A Parliamentary debate was held in Westminster Hall today (19 July), called by Conservative MP Dr Caroline Johnson, who represents Sleaford and North Hykeham in Lincolnshire, on concerns from some Conservative MPs over solar deployment.
Conservative MP Caroline Noakes chaired the debate, which Johnson used to call for government action to stop a ‘plague’ of solar farms. She was joined in the criticism of overdevelopment of solar farms by other Lincolnshire MPs like Sir John Hayes and Sir Edward Leigh.
Dr Johnson said she was concerned by the spread of large scale solar farms, which dramatically alter the landscape, with “villages surrounded by a sea of solar panels”. Local residents “lack effective means to stop such plans”, she said, calling for greater transparency and a sense of ownership for local communities in the consultation process.
Johnson continued, “I was informed yesterday that there are 12 Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) applications currently in progress in Lincolnshire of large solar farms including Beacon Fen, Springwell, Heckington Fen, and Fosgreen Energy, which all appear in my constituency. I’m also reliably informed that there are a further two NSIP solar applications in the pipeline for North Kesteven.”
“However, it was notable as of yesterday there was only one small scale application to our local council. So the government needs to reflect in my view on why it’s created a planning system for solar panels that drives applications of the NSIP scale such that we have so many NSIPs in Lincolnshire and so few small scale applications comparatively,” she added.
The upgrade of substations on the electrical network had acted as a magnet for speculators seeking to cash in, Johnson said, adding that overdevelopment of solar farms was affecting house prices. She concluded by saying the UK should prioritise industrial and brownfield land for solar farms, and place them on commercial rooftops.
Many Conservative MPs raised concerns about food security, with some like James Gray (Conservative, North Wiltshire) saying that 3B quality agricultural land should be off limits to solar development.
Sir John Hayes (Conservative, South Holland and the Deepings) said we can’t have food security and give up land for onshore solar and wind.
Liberal Democrat MP Richard Foord, who represents Tiverton and Honiton in Devon, responded that his constituency had many solar farms too, and that solar and wind are two of the quickest and cheapest forms of electricity.
The Conservatives face losing a trio of byelections this week in three different parts of the country, but are vulnerable in rural areas of the South West like Somerset and Frome, which the Lib Dems expect to win. Tory MPs asked Foord to clarify whether his party was in favour of building solar on agricultural land or not.
Foord said he would be in favour of more smaller solar farms, rather than large ones. He said: “I’m not in favour of the particular concentration of solar farms in my patch.” While his party were in favour of renewables generally, some projects were too large and needed to be dispersed, he added.
“To sum up, if we’re going to invest in schemes like this, they’re going to need a lifespan that is not too long and we’re going to need sustainable energy solutions that work with farmers and local communities so we can take people with us,” Foord concluded.
Sir Edward Leigh, Conservative MP for Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, said there should be a public inquiry into solar planning, that NSIPs were bypassing planning laws and avoiding local scrutiny by dividing bigger projects up into different applications.
“The whole thing is a con and a cheat and it’s also worrying that there’s some evidence there’s Chinese backing for some of these companies. All of this is made in China, so what are we playing at?”, Leigh said.
Derek Thomas, Conservative MP for St Ives, said reform of planning policy would allow us to get solar in the right place and address the cost of energy. Thomas said that solar created possibilities for landowners where land was not productive: “If farms aren’t viable they’re broken up and sold off and then you do get the chelsea tractor drivers coming in.”
Thomas said there should be a “proper plan for what kind of land is used, and what kind of land is available for what purpose,” and that the “ lephant in the room” was grid capacity. “We mustn’t cut off the nose to spite the face when it comes to delivering energy as close to home as possible to meet our constituents needs and local community network is quite an important thing in this debate,” Thomas added.
Dr Johnson said that one of the issues driving overdevelopment was the price of grid connections “The price of those connections is determined by the electricity companies, and in fact they are driving people towards the massive scale because it’s the only way to make the connection commercially viable,” Johnson said.
Alicia Kearns, Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton also said there was a concentration of solar development in Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and Rutland.
“Over 50% of all land nationally proposed for solar plants being in Lincolnshire and bordering counties, and perhaps colleagues might wish to adopt that language of ‘solar plants’ because that is what they are,” Kearns said.
“I worry that this does not bode well for our national food security when the heartlands of our agriculture are being assaulted. At my last count there were 77 solar plants currently proposed in Lincolnshire and bordering counties that total over 38,000 acres of land.”
Sir John Hayes said he was partly responsible for the moratorium on onshore wind which he said had the effect of driving wind offshore and catalysing the offshore wind industry. Hayes has been part of anti-Net Zero groups like Net Zero Watch, and has been criticised for accepting donations from oil companies.
However, Hayes agreed that solar is “important but should be in the right place… primarily on buildings. We need to refocus our efforts to building on-building solar.”
Labour’s Matthew Pennycook said that his party would not look to exclude 3B land, and that planning processes need speeding up. “There’s no question in our view that we need a more strategic and planned approach to ground mounted solar across the country, we do need to do more to drive up rates of rooftop solar installation, and to prioritise solar deployment on previously developed or lower value land, we need to take steps to maximise the efficiency of sites used for renewable deployment, co-locating sites wherever possible, to mitigate it’s impact on communities.”
Pennycock also called for environmental protections to remain in place and communities to have a say on where large scale projects are located.
Andrew Bowie, DESNZ deputy minister and MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine responded to the debate, saying that sustainability and protecting the environment remain key parts of the government’s strategy, with solar playing a key role in helping achieve energy independence.
“However, the government recognises that solar farms, as with any new infrastructure will have local impacts. It is therefore essential thar we have a robust planning system that not only helps deliver energy security, but also protects the environment and local communities, and supports wider government ambitions such as food security,” Bowie said.
Bowie went on to say that “We have seen an increase in the number and size of developments coming forward, and expect that trend to continue. In the Net Zero Strategy, the government committed to installing 70GW of solar capacity by 2035. This does represent a five-fold increase in our capacity, and we need to maximise the deployment of all types of solar to achieve this ambitious target.”
“It is important to stress, however, that this does not mean seizing large swaths of countryside and turning them into industrial solar farms and storage units. Yes, ground mounted solar will be needed, but smaller scale commercial and domestic rooftop projects will be just as essential if not more so. The government believes that solar and farming can be complimentary, supporting each other financially, environmentally and through shared use of land. Therefore we seek solar deployment across the UK, mainly on brownfield, industrial and low medium grade agricultural land,” Bowie concluded.
Bowie also took the opportunity to criticise the Liberal Democrats, saying that their policies would remove planning rules and disempower local residents.
Gareth Simkins, senior communications advisor for Solar Energy UK, who attended the debate, told Current± that the debate showed little appreciation of the locational difficulties of siting solar farms on poorer quality farmland: “Principally, there was no recognition of where poorer-quality farmland is: broadly in upland areas, far from human settlement and hence grid access. These areas are often in AONBs or national parks.”
All in all, this is not a debate that will matter much in the grand scheme of things. The Conservatives have failed to incentivise enough domestic and commercial rooftop solar, though these have both been increasing in the last few years, moreso due to falling costs and the energy crisis than government policy.
The government has an opportunity to massively increase smaller scale solar projects by backing community energy projects, which I have been writing about recently. It is too late now to change policy considerably before the next election, and backbench MPs from Lincolnshire who have big majorities remain a minority within the party, representing constituencies which will vote Conservative regardless of government policy, meaning the government can afford to ignore them.
This was a debate largely between different wings of the Conservative Party who disagree about energy policy and local planning. For the industry, the medium term concern remains more with how quickly a new Labour government might change industrial policy to accelerate the deployment of solar.