Solar Farms and Battery Storage

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:02 pm on 8th June 2022.

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Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions) 5:02 pm, 8th June 2022

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.