to a low-carbon future.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this incredibly important debate and on his excellent speech so far. Does he agree that his assessment of the planning situation so far is the core of the issue? While we all accept that net zero is an important goal and the need for many farmers to find extra subsidies, the problem with the planning framework as it stands is that many large solar farms are being put up that generate just under the 50 MW limit, so they do not require an environmental impact assessment or the level of community input that they so deserve. Does he agree that that would be a welcome addition to the national planning policy framework that the Minister should consider?
I thank the hon. Member for her input. I agree that it is extremely important that we move on and invest in renewables, but having community input and ensuring that we choose the right sites, that people have been consulted properly and that the planning process works for everybody, is incredibly important. That is the key issue. Few people are against renewable energy, and solar farms in general are not the issue; it is very much a planning issue of getting things in the right place at the right time.
There is another point, too. Recent events in particular have shown us that we need more security, including food security, but these solar farms are often sited on grade 1 or grade 2 agricultural land, which should be used for food production. Does my hon. Friend agree that the production of energy should be as close to its consumption as possible, to minimise transmission and distribution costs? Until we have solar on every large building, there should be none in fields at all.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. The threat to agricultural land is the crux of the problem, certainly in my own constituency, as I will describe a little later. With the situation in Ukraine at the moment, we have to look to our wheat supplies, and we want to source more of our food locally, because that contributes to reaching net zero, which is important too. Getting that balance right and making sure that we do not throw the baby out with bath water, so to speak, as we move forward is key. Of course, solar needs to be used in a mix with many other energy sources, so that we have a secure supply of energy, bring less of it from abroad and generate more of our own. I very much agree with my right hon. Friend.
The planning practice guidance provides more detail on renewable and low-carbon energy. It notes that
“large-scale solar farms can have a negative impact on the rural environment, particularly in undulating landscapes. However, the visual impact of a well-planned and well-screened solar farm can be properly addressed within the landscape if planned sensitively.”
That is key. The guidance also states that solar farms should be focused on
“previously developed and non-agricultural land…that it is not of high environmental value”,
as my right hon. Friend just mentioned.
The Planning Act 2008 introduced a new consent process for nationally significant infrastructure projects in order to speed up the approval process, especially for large-scale developments. A development consent order removes the need to obtain several of the consents that would have otherwise been required, including planning permission, compulsory purchase order and the like, with the idea of speeding up the process that we had before. Applications for DCOs are decided in accordance with national policy statements. In the absence of one, the Secretary of State has the power to make a decision. Although the current NPS argues for more renewable energy, it does not explicitly mention solar energy. However, a revised version is currently being considered, and an inquiry has been undertaken by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. The revised draft suggests guiding development away from the “best and most fertile” agricultural land and, where possible, utilising developed brownfield sites, contaminated land, industrial land or agricultural land that is preferably classification 3b, 4 or 5 rather than 1 or 2. Of course, we want to extend that to the underground cabling and access routes that will also be required with such developments. As Bassetlaw has been badly hit by flooding in the past, my constituents would add to the revised draft a requirement to make any development safe without increasing flood risks elsewhere.
Solar installations greater than 5 MW can also bid for competitive Government funding through contracts for difference, and installations up to that level can receive payments from energy companies for the electricity that they export to the grid through the Government-backed smart export guarantee. The energy White Paper refers to solar and wind, including unsubsidised rooftop solar, as part of a low-cost approach to energy generation. It also mentions green skills boot camps, including for solar.
Although many people agree that we need to further increase the supply of green energy, significant concerns have been raised by constituents in Bassetlaw about proposals put forward by West Burton Solar Project Ltd and developed by Island Green Power. They have submitted plans to build a 600-acre solar farm and energy storage infrastructure, which will be one of the largest single solar farm sites in the UK. Many believe that it is disproportionate and not appropriate. The site abuts two special conservation villages, Clayworth and Gringley on the Hill, and many people would emphasise the local landscape, which is rich in wildlife such as badgers, brown hare, deer and a vast array of farm birds, which has been enjoyed for generations. There are also related plans to develop several sites across the border in Lincolnshire, which I am sure we will hear about later.
Many people find it very strange that although they are unable to have solar panels on their roofs because they live in conservation areas, they now face the prospect of a large solar farm effectively connecting both villages. The installation would be visually intrusive for miles around, and any screening would therefore provide very little improvement. I have raised some concerns about the loss of countryside, the environmental impact and the flood risk, and there is also the issue of the water management system in Clayworth, which is a concern for us.
In contrast to similar projects that Members have raised, greenfield developments are supposed to be targeted at poor-quality farmland. From the feedback we have received, it is vital that we retain our countryside for the benefit of those who live there and that we make sure it continues to work for us.
I am sorry to intervene on my hon. Friend again—I know that time is pressing. None the less, he may know that the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities—and more or less everything else—has made it absolutely clear that beauty should be at the heart of the planning process. Indeed, the planning process was altered by his predecessor and has been confirmed by him to do just that. No solar park of the kind my hon. Friend is describing or industrial wind turbine placed in the middle of the countryside could pass any test of beauty, except the most perverse and corrupted one.
I thank my right hon. Friend again. That is certainly an issue in our green and pleasant land. That is why I find it encouraging that there has been a move to utilising brownfield sites, not just for energy, but for housing and so on, making sure we make full use of brownfield sites before we look at our green fields and develop for the sake of developing.
Feedback from the consultants for Island Green Power claims that the soil quality is grade 3b, which would open it up to the process we have described. There are several questions about that given the high-yield crops that are grown there, including potatoes, which only grow in higher quality soils. We have already mentioned food security and energy. There is a lot of scepticism about the soil quality analysis, which is arguable, and I understand that Bassetlaw District Council is carrying out its own analysis. We need to grow more of our own food locally, not only to cut carbon emissions, but to mitigate wider problems such as the soaring price of wheat resulting from the situation in Ukraine, which is a particular concern at the moment.
I thank my constituents, including the “No Solar Desert” campaign group, who have worked hard to bring the issue to public attention and to engage thoughtfully. I had the pleasure of attending their coffee morning last week. Many are watching the debate today. It is worth emphasising some arguments made about the plans, and why local people believe the proposed site is not suitable.
The site does not meet many of Island Green Power’s selection criteria. It is not low-grade agricultural land or a brownfield site. It is near protected areas, such as the Idle Valley nature reserve. It is not flat or south-facing, and it is not near a viable grid connection, which creates another issue. Questions therefore remain about the efficiency of solar panels on this site, with some estimating it could be a low as 27%. I want to use this opportunity to throw in a reference from “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”—I do so regularly, as a Nottinghamshire MP:
“Is there no sun in this cursed country?”
There is, but in many cases there is not enough of it— we could all do with a little sunshine now—and perhaps this site is not the best place to utilise the sunshine most effectively.
Island Green Power is a UK-based developer that specialises in large-scale developments. It has developed projects in Australia, Ireland and so on. It has signed an options agreement with the Henry Smith Charity to explore the potential of the 600-acre site between Clayworth and Gringley—a huge development. I thank Island Green Power for its engagement with me on the issue, which I look forward to continuing. The Henry Smith Charity, which owns the site and other land in the area, along with several properties, has an option agreement with Island Green Power. It is a charitable trust—one of the biggest grant givers in the country—with assets of around £1 billion, and this is one of its investments. The charity is governed by a board of trustees appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. I know that many have a desire to protect the British countryside. I encourage them to engage with me and my constituents on this issue, which has not happened so far.
We must not reach a situation where we have a wild-west style gold rush, with developers looking to increase the value of their land and their financial gains—
Ynys Môn is known as energy island, as we have wind, wave, tidal, hydrogen, solar and, I hope, nuclear energy, if I have anything to do with it. My hon. Friend has spoken eloquently about the need for balance and that we are addressing efficiencies. Could he reflect on the number of jobs that solar energy creates locally?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising one of the key points. Solar is important as part of our mix, as are the other forms of energy that she mentioned. I certainly welcome the huge range of energy sources, which I know my hon. Friend campaigned hard for in Ynys Môn. The only thing that I would say to people around the country is, “Please stay away from the fusion project,” because that will happen in Bassetlaw, ideally.
The Government have made an admirable push towards renewables, but we do not want areas that would previously have been off-limits to be taken advantage of. We must cut that off at the pass. Many have also mentioned things such as greenwashing, and have rightly questioned where there is actually any local benefit to some of the schemes.
I believe that sensitive planning has an important role to play in addressing the visual impact of solar farms and, more widely, in the development of low-carbon infrastructure. It should include consideration of the character and beauty of the countryside, and whether the land is best used for solar or agricultural purposes. Thank you, Sir Charles. I look forward to hearing the contributions from colleagues in today’s debate.
Thank you very much, Sir Charles. It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend from across the House, Brendan Clarke-Smith, as a co-sponsor of the debate. I thank him for introducing this important subject so well. Principally, it is about large solar farms here on the British mainland, but we have similar issues challenging us in Northern Ireland. I am all for harvesting our natural resources for energy, but that policy must be consistent with others. We cannot just have carte blanche for one of them.
I will make six points, very briefly. First, solar cannot deliver power output value for land use. Secondly, large-scale solar is useless without battery energy storage plants, which can pose inherent dangers to human health and the environment. Thirdly, large-scale solar developments are a poor use of valuable agricultural land.
Fourthly, there are human rights abuses in the solar supply chain, and the UK taking economic advantage and benefit from those abuses should be called out and challenged. Fifthly, the use of coal-powered electricity in the solar panel supply chain means that we reduce our carbon footprint here at the expense of somewhere else. That is not right. Finally, there is a lack of consideration of end of life recycling of solar panels, or of those subject to being upgraded. That should also be examined.
I will focus on only three of those matters, which you will appreciate, Sir Charles. The first is the value for land use. Take, for example, Sunnica’s proposed solar development in Cambridgeshire. Sunnica claims that it will be a 500 MW solar power station, delivering 23.5 million MWh over 40 years, and it will occupy 11 sq km of valuable arable land. That is impressive. However, when you break down the facts, per year that is 588,000 MWh, which, when divided by 8,760 hours per year, is only 67.2 MW, not 500 MW. That is an important distinction because 67.2 MW is less than one seventh of the rated power of the scheme.
The Sunnica scheme is largely in my West Suffolk constituency, as well as in east Cambridgeshire; it is across the boundary. The hon. Member is quite right to draw attention to that point, but will he comment on the fact that the biggest generator of energy in the proposed scheme is a battery farm rather than a solar farm? It seems absurd that the two must be lumped together. One might almost argue that Sunnica has put a smaller solar farm on a battery project to try to build a battery farm in the middle of the Suffolk countryside.
I think that the right hon. Member has just put his finger on a very important point. That was flagged up in some of our constituencies in Northern Ireland, where it is used as cover for other applications and other things.
The Sunnica solar power station that has been applied for will take up 600 times more land to deliver the same average power as the local gas power station, so the land use is not good value for money. Those figures encapsulate just how problematic it is to expect any significant power from large solar farms.
The second issue I want to touch on briefly is that large-scale solar developments are a poor use of valuable land. In Ukraine, vast harvests of grain are gathered each year, but it is very unlikely there will be a planting season this year because of the war, and there will certainly be a very narrow harvest period at the end of this year. We get some of our grain from there; it is a bread basket for part of the world. As our country did in the last great war, we need to start setting aside vast swathes of our arable countryside and insist that we become food secure and grow our own food. I am very proud of Northern Ireland food production. With fewer than 40,000 farmers, we feed more than 10 million people in the UK. We have to multiply, develop and increase that.
It is essential that we address the key issue of allowing developers to get away with putting vast industrial plants on good, grade 1, arable land that we could grow grain on, or have cattle graze on, to develop our food security. For me, that is an essential point. The war that Russia is illegally conducting in Ukraine should be a warning signal to us all. We should get ahead of that now by ensuring we have the land planted for next year’s harvest, which is a very important point.
Finally, I want to make a point about human rights abuses. A 2021 report by the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice at Sheffield Hallam University, entitled “In Broad Daylight: Uyghur Forced Labour and Global Solar Supply Chains”, concluded that the solar panel industry in China has high exposure to supply chain compromise by human rights abuses—in other words, child labour and abuse of people working in those plants. We are buying plant equipment to put in this part of the UK, but allowing the abuse of people’s rights in China to do it. We should not allow China, which now dominates the world in these markets, to dominate our valuable production of—
Order. The hon. Gentleman went more than 30 seconds over. I tolerated it from him because of the issue he was discussing, but I will not tolerate it from any other colleagues. The clock is the clock. I call Alicia Kearns.
I thank my hon. Friend Brendan Clarke-Smith for allowing me to co-sponsor this important debate. I am a big advocate of green, clean, renewable energy, and a member of the Conservative Environment Network. I find myself at a difficult crossroads. The people of Rutland want to play our part but are faced with an impossible situation, where our heartfelt determination to go green is being attacked by egregious, cynical and unacceptable proposals that would destroy England’s smallest county.
The current system for nationally significant infrastructure projects bypasses the will of communities. It creates a loophole that gags them, and goes against the Conservative mantra of community ownership and pride of place. This is not a fair situation. We need to take steps to ensure that NSI projects and planning rules are not hijacked into becoming a fast-stream planning approval conveyor belt for big developers. That is why NSI programmes can no longer be assessed on an individual basis but as part of a national solar plan.
In Rutland, we are facing the imposition across Rutland and Lincolnshire, on which my neighbour and right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh will speak in a moment, of a solar plant of 2,175 acres. That is 1,400 football pitches—eight times larger than the current biggest solar plant in the country, and bigger than Monaco or the Vatican. I have already made my opposition to that very clear and I plan to fight it, because I will not see that imposed on England’s greatest, smallest and most beautiful county.
I want to touch on Uyghur blood labour and will make two key points, because I think many others will cover agriculture and biodiversity. The Sheffield Hallam report, mentioned earlier, was an in-depth investigation into supply chain links between solar and forced labour in Xinjiang. As we know, the primary material for solar panels and modules is polysilicon: 45% of the world’s polysilicon is produced in Xinjiang. Mallard Pass solar plant is the best example of that. Canadian Solar are a company who are seeking to infiltrate our country with Uyghur blood labour. They are the company proposing to build in Rutland.
Despite their name, Canadian Solar are a de facto Chinese company. The vast majority of their production is in China, with only two small manufacturing facilities in Canada. Their founder, Shawn Qu, lives in China. Since 2019, they have had a supply contract with a company called GCL-Poly, who operate a production facility for solar cells in Jiangsu. But who are GCL-Poly? They are one of the four largest producers of polysilicon in China. An investigation into GCL determined that they actively participate
“in the resettlement of ethnic Uyghurs from…areas of Xinjiang”,
“contribute to and implement re-education programs that impose political and military training on resettled populations.”
They are putting Uyghur people into concentration camps and using them to build solar panels, and I will not see those imposed on Rutland.
The US Government have already seized four shipments from Canadian Solar due to their supply chain links with blood labour and genocide. I call on the Government to sanction Canadian Solar and their supplier GCL-Poly, and absolutely not allow them to build in Rutland. As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and as a member of the British public, I do not expect to see blood labour on our soil.
I will not touch on the biodiversity and agriculture points, which will be well made by many colleagues, but that is good agricultural land, graded 2 and 3, and Rutland is the bird capital of the UK, with ospreys, ground-nesting quails, red kites, buzzards and so on.
I thank the Mallard Pass Action Group for all the work that it has done, and I promise the Minister that we will deliver a petition to Parliament that makes clear the opposition from across Rutland. Ultimately, we need a national policy on solar farms. We cannot see this constant competition for the biggest possible solar plant being imposed all across the UK. We need to make sure that we do not have tainted supply chains, and we must protect our natural environment and our ability to feed our people. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw again for calling this important debate.
It is important that we are aware where companies operate in this country that use absolutely unacceptable labour practices in foreign lands, so I echo what Alicia Kearns said about the investigation into Canadian Solar, if what she says is true, but nobody in this Chamber will be surprised that I am going to make a strong case for solar.
Global gas prices are soaring to the point where many more families will struggle to heat their homes. We obviously need to wean ourselves off Russian oil and gas, but we need to wean ourselves off all oil and gas. Now is the time for a green energy revolution. Solar farms are an integral part of the UK’s bid to get to net zero and to reduce our reliance on oil and gas, yet there are many myths around solar. The first is that solar is expensive, but that is not true. Solar is the most affordable energy in history, according to the International Energy Agency, and the most affordable energy source in the UK. It is efficient and reliable.
Since 2010, the cost of solar panels has plummeted by 60%. At the same time they have become much more efficient, meaning that solar is a very effective way of reducing spending on energy costs. In 2021, solar provided almost 5% of the UK’s total electricity supply, but there is plenty of room for growth. All UK solar markets are subsidy-free. If the UK can achieve 40 GW of solar capacity by 2030, solar could meet 15% of the UK’s power needs.
Some Members today have outlined their concerns about the environment. In fact, studies indicate that solar farms can be used to boost biodiversity, improve land quality and promote the growth of pollinating species. Under the Environment Act 2021, all new developments are required to demonstrate a biodiversity net gain, and solar farms are no exception. They often go above and beyond that requirement, typically showing a biodiversity net gain of 20% to over 100%.
In terms of community support, polling shows that there is the strongest support for solar farms—over 50%—from those living closest to them, and that those living near them become more supportive over time. Once people have a solar farm in their community, they know what they get and they are supportive.
Solar projects deliver a range of benefits to their local communities, and I pay tribute to Bath and West Community Energy in my constituency, who have used their community fund to provide grants for other environmental projects in the local area. I urge the Government to review and revise Ofgem’s strategy and policy statement as a matter of urgency. The net zero target must become mandatory. It will unlock the potential investment in urgently-needed grid capacity. One of the largest constraints on solar is grid capacity. Every DNO region in the country is affected. Solar Energy UK has identified at least 45 solar projects, equating to over 40 GW of generation capacity and £1.6 billion in capital investment, that are being blocked by a lack of grid infrastructure. Many of those projects accepted offers to connect this year or next, but are now being told that they will not be able to connect until the end of this decade. That is not acceptable. The problem will get worse before it gets better.
We have the capacity to be a world leader in renewable energy, with the right political will. Now is the time for our green energy revolution. There should not be blockage but further support from the Government for the solar energy sector.
It is an honour to take part in this debate introduced by my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend Brendan Clarke-Smith. He was talking about the solar farm application in his constituency. That runs over the River Trent into my constituency of Gainsborough, and Gainsborough is going to be ringed by a solar farm of no less than the equivalent of 4,000 football pitches. It is a huge development. Wera Hobhouse represents a lovely city surrounded by beautiful green countryside; I suspect her attitude might be quite different if somebody proposed a solar farm of 4,000 football pitches in the countryside around Bath.
I personally believe that this is, in a way, a cheat on the planning system. The applicants accumulate land just to get it over a certain acreage, so that it becomes a nationally significant infrastructure project and bypasses the local planning process. Nobody is against solar farms because they are against solar farms. The point we are making is that we want a proper planning process and we want local people to be involved. We fear that this will go straight to a Government inspector, who will be working towards national guidelines to create more solar energy, and our concerns will be overridden.
Surely, West Lindsey District Council, representing the good people of the part of Lincolnshire that I represent, should have a right to have its say, and its say should be enforceable. I have done quite a lot of travelling around the proposed site. There could be mitigation in terms of landscaping and the growing of woodland, hedges and so on, but we want to be absolutely assured that that will take place.
“The Government recognise the importance of preserving the most productive farmland. Planning guidance is clear: where possible, large solar farms should use previously developed land, and projects should be designed to avoid, mitigate, and where necessary compensate for impact.”—[Official Report,
That was an impressive answer. I ask the Minister who will reply to this debate, given that wheat prices are going through the roof and that there will be severe constraints on food supplies and wheat production, why are we taking good agricultural land? Why is that in the national interest? Dare I say, before we are too introspective and just talk about ourselves and our interests, that countries like Lebanon and Egypt are almost wholly reliant on Ukrainian wheat. That gives us even more responsibility to plan not just for our own food supplies, but for other parts of the world.
My main point is this. We want a properly enforceable planning process so that we can get real mitigation. We want to be assured by the Minister that when it comes to applications for solar farms, he will agree with his right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham and we will avoid taking good agricultural land and will try to put these developments on brownfield sites. The point made earlier that this is really an opportunity to create a battery farm is very apposite. We are littering the Lincolnshire countryside with not just a solar farm but a battery farm. It is simply not acceptable.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Walker. I thank Brendan Clarke-Smith for setting the scene so well. It is great to be here to discuss the potential ways that we can advance our solar energy. Although planning provisions are different in the devolved nations, as the hon. Gentleman said, the benefits and the issues surrounding solar farms remain the same. There is much discussion on ways in which we can advance our solar power system with the goal of transitioning to a low-carbon future.
In addition, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has, as others have said, damaged our fuel provision even further. The impacts are being felt throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, forcing us into self-sufficiency. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has made solar energy a priority. Through our solar farms, we must put more preparations in place for the future, although some elements of planning by devolved nations are needed to approve them.
The Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Neil Parish, who was at this morning’s meeting of the eggs, pigs and poultry all-party parliamentary group, made an interesting point in his contribution. According to others in the sector, that becomes a real issue. Sir Edward Leigh mentioned the price of feedstuffs for cattle and sheep. They can graze for eight months of the year, but for eggs, pigs and poultry, I am afraid it is very different. The price of feedstuffs for the coming year could go through the roof. Some of the other producers who were at the meeting—the pig producers and the poultry men in particular—were telling me that Spain gets 70% of its grain from Ukraine. That will put pressure on everyone else, so we must consider what we can do differently.
Northern Ireland has installed photovoltaic power on a wide range of farms over the last four years. In addition, the businesses of my Strangford constituency have been working actively to distribute more solar farming materials to companies. Just up the road from me in Carrowdore, a local farm produces the vast majority of its electricity through solar energy. Areas such as Comber and Killinchy, which are also in Strangford, also use solar panels for sustainable electricity purposes. Northern Ireland’s most notable solar farm would be that of Belfast International airport, which, in its first 10 months of usage, saved the airport more than £100,000. Some 27% of the airport’s electricity, in cost terms, came from solar farm panels, which highlights that despite the cost, they are a worthwhile investment. Solar energy cannot be ignored.
At the same time, I recognise, like my hon. Friend Ian Paisley, that there are concerns about the installation of solar farms. As someone who lives in a rural area and on a farm, I want assurances—as do my constituents—that risk assessments are undertaken for solar farms. The national planning framework encourages the promotion of renewable energy and identifies appropriate sites. It aims to assess the sites for risks, such as those posed by climate change, coastal change, flooding and soil. Planning systems should support the transition to a low-carbon future, and will identify probable and possible risks, while increasing plans for the use of sustainable energy.
I put this question to the Minister. Flood-risk consultants have concluded that there is cause for concern in relation to solar farms and flooding, including the location of solar panels, the location of inverters within the flood plain, and the increase of impermeable surfaces. In addition, flooding can also cause some interference. The most common risk is the reflection of the panels, which means that 100% absorption from the sun is not always possible.
With all those things in mind, we need to focus on the use of non-agricultural land. We should not use agricultural land, which will become more important to us in the next 12 months and in the years to come. To conclude, I believe that there must be greater provision for solar energy throughout the UK, but at the same time we must take into account the concerns of the agriculture sector, and I declare an interest as a farmer and a landlord.
I stand as an avowedly pro-solar politician. Indeed, I was the Energy Minister. I am very proud that 99% of the solar on the roofs of houses and buildings in this country has been put on those roofs since 2010. I have supported solar scheme after solar scheme in my constituency, including in Wickhambrook—close to my own house—and elsewhere. The case that I will make today is that solar must be in the right place, with the right engagement and the right technology, and the proposal for the largest solar farm in the country, at 2,500 acres, affecting 16 parishes across east Cambridgeshire and West Suffolk, undermines local support.
There has been much discussion of the food security issue, so I will not go into that detail, but I will make three critical points in the time available to me. First, why is there no requirement for an independent, whole-life carbon assessment to be carried out for all developments? The advice that I have received is that the Sunnica proposal will have a net-positive carbon impact over its lifetime, which would make a mockery of the net zero ambitions and the importance of tackling climate change.
The second point is about battery safety. Although the energy farm will cover 2,500 acres, a very significant chunk of the energy—a much bigger chunk than the solar energy generated—will be from a battery farm. We may need battery farms, but they should be in the right place—they should not be in the middle of the countryside. Furthermore, there are significant safety issues. I was sceptical of the arguments about safety issues until I looked into them in detail; there have been 38 fires at battery energy storage systems across the world in the last three years. There was one in Liverpool in September 2020, and the report into that fire still has not been released. There is a suspicion—and I understand and share this suspicion—that it has not been released because it demonstrates that very large battery installations are inherently dangerous. The battery technology means that water cannot be used to put out fires. As the fire authorities say, once one of those fires starts, there is nothing that can be done to stop it except wait and hope that it does not lead to toxic fumes. In areas of my constituency downwind of this proposed development, there are large areas of homes, such as Red Lodge, where this is a very significant problem.
The final point I will make is about process. The developers are being allowed to pick and choose how they get their developments through; there is minimal public engagement. Sunnica has refused to meet me; it has refused to attend any public meetings. It has had next to no engagement. It has not, as far as I know, set foot in the villages and towns affected to answer residents’ questions since July 2019. As a supporter of solar, I find that the proposal, which will affect areas in and close to my constituency, is actively undermining local support for solar energy. It should be stopped and sent straight back to the drawing board, so that we can have a reasonable conversation about where solar will be welcomed locally. We can put the battery technology where it ought to be—in an industrial area—and we can make sure that we bring the community together with us in support of vital renewable technologies, rather than trying to ram projects through against the wishes of local people.
I want to talk about the proposal to build a 77-acre solar farm off Dolly Lane, near the villages of Buxworth and Furness Vale. The site sits entirely within the green belt and is adjacent to the Peak District national park. It is on the back slope of Chinley Churn, which is best known for its dramatic quarried face, known as Cracken Edge. It is an iconic landscape not just for Chinley, but the whole Peak district. I am a keen walker and it is one of my favourite routes, especially if I can find a way to end the walk at one of the brilliant local pubs, such as The Lamb on Hayfield Road or the Old Hall Inn in Whitehough.
I will come on to my concerns about the proposed solar farm, but before I do, I want to be very clear that I am not a net zero sceptic. Climate change is the greatest long-term challenge we face globally, and I am fully committed to fighting it. I am an enthusiastic supporter of renewable energy. The events in Ukraine in recent weeks, and the subsequent spike in wholesale oil and gas prices, demonstrate the importance of energy security. Clearly, we need to end our reliance on global fossil fuel prices and transition to clean renewable energy sources. We have made very good progress over the last decade, particularly on off-shore wind. The Government are also rightly pushing ahead with modular nuclear reactors. Solar should be a key part of that strategy. However, I have a number of concerns about the proposals on Chinley Churn.
Unlike most proposed solar farms, which sit on relatively low-lying flat sites, this one would sit on the slope of Chinley Churn, in a very elevated position, completely changing the iconic Peak district landscape for miles around. The site would be visible from thousands of homes, particularly those in Furness Vale and New Mills. It would also have significant impact on local wildlife. The Peak District National Park Authority has already made it clear that it is opposed—with good reason. The Peak district is a special place; it is the home of the Kinder trespass, and the first ever national park. We have a responsibility to conserve it for future generations. It is also doubtful that the solar farm would generate enough energy to be economical. High Peak is a very beautiful part of the world, but we are not blessed with an abundance of sunshine.
A full planning application has not yet been submitted, but Kronos Solar has applied for an environmental impact assessment. I understand that it is also in pre-application discussions with High Peak Borough Council. Government guidance encourages local planning authorities to prioritise developed and non-agricultural land for large-scale solar farm developments, so long as the land is not of high environmental value. The national planning policy framework is also clear that when
“located in the Green Belt, elements of many renewable energy projects will comprise inappropriate development.”
Projects can proceed only in “very special circumstances”, which may include
“the wider environmental benefits associated with increased production of energy from renewable sources”,
but the proposal by Kronos Solar for a 77-acre solar farm on the back slope of Chinley Churn in the heart of the Peak district simply does not match those criteria. The cost of development to our local environment will be simply too high.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Brendan Clarke-Smith on calling this debate. For me, the debate is not about whether we need to diversify our energy supplies; of course we do. I want us to reduce our dependence on foreign energy, and to do that, we need renewable infrastructure. For me, it is not about “whether”, but about “how”—how we achieve our energy ambitions in a way that is fair and proportionate and has the support of our constituents, and how we build our renewable energy infrastructure in a way that does not harm the beautiful nature that surrounds us, the farmland that feeds us and the communities that bind us together.
It is a great pleasure to be joined by two right hon. Friends from Lincolnshire: my right hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), and for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes). Lincolnshire has very flat land. It also has a large number of applications pending across the county. Some of the proposed developments are small, but some are extremely large. There is one in particular that I want to mention today: Mallard Pass, which my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns mentioned. It involves 2,170-odd acres of development land. This is obviously causing tremendous concern to local people.
I want to use the limited time that I have to put on record my thanks to the Mallard Pass Action Group: Keith Busfield, Sue and all the other campaigners, who have put forward to the developer extremely reasonable points, including on the impact on the local ecology and the biodiversity of the site; the loss of agricultural land for 40 years while it is covered in solar panels and the national implications that that might have for food production; and the implications that drawing power from the solar farm will have for energy storage and large lithium battery facilities.
As the local MP, I have taken these concerns of thousands of residents and put them to the developers, and I have to say that the response has been unconvincing. They have done little to directly address the concerns of my constituents, and they are relying on statutory requirements to take measures that would be undertaken regardless of whether there was local concern. The promise that the issues that have been raised will be considered as part of the development consent order submission means little, as that is the final stage of the planning process.
I suggest three things. First, we need to ensure that the Planning Inspectorate fully takes into consideration the concerns of local residents. The fact that all consultations are run by the developers leaves local people disillusioned about their effectiveness. Secondly, it is critical that we have, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton said, a national strategy for solar farms. It must encompass both nationally significant and locally approved applications in order to ensure that counties such as Lincolnshire are not dominated by significant developments and small developments that add up to complete domination by solar farms across the county. Above all—I say this to anybody listening in the Grantham and Stamford constituency today—I want you to have a voice, so when there is a consultation, please let your voice be heard. Be part of it; contribute to any consultation; and have your say, because if you do not put your views forward, that makes it a lot harder for MPs like me in debates like this.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank my hon. Friend Brendan Clarke-Smith for bringing it to the House. I concur with him: if we can get fusion right and roll it out economically, that will very much be our energy future.
Sir Charles, you would expect me to talk a little about food security. That issue is being highlighted now. Given the terrible situation with the Russians invading Ukraine and all the destruction going on, not much food will be produced in that breadbasket of the world. We need to stand up to that and produce food and wheat; we can do it. We need to produce poultry and pigs, which need grain. We need this land for grain and food production, so that we can produce really good food and ensure high-quality welfare. Let us ensure that we keep land for food production.
By its very nature, land is finite. At the moment, it is being asked to produce food; however, we are also asking for greater biodiversity, which is highly laudable and right to do, but as we aim for greater biodiversity and more environmental schemes, we will see a reduction in production of food. We do not want to couple that with large solar farms.
We all believe that solar panels have a role to play, and that they produce good-quality electricity, but I would like us to go back to having feed-in tariffs for people’s homes. It does not have to be as high a tariff as it was, because solar panels are very competitively and narrowly priced. Only about 4% of houses have them. Residents in houses that have them love to see the energy coming in and the meter going round, especially when they have high energy bills, as they are being paid for that electricity, rather than paying out for it. This very much involves individual house owners and tenants, and keeps our energy costs down.
From an infrastructure point of view, Western Power Distribution and others have a great deal of difficulty in wiring up and connecting large solar farms. Solar power should therefore be spread across the community, and should be generated on brownfield sites and in industrial buildings. How many industrial buildings do we have in this country? Very few have solar panels on them. We can have both industrial buildings and solar panels, but we must not keep putting the panels on land. We have an opportunity with these large farms.
Another large solar farm of some 200 acres has been proposed near Cullompton. The south-west is God’s own country because of the light, and that makes it popular for solar panels. We have an awful lot of solar panels in Devon and across the west country; we have had our fair share of them. The community needs to be involved when more are proposed.
Solar farms are not beautiful and have industrial-style fencing around them. Why do people come to many of our great constituencies? Because they are beautiful. Tourist love to come to them, but I promise that they do not come looking for solar or wind farms. They come looking for beautiful cattle and sheep grazing peacefully in our countryside. We must be careful how we deal with the situation. As I have emphasised, we are asking our farmers, our landowners and those looking after our countryside to do so much for the environment. We can have energy, but for goodness sake let us put the panels on people’s homes and industrial sites, and not on more good, agricultural land.
I am grateful for your indulgence, Sir Charles, and I will speak briefly as a former energy Minister. Before I do so, I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests.
The point that my hon. Friend Neil Parish made at the end of his speech is the first salient point that I want to amplify, and that is that of course there is an argument for renewables. It is not an a priori argument, by the way; it has to be legitimised by renewables’ efficiency, their ability to supply productive energy, and by the goods and virtues they displace. Every kind of energy production needs to be measured against those kind of criteria, as does every specific proposal.
There is a case for renewables in an energy mix—an energy mix that allows us to deal with our environmental footprint, as it is known in the modern idiom; that can guarantee steady supply; and that provides the flexibility necessary to ensure that we can deal with the peaks and troughs of demand. But renewables should be measured by their cost effectiveness, too. The point made by Ian Paisley about the cost-effectiveness of solar was one that I identified when I was energy Minister, before my right hon. Friend Matt Hancock did the job.
It is critical that energy supply be placed as close as possible to areas of demand. It is absolutely right that we should populate industrial, commercial and domestic buildings with solar panels long before we consider putting them in fields, which are remote from demand and entail all the transmission costs I mentioned.
My second point is about food security, which I mentioned at the outset of the debate and has been raised several times since. It is vital that we protect grade 1 and 2 agricultural land, such as the land in Lincolnshire that is now being suggested for these very large-scale solar parks. They are not being suggested for some rocky outcrop; it is proposed that they be placed on the very land that can grow the food to guarantee the food security that so many in this House have called for. The Minister needs to make it absolutely clear, again, that the Government will not tolerate that, as we move into a future in which we protect our economy to the greatest degree possible, in terms of both food supply and energy provision—as I have always wanted us to do. We are moving happily into the post-liberal age for which I have clamoured so long.
I have also clamoured for the protection of our green and pleasant land—indeed, for our green and pleasant land to become a new Jerusalem, one might say. A Conservative Government should understand the aesthetic argument associated with solar farms—and wind turbines, too, by the way. It is critical that we preserve the character of settlements, and that we believe in the sense of place that helps to deliver our sense of worth and identity. Again, a truly Conservative Government—and I know that the Minister is truly Conservative, so I have high expectations of him—would do just that.
In summary, it is right that we consider renewables as part of the energy mix, but not on any terms or at any cost. I congratulate my hon. Friend Brendan Clarke-Smith on being such an outstanding servant of the people of his constituency; I am proud to have contributed to a debate sponsored by him. I look forward to the Minister’s response with eager —one might say gleeful—anticipation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. Like other Members who have spoken, I am in no way, shape or form an opponent of solar energy. However, like others, I believe that solar technology and solar farms would be best placed on our factories and brownfield sites, away from the beautiful Great British countryside. I very much agree with my right hon. Friend Sir John Hayes about preserving and protecting the character of an area.
Planning guidance is already clear: where possible, large solar farms should use previously developed land. Projects should be designed to avoid, mitigate and—where necessary—compensate for impact. However, my constituents have been bombarded with applications for large solar farms across north Buckinghamshire. Since I was elected just over two years ago, I have already opposed five applications for solar farms, including in Little Horwood, the village of Kingsey, on Callie’s Farm and between the villages of Ford and Dinton. All those solar farms would have dominated rural villages and completely changed the character and rural nature of those places; in one case, it would have destroyed ancient farmland.
Most recently, I have objected to two solar farms in the peaceful villages of Leckhampstead and Slapton. My constituents have expressed concerns about the inappropriate scale and nature of the proposals. The solar farms will add no net benefits to the local area and will have a considerable impact on the environment and wildlife. They will fundamentally alter the character of those villages and the surrounding countryside.
The Leckhampstead solar farm site is on rising ground, bounded and clearly visible from the surrounding high and low ground from the west and south. The woodland bordering the northern edge of the site is a prominent feature in the local landscape. Slapton village already has one smaller-scale solar farm, which is ugly and visible from Ivinghoe Beacon. The scale of that application is such that it completely surrounds and overwhelms the northern end of Slapton.
The company behind this development, having seen my objection, tried to make out in a letter to me the other day that it would not be a blight and sent me photos of other schemes as evidence. Yet every single one of the photos it sent me were of ugly masses of grey and black plastic, metal and glass, in place of natural beauty, grass and crops. Let us be absolutely frank: there is no way on earth that replacing our beautiful British countryside with hundreds of thousands of acres of these monstrosities up and down the land could possibly be considered anything other than total vandalism and blight.
With Buckinghamshire facing a tidal wave of these solar farms and of development on greenfield sites and working agricultural land, it is vital, as others have said, that we take a step away and recognise that agricultural land is a finite resource. We need to come up with a new solution that puts solar on brownfield, and on the top of the factories and tall buildings in our cities and towns, and that protects the Great British countryside.
It would be remiss of me not to start by congratulating Brendan Clarke-Smith on securing this important debate, and all his colleagues on their impassioned views. I am not sure I necessarily agree with everything they said, particularly about some of the planning aspects, but I will leave that to the Minister to address, especially as planning is devolved.
Thankfully, in Scotland—and, indeed, everywhere else—direct sunlight is not required for a solar panel. We are fortunate enough in Scotland to still have daylight, though, which means that solar panels do work—as I am sure Felicity Buchan will recall from her years in the north-east of Scotland, we are not exactly blessed with sunlight. However, solar panels have a key role to play in the wider energy mix, as Sir John Hayes said.
It is my understanding that around 400 MW of installed capacity for solar panels exists in Scotland. Will that be sufficient to supply our needs in the long term? No, of course it will not, which is why we are so fortunate to have a whole host of other renewable sources on our doorstep, be that tidal, offshore wind, onshore wind or hydro pumped storage, or moving into the likes of hydrogen and so on. That energy mix is incredibly important, and I was a little surprised to read that, in 2018, solar panels provided Aberdeen, my own city, with 136% of household electricity demand. I am told that that was during a summer heatwave—I do not quite recall that heatwave, but there was obviously significant supply from solar panels.
One issue on which I am sympathetic to Members’ comments is where solar panels are located. There are plans afoot—they have been talked about for many years—for a fairly significantly sized solar farm in my constituency, but on the site of a former tip, which makes sense, because that land cannot be used for anything else. More importantly, that solar farm will provide the renewable electricity that will hopefully power a hydrogen station nearby, completing the green hydrogen journey that we need to be on. If we can secure renewable electricity that goes right into the hydrogen mix, that has to be the aim, as I am sure the Minister would agree wholeheartedly.
As I said earlier, solar panels are not necessarily the panacea for the UK or Scotland. I touched earlier on some of the other renewable energy sources we have in Scotland. At this moment, in the midst of this energy security situation, which is of concern to us all, we are blessed in Scotland to have the capacity to provide 98% of our electricity from renewable sources alone. That is quite a remarkable feat, considering that we have not even started on the 25 GW that has been approved through the ScotWind round.
I want to pause briefly on the topic of energy security. As I recently said to the Secretary of State when he made his statement in the Chamber on the reduction in oil and gas imports from Russia, what we urgently need now from the UK Government is a plan for how they intend to accelerate renewables at a speed never seen before. It is fair to say that a lot of good has been done—the likes of contracts for difference and so on—but if we are to treat energy security with the seriousness it deserves, we need the Government to buck up their ideas, to invest more and to come forward with a clear and collegiate plan. Solar will not be the bedrock of that plan, but it will play a role in it. Given that the Secretary of State was not able to answer my question on that earlier, I am sure the Minister will be able to do so in due course.
I will attempt to follow Stephen Flynn in being as brief as possible and finishing within five minutes, but right hon. and hon. Members will understand that we have a large number of issues to discuss.
The first thing to say is that I congratulate Brendan Clarke-Smith on securing the debate, because it gives rise to all the issues that we have to consider in the development of renewables and particularly solar. He has drawn attention to a particular scheme in his constituency, which is quite right, given his role as a constituency MP. However, I caution against expressing proper and justified concerns about the siting of particular solar farms in particular places while failing to understand just how much we need renewables, especially of the solar variety, over the next period.
I have just come from the statement in the main Chamber, and all sides agreed that our way out of the oil and gas problem, which has been driven by the situation in Ukraine and Russia, is to go very fast on renewables. The point is that if we go fast on renewables, the renewables have to be somewhere, and it is really not sufficient for people to say, “Yes, I’m very much in favour of renewables, but I’m not in favour of them being in any particular place.” I am not saying that that is what right hon. and hon. Members have said this afternoon, and a number of Members were very thoughtful and clear about the circumstances under which solar should be developed. I think that should perhaps be the watchword, and I agree with a number of Members that we need a much more strategic and planned approach to the arrangements. We need to understand what renewables we need, but also where we need them. However, it is not an option to have them nowhere at all.
In that context, we know that solar has already been a considerable success in the UK. It is being developed at the moment on no subsidies. We have 14 GW installed across the country, and 65% of that is ground-mounted solar. Frankly, it is a fantasy to believe that we can get to the sorts of targets we now need on solar—perhaps 40 GW by 2030, which is what the Climate Change Committee says—by simply installing them in small numbers on roofs in cities and towns. Of course we should go with that, and we ought to have a lot more imagination about how we put solar in towns and cities or alongside motorways and various things such as that.
I agree with everybody that not engaging with communities is simply not on, and it is important that those who want to install renewable energy installations and solar farms need to engage with their communities. What does the hon. Gentleman think should be done to improve community engagement?
The hon. Member is quite right. Any form of renewable power—indeed, any form of power—ought to be based on extensive community consultation and the community being on board with the idea of that particular power source coming to their area. Hon. Members have raised a number of issues about agricultural land and its quality, the visual aspects of particular solar farms, and various other things, which need to be discussed in great detail at the local level by communities faced with these proposals.
Solar farms, and particularly the West Burton solar farm, which was the subject of the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw, actually have quite a good grid connection. That solar farm would potentially be based around the West Burton A power station, which as I am sure the hon. Member will be aware is going offline in 2022, as is the Cottam power station just down the road. However, if we had had a discussion when someone decided to build the West Burton A power station and the Cottam power station in the middle of the countryside—which is where they are—a number of years ago, we probably would have had exactly this sort of debate in the Chamber.
That underlines the fact that, although we are transferring what we do as far as power stations and power are concerned, the issue remains just the same: where we put those power stations and renewables into operation, not whether we put them into operation. It is imperative that we have this amount of renewable energy across our country for the future. Be it offshore wind or onshore wind, city-based solar or field-based solar—all of those have to be considered as imperative for delivering our renewable power supplies. Solar happens to be the cheapest power available, and it is one of the quickest to introduce if we are thinking about a dash for renewables in the future.
The hon. Gentleman and I have been debating these issues for longer than either of us care to remember. I am sure he will acknowledge that against that backdrop—the objective he set out—it is important to measure the environmental cost of renewables. The manufacture, siting and anchoring, for example, of wind turbines bring an environmental payback period. The same applies to solar. We need to test these things on a specific basis against the very criteria he set out.
The right hon. Member is absolutely right that we need to test these things and take the environmental benefits as a whole, but these tests have pretty much been carried out, and there is an overwhelming environmental benefit to solar, which is a cheap and reliable power source. By the way, the batteries associated with it that make it more reliable do not need to be sited in the same place as solar farms, so things can be designed in such a way that the environmental disbenefits are not all concentrated in one place.
In the case of the Sunnica proposal, the battery farm is much bigger than the power that would come from the solar that is part of the same proposal. That being the case, and the argument he is making being important and thoughtful, would the hon. Member not agree that keeping the public onside with the development of solar and its location is an incredibly important part of meeting the very environmental objectives he so cherishes?
Yes, the right hon. Member is absolutely right. The public should be on board with any development that is going on anywhere concerned with anything. That is a starting point as far as the developments are concerned. It is worth reflecting on the Government’s onshore wind policy. Despite the fact that the public in many areas of England and Wales were in favour of hosting onshore wind, the Government put a moratorium on it. We do not want to go in the other direction as far as public support and renewables are concerned.
I have indulged myself by taking interventions and have gone a little over my time. I hope that Members will understand, however, that my comments are founded on the imperative of solar for the future. Solar needs public support, and a sensible approach must be taken to its deployment if it is to take its desired place in our future renewable firmament.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. May I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Brendan Clarke-Smith? The scale of attendance and the passion with which colleagues have spoken speaks to the importance of his advocacy and the issue.
I am standing in today for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change, but I am absolutely delighted to be doing so, for a number of reasons. First, I come from a rural, agricultural constituency that is itself facing the introduction of substantial, industrial-scale infrastructure connected to offshore wind energy. The industrialisation of rural constituencies in pursuit of the noble aims of net zero is a local issue. It is very important and we have to get that planning process right. I have seen that for myself. I also drive through the Cambridgeshire-Suffolk border on my way to my constituency and see the Sunnica proposal, the signs in every field around the area and the concern locally.
As the former Minister for agritech, I am passionate about the importance of this country leading the world in net zero farming and showing how we can pioneer the technologies for and approaches to net zero agriculture. Nobody in this Chamber needs to be reminded that agriculture is the next dirty industry on the block. We are cleaning the energy system, but we will then have to decarbonise agriculture and transport globally. That is a big opportunity for this country.
As the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, including for fusion, I see it as fundamental to my role to ensure that we turbocharge our drive towards the technological solutions that will allow the planet to grow and develop sustainably in the longer term. I am also committed to the science of the data metrics of sustainable development, by which I mean both agrimetrics, so that when consumers pick up a pint of milk or a piece of British food they are clear about its environmental footprint—that is the best way to reward advanced, progressive farming—and carbon metrics, so that consumers can be harnessed on the journey to net zero, confident that they are making enlightened choices. That requires good science, which a number of colleagues have touched on.
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is a strong advocate of human rights. He mentions enlightened consumers wanting to know what they are purchasing and what is in their community. Does he agree that we should not install solar panels when we know for a fact that they are being produced in genocidal camps where people are being exterminated? I am talking about the Uyghur in China.
My hon. Friend makes her point powerfully. I absolutely agree that we should not be supplying to consumers and citizens goods whose production involves torture and illegal practices. I am not the consumer affairs Minister, but I will raise that point with those who have that responsibility.
In the time available, I will set out the Government’s policy on solar, acknowledge the 16 very important points made today by colleagues from across the House, summarise the process in terms of disapplication and more broadly, and then make what I hope will be some important and helpful undertakings.
It is striking that, for all the concerns raised today, there is unanimity in the Chamber about the urgency of tackling the climate emergency. I think that everyone present supports the commitment, as enshrined at COP26, to reduce global temperature increase to 1.5°. There is good science behind that, and I think that many comments were made in that spirit. That is why the Government have adopted carbon budget 6, which is the world’s most ambitious climate change goal, to reduce emissions by 77% by 2035—that might sound a long way away, but it is rapidly drawing near—compared with 1990 levels. With limited time until that date, the UK’s electricity supply is in urgent need of decarbonisation. That is why, in the net zero strategy that was published in 2021, the Government committed that all UK electricity will be from low-carbon sources by 2035, subject to security of supply. At the end of my comments, I will come back to some of the changes relating to the global markets, the Ukraine emergency and the Prime Minister’s announcement of a review of energy policy.
I want to touch on the benefits of solar, which merit highlighting. It is a very flexible technology. As my right hon. Friend Matt Hancock has pointed out, we can be proud that we have deployed 99% of solar at huge scale, quite small scale and high scale across the country. Solar generates large amounts of electricity even on cloudy days, and from indirect sunlight. Solar also works at cooler temperatures, so its carbon footprint is normally much lower than that of coal or gas. Most solar panel components can be recycled.
Solar can complement other variable generation sources, such as wind, to balance the grid on summer days when wind speeds tend to be lower. We see solar as key to the Government’s strategy for low-cost energy and decarbonisation, and large-scale solar is one of the UK’s cheapest renewable generation technologies; I will come in my closing comments to where the externalities of cost may lie. That is why in the net zero strategy, the Government committed to a sustained increase in deploying solar in the 2020s and beyond, embedded through the contract for difference scheme.
I want to pick up the points that several colleagues have made, because those points are hugely important and need to be acknowledged seriously. The first was about the scale of what is being proposed. As the equivalent of 4,000 football pitches, this is not a small-scale development or even, by most people’s standards, a medium-scale one. This is huge, industrial-scale development in the countryside. There were fears about a wild west and a solar rush, and about precedent in the planning system—if one of these developments gets approved, it may be a signal that we are locked into precedent. There were concerns, which I share, about the use of good agricultural land and, particularly in the light of the Ukraine situation, about food security.
Concerns were raised about the solar supply chain—both the human rights point that my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns made, and the carbon footprint point. There were concerns about the lack of metrics of sustainability, and about taking into account the full externalities of the carbon footprint of developments. There were concerns about the abuse of the local planning system. I have been very struck in my constituency by the fact that because this is critical national infrastructure, the views of local people and local MPs—frankly, anybody locally—are very downgraded. The planning advice states that those local views are important, so I think that there is a real issue there.
There were specific concerns about Rutland and habitat impact, and calls for a clearer national policy on tackling these policy tensions. Points were made about the impact of the Ukraine emergency on food supplies, food security and food prices. Points were also made about the link to surreptitious approvals of, effectively, battery farms in inappropriate locations, about fire risk, about the impact on rural tourism and about the need for better co-location of generation, where possible, with use. My right hon. Friend Sir John Hayes made a point about beauty, identity and character, which is not just a magnificent ethereal concept; it also underpins tourism in the countryside. Some very important points have been made, and they deserve to be repeated and acknowledged. Forgive me; I am not going to list everybody, but Hansard will report what has been set out.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because I have made several interventions. On the point about fire safety, will he take on board, and comment on, the need for transparency about past fires? I should also have mentioned in my speech that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. and learned Friend Lucy Frazer, cannot speak because she is a member of the Government, but she wholeheartedly endorses my views and is a great campaigner for her constituency when it comes to the Sunnica plant—and more broadly.
I will happily pick that point up. My right hon. Friend invites me—wisely, perhaps, given the time—to clarify that at the end of this debate, I will raise all the points that have been made today with the relevant Ministers, including, perhaps, the Minister for fire safety. When such a number of colleagues meet in the Chamber, their points deserve to be heard and passed through.
I want to pick up on the planning point. Colleagues will be aware, but those listening may not be, that planning applications for projects below 50 MW are determined by the local planning system. Many hundreds of them around the country have been approved satisfactorily. Projects up to 350 MW in Wales are devolved, with decisions 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 Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
My hon. Friend makes his point well. Let me come to the point I was going to make about planning, which tries to deal with that.
In 2021, the Government set up a national infrastructure planning reform programme, bringing several Government Departments together with the aim of refreshing how the nationally significant infrastructure project regime works to make it faster, better and greener. The Government will shortly consult on reform proposals—we will do so later this year. As a part of that, the Government are reviewing the national policy statements for energy. It seems to me that quite a lot of what has been said today is a call for a clearer national policy statement, and colleagues might want to raise that with the Minister for Energy and the Planning Minister. The draft revised national policy statement for renewables includes a new section on solar projects, providing clear and specific guidance to decision makers on the impact on, for example, local amenities, biodiversity, landscape, wildlife and land use, which must be considered when assessing planning applications. The Government plan to publish a response to the consultation on the revised national policy statement shortly.
Under both local and NSIP planning systems, developers must complete proper community engagement as part of the application process. Communities should and must be able to participate in the formal examination process run by the Planning Inspectorate. All large solar developers under the NSIP must complete an environmental statement for any application, to consider all potential impacts. Planning guidance is also clear that the effective use of land should be prioritised by focusing large-scale solar farms on previously developed and non-greenfield land. It seeks to minimise the impact on the best and most versatile agricultural land. It requires developers to justify using any such land and to design their projects to avoid, mitigate and, where necessary, compensate for impacts.
I am conscious of the time—I think I have one minute left—but I want to highlight that in relation to the planning process colleagues will understand that I cannot comment on the specifics of this individual case, because I do not want to prejudice it in any way. However, we anticipate that once an application is submitted to the planning inspector, it will be 15 to 18 months before it comes back to the Secretary of State after all the various consultations. Interestingly, in terms of precedent —all-important in planning—only one large-scale solar application has been approved, in Kent. One in Wales, Strawberry Hill—devolved, of course—was turned down on the agricultural land use point. I understand that one in Scunthorpe is imminent, and that Sunnica and one or two others are in the pipeline. The point about precedent is important: we all know that when a big decision is made it can trigger a wave of subsequent applications.
Let me close by congratulating and thanking colleagues for coming today. They have raised important points that I will undertake to pass on to Ministers who have responsibility for energy, planning, farming, tourism and fire safety. Colleagues have made a very important case for a stronger and clearer national policy statement, reflecting the situation in Ukraine and the Prime Minister’s emphasis on food and energy security. I will undertake to make sure that the points raised today are picked up by all the relevant Ministers.
I thank everybody for their outstanding contributions—there are too many to name individually in the time—on energy security, the move to renewables, our energy mix, protecting our countryside, our agriculture, where we get our food from and the importance of solar, while ensuring it is used in the most sensible locations, including brownfield sites. Once again, I thank the Minister, and the Opposition spokesmen, the hon. Members for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn) and for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead). And I thank you, Sir Charles, for your excellent chairmanship.
I thank all colleagues for the generous way in which they have conducted the debate and treated each other. Everyone got in.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered large solar farms.