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

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.