Solar Farms and Battery Storage

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:17 pm on 8th June 2022.

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Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 5:17 pm, 8th June 2022

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.