I beg to move,
That this House
has considered planning for solar farms and battery storage solutions.
May I say what a great pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley? This is the first time it has happened to me, and it may well be a less pleasant experience than I am anticipating, but let us hope it all goes according to plan.
Let me divert any suggestion that may arise during the debate that I am somehow anti-solar, anti-renewable or anti-environmentalist. On the contrary, I suspect that everyone in the Chamber is a passionate environmentalist. I went to the first COP, in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, as a special adviser, and I have been on the Environmental Audit Committee ever since. I am passionate about the north and south poles, which I have visited often, and where we can see the effect of climate change, and in every way I would consider myself to be an environmentalist. I would not want my credentials to be lessened by my remarks this afternoon, and I am sure other right hon. and hon. Members around the room feel the same.
I am proud of the fact that we have a proud environmental record in Wiltshire. We declared a climate change emergency in February 2019, and we plan to make the county carbon-neutral by 2030. Renewables play an extremely important part in that, and I am proud of the contribution that we have already made with regards to solar. For example, at the former RAF Lyneham in my constituency, we have a 250 acre solar farm with 269,000 solar panels, providing 69.8 MW —enough energy to power 10,000 homes as well as the base itself. That is not a bad way to do it, but the point is that it is entirely invisible. It is on the base, it is on former Army land, it is within the wire and it is entirely invisible to anybody nearby. Equally, RAF Wroughton, which is nearby, has 150,000 solar panels on 170 acres. A number of similar ex-military sites are invisible to the passer-by and are making a huge contribution to renewable energy. By contrast, at Minety in my constituency, planners recently agreed to a solar farm with 166,000 panels on 271 acres of agricultural land despite massive local opposition, which seems to go against what is said in the national planning policy framework. I will come back to that in a second.
What seems to be happening in Wiltshire, Dorset and one or two counties in the west country is that the grid is full in Devon and Cornwall. It is no longer possible to get a link from a solar farm to the grid in Devon and Cornwall, and developers have moved north. I am told that the connections to the grid in Wiltshire are nearly full, but that gives me little satisfaction, because the technology is moving so fast that the situation may well change in time. Secondly, even if Wiltshire became exempt, as it were, from further solar farms, all we would then do is move the blister further north or east, and many Members present would find that their constituents were being targeted just as much as mine are.
Right now, we have a gigantic number of applications in my constituency for solar farms—I know of at least four. Many of them would feature battery storage units, which are horrible, industrialised containers that often take up an entire field. There are some safety risks attached to them, as they burst into flames from time to time, so they are quite dangerous. They are turning a rural area into an industrialised centre, which is really unacceptable.
My hon. Friend has mentioned the NPPF, which I understand is meant to be updated in July this year. Does he agree that there should be rigorous rules around planning permission for solar panels and that we should use commercial units for them first, instead of using agricultural land?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point, which I will come back to in one second. The NPPF is central to this, and when the Government come out with their update to it, it must include strict rules on solar farms.
We in Wiltshire are being targeted. I have huge sites at Derry Hill and at Leigh Delamere, and many sites have huge battery storage facilities attached to them. Something like 25 battery sites are currently being considered by Wiltshire Council. There is a proposal for a huge battery farm at Lea near Malmesbury. It is perfect, first-class agricultural land. I went to a public meeting in Lea the other day on the subject, and 250 people turned up in that tiny village—that must be more than the entire population of the village. That shows the strength of local feeling, but none the less the battery farm may go ahead—we will have to see.
I testify to my hon. Friend’s environmental credentials. He wrote the excellent book “Poles Apart”, which I have read, about the Arctic circle—in fact, I visited the North Pole with him some years ago. I completely agree that we need solar farms and sustainable energy and that we need to diversify our energy sources, but I also agree that we need to ensure that planning does not override the current use of agricultural land, nature reserves and sites of special scientific interest, which often happens with solar farms. I therefore agree that any review of the planning guidance needs to ensure that those other factors are fully taken into account, rather than being overridden by solar farms on their own.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am grateful to him for the plug. The book is only £10 and it is available in decent bookshops near you, or I could perhaps arrange for it to be sent directly. He is absolutely right: we must not allow the planning system to override good environmental and nature principles because of some need to have renewables.
This is not just happening in the west country; we are getting it in Hertfordshire. We have a number of applications for quite substantial areas of productive farmland. We are talking about 150 or 200 acres, and quite a few of these pieces of land are all in one area, which is causing a lot of concern. It is probably right, when we look at revising the planning framework, that we look at the balance between productive agricultural land and sustainable energy, because both are important. I will just mention Protect the Pelhams and the Bygrave Action Group, which asked me to make that point.
The action group will be reassured that my right hon. and learned Friend takes a keen interest in the matter.
Before I come back to the national planning policy framework, which must be central to this afternoon’s debate, I will touch briefly on battery storage solutions, which are springing up all over the place. They are absolutely hideous. There is a fire risk attached to them, and they do not make a single contribution towards renewables. All they do is store electricity that has been produced at a cheap time, when there is low demand overnight, instead of at an expensive time, such as during the day. In other words, they increase the electricity producer’s profits but do not reduce the amount of electricity used, even slightly. They do not increase the amount of renewable energy produced; they are merely a convenience for the developers. They are a hideous new development. Technology will soon overtake them, and we will be left with hundreds of acres of countryside with these vast industrial sites on them. They will then be redundant and the planners will turn around and say, “They are brownfield sites. Let’s put houses or factories on them”—on what was, until recently, farmland.
The hon. Gentleman is raising an important issue. In my constituency, one farmer diversified by putting in a solar farm—one that is acceptable because, as the hon. Gentleman said, it is not obtrusive and it is not seen. After substantial consultation, the local community agreed with it as well. As we look ahead to the need for green energy, and as we look to the war in Ukraine, it is clear that the demands on highly productive land will be greater than ever. Does there come a time when solar farms and battery installations have to take a backseat to food production?
The hon. Member makes a good point. Of course, food security will be central to our considerations as we go forward. He made an interesting point: he said the solar farm in his constituency was built with the enthusiasm of local people. That is, of course, how it should be. There will be places where local people say, “I am committed to environmentalism and renewables. I want to see a renewable farm near my village or in my town. I want to see it behind a high hedge,” and they will lay down certain conditions under which it can be put in. That is great. By contrast, when local people—such as the people of Lea, in the public meeting I mentioned a moment ago—are absolutely unanimous in their determination not to have one, they must be listened to. That becomes an important part of the consideration.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing forward this important debate. Is there not a danger that we swap the drive towards energy security for food security? Should we not set a balancing target for food security in this country from the current 60% to, say, 75%, where it used to be? That would prevent planning consent being given for sites such as the one near Old Malton, in my constituency, which is 70% best and most versatile land. Does he agree that giving consent for such land is absolutely inappropriate, and that councils should take food security into account in their decisions?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the great considerations that we are currently battling with is the question of food security. Post-Ukraine, or during Ukraine, we are facing a real crisis in food production in this country. Why we are taking perfectly usable agricultural land and covering it with vanity mirrors and industrial battery storage units, I simply cannot imagine. It is extraordinary.
Just yesterday, we had a debate in this Chamber on a similar subject—the question of housing in planning—and, to some extent, we are discussing the same thing. Developers should, of course, be encouraged to reuse brownfield sites in town centres, but, given the choice between a brownfield site in a town centre or a greenfield site in the countryside, they are going to go for the greenfield site. We therefore have to change the planning system to focus house building on previously used land. A little off the subject, Mr Paisley—thank you for not picking me up on that.
The hon. Gentleman is making a fascinating speech. Does he feel that there is a need to prioritise brownfield land and particularly to look at brownfield in urban areas, as well as in rural areas?
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. We have car parks that are good places to put overhead solar farms, as they do in many other parts of the world. Every factory that is built should have solar panels on the roof. Massive areas in town centres should have solar panels attached. However, those solutions cost developers quite a lot more money, and they are not going to do that if they can just buy a nice greenfield site and stick the solar farm out there. It is much easier for them to do that. That is why the planning system has to constrain what they do, so that they are forced to come back into our town centres and use the kind of solutions he describes.
We ought to move on to the central question, which is about planning. Wiltshire Council is being particularly targeted at the moment because it is being a little too cautious. The council is very concerned that, if it turns applications down, unless it can demonstrate that the application absolutely did not fall within the current planning guidance, the inspector will overturn that decision at appeal, and the council will then be faced with substantial barristers’ costs.
Wiltshire Council is saying, perfectly reasonably, “We need to be guaranteed that we are within planning law when turning down these applications.” That is why the detailed definition of planning law and the NPPF is incredibly important in order to give some comfort to councils such as Wiltshire Council when they say, “This is going to be turned down. Here’s why.” The wording of the NPPF should therefore be clear. I have been saying to my council that, at the moment, it is clear. Paragraph 155a of the NPPF says that local plans should provide a
“strategy for energy…while ensuring that adverse impacts are addressed…including cumulative landscape and visual impacts.”
The guidance says:
“It is for each local authority to determine a planning application to include the consideration of intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside, as well as whether the best quality land is being used for agricultural purposes. Large-scale solar farms can have a negative impact on the rural environment, particularly in undulating landscapes.”
There is not one inch of Wiltshire that is not undulating, so, if that were to be applied in detail, there would be no solar farms in the county of Wiltshire.
As has been said, guidance also states very clearly that solar farms should be focused on
“previously developed and non agricultural land…that is not of high environmental value”.
The guidance actually says that at the moment, leaving aside the upcoming review.
“In 2021, the Government set up a national infrastructure planning reform programme,” which will be reviewed
“later this year”.
We would be interested to hear when that happens; we want to know the outcome. He continued:
“As part of that, the Government are reviewing the national policy statements for energy.”
Importantly, speaking as a Minister from the Dispatch Box, he said:
“It seems to me that” we need
“a clearer national policy statement…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…It requires developers to justify using any such land and to design their projects to avoid, mitigate and, where necessary, compensate for impacts”—[Official Report,
on agricultural land.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. The comments that we heard earlier from colleagues about the use of agricultural land is a particular concern in my constituency as we have a proposed large solar farm that is nationally significant infrastructure because of its size. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is it important for local communities to be at the heart of that decision-making and be consulted properly, so that they can ensure that these solar farms—which we are not opposed to in principle, but they must be in the right places—do not take away from things that we want to preserve?
My hon. Friend is right and I am grateful for his intervention. It must be done with local consent and enthusiasm. The notion that solar farms can be good for biodiversity is, of course, complete nonsense. No shepherd worth his salt would graze his sheep on a solar farm. The grass is low quality. I do not think there is one single solar farm in the west of England currently being grazed, and the notion that they could be is nonsensical. Equally, the notion that, somehow, wildflowers thrive on solar farms is simple nonsense; it is simply not true. There is not a single wildflower that I have ever seen on any of the solar farms that I have ever visited. Therefore, the notion, which the developers put forward, that solar farms are somehow biodiversity-friendly is absolute nonsense.
The heart of the problem is that Wiltshire Council, and probably many other councils too, interprets the nation policy framework very conservatively. For example, the NPPF seems to indicate that it thinks that grade 3a land should not have a solar farm on it, but that grade 3b land could do. It is not absolutely clear, but it seems to be moving in that direction. Anybody who knows anything about a farm will know that some of it will be grade 3a and some will be 3b; it is extremely hard to make out which is which. One field may be half 3a and half 3b. Therefore, what we should be saying is that all viable agricultural land should not be used for solar farms—full stop. Never mind grade 3a, 3b, 2 or 1: all agricultural land should be exempt, under planning law, from solar farms.
Equally, we ought to be making much more use of carve-outs for protected designations such as national parks and areas of outstanding national beauty. Most of my constituency is an AONB, and if AONBs were exempted, there would be no solar farms. We must take account of a landscape’s special characteristics, which we are not doing under the NPPF.
Councils also ought to be more ready to make the argument about the cumulative impact of solar farms. The NPPF seems to intimate that cumulative impact is allowable, but the planning inspector is unclear about that. We must be certain that the more solar farms there are in a particular place, the less likely it is that planning permission will be granted.
We must also develop arguments about food production as a legitimate economic consideration. Under the NPPF, if there is a legitimate economic consideration connected to a planning application, it will not go ahead. It is currently unclear whether food production is a legitimate economic consideration. Officers—and indeed, I think, officials in the Department—have said that it is quite hard to know whether or not agriculture could be classed as a legitimate economic consideration. I think that it definitely should be.
Let me give the Minister a list of things that I would like him to consider. He will not be able to answer them this afternoon, I am sure, but I have taken the opportunity of sending the list to the Department, so that he can consider it at his leisure if he wants to. I and—it seems—many of my colleagues in the Chamber this afternoon have a wish-list. There should be changes to national planning policy, allowing local authorities more scope to object to applications so that they can object on a much wider scale. Perhaps we should make the process similar to that for wind turbines. At the moment, it is much easier to turn down a wind turbine plant than a solar farm, but I think that solar farms and wind turbines should be treated in the same way in planning applications.
As I have said, there should be a prohibition on using grade 3 land, whether it is 3a or 3b, and we must not allow battery storage solutions to take land out of food production for use for solar. There should be much more of an imperative towards smaller installations on barns, factories, warehouse roofs and all the kinds of places that Matt Rodda mentioned a moment ago, instead of huge installations on greenfield sites and farmland.
An interesting point is that the prescribed limit on the distances involved must be shorter. We cannot have these solar farms 10 miles away from grid connection; the distance to grid connection must be shorter, so that we have solar farms where there is a grid connection. At the moment, partly by using battery storage solutions, developers are coming up with sites that are miles and miles away from the connection to the grid, which of course produces even further damage to the countryside.
Visibility is an important point. In my opinion, no solar farm should be generally visible within one mile of listed buildings or protected landscapes; I think the Minister would probably agree with that. That limit should also be extended to cover views, which planning law does not currently cover. Under planning law, people have no right to a view and a view cannot be considered under planning law. In the case of solar farms, a view is terribly important and therefore we should allow people to object to a solar farm because it damages their view. The views in the countryside are incredibly important. Such a change would demand a change to the NPPF, but only a very small one, and I think that allowing local people to object to a solar farm because it would destroy the view is perfectly legitimate.
In general, the point I am making is that at the moment local authorities are scared. They are scared that if they do not interpret the NPPF correctly—if they get one word wrong—the inspectors at appeal will, perfectly correctly, overturn their decision. What our local authorities need is absolute clarity. At a time like this—post-Ukraine—we value our agricultural land and we do not want to see our countryside being covered in solar farms and battery storage solutions. We think that producing food is important; indeed, food security is an incredibly important issue for the future.
We must provide local authorities with clarity of language in the revised NPPF, so that they can say straightforwardly, “No, you will not have that solar farm on this particular piece of agricultural land”, with the confidence that the inspector will agree with them rather than overturning their decision, which is what seems to be happening more or less automatically at the moment. We need to give local authorities that strength, that clarity and that power. If we do so, and if the developers, who are watching this debate today, know that they will not get permission for a development, they will not put in the application and will go somewhere else.
I just want that clarity. When the NPPF review comes out—I hope that will be shortly and certainly this year: the Minister may be able to update us on that soon—let us see some of these things written into it, to give local authorities that clarity and that strength when they come to turn down some of these ghastly applications.
I will see who else is bobbing and feels worthy to follow Mr James Gray today, after his Sermon on the Mount. Members themselves can see who is bobbing. I want to call the Opposition spokesman at around 5.10 pm, so we are talking about four to five minutes each for each contribution; I do not want to set a formal time limit.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Paisley, and it is a pleasure to serve under you as Chairman.
I thank James Gray for securing this debate and I obviously thank Mr Speaker for granting it. It is very timely, certainly for me and for my constituency, because we, too, have an application for a battery energy storage system in an area called the Duckery—hon. Members can imagine what it is like—in Chapel Lane. It is a beautiful part of Walsall South and has a large amount of green belt around it, with St Margaret’s Church, Great Barr, very nearby. Anesco Ltd put in a planning application on
The hon. Member is absolutely right—he does have green credentials. I have served on the Environmental Audit Committee with him. In fact, I seem to remember he was arranging an expedition to the south pole. Sadly, I will not be able to take part because I am not on the Committee anymore, but I might join him anyway. Maybe another book will come out of that.
I am really pleased that the hon. Gentleman focused on the national planning policy framework, because that is key, as it says the green belt should be protected. That is why it is concerning that this battery energy storage system is going to be placed on green-belt land. The Black Country core strategy says that green-belt land should be protected, and the Walsall site allocation document reaffirms that. In the main Chamber at the moment, they are discussing the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. Notes on the Bill state that green-belt land will be made greener. We might think that means it will be protected, but we cannot be sure that will happen, which is why it is important the Minister gives us confirmation that green-belt land will be protected.
The area of Walsall South, near the Duckery, is grade 1 and grade 2 agricultural land. Previously, rapeseed oil was grown there. As Jim Shannon said, the Ukrainian war means we are short of sunflower oil and are looking to alternatives, which is why it is important that the area should be protected and not built on.
My concern is that councils do not always take into account what is said and so I want a commitment from the Minister. A planning officer can make a recommendation in a report, and then the application goes through the cabinet or the planning committee, and they do not take local residents into account. I have suffered such a case for a site in my constituency, where 2,000 residents were against a particular site called Narrow Lane. We want a commitment from the Government and the Minister that they are committed to protecting the green belt. I ask the Minister to confirm that commitment, which is set out in the national planning policy framework, the Black Country core strategy and the site allocation document.
The hon. Member for North Wiltshire also mentioned that there have been fires in battery energy storage systems in Australia and California. Has an assessment been done on the safety of these sites?
The bottom line is that my constituents do not want green-belt land to be built on. They want it preserved. The pandemic has shown, like never before, how they need green-belt land and that such areas need to be protected.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank my hon. Friend James Gray for securing this important debate, which gives me the opportunity to speak about solar. I, too, would like to stress that I am not anti-solar or anti-renewables and I am not anti the environment. I have the privilege of being the Member of Parliament for a beautiful rural constituency. The subject of planning for solar farms is incredibly important to rural communities.
As the MP for Ynys Môn, the island of Anglesey, I represent communities particularly concerned about the threat of mega solar farms on our landscape, our culture and our heritage, in particular a proposal by Lightsource BP for a 1,200-acre solar farm on Anglesey. Yes, that is correct—1,200 acres. To put that huge amount of land into some perspective, it is equivalent to around 900 football pitches. It is the largest project in Lightsource BP’s development portfolio.
Our island community, like other rural communities, is under threat from a slew of solar proposals. Smaller applications are managed by the Isle of Anglesey County Council, with local councillors representing the views of the community. It has rejected some previous applications, including one for a 200-acre site near Cemaes. However, larger applications are considered by the Welsh Government, who are six hours away in Cardiff, and local communities are concerned that that will take large-scale development decisions away from them.
In 2019, 27% of energy in Wales came from renewables, of which solar formed a very small proportion. In recent months we have all felt the problems caused by being dependent on other countries for our energy. Like the Welsh Government, we are fully behind the move to net zero, and we recognise that renewables must form part of our future energy strategy.
We must implement solar with extreme caution. For developers, it is an attractive solution, as land is relatively cheap, solar panels can be imported at low cost, and there is minimal upkeep and maintenance, which means that little local employment is generated. That must be balanced against the energy generation capacity. The huge 1,200 acre solar farm proposed by Lightsource bp for Anglesey would generate enough energy for 133,000 homes. A new nuclear plant such as Hinkley C in Bridgwater has a small fraction of that footprint, but with the potential to generate energy for 6 million homes.
There is another, possibly more important, consideration. Ynys Môn was known historically as Môn Mam Cymru—Anglesey, mother of Wales—because our fertile agricultural land fed the Welsh people in times of need. We need a strong agricultural community, and it is those great swathes of fertile, historical agricultural land that are particularly attractive to solar farm developers. Earlier this year, FarmingUK wrote that the UK is on the verge of food security concerns not seen since world war 2, and in 2020 the UK imported 46% of the food we consume.
I hope that the Minister will take on board the risk that, in the rush to achieve net zero, however laudable, we may sacrifice vast areas of agricultural land, and hence our food security, to solar panels, which do not offer the dependable, large-scale solution we need to the energy crisis.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank James Gray and the other speakers, who made some very interesting points.
I am very much in favour of a sensible approach to this issue that balances the importance of energy security and tackling the climate emergency with not creating eyesores in the countryside. I am proud of our record in my area of central Berkshire. I represent an urban seat, but we have a strong tradition of solar power from our borough council and neighbouring local authorities, and in land nearby. Much of it is on the roofs of buildings and on brownfield land. I want to get across the positive message about using those types of land. There is a large amount of brownfield land in southern England, although I appreciate the points made by colleagues from slightly further west. There is also the issue of developers looking for land in the south, where sunlight is slightly more plentiful.
I want to say a few words about Reading Borough Council’s excellent work over many years of putting solar panels on the roofs of council houses, schools and other public buildings. Wokingham Borough Council was Conservative-run—I am afraid to say to Government Members that it is now under a different administration—when it planned a large solar farm in its area of Berkshire, which is suburban and semi-rural. The councils there were mindful of the visual impact, and I respect their work on that. I hope we can progress in a sensible, cross-party and consensual way and look at the opportunities.
I want to pay tribute briefly to the private individuals and charitable bodies that have driven alternative energy schemes in our area. I also want to highlight the importance of low-flow hydro. We have a small scheme on the Thames, the Queen has one at Windsor castle, and other landowners along the Thames have such schemes. They use water power, which in the past would have been used to drive mills, to generate electricity. It is a simple, low-tech but very effective form of hydroelectric power at a local level, which has a very limited impact on the environment near the river.
I understand the concerns raised by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire, but my experience of solar farms has been somewhat more positive. I draw his attention to the site at Pingewood in Berkshire, which is next to the M4—indeed, he may well drive past it. It is on a former landfill site next to a motorway, and is very close to grid connectivity because of the pylons running through our county. It makes one realise that there are actually sites in locations that already have visual intrusion from infrastructure, which could be used and perhaps should be prioritised. I had the pleasure of visiting there with the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Guy Opperman, who I shadow. We were looking at the scheme on that land, which is supported by one of the energy providers and is used for pension investments. I know that Gareth Davies is a huge enthusiast for auto-enrolment. Auto-enrolment savings are being used to invest in solar on brownfield sites. Surely that is the sort of model that we want to encourage.
In the south of England, as the hon. Member for North Wiltshire rightly said, there are sites that used to be airfields or military installations, as well as transport land, the roofs of car parks and many other things, which should be prioritised. I genuinely hope that we can come to some agreement to do that. In my constituency there are many flat building roofs, whether on garage blocks or large businesses. The tragedy is that there is not enough incentivisation to use the large acreage of land that exists in areas with high amounts of solar radiation where it would be ideal to place solar panels, such as in the south of England and London.
I hope the Minister can address that point about whether it is possible for the Government to look at incentivised development of that type of site, and to support local authorities and community groups more. There is obviously going to be an economy of scale with the very big sites. However, is it somehow possible to encourage development in a sensitive way that makes good use of currently wasted space in areas with high levels of sunlight? When large public buildings are built, such as hospitals, schools and stations, could the default position be that solar is included in the roofs? Will the Minister consider that? As a way of removing pressure from valuable agricultural land, and given that build costs would be lower if solar was installed at the point of construction, is there a way of incentivising that through the planning system? That way, businesses would have a genuine incentive to put solar on new builds, in a way and on a scale that does not currently exist.
I think about that every day when I go to Reading station, which is a wonderful new piece of infrastructure in our area, and one that serves colleagues further west. The trains there are electric, so why on earth does that station not have solar panels all over its roof? It is a huge area of space that could be used for solar without any intrusion into green space, and would actually protect rural areas by giving us more capacity. Can the Minister address those points? It has been a pleasure to speak today and I hope we can agree a consensual way forward.
Thank you, Mr Paisley; I shall be brief. You were very kind to describe the speech of my hon. Friend James Gray as a sermon on the mount, and I am happy to be a disciple on this matter. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue; as ever, I find that when we talk about planning there is the opportunity for Members across this House to come together.
I have four points, which I will make quickly. First, as I heard in yesterday’s debate on neighbourhood planning, the new NPPF policy will come forward in July. It is absolutely essential, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire said, that we engage with local communities and listen to the voices of both local authorities and residents. We must take that opportunity to do so.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, given the limited time. He is absolutely right that it is vital that local voices are heard when it comes to solar farm planning applications. Will he join me in encouraging all of my residents who may be impacted by the Mallard Pass development to contribute to the consultation? That is a vital part of the process, and their voices can be heard through it.
It should come as no surprise that even in south Devon we have heard about the issues concerning Mallard Pass. I encourage all residents of Grantham and Stamford to take part in that consultation, and to register their voices—as indeed should all our constituents.
Secondly, we have a food security crisis at the moment, but we also have a global supply chain crisis. We must now have a national target that pushes us to produce food. My hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake mentioned 75% as a potential target, and we should look at doing that. Anything that takes out productive agricultural land from farming must be reviewed. Solar panels have got to be in the sights of Government to stop that from happening.
Thirdly—I will make this point in my last 33 seconds—a year ago, the Local Electricity Bill was tabled as a private Member’s Bill. We should look at finding local sources to power the network and feed back into the grid. Matt Rodda was bright and clever enough to make an excellent point about his station in Reading: every time I pass through that station, I will think about that proposal, and I would certainly support it. Tidal, wind and solar, in the right places and the right spaces and used in the right way, are absolutely essential.
My last point is about brownfield sites. If I understand correctly, the CPRE report on brownfield sites identifies 21,000 sites across the country totalling 26,000 hectares, equating to what would be 1.3 million houses. Let us use those brownfield sites and commercial spaces, and make sure we keep our countryside as beautiful as possible.
It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Paisley. Naturally, I congratulate James Gray on securing this important debate and acknowledge his track record on environmentalism, which was stated clearly at the beginning of the debate and throughout.
Many Members have today taken the opportunity to talk about developments in their constituency, with a common focus on what is termed brown-belt and former industrial sites first, such as the roofs of car parks, warehouses, schools and housing developments—I think even trains were suggested by my hon. Friend Matt Rodda. That was acknowledged and concurred with by Virginia Crosbie, my right hon. Friend Valerie Vaz and others. A significant number of interventions were made by Members who are no longer present.
I have a sizable farming community in my Weaver Vale constituency. At a recent meeting of the National Farmers Union at Warburtons Farms in Frodsham, the consensus was that fertile agricultural land should not be used at scale for solar farms, a point that has been eloquently made in today’s debate. Unfortunately, too many farmers feel that they have little choice but to sell land for development, whether that is housing development or solar farms. In part, that is driven by the insecure nature of the financial support in the new subsidy arrangements that farmers now face. They were promised not a penny less, but the reality is somewhat different.
The justified concerns about the local impact of solar farms must be weighed against our inescapable need to build renewable energy, and lots of it, over the coming years in order to meet our net zero target by 2050. Renewable energy, including solar energy, must be built, and it must be built somewhere. It is always easy for someone to say that they are in favour of renewable energy in principle; it is much harder to say that they are in favour of renewable energy in a specific location. Members from across the Chamber have made very considered speeches about the circumstances in which we should build solar farms, and I agree that we need to be clear about the need for a strategic approach, so that we can understand exactly what we need and where it needs to go. However, it certainly needs to go somewhere, and that should be our starting point.
With the costs of fossil fuels soaring, wind and solar power are the keys to bringing down costs for customers, ensuring energy security in the face of the Ukrainian war and fighting climate change, yet the Government are intentionally limiting access to the cheapest, quickest and cleanest forms of new power by stopping the production of enough onshore wind and solar energy to power 3 million homes. Members have today made some great suggestions regarding where that energy capacity should be built. Instead, we have a Chancellor who has just handed a £1.9 billion tax break to producers of oil and gas that could pump nearly 900 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. Our climate and our constituents will pay the price for the Government doing the unthinkable and backing the fossil fuel industry, despite claiming to have the admirable target of reaching net zero by 2050. What assurances can the Minister give that the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s apparent green light for the fossil fuel industry will be revisited with a sense of urgency and with funding redirected to renewables, developed in the right places? Why not incentivise, as people have said? We simply cannot reach the kinds of targets that we need to be reaching by limiting ourselves to small-scale urban solar farms. That will involve larger-scale projects over the 50 MW rate that at the moment qualifies a proposal as a nationally significant infrastructure project.
Where we have common ground in today’s debate is in our desire on location. The negative impacts should be minimised using sensitive planning that focuses on previously developed and non-agricultural land that is not of high environmental value. Indeed, that is stated in the national planning policy framework. Surely a locally led planning system should shape developments and they should not be dictated—that could be done by the current Secretary of State or, certainly, future ones.
Unfortunately, the centralisation and power grab by the current Secretary of State is given rocket fuel by proposed new subsection (5C) of section 38 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, in clause 83 of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, which is having its Second Reading today. That subsection states that any conflict between the development plan and a national development management policy
“must be resolved in favour of the national development management policy.”
I look forward to seeing the amendments, which will inevitably be laid, and attempts to remove that provision in favour of locally led planning systems and arrangements.
Testing has been carried out on the benefits of solar energy, and the overwhelming evidence is that, despite small impacts, the benefits of solar outweigh the costs as long as appropriate land is used. The public support a move to renewables, but they know that we need to build in the right place, using the appropriate land. I ask the Minister—I think the need for this has been reaffirmed today—to look again at some of the clauses in the current Bill that centralise the planning process and override local concerns, but also, very importantly, to incentivise renewables.
The mover of today’s motion is a polar explorer, a writer of books, and a provider of written interventions for colleagues. Minister Hughes, you have a lot to live up to.
It is a true pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. Not only will my performance not live up to that introduction, but sadly I am a very poor substitute for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, who is currently in the main Chamber and preparing to steer the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill through Parliament. I will not be able to answer some of the questions that have been asked, but I will ensure that we get answers from a very learned source to ensure that hon. Members get some response.
I thank my hon. Friend James Gray for his fine speech. We have all acknowledged how well informed it was and how intrepid he is, and his environmental credentials are unequalled in the room. I also express thanks for the contributions from other hon. Members. Some of them have already gone, but they were fine contributions none the less.
In our net zero strategy and British energy security strategy, the Government committed to securing and fully decarbonising the UK’s electricity supply. Crucially, we are considering how the planning system can further support our commitment to reaching net zero. The British energy security strategy sets out our plans to consult on some specific changes to the planning system to support delivery of renewable infrastructure, including solar farms. That energy strategy sets a clear ambition for a fivefold increase in deployment of the UK’s solar capacity, up to 70 GW, by 2035. That obviously means shifting up a gear in terms of deployment, but what it categorically does not mean is seizing large swathes of countryside and turning them into industrial solar farms and storage units. Yes, large-scale ground-mounted farms will be needed, but smaller commercial and domestic rooftop projects will be just as essential.
I will respond to some of the points made in the debate. On toughening up planning regulations in the NPPF to make sure that ground-mounted solar panels are not blighting the countryside, I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire that we will consult on amending planning rules in England to strengthen policy in favour of solar development on non-protected land. We intend to do this while making sure that local communities continue to have a real say over applications, with all the existing environmental protections remaining in place, and we will publish the consultation in due course. We are also committed to delivering on the commitments we made in the net zero strategy to review national planning policy, to make sure it contributes to climate change mitigation and adaption as fully as possible.
My hon. Friend referred to a few specific examples of planning applications in his constituency, as did others. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will understand that, given the quasi-judicial role of Ministers within the planning system, I am unable to comment on specifics; however, I can explain the Government’s position on planning policy for the matters raised. Currently, planning applications for projects up to 50 MW capacity in England are determined by local planning authorities. The vast majority of solar projects in England fall into that category, although clearly not the one mentioned by my hon. Friend Virginia Crosbie. Councils will consider a range of factors when assessing applications, including the environmental impact.
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 through the nationally significant infrastructure project regime. This allows for rigorous scrutiny of such projects through an impartial examination process run by the Planning Inspectorate. Under the NSIP regime, developers must undertake considerable community engagement as part of the application process. Communities can participate in a formal examination process run by the Planning Inspectorate, which gives residents ample opportunity to make their views on a project known long before any decisions are taken. As right hon. and hon. Members will know, the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill will increase opportunities for community involvement even further.
It is probably a good idea for me to move away from my speech and respond to some of the points that have been raised. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire mentioned battery facilities being of no use, but my understanding is that where we have battery facilities, we need less solar. The performance of solar obviously depends on the sun shining, whereas a battery facility allows us to capture the energy created while the sun is shining. We therefore do not need quite so many solar panels, because the scheme operates on a more efficient basis.
Regarding brownfield versus greenfield, the Government have a clear preference for brownfield development in many of our planning areas, and that also applies here. An excellent scheme in Wolverhampton has taken a landfill site and built a considerable solar facility that will feed the local hospital. We certainly have a preference for that in the Black Country.
My hon. Friend asked whether it is possible to have grazing continuing in and out of solar facilities. I am sorry to say that there is not a single solar farm in Walsall North, or not many of them, so I do not know whether grazing will continue. I will take his expertise on board and I will discuss this issue with our right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing when the opportunity arises. Hopefully my hon. Friend will forgive my lack of knowledge in that area.
The question of roof versus field was raised by Mike Amesbury. At the moment, my understanding is that there is more or less a 50:50 balance between the production of solar energy in fields and on roofs. The Government intend to maintain that balance and we have some interesting things happening—for example, a part L uplift in the building regs, which is coming into force this month. When we change the building regs, we create notional buildings that show how we can achieve the new standard. The notional building for the part L uplift includes solar panels, so we expect that, from now on, further building regs will see more buildings—houses and commercial—built with solar panels in place.
I understand that my hon. Friend is not the Minister responsible, but did I understand him correctly to say that he intends to maintain the split between green fields and roofs at 50:50? The whole thrust of the debate this afternoon has been that we do not want that maintained. We want significantly more solar power to be generated on brownfield sites and on buildings, and significantly less on fields. I would like to see it going to 70:30 or 80:20, or, come to that, 100% of solar farms being on reused land.
It was meant to be reassuring. I was just saying that we will maintain the status quo at the very least, and that in terms of that balance it is not our intention to push for dramatically more farmland to be used for solar.
I am terribly sorry and I am grateful to the Minister for giving way away. I do not want to enter into an argument, but that is not in the least bit reassuring. The reason why all these Members are in the Chamber today is because solar farm applications are being made in their constituencies. We do not want them to happen; we want them to stop. We want the land to remain agricultural land that can produce food. Just saying, “Oh, don’t worry, ladies and gentlemen, it will be absolutely fine. It is going to remain as it is now,” is no reassurance at all. We want the situation to change. We want to see fewer solar farms on agricultural land, not more or even the same number.
Given that we need to achieve a fivefold increase in solar generation, we are going to have great difficulty in finding places to put that in a way that does not compromise people’s enjoyment of the countryside, at least in some small way. We need to find a way through this that means we achieve our net zero objective while not upsetting too many Members of this House or the public more generally.
I associate myself with the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire. If the Minister is going to run a consultation, that has to be run, completed and responded to before the NPPF is published in July. We must have a consultation that enables us to introduce legislation to allow us, as Members of Parliament, and local authorities to make decisions. Will the Minister commit to that, or at least commit to asking the Department to make sure that the consultation will be brought forward quickly?
In the absence of the Minister responsible for housing and planning, I undertake to share with him the views that have been raised, although I am sure he is aware of this debate and will read it subsequently.
Valerie Vaz mentioned a current planning application in Walsall. As a planning Minister, I cannot comment on that. I feel a degree of assurance that Walsall Council will be able to handle that application. In relation to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, I can assure her that this Government certainly intend to continue to protect the green belt.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn raised a scheme that I can only imagine is of national significance and therefore will be determined by the Secretary of State for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. That falls outside my purview, but I will make sure that BEIS Ministers are aware of her concern.
I share the ambition of Matt Rodda to maximise the use of brownfield sites or put more solar on top of existing buildings, squeezing solar in everywhere that will not impact on the enjoyment of the countryside.
Finally, it is good to see Mike Amesbury at the Dispatch Box again. The war in Ukraine has told us that we need to maximise our energy security by making sure that we have access to oil, because that is clearly how we generate lots of our electricity, while continuing our commitment to a transition to net zero by doing things such as scaling up our solar power production dramatically.
As I said at the start, Mr Paisley, I am a poor substitute for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing. I will convey the thoughts of Members present to him and I look forward to him responding to Members in due course.
It has been a unanimous debate this afternoon, Mr Paisley. All of us, on all sides of the House, agree that we want to see fewer solar farms and fewer battery storage solutions. We want to see agriculture and food production increased.
It was unanimous until we came to the Minister’s response to the debate, which I have to say was extraordinarily disappointing. I am horrified to hear the Government intend to increase the number of solar farms by 500% and that the Minister thinks that a ratio of 50:50 between fields and roofs, which is where we are at the moment, is reassuring. We want to see far, far fewer solar farms in the countryside.
I am extremely disappointed that the Minister was unable to tell us when the NPPF will be renewed. He was not able to reassure me that somehow or other these matters would be considered in that NPPF. I hope the Secretary of State will listen carefully to what has been said today.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (