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.