Solar Farms and Battery Storage

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 8th June 2022.

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Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire 4:30 pm, 8th June 2022

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.

On 9 March, in this Chamber, the Science Minister, my hon. Friend George Freeman, confirmed that interpretation of the NPPF. He said:

“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, 9 March 2022; Vol. 710, c. 127-8WH.]

on agricultural land.