Large-scale Solar Farms — [Gordan Henderson in the Chair]

Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall am 12:30 pm ar 18 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Ceidwadwyr, Sleaford and North Hykeham 12:30, 18 Ebrill 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered large-scale solar farms.

I will start with what we all agree on: that we need to live sustainably, that food security is important, and that we need cheap and reliable energy for the economy to thrive. I think we can all agree—I know from my conversations with the Prime Minister that he does—that proposals to carpet vast swathes of our best farmland with industrial solar panels are wrong.

There is little doubt that renewable energy sources are crucial for combating climate change and ensuring a sustainable future. I am not opposed to solar panels in general. They are an important part of the mix of renewable energy sources, and they have some merit in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and in achieving our net zero ambitions. However, in the process of achieving that laudable aim, we must be very wary of unintended consequences. There is a considerable risk that in the name of saving the environment, we end up destroying it, and that in the name of energy security, we make ourselves dependent on food imports.

First, I will address the most salient issue, which is food security. The drive to net zero carbon emissions can be sustained only so long as there is food on our shelves. We would ideally have policies prioritising energy security and food security, but as it stands, the balance has tipped too far towards energy security at the expense of food security. National self-sufficiency in food has fallen from 74% to 61% since the mid-1980s. Although the Government may be right that food security does not necessitate complete food security during peacetime, and it is reasonable to assume that some level of international trade in food will always be a contributing factor, the war in Ukraine and its associated impacts on food security and prices internationally has demonstrated that the maintenance of historical trade patterns cannot always be relied on.

In that context, large-scale solar projects have threatened to swallow up rural constituencies with applications over the past few years. Alarmingly, those projects disproportionately affect the most fertile parts of the United Kingdom. One of the most targeted counties for industrial solar applications is Lincolnshire, which is the breadbasket of England. Lincolnshire alone produces 30% of the UK’s vegetables and 18% of its poultry; it is responsible for 12% of the country’s total food production. Lincolnshire without a doubt has some of the UK’s best and most versatile farmland, because it is flat and, for the UK at least, relatively sunny.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Ceidwadwyr, South Holland and The Deepings

My hon. Friend has done a great service to the House by bringing this debate to our attention. As she will know, my constituency contains a disproportionate amount of that very fine agricultural land, even by Lincolnshire standards. To compromise food security in the interest of energy security is a nonsense. We will make our country more dependent on imports, damaging the environment and robbing our people of the chance of buying and consuming domestically made food.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Ceidwadwyr, Sleaford and North Hykeham

As is usually the case, I completely agree with my right hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour. He will be aware that 12 nationally significant infrastructure project applications are currently in progress in Lincolnshire for large solar projects. That includes Beacon Fen, Springwell, Heckington Fen and Fosse Green Energy, all of which are in my constituency. Those solar schemes alone would cover 9,109 hectares of farmland; such an area would otherwise produce 81,000 tonnes of wheat, which would make 57 million loaves of bread or 1.5 billion Weetabix.

Despite the Government’s guidance that solar prospectors should avoid using the best and most versatile land, many of the proposals would cover enormous swathes of it. Fosse Green will use 2,479 acres of prime farmland, thereby reducing the UK’s valuable food production capacity and exacerbating food insecurity. The best and most versatile land makes up 30% of the Springwell solar farm and 49% of the Heckington Fen application.

Lincolnshire undoubtedly has—I am sure that hon. Friends will agree—the best farmland in the country, but it is not the only place affected by the menace of these massive, farmland-consuming solar applications. My hon. Friend Alicia Kearns, who is unable to attend today, has been campaigning assiduously against Mallard Pass solar plant in her constituency. That project is to be located on 2,105 acres of agricultural land, 70% of which is grade 1 —our very best farmland. That is the equivalent of 1,300 football pitches and will be 10 times larger than the current-largest solar farm built in the United Kingdom.

Photo of Paul Howell Paul Howell Ceidwadwyr, Sedgefield

To reinforce my hon. Friend’s point about where these issues arise, even in my constituency, there is an application for 1,200 acres, and a number of other applications on a smaller scale, which make an aggregate of 2,000 acres between the villages of Bishopton and Brafferton. That would be completely inappropriate in scale.

On the quality of land, there seems to be a marginal differentiation between grades 3a and 3b, and the question is about who makes that decision and how it is made. We need to ensure that we have robustness and integrity in relation to the land that is being used, to make sure that it is kept for agricultural use where possible.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Ceidwadwyr, Sleaford and North Hykeham

My hon. Friend is completely right and he demonstrates that this menace stretches the length and breadth of the country. I will come later to his well- made point about the grading of land.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Is she aware, in relation to the use of best and most versatile land, that our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, when appearing before the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs last month, made a statement that he was reviewing the suitability of best and most versatile land for solar planning applications? As my hon. Friend will be aware, I am a supporter of solar energy, as she is, but it needs to be in the right place. We should not have, as she and our hon. Friend Paul Howell have described, industrial-scale concentrations over vast areas beyond a reasonable level. It is a question of balance that we have to get right.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Ceidwadwyr, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I was not aware of the statement at the EFRA Committee, but I am aware, from my discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, of his love for and attention to farmland and his desire to see that food security is protected.

Photo of Robert Jenrick Robert Jenrick Ceidwadwyr, Newark

My hon. Friend knows that I am the last person to be a nimby, and Nottinghamshire’s heritage is among the richest for industry and energy production—it dates back centuries—but the point that our right hon. Friend Philip Dunne made could equally be applied to the situation in Nottinghamshire. We are not opposed to solar farms. The issue is the scale of the applications and their aggregate impact on the landscape, which is profound. Were the three applications in my constituency to go ahead—I know that one borders the constituency of my hon. Friend—they will stretch from the South Yorkshire border all the way down to the Vale of Belvoir, peppering thousands of acres of land and impacting more than 60 villages. The landscape of that part of Nottinghamshire will be changed for a generation. That is simply unfair and exactly what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has campaigned against—an over-zealous application of net zero, which turns the public off.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Ceidwadwyr, Sleaford and North Hykeham

My right hon. Friend and, as he mentioned, constituency neighbour is absolutely right: it is very important that we look at the cumulative effect of the applications and the industrialisation of our landscapes. Again, this is—

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Ceidwadwyr, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Of course. I will get the next sentence out eventually.

Photo of Richard Fuller Richard Fuller Ceidwadwyr, North East Bedfordshire

My hon. Friend has now heard from the proud counties of Lincolnshire, for which she also speaks on this issue, Durham, Shropshire and Nottinghamshire, and she will now hear from Bedfordshire. I gently point out that every single Back-Bench Member of Parliament present is a Conservative. There is not a single Labour Back-Bench MP here—or Liberal, for that matter—to talk about the impact of large-scale solar farms.

Small-scale solar farms in my constituency have been welcomed by local communities, because the developers have spoken to parish councils and worked with local residents to ensure that the siting is appropriate. It is these large-scale financial vehicles, which masquerade as solar farms trying to help us to achieve net zero, that have caused consternation. I am afraid to say that that includes the East Park Energy development proposed in my constituency.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Ceidwadwyr, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. I am also expecting to hear from Buckinghamshire, Wiltshire, Suffolk, Yorkshire, Redditch, the south-west and more from Lincolnshire—I do not want to miss anyone out.

The Attorney General, my right hon. and learned Friend Victoria Prentis, and the Solicitor General, my hon. and learned Friend Robert Courts, are unable to speak today, while my hon. Friend John Howell is unwell. Alongside Rupert Harrison, the Conservative candidate for the new Bicester and Woodstock seat, they are actively campaigning against the Botley West solar farm in Oxfordshire. If it is approved, they tell me that it will be the size of Heathrow and the largest solar plant in Europe. It will encroach across four parliamentary constituencies in Oxfordshire. A project of that scale poses a disproportionate threat to agricultural land, much of which is of best and most versatile status, and will result in the loss of swathes of open countryside. In another part of the country, my hon. Friend Mrs Wheeler is concerned about the massive solar application on productive farmland between Rosliston and Drakelow, and the food security implications of the loss of such good farmland.

The ramifications of putting our best agricultural land out of use for 40 years could be incredibly destabilising. Arable land in the UK is declining. It is currently at 14.8 million acres, which is the lowest since world war two, with 100,000 acres being taken out of cultivation annually. Massive-scale solar plants—I call them plants specifically, because they are not really farms—withdraw hundreds of hectares of urgently needed farmland from UK food production. If such projects are allowed to go ahead, agricultural products will have to come from countries where the environmental and animal welfare standards may be less rigorous than ours, at a greater economic and—due to transportation and other things—environmental cost.

I will move on to land use strategy. Solar must take its appropriate place in the many conflicting demands on land: agriculture, housing, calls from some people for rewilding, health, and conservation. It does not trump all the others. We simply cannot have it all; we must make intelligent use of our finite resources of land and balance what some see as conflicting priorities.

Some people say that the land underneath solar panels can be grazed by livestock, but from practical experience, that is absolute nonsense. I challenge anyone to look under the ground-mounted solar panels already in place and see how often they find animals grazing there. The Government need to develop a comprehensive, carefully thought-out land strategy to ensure that our best farmland is not put at risk in this way.

Photo of Danny Kruger Danny Kruger Ceidwadwyr, Devizes

I will not speak at length about the terrible development encroaching on Devizes—my hon. Friend James Gray will speak for Wiltshire shortly—but eight of the 10 largest solar sites in England are in Wiltshire, so we have a real problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) is talking about the necessity for national planning. Does she agree that local authorities should have more power to determine a solar strategy for their area, rather than having to conform to unwieldy national rules?

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Ceidwadwyr, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I certainly think that local people should have more say in what happens in their area in this regard, but I am cautious about having a solar strategy for each area. In areas such as Lincolnshire with high volumes of food-producing land, it may not be appropriate to have any massive-scale solar plants.

The loss of good-quality arable land at a time of unstable world trade situations is a first-rate folly, particularly when other infinitely more sensible sites are available, such as brownfield sites, domestic roofs and commercial rooftops. This should worry everybody wherever they live, which is why it is disappointing, as my hon. Friend Richard Fuller said, that the Benches are full of Conservative Members but no Liberal Democrats or Labour people with any interest in food security have turned up. Food security is important for those who live in cities, too.

Does the Minister agree that the Government urgently need to produce a joined-up land use strategy? Will he update the House on what the Government are doing to encourage the use of brownfield sites, poor-quality land, and the roofs of warehouses and industrial buildings? What discussions is he having with energy suppliers regarding the balance between standing charges and usage costs in order to incentivise the installation of solar panels on industrial units?

There is a long backlog of people waiting for grid connection. What plans does the Minister have for grid connection prioritisation for those using brownfield sites or industrial and domestic roofs? Such connections are prohibitively expensive, which is also driving the spread of massive-scale solar farms. What assessment has he made of the actual costs of the connections rather than the charged costs?

On the concept of efficiency, Hinkley Point C, which is currently under construction in Somerset, will take up 174 hectares and is expected to produce 26 TWh of electricity per year for 60 years. In comparison, Springwell Solar Farm, which is in my constituency, will be almost 25 times the size of Hinkley Point C, but will produce only 950,000 MWh of electricity per year, which is just shy of 1 TWh per year, for 40 years. That is 25 times the size for 25 times less energy, for less time.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Ceidwadwyr, Haltemprice and Howden

I will return to Yorkshire later, but on the more strategic point, my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne quite rightly talked about this issue being a matter of balance, and my hon. Friend is highlighting what we are paying per terawatt-hour for solar power. Other countries, most particularly Germany, that have depended on a balance of solar power and wind have found themselves being let down completely by the system. The Germans even have a word, “dunkelflaute”, for when there is cloud and no wind. They have had years in which they have had serious electricity deficits. So although we all agree that solar power is an important part of the Government’s repertoire, as it were, it is not the overall answer.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Ceidwadwyr, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I completely agree with my right hon. Friend; in fact, he must have read my speech in advance, because my next point is that it is questionable to what extent solar is the most appropriate source of renewable energy. In the UK, solar generates maximum power for an average of only 2.6 hours per day, which falls to less than one hour per day during winter, the time of year when energy is most needed—in practice, we are most likely to need energy when it is dark and cold rather than when it is sunny and there is bright daylight.

In addition, battery storage is carbon-intensive and requires rare earth metals, as my hon. Friend Greg Smith has pointed out previously. There is an issue of land-use efficiency here. Currently, 2,000 acres of solar panels are required to power around 50,000 homes, but one small modular reactor, requiring the space of just two football pitches, would power 1 million homes.

To go back to the point made by my right hon. Friend Sir David Davis about wind, a 140-acre solar project is capable of supplying electricity to 9,000 homes, but offshore wind turbines generate maximum power for an average of 9.4 hours each day, and just one turbine in the North sea has the capacity to power 16,000 homes, largely without bothering a single person or destroying any of our best and most versatile land.

The previous debate that I secured on this issue, in June last year, focused on planning regulations, and I do not plan to go into that subject in huge detail again today. To give the Government credit, since then they have clearly tried to get to grips with the issue, and they released a new national policy statement on renewable energy infrastructure in January. Nevertheless, I fear there is still a loophole in the regulations. The cumulative impact of solar applications is not properly defined, and the regulations are still characterised not by strict rules but by guidance, which can be flouted. Many planners still utterly ignore the guidance to avoid the use of the best and most versatile land. Half of the Heckington Fen project in my constituency would be on the best and most versatile land and—horrifyingly—it is proposed that 94% of the Drax project in east Yorkshire will swallow up BMV land.

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Ceidwadwyr, Cleethorpes

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Thankfully, in the northern part of Lincolnshire that I represent, we have been fairly free of solar farms, but applications have recently flooded in following some developments in the Immingham and Stallingborough area. When the planning guidance is read to local authorities, it could be interpreted much more robustly by those planning authorities than it is at present. Allowing for the fact that they interpret it rather loosely, I urge the Minister when he responds to confirm that the Government are prepared to tighten up the guidance to local authorities.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Ceidwadwyr, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I agree with my hon. Friend and thank him for supporting my calls for the Minister to ensure that the guidance is tightened up to protect our farmland. It is clear that developers are taking advantage of the absence of rigid and specific Government guidance to protect BMV land and proposing ever larger solar installations as NSIPs in unsuitable places. As one developer commented:

“That’s the neat thing about the NSIP process. You put all the powers you need into one consent and have relative certainty”

—certainly in their view—

“of the consent being granted.”

Although the upgrade of substations within the electrical network is intended to be a positive thing that enhances local infrastructure, in my area it has inadvertently attracted speculators looking to profit from the farmland. When substations undergo upgrades, a cluster of large solar applications tends to emerge nearby. The approach is cheaper for companies seeking to complete solar projects, but it does not mean they are being built in the right places. Unfortunately, the consequence is a shift from a few small, unobtrusive solar panels on brownfield sites, and smaller amounts on poor-quality farmland and fields here and there, to massive industrial installations in completely the wrong places based merely on grid connection. Such industrial projects significantly alter the landscape, sometimes entirely swallowing whole villages, transforming once green fields into sterile expanses of photovoltaic glass. The companies have no ties to the land and no stake in its preservation.

One issue that I have raised with the Minister previously —it was brought up by my hon. Friend Paul Howell—is that developers are having the land grades analysed themselves. They appear to be finding that the land is of lower grade than DEFRA and others thought it was.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Ceidwadwyr, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Surprise, surprise indeed. There is a clear incentive for a developer to report a lower grade of land in this context. The Minister has said to me that he would take steps to review that; will he update the House on what progress has been made?

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Ceidwadwyr, South Holland and The Deepings

I am delighted to get a second bite of the cherry, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me that. There are three deceptions. The first, which she described, is of dodgy surveyors and agronomists reclassifying land so that it can be developed. The second is that these large developments include land of different grades. Even if part of the land is grade 1 or 2, because some is not, the developer prosecutes their case accordingly. The third, of course, is that by having these large developments, local authorities and local people are taken out of the frame altogether. Those are deliberate deceptions, and it is up to the Minister, who I know is a fine man with a strong sense of diligence in this regard, to take action to end them.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Ceidwadwyr, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. He summarises large parts of my speech succinctly.

Another issue that I want to raise is that although large-scale solar may technically be classified as clean energy, many tell me that the companies that supply it are neither morally clean nor environmentally green. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton had an Adjournment debate earlier this week in which she made an interesting but rather disturbing speech relating to the use of forced labour in supply chains of solar panels. Her debate highlighted the fact that many solar panels also use vast quantities of coal in their supply chain.

Fosse Green—one of the organisations trying to muscle in on rural Lincolnshire—appears as a British company, but its structure is rather complex. It is actually a joint venture involving two established solar developers: Windel Energy and Recurrent Energy. The latter is, according to the firm itself, the

“wholly-owned subsidiary of Canadian Solar incorporated”.

As highlighted by my hon. Friend, Canadian Solar gets its panels almost exclusively from China, where about 60% of the grid is accounted for by coal-powered energy plants. The plants will have a significant carbon footprint of their own, and once the panels are produced they will have to be transported to and within the UK on ships and lorries powered by hydrocarbons.

The other allegations made against Canadian Solar, which I understand the Minister will be investigating, are particularly worrying. What are the Government doing to investigate the actual benefit of solar projects, taking into account the panels’ production, transportation, regular cleaning and ultimate disposal, and to ensure that we are not complicit in the use of forced labour?

It is self-evident that the companies have little time for the views of those who will be most affected by them. I recently conducted a survey in my constituency in the areas most affected by large-scale NSIP applications. Letters were sent directly to thousands of households in Sleaford and North Hykeham, and I received over 2,000 handwritten responses. These were not simple online forms that could be clicked and submitted multiple times; they were thought-out responses, many of which contained pages—and I mean pages—of heartfelt comments. Of the respondents, 90% were concerned about the enormous scale of the proposals, 68% were extremely concerned about the use of productive farmland, and 55% were extremely concerned about the visual impact.

The accusation often levelled against people who are against the proposals but have to live next to the projects is that this is merely nimbyism: “We like solar panels, but just not next to us.” Actually, although visual impact was a considerable factor in the responses, the far greater concern was about the loss of productive farmland. A significant proportion of my constituents are veterans, serving military personnel and those who work in agriculture, and they more than anyone else understand the extreme importance of food security. The most common response was that we must protect our prime agricultural land in the interests of food security.

That said, I also have sympathy with the aesthetic arguments. Lincolnshire is a particularly beautiful county, and the countryside has inspired much of our nation’s best art and literature. Lincolnshire’s pre-eminent literary figure, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, felt his deepest sympathies for an unaltered rural England, and found himself a stranger in the rapidly changing industrial and mercantile world of 19th-century England. His work remains remarkably relevant to our situation today. His much-loved poem “The Brook”, a memorable personification of a stream, ends with the following lines:

“For men may come and men may go,

But I go on for ever.”

What do we allow to go on forever? Do we allow the industrialisation of our countryside, or do we honour the landscape that has inspired so much of our great literature? Edmund Burke noticed that happiness is the promise of beauty, and it is clear that rural communities will be far unhappier after being deprived of the natural beauty of their surroundings.

Solar prospectors often hide behind claims that their panels will be hidden from public view, but that is often not the case. The panels are often more than 4 metres tall—twice the height of the tallest gentleman here—and especially visible from higher areas. Even in a relatively flat area like Lincolnshire, enormous solar seas such as the Fosse Green project could be seen from the limestone cliff running down the county. Their glint and glare could disturb any onlookers, and they are a particularly big threat to our national treasure, the Red Arrows.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Ceidwadwyr, Haltemprice and Howden

I will stand to my full height. May I address the issue of the dismissive attitude behind the word “nimbyism”? Many people who live in these parts of the countryside—in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and the rest—moved there because of the environment. They go there for a peaceful retirement, because they would like to work there or because they want their children to grow up in a good environment. It is distinctly unconservative— to use a phrase frequently used at the moment—to dismiss peoples’ property rights as nimbyism. They bought their view. They placed themselves and invested their savings in the environment that we are talking about. When we take it away, we should not just dismiss it as nimbyism.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Ceidwadwyr, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Unsurprisingly, I quite agree with my right hon. Friend. It is important that we represent the constituents we are sent here to represent. If they are unhappy with solar farms being put in front of their houses, whether that is because the farms are on productive farmland or because they ruin the environment in which they live, we are here to represent those concerns.

Photo of Robert Jenrick Robert Jenrick Ceidwadwyr, Newark

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. I want to re-emphasise the point she just made about the height of the solar panels. I wonder whether the proponents of the schemes and those considering the applications in Government actually understand the scale of what is being proposed. For the application that my hon. Friend and I face, the panels are as high as a house, and some of them will be placed within just a few metres of a home. Imagine if that were your home, Mr Henderson. That is not a solar farm of the sort one might have thought of in the recent past. It will have a profoundly detrimental impact on that person’s quality of life, and we have to consider that when we look at these applications.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Ceidwadwyr, Sleaford and North Hykeham

My right hon. Friend is right: the scale of the panels is difficult to comprehend. My staff have worked hard on some maps comparing some of the larger projects that have been built with the projects that are proposed in his constituency and mine, and the graphics are really very telling.

It is also notable that these projects offer very little commensurate financial benefit for the people most affected by them. Some of my constituents asked in their responses whether the solar panels would reduce the local community’s electricity bills as compensation for the industrial landscape, but no: the electricity produced will go straight into the national grid and will be transported to other areas of the country.

As we have said, this is not mere nimbyism. Communities should not be criticised for resisting solar projects if they are in the wrong place, as these are. Indeed, there should be a greater push for rational, proactive policy to facilitate renewable energy schemes that do not harm our landscape, rather than steamrolling over the views of locals. Large-scale solar projects are a democratic issue. We are sacrificing public trust through opaque planning laws, eschewing public consultation and silencing the voices of residents affected by these schemes. The rightful concerns of residents who do not wish to live in an energy factory must count. I hope that we as representatives can do much to redress the balance.

So what is to be done? We recognise that solar energy is a piece of the jigsaw in our transition to a greener future, but we must strike a balance. We should insist on alternative locations for solar panels, such as brownfield sites, industrial areas and roofs, rather than sacrifice any of our valuable agricultural land and pristine landscapes. Will the Minister confirm that the Government agree with that statement and reiterate their promise to protect our best and most versatile land?

I reiterate that I am not opposed to solar power in general, but we need to revise the strategy for where, and on what scale, it is implemented. Some 90% of respondents to my survey said they would favour solar on industrial roofs. It is estimated that there are 600,000 acres of south-facing industrial roof space not currently used for solar in the United Kingdom. A push to prioritise industrial, brownfield and poor-quality land over residential would be a step in the right direction.

This issue affects us all. There is a creeping danger that our countryside will become rapidly industrialised. If allowed to go through unchallenged, these projects will stretch across vast expanses of rural communities throughout the country, putting our best agricultural land out of use for more than a generation and transforming the character of our green and pleasant land. We, as representatives of largely rural communities, must find common cause. We must work to maintain the beautiful character of our countryside, support our farming industries, protect food security in times of great uncertainty and make the voices of local residents heard.

This is an urgent problem. If the polls are right, though I do not think they are, and we lose the upcoming election, we cannot rely on Labour Ministers. Look at the Chamber: the only Labour MP here is the Opposition spokesperson. There are no Back-Bench Labour or Liberal Democrat MPs. We cannot rely on Labour Ministers to protect our farmland, for the simple reason—as is obvious today—that they do not care about our countryside; that is why they represent so little of it. We must therefore ensure that any solution we pursue is carried out robustly and quickly. The Prime Minister said that on his watch, he will not allow great swathes of our best agricultural land to be swallowed by solar farms, and we will make sure he lives up to that promise.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department 1:04, 18 Ebrill 2024

It is a privilege to be called first to respond to my hon. Friend Dr Johnson and to be surrounded by so many hon. and right hon. Friends who have already made contributions and no doubt will make excellent ones after me.

Before I make my wider arguments, I want to make it clear, for the benefit of local residents in my constituency in rural Worcestershire who I have had the pleasure of meeting at the site itself, that I strongly oppose the solar farm development proposals for 287 acres of beautiful rural farmland in my constituency, in the area around Stock Green and Inkberrow, at the Roundhill Wood site. I have been vocal on the subject and I have lodged my objections with the planning authority, on the public record and in the press—and I do so again.

When I met the Roundhill Wood Solar Farm Opposition Group and its lead spokesman, the indefatigable Phil Coathup, I was completely persuaded by their reasoning. Phil is unable to be with us today, but I am 100% sure he is watching, so I say hello to Phil, and hello to Tigger, who is a horse. I thank them for all they have done, as I thank my hon. Friend for calling the debate and for giving us all this opportunity to air our concerns and those of our constituents.

I will slightly curtail some of the points I intended to make because my hon. Friend has made them so well, but I echo many of them. Residents in my seat have told me that, like me, they are wholly supportive of renewable energy from solar power and the ambition of tackling climate change, but they have a number of concerns. One such concern is the loss of prime agricultural land at a time of war. Residents argue, and I could not agree more, that farming subsidies should not be used to encourage more solar farms. What we really need are more wheat and dairy farms so that we can be sustainable as a population.

There is also the impact on green space—mine is a beautiful area—along with the risk of fire and hazard, as we have seen in many other similar developments. Residents fear fires, electrical storms and many other issues that could have a dangerous impact on the area. In our particular case, there is also the issue of the distance from the grid. The two planning applications submitted for the project will cause massive intrusion into communities. The primary site is located in Inkberrow, while the National Grid substation is located in Feckenham, meaning there will have to be extensive cabling between the two sites.

There is a further aspect to this particular proposal, which is the loss of the literary landscape. In our Worcestershire countryside we are proud of our connection to J. R. R. Tolkien, who is known to have lived and worked there when escaping from Birmingham. Indeed, he is thought to have taken significant inspiration for his work from our beautiful fields and areas, and Andrew Morton recently came to my constituency to discuss the importance of the area in inspiring the Shire. According to Andrew Morton, Tolkien’s visits to his aunt’s farm in Dormston, called Bag End, directly inspired the name of the house of the fictional character Bilbo Baggins. If the application were to pass, the landscape would become a construction site and the views that inspired great works of literature would be lost forever.

Residents also suggest, as did my hon. Friend, that we should put solar panels on rooftops, including warehouse roofs, which are ample elsewhere in my constituency because it is a logistics hub. However, it is clear that that cannot meet the whole of the UK’s solar power needs.

Photo of Richard Fuller Richard Fuller Ceidwadwyr, North East Bedfordshire

I am intrigued by the literary references from both my hon. Friends the Members for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) and for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson). However, I want to draw my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch’s attention to the economics. She will be aware that the strike price for solar power was £47 per megawatt hour and at the last auction was going to go to £61 per megawatt hour. Underpinning farmers’ decision that they should perhaps give up their land is that the economics of farming are finding it difficult to compete with the economics of the pricing at those auctions. Does she agree that if it is the case, which I believe to be true, that the Government now have four times the amount of solar production capacity on offer compared with what they actually require, there needs to be an economic answer to both the pricing of solar power and support for our farmers?

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department

My hon. Friend has made some excellent points. He is right that commercial pressures and the legislation we signed up for—I was happy to vote for that to reach net zero—are driving this between them. We have a lot of unintended outcomes from the policy; it was introduced for laudable aims, but it is time to pause things and look at the matter again.

People have talked about nimbys. It is a really interesting issue, because people will ask, “Where would you put the solar panels instead? Where would you put the additional ones required to fulfil our solar capacity targets?” Our British energy strategy includes ambitions to have 70 GW of solar capacity by 2035, and we are at something like 15.7 GW as of January this year. I believe that if we oppose something and do not like what is in front of us, we should suggest what should be done instead. We should be constructive. We should not just oppose things and not come up with a solution; that is what Labour does, and that is not my style.

On the subject of Labour, by the way, it is unclear to me and local residents what Labour’s position locally is on the solar power project. It should not really surprise anyone that locally Labour is sitting on the fence—or on the solar panel, if I may stretch the metaphor—on the issue. That is what Labour does on every issue: says one thing and does another, or changes its mind every five minutes. It is certainly doing that locally.

People will probably say to me, “Aren’t you just a nimby?” Maybe I should ask myself that as well. As some Members may know, I had the great privilege of serving as the Housing and Planning Minister, and I am familiar with these debates. However, I say to my hon. and right hon. Friends that that is the wrong question and the wrong way of looking at the problem. I will briefly explain why. Deciding where to put infrastructure, whether it is housing, roads or solar farms, will always be controversial. We need to build these things. Nobody wants them next to them and, certainly to my knowledge, nobody has ever campaigned for more development next to them, be it housing or infrastructure.

It is therefore often said that those people must be nimbys and their views should be pushed aside in the interests of progress. There is no easy way around this, even if we prioritise the views of local communities, because the idea that there is anywhere else in the country where somebody will not object to something being built is a fantasy. It is idiotic to divide people into two camps of nimby and not nimby—unless they are Liberal Democrats, of course, who are bananas. That stands for “build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone”—that is their policy.

I have the greatest respect for the yimby movement— I really do; it is doing some good things. However, I suspect that were those people to move to a different area, out of the city and into the countryside, next to a development site or into the green belt that was about to be built over, they might change their view. I speak as someone who has a little understanding of the area; I think all of us MPs do. We understand human nature, and we know that people will deceive themselves and others. I would be happy to be proven wrong, but the evidence in front of me strongly suggests that I am right. It is pointless and wrong to attack nimbys when everyone essentially feels the same about our landscape and our area.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Ceidwadwyr, South Holland and The Deepings

That is indeed right. If a Member of Parliament does not defend their own area, surely they are not really doing their job, are they? My backyard is South Holland and the Deepings, and I will certainly defend it to the death from the kind of menace represented by this kind of large-scale solar.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department

I really enjoy hearing my right hon. Friend speak about the matter, because more than anyone else he has brought the concept of beauty and its impact on our wellbeing into public policy. I thank him for that.

I will deliberately move away from the concept of blaming people for being nimbys, because unless we understand how human psychology works, we will not be able to solve the problem of where to put things that nobody wants. There is another way to think about this. It is much easier and cheaper to install infrastructure on a virgin field, rather than to engineer it somewhere else in the built environment or on brownfield. That is more favourable, but it will take cash.

If anyone tells us that we can simply complete a project on brownfield for the same cost as on greenfield, they have no idea what they are talking about. Yes, I am looking at Labour, because that is essentially Labour’s plan for reforming the planning system. Why? Brownfield is brown for a reason: something else was there before. That something else needs to be removed and the site put back to a clean condition, which involves removing toxic materials and engineering problems.

That costs money, and that is why we have Government agencies and grants funded to the tune of £10.5 billion, in the case of Homes England, to do exactly that. However, that money is our money; it is taxpayers’ money. If we want more of it, we must spend more money on it, which means less money to spend on all the other things that voters want and the Opposition have promised, such as the NHS and so on.

By the way, Labour has repeatedly said that it wants to build on the green belt, or the grey belt, whatever that is. I will be honest: there is some merit in that argument, but that is because we are already doing that. It is Government policy, when it is done sensibly and in consultation with local communities and backed by Government funding. It is happening all over the country. Where it is not happening is in—surprise, surprise—Labour-run planning authorities, most notably London. Sadiq Khan is woefully behind on all his housing targets, even though he has been generously subsidised to the tune of 4 billion quid by taxpayers from around the country who are not lucky enough to live in London but are subsidising his frankly useless delivery record.

What is sad and shameful about this is that the need for housing and the cost of it is acute in London. The so-called housing crisis, which is just as much an immigration crisis as a housing crisis, is worse in London. In fact, if the Labour Mayor of London built enough houses in the capital, we could meet the annual national quota with room to spare and prevent speculative green belt development in the home counties and around the country, such as in the areas we represent. If we want a planning system that works with local people, we need to take a step back, look at our policy landscape and ask ourselves about the incentives that are driving these unfavourable outcomes.

Taking all the politics out of this, we are talking about human nature and behaviour. It is an illustration of the tragedy of the commons. Projects such as solar farms are needed to meet communal goals such as net zero, and most people agree that renewable energy is a good idea.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about a strategic review. Does she agree that we need a national policy on solar farms? Do the Government want them to be on a large scale and out in the middle of the countryside, or do they want them to be on smaller sites? At the moment there is no national policy for the matter. Should one not be brought in with no further delay?

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend; he is completely right. I think most of us will make the same point, and I am sure the Minister will update us.

I want to briefly touch on environmental issues. We need to talk about the environmental agencies and the proliferating plethora of reasons for objecting to development on environmental grounds. We have a number of agencies, most notably Natural England and the Environment Agency, but we have not seen them do anything useful such as protecting farm land, our green space, our precious environment and nature or tackling projects that we are all concerned about in our local areas. What they are actually doing is inventing and coming up with ridiculous ideas like “nutrient neutrality”, which is holding up 100,000 much-needed houses across the country in areas where people are desperately screaming out for them. Guess who voted against the proposals we brought forward to tackle that? Of course, it was Labour. If they were serious about unblocking development and house building, they could have acted on that.

I accept that there is a need for regulation and enforcement, but we should direct our attention to the huge number of quangos and agencies indulging in mission creep, way outside what was originally envisaged. We have woken up and found that the European convention on human rights is now regulating on climate change for some people in Switzerland who have said that it is violating their human rights.

We believe in conserving; that is what the Conservatives do. But we should focus on conserving plants, trees, nature, wildlife, landscapes and the green belt. We should not ever be increasing highly paid bureaucratic jobs. These are people who just want to conserve their own organisation and its multitude of rules and regulations. We need to go back to our core Conservative values and ask why we have allowed the state to create so many of these laws. We cannot really blame people for using the protections we have given them. It is human nature. That is why we need to go back to the drawing board on how we are using our land.

I conclude by thanking the House for holding this debate. It is a complex and lengthy subject, but for the avoidance of doubt, I oppose the proposals in my constituency. I recognise that there are no easy, sound-bite answers, but my constituents deserve to be listened to, and I will be a voice for them. They cannot be denigrated for standing up for their local area and caring about it. My right hon. Friend Sir David Davis made the point eloquently that that is why they moved to the area. These people worked very hard, saved up to buy a house and moved to a desirable area. We are their voice and we will fight for them.

Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Ceidwadwyr, Buckingham 1:19, 18 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Henderson. I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Johnson on securing what is a very important debate for many counties around the country, not least Buckinghamshire.

Since I was elected in 2019, the threat of large-scale solar developments has caused significant concern for me and my constituents. Across my Buckingham constituency, field after field and farm after farm have already been blanketed by solar panels, to the detriment of the surrounding communities, food security, nature and our beautiful landscape. While we must strive towards a more sustainable and secure energy strategy, that does not and cannot include the huge sacrifice of agricultural land that we have already made and many plan to make in pursuit of that lofty goal.

Within the 335 square miles of rural Buckinghamshire that I am lucky enough to represent, a total of 3,600 acres of land has been either allocated to or planned for solar farms. That is 1.5 times larger than the entirety of Heathrow airport.

The largest proposed industrial solar installation, Rosefield, which sits among the villages known as the Claydons, dwarfs the size of the nearby town of Buckingham —a town of more than 10,000 residents. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Buckinghamshire countryside is slowly being consumed by solar panels. Does it benefit anybody locally? No, it does not—not when we consider the construction impact, the visual impact, the risk to wildlife and the risk to the local economy and our tourism economy.

Buckinghamshire is lucky enough to have stunning, beautiful countryside that people come to walk through; they then spend their money in our cafes, bars, hotels and campsites. I am not sure that they will still want to do that if the landscape is just covered in the glass, metal and plastic of these solar farms. Not that the promoters and developers of such schemes as Rosefield in the Claydons, Callie’s near Owlswick, Bourton in Buckingham, Redborough in Ledburn and many others that I could mention, care about any of those points, of course.

And does it benefit our country? No, not when our food security is at grave risk of being severely compromised, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham has outlined, through the enormous loss of agricultural land that each of these developments represents when taken cumulatively.

No matter how big or small, all agricultural land repurposed is not only food lost, but livelihoods lost. This is land that would have been farmed for generations beforehand, often by tenant farmers, who are given no choice but to leave, without any meaningful say in the process or, indeed, any compensation.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Ceidwadwyr, Haltemprice and Howden

My hon. Friend is making a brilliant speech and makes a very good point about tenant farmers. Is not one of the problems the way that we have set up the pricing of these mechanisms, in that it renders tenant farmers completely uneconomical? For some foreign investor with vast investments in the British countryside, it is in their interest to throw tenant farmers out in favour of this policy.

Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Ceidwadwyr, Buckingham

As ever, my right hon. Friend hits the nail precisely on the head. The risk to tenant farmers through the pricing mechanisms that we are seeing—through the sheer plain economics—is severely stacked against their interests. We must look at the volume of farms in this country that are tenanted rather than owned; the more tenant farms we lose, the greater the slide in domestic food security we will see, and the current figure of around 60% of self-sufficiency will drop very rapidly indeed. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right.

To achieve the set target of 75 GW from solar installations by 2035, more than 300,000 acres across the country would be required. It is no secret that the rural economy, under pressure from, for example, rising input prices and many other things, has already faced significant challenges in recent years. Left with no viable options, some people have been forced to sell or leave their land, in the process guaranteeing that it will almost certainly never return to food-producing status. Yet across all of those estates—the farms and all of that land—the barn roofs are empty and blank.

Smaller stand-alone solar is less impactful, quicker and easier to install, does not risk damaging the local infrastructure and provides an additional, reliable source of income for struggling farms. I am in no way saying that farmers with 10, 20 or 30 acres of unproductive land should not, in consultation with their local planning authority and local communities, be able to utilise land that is not useful for producing food any more. They should be able to put solar on their rooftops. But the fundamental point is that no amount of solar will revive the fortunes of some of the farms that are struggling —quite the opposite.

Time and again I hear the baseless argument from developers—this point has already been developed in this debate—that anything less than grade 3a land should be given over because they believe it to be incapable of growing food. I disagree. Grade 3b land can be very productive; I know that, because the bulk of my constituency that sits in the vale of Aylesbury sits on blue clay. That means the vast majority of it gets a grade 3b land rating, but it remains perfectly capable in many cases, having been nurtured, loved and looked after for generations, of producing 10-tonne-a-hectare wheat harvests. Many farmers in other parts of the country on grade 2 land or even grade 1 land would bite their right hand off to get such a yield at harvest time.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

My hon. Friend is being very generous with his time. He makes an extremely important point about the definition of grades 3a and 3b. Most people in the countryside know that one field might be half 3a and half 3b. I am told that Natural England does not have a map. It does not even have a clear definition of what is 3a and 3b. Does he agree with me that the worst outrage of all is that when these speculative solar farm developers come along, it is their surveyor—they pay the surveyor—who decides on the quality of the land? It is hardly surprising that they find in favour of it all being 3b.

Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Ceidwadwyr, Buckingham

My hon. Friend is absolutely right on that point. It is almost as if he had been looking over my shoulder and seeing what was on the next page of my speech. I was coming to precisely that. Overpaid surveyors, the so-called experts who come in with a clear mandate of what they have to do, have been hired to test soil quality. They do not even go out into the middle of the field. They do not go to the most versatile part of the farm where the crop actually grows. We have caught them red-handed in Buckinghamshire testing the headland, the very edge of the field, They will always get a lower score from that test if they have not gone to the bit of the field where the crop grows. They deliberately test the edge of fields and the headland to get the poorer quality result. This would not be a speech from me without mentioning this: it is the same tactic that HS2’s contractors use in other parts of my constituency to get similar results to prove similar points. It is not unique to solar developers.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Ceidwadwyr, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Has my hon. Friend compared the land results proposed by the surveyors with the maps that DEFRA produces of what it expects the land to be and noticed the differences?

Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Ceidwadwyr, Buckingham

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Yes, time and again we see a differential between what the developer’s surveyor and consultant come up with and what we believe the land to be. Much of my constituency sits on a blue clay base, so we expect a lot of it to be 3b. However, I come back to the point that I made: 3b land can be very good productive land producing the sorts of yields that I talked about. It is how that land has been farmed, often for generations, that dictates how good it is for production, not other things.

I made this point earlier: 60% of farms in the UK are tenant farms. However, beyond that, it is not just the farmers, the tenants or those employed on the farms who are hurt when that land is taken away from food production, but the packing plants, the equipment suppliers and the distributors. A huge part of our rural and national economy is hit when food production is diminished.

For the surrounding communities, the loss of farmland by no means starts or ends with solar panels. In the Claydons, for example, my constituents have suffered hugely from large-scale construction already, including a number of big housing estates, East West Rail and the ultimate destroyer, HS2. It is a daily struggle for them to get to work, school, the hospital, the GP or the shops without coming up against the obstacles of endless road closures, broken stretches of road that have become dangerous after the movement of thousands of HGVs, drivers travelling to and from nearby compounds, and severe light pollution during the winter months. That will be the same all over again with the construction of the huge solar farms. A solar farm of 2,100 acres is not built overnight. They are all put on concrete bases. There will be piling in places. The construction impact on local communities is considerable.

After all the disruption that my constituents have already taken—and are still taking—from those big national infrastructure projects, this once quiet corner of Buckinghamshire is now expected to take, in the case of Rosefield, a 2,100 acre development, which would dwarf the amount of land that High Speed 2 has taken in Buckinghamshire. Given the extent of the proposed site, it is not unreasonable to expect to see yet more of the same disruption that has plagued the Claydons for years. All of that comes without any commitment by the promoters to fix any of the damaged roads, which already have to be patched by the council, even though other people have broken them. It is simply not fair for my constituents and areas such as the Claydons to foot all that pain all over again.

It is not just the panels that consume vast amounts of countryside. The infrastructure needed to carry the electricity generated through to the grid swallows up yet more. It is no coincidence that adjacent to the proposed Rosefield site, there is a proposed battery storage facility, with the equivalent of 90 shipping containers of battery storage right next door. That is more food-producing land being sacrificed, and the facility itself poses a major fire risk in an area where the emergency services are already struggling, in the face of such disruptive amounts of construction work, to get to any emergencies that occur.

Let that be a warning to any community where solar is coming. It does not end with just the solar panels. Of course, there is no community benefit whatsoever from solar development, whether large or small. As has been said, there is no cheap electricity for local residents or businesses, and no support systems in place for those impacted by construction. There is no recourse for anybody affected.

I have spoken a lot about Rosefield, but I will briefly talk about some other large-scale solar developments in my constituency. In the south, we have seen an equally blatant tactic—admittedly, on a slightly smaller scale—of significant ground-based solar installations being installed or proposed just metres from each other. Let us take the proposed solar installation near the village of Kimblewick on the eastern side of the village of Ford, and Callie’s Solar Farm on the western side of Ford, which combined, would be the second largest land take in my constituency after Rosefield for ground-mounted panels. We have seen that tactic time and again; it puts community and local authority resources under strain, in turn diminishing their influence over the whole planning process. We have to find a way to ensure that the cumulative impact of solar farms is taken into account.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley Chair, Procedure Committee, Chair, Procedure Committee

I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the debate; I was speaking in the Chamber. I will therefore not make a full speech, but I am grateful to be able to comment. My hon. Friend describes the exact situation that my constituents in Rownall face, with multiple applications being made for adjoining pieces of land, all of which are small scale and therefore to be decided by the local district council rather than the Secretary of State. They feel that that is an abusive way of putting in solar farms that will cumulatively be a very large development. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government need to pause the granting of all applications of this variety and urge district councils to have the appropriate training to identify and measure fully the cumulative impact of these developments?

Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Ceidwadwyr, Buckingham

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention, and I agree. There should be a fundamental pause on any solar application that would take land used for food production. As the new national planning policy framework was being negotiated concurrent to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023, I was pleased to be able to persuade the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to change the NPPF from the old language of “best and most versatile” to a straightforward definition of “land used for food production”. It was hidden in a footnote, but it was still there. If we can leverage that as the test that planning authorities now have through the NPPF, coupled with the sensible points that my right hon. Friend Dame Karen Bradley made about going up in a helicopter to review all land being used and pausing any decisions, that would bring a lot of relief to communities—certainly mine in Buckinghamshire, hers in Staffordshire and many others as well.

Solar has its place, but that place is on rooftops and not in fields. Across my constituency are farms and industrial sites where the roofs of barns and warehouses are devoid of solar panels. My constituency adjoins both Bicester to the Oxfordshire side and Milton Keynes to the north-east. There are the rooftops of many thousands of distribution centres and warehouses, and these big sheds that are going up as logistics hubs everywhere, vibrantly adding to our economic development, but with no solar on the roof. If we just got the solar panels on those roofs instead, we would find more than enough space to ensure that we are delivering on the volume of solar-generated energy that we need.

CPRE research found that

“there is potential for…117 gigawatts” of renewable energy

“to be generated from rooftops and other” existing “developed spaces” in England alone, which is substantially more than the master target. Rooftop solar systems have to be the priority for Government, and I urge the Minister to find a way of ensuring that our solar strategy is a rooftop strategy, not an agricultural land strategy.

As she opened this debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham made a point about small modular reactors. She cited a statistic that I have used, which goes to the nub of this debate; it is the clearest argument I can make about a sensible land use strategy. The small modular reactors that we have seen companies such as Rolls-Royce develop need virtually no land to deliver significantly more power. She was kind to quote me, but I will repeat the statistic because I am quite fond of it: 2,000 acres of solar panels produce, on current usage, before everyone has two Teslas on the drive, 50,000 homes-worth of electricity. A small modular reactor is the size of two football pitches and can power 1 million homes. That surely has to be the more sensible use of land in this country to power people’s homes and businesses. Nuclear can deliver that in a clean and wonderful way while still protecting our national food security. Those numbers must speak volumes to anybody that cares about both the energy security and food security of our wonderful country.

My asks are clear. First, we simply must diversify our national energy security strategy to promote less land-intensive schemes, which come at the expense of our food security, and promote the development of more reliable, sustainable and less impactful schemes that we can actually deliver every day of the year. Secondly, we must put in practice the provision of the new language in the NPPF and encourage local authorities to use it. Thirdly, we must incentivise the use of existing rooftop space for stand-alone solar installations on sites that already have a grid connection and reform the grid to ensure that many more can as well. Let us get this right and stop the solar destruction, build our energy security on nuclear, protect our food security and save the great British countryside.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research 1:40, 18 Ebrill 2024

My hon. Friend Greg Smith has said it all in a most powerful and conclusive speech. It covered most of the ground superbly, and I congratulate him on it. Prior to that we heard from my hon. Friend Dr Johnson. I congratulate her on calling this very important debate at an extremely important moment. The way she laid the case out was masterful. They really were extremely good speeches, and I thank my hon. Friends for them. I will try not to repeat what they had to say.

It seems to me that we are at a tipping point in this whole debate. Within the last few days, I have noticed a few very interesting remarks by the Government on the question of large-scale solar. On Tuesday, they answered a question from me, and my hon. Friend the Minister, who will reply to the debate, commented that he thought the question of large-scale solar was

“a very interesting topic, and one that we are listening to.”—[Official Report, 16 April 2024;
Vol. 748, c. 153.]

“One that we are listening to” is an important thing for a Government Minister to say. May I congratulate him on having the courage and the conviction to come out on to Parliament Square a moment ago to see many of my constituents, who are out there complaining about the Lime Down solar farm proposed in my constituency? That demonstrates that he is ready to listen. I am sure that he will have noted how many Conservative Members of Parliament are here today, and how few from other constituencies. This is a huge issue for all of us.

That same day, my hon. Friend Justin Tomlinson, who is now the Energy Minister—I congratulate him on his promotion—said during Question Time that

“solar projects should be directed to previously developed or non-greenfield land.”—[Official Report, 16 April 2024;
Vol. 748, c. 149.]

That was a very straightforward remark from the Minister.

And then, at Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday, the Prime Minister said that we do not want to see more solar on greenfield sites. He said that it is the cheapest form of energy, but we want to see it

“on brownfield sites, rooftops and away from our…agricultural land.”—[Official Report, 17 April 2024;
Vol. 748, c. 303.]

So in one week, we have seen three Ministers, including the Prime Minister, stipulating that they agree with the points we are trying to make in this room today. My instinct is that we are at a tipping point, and the Government have realised that what they have achieved is a huge concreting- over of our countryside in very largely Conservative-represented constituencies, such as mine. They are beginning to realise that that is an enormous political mistake.

Incidentally, I was very much encouraged by a recent report from the Planning Inspectorate on a planning application for a large solar farm in Bedfordshire. It said that the Secretary of State agrees that this solar farm would result in a large change

“to the character of the land which would impinge upon the openness of the Green Belt”.

He believes that there would be

“a significant adverse effect upon both the spatial and visual qualities” of the greenfield, and that development on the site would be

“visible in the wider landscape…harmful to purpose” and encroach on the countryside as defined under planning law.

It seems to me that the Planning Inspectorate as well as Ministers are beginning to realise that this is going wrong. I very much welcome the NPPF, broadly speaking, but did not quite follow the arguments with regard to large-scale solar. The Minister may have to consider redesigning the NPPF in some detail after this debate and the other debates we are about to engage on. There are about 40 colleagues with large-scale solar farms in their constituencies, and I am ready to work with them on a national basis. However, as other colleagues have said today, there is nothing wrong with being a nimby.

I would like to make some brief remarks about a new application in a place called Lime Down in my constituency. Incidentally, can we please tell the public relations spin doctors who work for these developers that using names like “Lime Down”, “Poplar’s Ash” or “Birds’ Lea” to disguise the fact that they are industrialising the countryside will not work? In my constituency, they have used the name “Lime Down”. That application—many of my colleagues have spoken of similar experiences today—includes some 2,000 acres of panels, a further 2,000 or 3,000 acres that will be blighted because they are between different patches, and a 30-mile connection down the road to the substation in Melksham, which is the nearest bit of the grid we can get to. It will be 3 million panels—just think of the HGVs required to get them into the middle of the countryside. We are talking about a bit of countryside in the Cotswolds that runs down the historic Roman Fosse way. Some of the finest buildings, farms and landscapes in the land will be blighted by this application. We are totally opposed to it.

I called a public meeting the other day in Malmesbury town hall. I was delighted that 750 people came; not many of my colleagues can remember a meeting with 750 people turning up. People are extremely angry about what is being proposed for the so-called Lime Down area. I was delighted that they took the trouble to come to the meeting that evening. This is a huge issue in my constituency, and we must see what we can do to stop it.

If I may differentiate myself slightly from some colleagues, we in Wiltshire are already taking our fair share of solar. Eight of the largest solar farms in England, and I suspect in Europe, are in Wiltshire; most of them are in my constituency in the north half. All told, we have 54 solar farms in production already. The target for the county is 570 MW; we are already doing 590 MW, so we have exceeded our county target. We have two or three very large-scale ones, such as Lyneham, with 250 acres, and RAF Wroughton, with something like 200 acres of solar farm. We are already making a huge contribution to the national effort towards solar. The 2,000 acres proposed for Lime Down would bust the target entirely and would be wholly unacceptable to people in my area.

As colleagues have mentioned, people are particularly upset because this is not an environmental matter or some effort to save the globe. It is funded by Macquarie, an Australian funding house—the so-called kangaroo vampires. Macquarie was most recently responsible for Thames Water—not a great success—and the fact that it is behind this proposal demonstrates that it is simply about money. The compensation proposed for farmers alone is £80 million, and we estimate the cost of getting the links through to the substation to be a further £25 million, so it will have spent £100 million before one panel is built.

We are talking about a multibillion-pound investment with very substantial returns for the Wall Street spivs who stand behind it. I do not think that the people of Wiltshire should allow that. The people behind it are not there for environmental reasons at all, although they may claim to be. They claim to be biodiversity-friendly and all that stuff, but it is absolute PR spin and total nonsense. They are there because there is an enormous amount of money in it. I do not see why we should compromise our environmental principles by allowing those people to come into our countryside and do what they propose.

Most of the salient points have already been made by colleagues. One reason why we do not want these proposals is the landscape: nothing could be finer than the south Cotswolds in my constituency. That landscape must be preserved. Several hon. Friends have spoken passionately about food security, and they are absolutely right. We are a very productive agricultural area—mainly beef and sheep, but also pigs and quite a bit of arable. Why should we give that up in favour of solar, when the contribution that solar makes to energy security is extremely small? I think 3% of national electricity is produced by solar.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley Chair, Procedure Committee, Chair, Procedure Committee

Another choice needs to be made when it comes to solar, which relates to the use of slave labour in the production of many solar panels and the materials that go into them. We should not have to make a choice between being environmentally friendly and respecting human rights by ensuring that forced labour is not active in supply chains.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. If I remember rightly, we heard on the Floor of the House earlier this week that it is believed that Uyghur slave labour is being used in China for the production of those panels. They are then being shipped here on huge ships, and then they go on to lorries. They are extremely environmentally unfriendly in their production.

I will tell the House another thing that is extremely environmentally unfriendly. Macquarie says that in 40 years’ time the solar farm will no longer be used, that it will be demolished and that the land will be returned to agriculture. There are two or three things I want to say about that.

First, the chances of Messrs Macquarie still being here and living up to that promise are extremely remote. The farms are sold week after week, from one financial house to the next. The chances are zero that some nice company will come along in 40 years’ time and say, “Thanks very much, North Wiltshire: you’ve done your stuff and now we’re going to take these things away and return it to how it was.” It cannot happen, particularly because it is likely that the technology will move forward in the meantime. These things will very probably be out of date in five or 10 years’ time. Who will then remove them? Who will remediate the land? Nobody. There will be no such person.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Ceidwadwyr, Sleaford and North Hykeham

My hon. Friend is making a good point about the obsolescence of products over time. Does he have any electrical appliances in his home, or is he aware of any, that have lasted for 40 years and are still useful?

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

There is some very interesting correspondence in The Daily Telegraph at the moment about household items that are surviving for 40 years, but there are precious few. And then what happens? How do we dispose of them? That is the other great problem: even if the land is restored after 20 or 40 years, there is no known means of disposing of the panels under national planning policy. Do they go to landfill? What happens to them? Nobody seems to know. There is no known solution.

Our descendants will curse us for covering the countryside in these vast vanity mirrors with no known means of remediation. When we are long dead and our children and grandchildren are inheriting them, what a mess that will be. What will happen, incidentally, is that some planner will say, “It’s a brownfield site now, so we’ll turn it into a new town or factory,” or something else that we do not want. The way these things are created is worrying. The point about Uyghur slave labour is extremely important, and the question of disposal has not yet been answered.

I have two or three asks of the Minister about matters on which we need laser-sharp attention to detail. The first relates to the quality of land that is allowed to be used for solar farms. About two years ago, the then Secretary of State for DEFRA, my right hon. Friend George Eustice, appeared before the Environmental Audit Committee, and I pressed him on the point. He said that 3a and 3b would definitely not be used for solar. I asked him three or four times, and he reiterated that answer. As the Secretary of State, he made it absolutely plain that 3a and 3b may not be used for solar.

Unfortunately, my right hon. Friend had to write to me a couple of weeks later to say that he had made a small mistake, which his officials had picked him up on, and that he now realised that only 3a would not be used. None the less, the fact that the Secretary of State for DEFRA thought that it was all grade 3 land is itself important. We have talked about the fact that the land is being surveyed by people who are paid by the developers. It is hardly surprising that they find in favour, and the fact that they go around the headland rather than the productive centre of the field is extraordinary. Anyhow, 3a and 3b are both productive agricultural land, and we must find a way of examining precisely how that is defined and what exactly the mapping is. I am told that Natural England does not have a map of 3a and 3b land. It should. It does not even have a clear definition of what it is. We need a laser focus on the kind of land that we allow solar farms to be on.

Secondly, I want to hear from the Minister on the cumulative effect of solar farms. As my right hon. Friend Dame Karen Bradley said, there are many small applications that, together, come to a very large one. I slightly disagree with her: I would rather my district or county council were deciding on the matter, because at least then it would be local. If it is a vast one decided by the Secretary of State, we have no way of countering it. However, my right hon. Friend was quite right to say that when we put all the applications together, they come to a much bigger thing than any of them is individually. The Government might therefore like to give some thought to the cumulative effects of solar farm applications, so that they strengthen the presumption against the totality coming to more than they would otherwise allow.

Thirdly, I would like a comment from the Government on grid capacity. I am told that in the south-west and Wiltshire particularly, the grid is already near its capacity; there is no more room for solar farms to go into it. None the less, speculative developers apply for planning permission and then sell their options to other speculators, despite the fact that the grid cannot take the electricity. This is financial shenanigans: it is fiddling around with money. People say, “We’ve got planning permission on these 2,000 acres in North Wiltshire and we now want to sell it to you, the next financial shenanigans individual.” They may say, “You never know—maybe down the road, it will work,” but they know perfectly well that there is no capacity in the grid. The Government ought to pay some attention to whether grid capacity could be a pertinent factor in considering these applications.

I know that the Minister is in a quasi-judicial position and cannot comment on any individual application or any particular site, particularly during the purdah in the lead-up to the local elections. I very much respect that, but I hope that he has understood the strength of feeling on the issue among all Conservative colleagues, including many who are not here today. Many of them are Ministers and may feel constrained. I know that my right hon. Friend Michelle Donelan feels equally strongly about the Lime Down application; of course she cannot say so publicly, but I did clear it with her beforehand that I could mention that in passing. A great many colleagues feel very strongly indeed about the issue.

I hope that the efforts that have been made in the past couple of weeks will have brought home to the Minister what a very important issue this is and how very strongly the Conservative party and Conservative Members of Parliament feel about it. I hope very much that, in the next few months available to him, he will find ways of bringing about some of the changes that have been discussed today, whether they be on cumulative effect, on land supply or on the general principle of solar. I hope he will find ways of bringing in nudges to the inspectorate to say, “These are the things that Ministers believe should or should not happen,” so the inspectorate will be more inclined to turn a thing down, rather than being inclined to accept it, as happens at the moment.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Ceidwadwyr, Gainsborough 1:56, 18 Ebrill 2024

I congratulate my constituency neighbour and hon. Friend Dr Johnson on her comprehensive introduction to the debate. These proposals for huge solar “farms”—they are not farms at all, of course; that is a misnomer—are unwise and unwelcome and will undermine our countryside. The opposition to them in my constituency, and increasingly up and down the country, is as widespread as it is deeply felt. I know that many friends and colleagues will have had the same experience. As we have said again and again, we are not opposed to solar energy; offshore wind and rooftop solar are entirely welcome.

As I travel up and down between Westminster and West Lindsey, I see the motorways and the A1 lined with giant logistics and distribution centres with flat rooftops that are perfect for solar panels. As my hon. Friend said, there are perhaps 600,000 acres of south-facing roofs that we could put solar panels on. Of course, there are also manufacturing and brownfield sites.

Taking a vast amount of good land out of agricultural production is incredibly short-sighted. As my right hon. Friend Sir John Hayes argued in a debate on this subject two years ago, we should not build a single solar panel on good farmland until we have solar panels on every large building.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham has made clear, Lincolnshire is the breadbasket of England: we produce 12% of the food we eat. In Lincolnshire, we want to safeguard that living tradition. As we all know, the planning framework has a presumption against building panels on land graded 1, 2 or 3a. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings and I met the Prime Minister yesterday and asked him to extend that protection to 3b. At Energy questions this week, I made the same point and got a reassurance on the Floor of the House that it was never the intention of the Government to build on good agricultural land.

I know that the Minister is very limited in what he can say, but as my hon. Friend James Gray said, in the remaining months available to him as a Minister in this Government, we just have to act to end this scandal of solar panels being put on 3b land. It is simply not acceptable.

Food distribution networks worldwide still face disruption thanks to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As Matt Ridley pointed out in The Daily Telegraph this month, the UK is currently vying with the intensive agriculture of New Zealand in terms of wheat yield. Britain’s combination of moist soil and long summer days is perfect for growing wheat, as we well know in Lincolnshire. How will that be affected if we shift from useful and nourishing food to unreliable energy production? People say that solar energy is green, but what is more green than converting sunlight into food? That is what our farms do. How will that be affected if we shift from useful and nourishing food to unreliable energy production? The quantity of land involved is staggering. The journalist Robert Bryce has discovered that solar panels typically need about 200 times the amount of land as gas to generate the equivalent energy output.

Britain is and always will be a maritime power, a trading nation and an agricultural producer. We cannot produce everything we consume, but the more we do, the better off we are and the greater our food security is. Do we really think that turfing out tenant farmers and their families—good, solid people who may have been there for 200 years—to build solar panels on thousands and thousands of acres of arable land at the behest of entrepreneurs from London is a good idea? Those farmers have no rights, by the way. What is so unfair about that is that the rewards to some very large landowners are absolutely staggering: £100,000 on 100 acres. Is it any surprise that all those people are being bought off?

People say that solar farms are not subsidised, but of course they are subsidised through green levies. Somebody on the living wage in a terraced house in Gainsborough pays through their energy bills, and it goes into the pockets of entrepreneurs and huge landowners earning £100,000 a year on just 100 acres. That is not green, not fair and not right.

Meanwhile, our typically wet British weather means that we have occasionally had to fire up the coal plants to meet the country’s energy needs, not just when it is rainy and cloudy, but sometimes even when the sun is shining. We all know that solar panels do not work when it is dark, but people assume they work fantastically well in the summer—not necessarily. Last summer, we had a sweltering week that led to an uptick in energy demand as people turned on their air conditioning and plugged in their fans. Solar panels tend to be optimised for 25°C. In a summer heatwave with temperatures of 30°C or more, the amount of energy that solar panels contribute decreases—how bizarre. Everybody assumes that these things are wonderful when the sun is shining, but that is not necessarily true on the hottest days when we need them most. Solar is useful, but it simply cannot be relied on. Keeping a massive gas-powered infrastructure on hand is a necessary component of this solar-powered system.

Solar on its own is hugely expensive. A point that has not been made yet is that ecologists have become more aware of the importance of embodied energy: the usage that goes into the building or manufacture of something. One of the green arguments against tearing down Richmond House while the Palace of Westminster is renovated is that we would be demolishing not just a listed building, but one that is perfectly useable. It is just decades old and has decades left of its natural cycle, so that is not a green thing to do. There is no clear evidence that the embodied energy involved in constructing these massive solar panel projects will ever be made back during their 15-year lifecycle, before they are replaced or removed. When embodied energy is taken into account, it is doubtful that these huge proposals are in fact sustainable or green.

Massive solar panel installations have the potential to send property values plunging. As my hon. Friends have argued, homeowners have put their life savings into their homes and should have the right to defend them. They are accused of being nimbys, but they are simply good people defending often quite modest lifestyles in our rural economy.

The beautiful landscapes of England—not to mention the holiday let industry, which has grown immensely across the country and is currently surviving—are under threat. The net effect on tourism in Lincolnshire and across England will be negative. We should foster and encourage that sector across the counties of England, not stifle it.

The inspiration behind solar panel installations is not environmental altruism but naked profit. There is nothing wrong with people wanting to be entrepreneurs or to make profit, but that should not be at the expense of the British countryside. We need greater prosperity spread around the United Kingdom, but these proposals are backed by faceless global investment firms relying on us to sign them a blank cheque. It is not the Government’s job to do that. We must be the custodians of this land, its people and its history, which includes our countryside, farming sector, environment and landscapes. Land-intensive low-output solar installations are not the solution. In fact, they only create more problems.

Solar undoubtedly has a part to play in energy production; we need a diverse energy set-up in this country. The Government also need to build more power plants and replace ones that are coming offline. We need more nuclear; we have been dragging our heels while France has been a marvel on that front. When the oil crisis hit Europe in 1973, the Prime Minister of France, Pierre Messmer, was determined that a great nation like France must be able to look after its energy needs. At the time, most of France’s electricity was generated thanks to foreign oil. Messmer rolled out a massive programme of building nuclear power stations to provide cheap, clean energy. France is now much more globally competitive for business because of nuclear power. The regulated unit price of electricity in France last year was 53% of that of the UK. Messmer said,

“In France, we do not have oil, but we do have ideas.”

Let us have some good ideas, Minister, and not just build over our countryside. Here in the UK, we have North sea oil and gas, so let us have ideas that use cheap, reliable energy from nuclear and gas. Solar and wind can top that up, but they cannot replace it.

It is astonishing how scant the large-scale proposals are in terms of local community gain; they offer virtually nothing—almost no benefit—to my constituents. The arrogance is extraordinary. I suspect that that is because the solar firms are skipping the normal planning process, as has been said many times already, by applying for them as nationally significant infrastructure projects, instead of them being determined locally by our district councils. They have also divided the applications into many smaller ones, even though each one is useless unless it is part of a major offering.

I have argued before the Planning Inspectorate that the collective impact of these proposals is colossal. Each individual application can be evaluated accurately only as a part of a whole. I have attended the public inquiries for West Burton and Cottam, and I have argued my case. In the vicinity of the small town of Gainsborough, within a radius of just six miles, the proposal is for solar farms to cover 10,000 acres of agricultural land. The local authority and local people have absolutely no say. That is entirely wrong and when I have gone in person to argue on behalf of my constituents, the highly paid barristers and solicitors hired by these entrepreneurs from London say, “Well, we’re sorry. We’re only doing what the Government want.” It is now for the Minister, in the time available, to step in and save our people.

This energy will go straight into the national grid. It will have no local benefit and will not reduce energy costs for local people. These proposals are taking up too much land for their energy output, and they are taking out thousands and thousands of acres of land that is good for agriculture, which undermines farming and food security. They will erect eyesores that will lessen the beauty of our natural landscapes and undermine local tourism. They are cheating the system by skipping the normal planning scrutiny provided by democratically accountable local decision-makers. The primary benefit will be to faceless international companies rather than to locals. These vulture firms are attempting to gobble up our countryside. The Government must say no.

I emphasise that, as has been said, we do not need legislation. It is very simple: the Minister must say, “You cannot build these things on grade 3b land.” Any farmer in Lincolnshire would say that there is absolutely no difference between 3a and 3b in terms of production, but we want that to be independently verified. As my hon. Friend Greg Smith said, we do not want dodgy agronomists going around pretending that this land is grade 3a. There is virtually no difference, so we should not build solar panels on 3b land and it should be independently verified. We want to have planning guidance available to the inspector to ensure that, although we can cope with some solar panel development, it cannot be on the scale of 10,000 acres within six miles. Those are the simple steps that the Minister urgently needs to take.

I end by mentioning that in the civil war, on the margins of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend Martin Vickers, who is no longer in his place, there was the battle of Riby Gap, where the pesky parliamentarians tried to displace the noble royalists from that part of Lincolnshire. The royalists fought and they won, and in Lincolnshire, we will fight and we will win.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Ceidwadwyr, Haltemprice and Howden 2:10, 18 Ebrill 2024

I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Johnson on securing the debate. It has been apparent from listening to it how important an issue this is. She made a brilliant and comprehensive speech, and other hon. Members have filled in all the details, so I will be fairly brief.

The current policy on large-scale solar farms fails to take into account the country’s landscape and environment. As my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne rightly said in his intervention on my hon. Friend, this is a matter of balance. This policy is badly designed and does not deliver any sense of balance. I suspect that that is largely because of the dead hand of the Treasury, but I will come back to that in a moment.

We have heard a series of horror stories, the latest from my old friend, my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh. I felt a sense of horror when he talked about 10,000 acres being under these nightmarish destroyers of the countryside. Of course, the Government’s national infrastructure tracker shows 26 of these huge projects. One such project by a company called Boom Power is close to me in East Yorkshire, and it alone covers 3,500 acres. That is hard for most people to imagine, but that is 2,000 football fields or, as somebody said, about 1.5 times the size of Heathrow airport—virtually from here to the horizon in most directions. While sitting here, I saw that Mr Jones was speaking in the main Chamber; it is about the size of the city of Durham—a city with a population of 50,000 people. Imagine how long we would spend considering a planning application for houses for 50,000 people—that would never happen, of course, but that is what we are dealing with.

Despite the fact that solar panels change the character, use and appearance of the landscape they seek to carpet, whoever drafted the policy did not have any concept of the rights of local individuals. In effect, because of the national infrastructure rules, the bigger and more damaging the project, the less say local people have. It is an astonishing perversion of natural justice.

Whoever designed the policy also did not take into account the other thought process of the developers: that they would seek to put them near hubs in the national grid, which means that not only do we get enormous solar farms, but we get lots of them in a single area. The proximity of the Drax power station is the reason for the one being proposed in my constituency, and it means that there is a proliferation of solar panels next door in Selby and in the other East Yorkshire and North Yorkshire seats. Five villages are being penalised in my constituency and another five or 10 villages are being penalised in the next constituency and the one after—they are all in one place.

As I said earlier in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, we dismiss such people as nimbys. It is their lives and their life savings—maybe their children’s life savings—that we are damaging. In doing this, we should keep in mind what we might call the importance of individual property rights.

There are countless more innovative policies that could be implemented. The one that seems to be most popular today as an alternative is to legislate either to massively incentivise or even to mandate in some cases the use of the roofs of all new buildings—certainly all new industrial buildings, warehouses and barns and, frankly, houses too. Over the last 20 years of energy policy, the Government have changed the economics to make various things different. Solar farms are now more economic than they were 20 years ago and wind farms are more economic than they were 20 years ago.

The creation of a requirement to use roofs would engender a new industry. Elon Musk already has new designs for solar cells that look like tiles on buildings. We would therefore do away with the concerns over the aesthetic effect and, if the Government did that, they would become cheaper and cheaper. I say to the Minister that there is need for some imagination and for us to say to ourselves, “What do we want this to look like in 10 years’ time?” Then, we can design the policies to encourage the industry to deliver just that.

I will be brief on the effects on farming because they have been talked through quite a lot. As I believe my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough said, farmland is already a solar farm, in that it turns sunlight into food. It is much better, more useful and more flexible and effective than using it for electricity. We now have less farmland in production than we have had at any time since 1945—since the second world war. That date is important in this context because, in these dangerous times, do we really think it is sensible that we have to import almost half—46%—of our food? In the event of a serious breakdown of international trade—not even necessarily in the context of a continental war—which has happened a couple of times already through covid and Ukraine, our ability to access food becomes a real problem. We had a rehearsal during covid of some of that. It is not wise.

There was a lot of coverage in the papers over the last few days of the King installing 2,000 panels at Sandringham to create cheaper electricity for himself. Do Members know what 2,000 panels amount to? Five acres, or one seven-hundredth of the plan that I have been talking about, and one two-hundredth of the 10,000 acres that my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough talked about earlier. Small scale is fine—even 100 or 200 acres properly placed are fine—but what we are getting now is huge industrialisation of the countryside and that simply is not fine. In my part of the world, I have the villages of Spaldington, Willitoft, Brind, Gribthorpe and Foggathorpe, where there is a plan to basically surround all those people with solar cells, and their future environments are being thwarted by that.

I had not intended to talk about the effect of the Treasury, but since we have a very smart Minister here I will make one philosophical point to him. When the Treasury sets out to determine which policy works best—I speak from long, sore experience as a Minister in the past—its driving concern, in essence, is cheapness, low cost and minimising the taxes required to run it. That is understandable—it is what those in the Treasury are paid for—but because the Treasury is so powerful, that overwhelms what ought to affect the decision, which an economist would call a cost-benefit analysis. In other words, what is the cost to the state and to the citizens and individuals who must cope with it? My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough mentioned what happened to house prices, for example, and we know what it does to people’s environments. We have a policy in respect of which the second component has been completely ignored. That is what I mean by the dead hand of the Treasury.

When the Minister comes to have the arguments about that in his Department, which I hope he will have, he should talk about a proper cost-benefit analysis. When we look at the energy costs of a photovoltaic cell, we should look not just at the cost here, but at the cost to make it, the coal cost, the cost of oppressing Uyghurs and so on. In terms of the overall policy, we should look at the impact on everybody and on local land and housing values. If the Minister does that, he will come up with a completely different policy.

Coming back to the simpler arguments, I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough on his call effectively for a ban on solar farms on green belt and proper, flexible land, which includes 3b land. I live in the countryside in my constituency, and I am surrounded by 3a and 3b land. I cannot tell the difference, and neither can the farmers who farm it. That is where we are. When it comes to the 3,500 acres that I talked about, they do not know the difference either. As we have heard, the only rule we have is that of the assessors, paid for by the investors in the farm.

I support an unequivocal ban on large solar farms on the green belt and the UK’s best and most agricultural land, including 3b land, and strong incentives for developments to use rooftops, brownfield land and poorer-quality, unproductive land. As we heard earlier from my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough, the Minister will get the argument back from the Treasury that it is more expensive to use brownfield land and rooftops. The counter-argument is simply this: it is more expensive only in the first element—the taxpayer element. It is not more expensive if we look at the dangerous impact on the lives, livelihoods, savings, investments and housing of the people we represent.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Ceidwadwyr, Suffolk Coastal 2:22, 18 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Henderson, in this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Johnson on securing the debate and being wise enough to persuade the Backbench Business Committee to devote an entire three hours to it, recognising the strength of feeling that right hon. and hon. Members have. I also commend my hon. Friend Greg Smith on his previous work, never mind on his speech today, because I know that he has been pivotal in trying to ensure that aspects of planning policy are adapted, recognising the impact on the land we have today.

Why are we in this situation? Quite a considerable discussion has already happened about different classifications of land and the return on land. Ultimately, as a Conservative Government and a Conservative party, we want to ensure that we achieve net zero and recognise the balance that we need in our energy mix, which will continue to need the use of fossil fuels for many decades to come. We must ensure that we are on that sustainable journey to electricity generation both locally and nationally in that regard. It is important that solar has a role to play in that but, as has been accurately pointed out, one of the aspects that understandably concerns people is that all too often the economics of some of the plans that the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero and its predecessor Departments set off on lead to quite a different outcome from that expected.

It goes back to the Labour Government: in trying to encourage people with feed-in tariffs to go on to roofs, they massively incorrectly calculated what would happen. That led to Chris Huhne, the then Lib Dem Energy Secretary, having to basically curtail the plan—I think it may have been Ed Davey who actually killed it off entirely—because frankly the budget had already been blown. That is important in some of the considerations that we need to think about, and that is why it is really important that the Government have an agile approach to understanding how different offers are taken up. We must recognise the financial impact but also the disproportionate way in which the policy intentions and outcomes are delivered.

Why do people want this wonderful agricultural land to be used instead for solar farms? Access to sun is one of the good reasons—the sun is there to grow food, and it is great for power. However, probably the key element at the moment is the guaranteed return that farmers get which is, on average, still about 8%. That is considerable. Many of us would love to have such a guaranteed return.

The other element at the moment is tax relief, which is really important for agricultural land. That tax relief, to be passed on from generation to generation, was intended principally for farming, to make sure that agricultural land was passed on instead of being sold off. Here, because the leases are done in a particular way, we are seeing that such land does not get excluded from the passing on of tax relief. That is an important financial calculation that people make.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Ceidwadwyr, Haltemprice and Howden

My right hon. Friend makes a brilliantly important point, which I had not thought of before, on this question of tax relief—basically, inheritance tax relief. That has meant that vast quantities of the countryside of Britain are owned by people for a single purpose—to avoid inheritance tax—which actually drives the financialisation of the countryside that has driven this policy.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Ceidwadwyr, Suffolk Coastal

I think the policy on tax relief is a sensible one. Just recently, I lobbied to get aspects of nature, such as the edges of fields, to be included in that. Farmers and landowners were suggesting that they could not participate in the environmental land management schemes because they would not get that relief, unlike the solar farms just down the road that covered entire agricultural elements and could still participate. There is a balance to be had. The impact on tenant farmers has also been pointed out. The return, and the pricing of land, is a key element. It is concerning for those of us who represent rural areas in particular, and for those trying to make sure that the sums add up.

There has been quite a lot of discussion about the classification of land. I think it is fair to say that the maps are quite old and do not differentiate between grades 3a and 3b. When I went back into DEFRA 18 months ago, as Secretary of State, I asked what we could do, bearing in mind the fact that we had been tasked with producing a land use framework. I was told it would take several years to redo those maps, which was somewhat disheartening. I will not pretend that I put any more energy into that, at that time, in the preparation for a land use framework.

There was quite a lot of discussion between me and the previous Secretary of State. The analysis indicated that the estimates were that about 1% of the land being used for agriculture would be consumed by potential conversion to solar farms. I would be very interested to hear from the Minister what that proportion is right now, including the land used for connections that have already been granted by National Grid.

National Grid talks about capacity; it says it has tons of solar, compared with what can actually be connected. That leads to the concentrations that my right hon. Friend Sir David Davis mentioned. Even now, National Grid continues to keep offering connections in areas where a substation or a converter station is going to be built, rather than for many of the other applications that would cost too much money and would not be economical to connect to the grid. It is a concern for me that, all of a sudden, we get energy islands, not deserts, right in front of our eyes. The purpose of these areas, as part of the natural countryside, producing food and other elements of benefit to our country, is all of a sudden being turned into these energy islands.

I should say that there is plenty of grade 4 and grade 5 land in my constituency that gets used for food production. I know that DEFRA is keen to improve the productivity of land and that is why there have been a series of grants in that regard. However, I think it is critical that between DEFRA and DESNZ they start to match up, in the Ministers’ considerations of the NSIP plans, what is happening in that regard about the food security element. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister committed to having a food security index, to be produced annually, and I think the use and projected use of land is critical in that element.

In thinking through what is happening in my own constituency, where there have already been solar farms, I am not going to say they are all bad. They are not. The issue is the growing cumulative effect, the acceleration and the almost blank cheque that is being given to many of the developers and is enticing farmers and landowners. I want to single out Friston. My hon. Friend the Minister will know of my ongoing battle with National Grid about aspects of energy infrastructure in my constituency. By the way, none of it includes a single pylon; we are not talking about pylons here, but there has definitely been a pile-in on the people of that village, and National Grid has now offered two further connections to solar farms of just under 250 MW.

Where do we go from here? I am conscious that the national policy statement for renewable energy infra- structure, EN-3, covers a lot about solar. It does not even exclude grade 1 land from consideration, but it is up to the developers to show that they have considered brownfield sites and I think, Minister, we need some strength and confidence that that really is being done. I know that the Planning Inspectorate provides advice to Ministers to make the final decisions, but it has to be a far more transparent process than what people experience today. It feels like a tick-box exercise; it feels like a rubber stamp. That may not be the intention of the Minister or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, but it is critical that we address that.

The Secretary of State spoke last October about wanting to make it easier to cut, I think, up to £3 billion of costs a year by trying to get more solar on brownfield sites. It would be helpful to understand from the Minister what, since the Secretary of State’s speech and the direction of travel that she, he and the Prime Minister have set, has happened with the applications for not only planning, but connections. Have we seen that change happen, or have we continued to see more and more solar farms being proposed instead of agricultural production?

The Government have done other positive things. My hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, leading this debate, questioned some of the grants that were being given for barn solar, as I think we christened it at the time. That was deliberately intended to provide grants to help farmers to generate electricity for use on their farms; it is not designed in any way then to be connected anywhere. I think that is a sensible use of taxpayers’ money from the £2.4 billion, on average, that is distributed in England every year. It is absolutely key that we try to help farmers with their resilience, but we should not be doing that on the basis that taxpayers’ money will be used to fuel higher returns from not actually producing food or looking after livestock.

When it comes to thinking through what the next steps could be, I have already asked the Minister a few questions—I appreciate that he may not have all the information to hand today, but I, like others, am seeking a moratorium on connections until there is a steady state of understanding what is happening in this fair and beautiful land. I am not in DEFRA anymore, so I do not know which of the various stages the preparation of the land use framework is in, but a vital issue is the use of energy and that balance versus of course housing and other elements, because we can actually have multi- faceted land, productive in more ways than one.

It is important that we take this opportunity without trying to get away from the target that we have set of getting to 70 GW by 2035, but let us not go at breakneck speed and end up breaking our necks in this regard. It is important that we try to ensure that there are sensible routes forward from National Grid on connections. Right now, I get the impression that it is just approving or dishing out connections to anybody at all, without necessarily thinking through what the impact will be on food security or on our countryside.

Photo of Gordon Henderson Gordon Henderson Ceidwadwyr, Sittingbourne and Sheppey

I am expecting the Minister to take about 15 minutes, so out of fairness I will give the Opposition spokesman the same amount of time.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

On a point of order, Mr Henderson. Am I not right in thinking that it is normal in such debates for a spokesman from the other main parties in this Parliament to respond to the debate? The Liberal Democrats believe that they feel strongly on this issue, yet there is not one Liberal Democrat Back Bencher or shadow Minister here. Is that because they do not like the policy, because they cannot answer the debate, or because they were not invited? Why are there no Liberal Democrats here?

Photo of Gordon Henderson Gordon Henderson Ceidwadwyr, Sittingbourne and Sheppey

The hon. Gentleman will know that that is not a point of order. He has made his point, so I will call Dr Alan Whitehead.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero) 2:35, 18 Ebrill 2024

Thank you, Mr Henderson, for your consideration of the time available in what has been a very useful and educational debate. I congratulate Dr Johnson on securing this debate. I also congratulate hon. Members on the way they have put their cases. The contributions from the hon. Members for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), for Buckingham (Greg Smith) and for North Wiltshire (James Gray) and the right hon. Members for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), for Haltemprice and Howden (Sir David Davis) and for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) all added greatly to the tissue of the debate.

Let us get one or two canards out of the way first. This debate was not, to my mind, about a lot of people standing up and being nimbys, although I understand that hon. Members will quite rightly want to defend what they consider to be the best interests of their constituencies. We had an intervention from Sir John Hayes, who said that he would stand by South Holland and The Deepings to the last; the right hon. Member for Gainsborough, who I think perhaps is producing evidence for the wrong side in the civil war, nevertheless made the point very strongly about what he felt he was here to do for the interests of his constituency. That is not about nimbyism, but about defending what one thinks is best for one’s own area of the country.

The problem we have is how we ally together a policy that, by and large, everyone in this Chamber is agreed on and the way we carry it out in practice. The policy, on which I think there is no real difference between the Opposition and the Government, reflects the strong view that we should move rapidly forward on the deployment of solar across the country. The Government have a target of 70 GW of solar to be deployed by 2035. In our plans for decarbonisation of the energy system by 2030, we want to see 50 GW installed by 2030.

That is, in part, because solar is now one of the cheapest forms of energy that can be deployed in an energy emergency, where we have to produce an enormous amount of additional capacity over the next few years, in addition to replacing what is going away, to ensure that our system is resilient, stable and homegrown for our future. The fact that solar has to play a central role in our overall energy economy in the future, and the fact that the targets for installation of solar are very similar between the Opposition and the Government, underline how central it is felt to be that solar should play that key role.

When we decide that it will play that key role, the next question is: how do we do it? That is what a lot of the debate today has landed on. Where do we put solar? How do we put solar in various places? What is the most beneficial way to do it, assuming we are going to do it for the country as whole?

Much as we might want to, we will not be able to deliver all the solar on roofs and brownfield sites—certainly not on roofs. But, as I will come to in a moment, the issue of what proportion we can install in particular areas relates to how the Government set out planning and other energy management arrangements that prevent or downgrade the possibility of putting solar panels on to roofs, buildings, industrial workplaces and so on. The Opposition very much want to see, if possible, the predominance of that solar development concentrated on brownfield sites, roofs and industrial buildings, but we recognise that there is an enormous amount of work to do to facilitate the planning and commissioning arrangements that will allow that to happen.

Hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Redditch, mentioned cost and remediation on brownfield sites. Solar treads very lightly on the earth. We can do things with solar on brownfield sites that we might not be able to do with other forms of development on a brownfield site, particularly if it needs some remediation, so that is not the key issue. The key issue is the value of brownfield sites in an urban context and the hope value that those sites have, often in contradistinction to the sort of value that the developers think they might get from land that is not going to change its value, on hope or otherwise, in terms of their developments.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Ceidwadwyr, Haltemprice and Howden

I am listening with interest to the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that if we increase the incentive, up to the point of mandating in some cases, for the use of brownfield sites and roofs and so on, that is likely to alter the economics, with people like Elon Musk and others investing in more cost-effective and more easily used photovoltaic cells for that purpose?

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

Yes, indeed. As the right hon. Member will know, solar is now not looking for subsidy from the Government in the way that, as the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal mentioned, it was a number of years ago. It might be that we ought to look at how we can direct the best use of land and facilities for solar, by reintroducing incentives and disincentives that can go into solar development for the future. I would emphasise that that is all in the gift of Government to bring about, in terms of changes to how planning, underwriting and frameworks are organised. We mentioned the land use framework, which has still not come forward from DEFRA. All those things can play a much more substantial role in getting the balance right about where we put what is an imperative to develop for the future.

Some of the questions that have been raised are about not so much solar itself, but, among other things, the cumulation of particular sites in particular places. Of course, there is not anything in planning arrangements that can easily deal with the question of cumulation. Again, that needs to be put into the context of a wider land use planning arrangement for the future. I am from a constituency that has one farmer, although we are not allowed to recognise who that farmer is in the census because we are not allowed to record one farmer in the census return; it has to be two farmers or no farmers. However, I do understand that it is a real issue when there is a cumulation of a number of these things in rural constituencies, and they can see no benefit of that cumulation for their local populations.

Again, it may be within the gift of Government to mitigate that problem by enabling local communities to benefit from the output of the particular farms in their area. Notwithstanding that, it is certainly the case that cumulation has come about not just because of developers’ lust for very large schemes, but because at the moment those are some of the only places where they can get decent connections in the near future. For example, Lincolnshire was the site of two power stations—Cottam and West Burton—which have now closed, but it still has good, high-level grid connections.

Therefore, there are schemes that might come forward in other parts of the country that do not have such good connections, which are being put on the backburner just because developers can get particular connections right now. That is also in the gift of the Government to sort out. They should get the connections in the country on a regularised basis so that the people bringing forward their solar developments actually have a choice of where to put their connection based on the best site for their development, rather than just looking at the economics of getting a connection right this minute.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

There is a perversity here, of course, which is that the further away a site is from the input into the grid, the bigger it has to be. Because Lime Down, the one in my constituency, is 30 miles away from a link into the grid, it has to be at least 2,000 acres, probably more, in order to pay for the connection.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

That is certainly true, but a much wider issue is the fact that connections in this country are pretty much available on a lottery basis. At the distribution network operator level, most of the capacity in most DNOs is taken up, and at the national grid level, the connections are entirely dependent on where the lines go. They do not necessarily go to where people want to connect up, and they are also very much at the limit of their capacity at the moment. A national plan to enable those connections onshore to be distributed equally across the country would go a long way to facilitating much better distribution of the wind and solar projects that we want to see for the future.

Although I do not represent a rural constituency myself, I have great sympathy with the problems of accumulation with solar development. The solution, however, is not to throw solar out; it is to do a number of the things that I have mentioned this afternoon—to reach our target and secure the equitable deployment of solar across the country to manage our electricity future positively.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Ceidwadwyr, Sleaford and North Hykeham

The hon. Gentleman is talking about equitable distribution. I understand to some extent the point he is making, but surely there is some sense in saying that areas such as Lincolnshire, which have such high-quality farmland, should not have massive solar farms at all, because we will simply reduce our food security.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

I was intending to go into the 3a and 3b debate, but I do not think it will add anything greatly to what I have to say. Again, it is in the gift of Government, for schemes above the 50 MW level, to look at what the overall planning guidance suggests we should do. I am personally a little sceptical of the overall case about food production and land use because after all it was recently estimated that if we did produce the 70 GW target, that would take about 0.3% of UK land area, up from 0.1% today, compared with 69% of the land that is farmed. That does not add anything to the debate on Lincolnshire itself, but the point is that the actual land take of solar overall will be pretty minimal compared with what is in agriculture currently. As a matter of interest, the land taken by solar already is one fifth that taken up in the country for golf courses.

Photo of Gordon Henderson Gordon Henderson Ceidwadwyr, Sittingbourne and Sheppey

I remind the hon. Lady that she will have the opportunity to wind up at the end of the debate.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Ceidwadwyr, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Thank you, Mr Henderson. It is great that the hon. Gentleman seems to be laying out some of the problems, but he does not seem to be talking about solutions. Labour wants to form the next Government and my constituents want to understand what its policies will be. He says he does not want to get into the grades of land, and that the amount of land taken is negligible. My constituents do not consider the amount of their land that may be taken in their constituency to be negligible. Could the hon. Gentleman clarify what the Labour policy might be?

Photo of Gordon Henderson Gordon Henderson Ceidwadwyr, Sittingbourne and Sheppey

You will have to be quick, Dr Whitehead.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

I think the hon. Lady will forgive me for not being the Government right at this minute. It is not my responsibility to set out what the Government would do for the future; it is my responsibility to respond to this debate as the Opposition.

I have already said what we want to do in terms of planning land use and arrangements for the deployment of solar in a much more methodical way, and bringing forward arrangements that can, for example, make rooftop and brownfield solar much more achievable, to alter the balance of advantage and disadvantage for deployment across the country. That is probably all the hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham can expect me to say about what we will do in government, but I would add that the Government could do that today, so I hope the Minister will tell us what he will do in terms of that balancing to get solar deployed in the future.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time. I have been listening very carefully to his extremely interesting speech, but I must admit to being a little confused about what Labour party’s policy is on these matters. Let me ask him straightforwardly: will the incoming Labour Government —if there is one—be in favour of large-scale solar farms in the countryside or against them?

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

That is a really interesting question. It is not necessarily the case that there will be an incoming Labour Government, but it is nice to hear the hon. Gentleman declare that there will be; that is really helpful. Should there be an incoming Labour Government, we will want to ensure we reach our targets of solar deployment equitably for the country as a whole. If that means bringing in new legislation, guidance and rules to allow that distribution to take place equitably, that is what we will do. As I am sure he will understand, the detail would take about three quarters of an hour to unpack, so we will have to leave it for now. I am very happy to have a cup of tea with him in the not-too-distant future and set all that out in some detail if he would find that interesting.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero) 2:56, 18 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Henderson. I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Johnson on securing this incredibly important and timely debate on large-scale solar and the impact of the plans on rural England.

It has been fantastic to hear the passionate and well-informed speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), for Buckingham (Greg Smith)—he talked about the benefits of small modular reactors, which was music to my ears—and for North Wiltshire (James Gray).

My right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh talked about the positive benefits of further investment in nuclear power, which is why we unveiled the civil nuclear road map earlier this year—the biggest investment in nuclear in 70 years. He would struggle to find a bigger advocate of the benefits of our domestic oil and gas industry than me. I assure him that, despite my Scottish Presbyterian upbringing, I associate myself much more with the cavaliers than the roundheads. We also heard from my right hon. Friends the Members for Haltemprice and Howden (Sir David Davis) and for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). I think I have engaged with just about every one of them individually on various energy infrastructure projects, not least recently on solar.

It was also good to hear the concerns of communities raised in the interventions of many other Conservative Members, including my right hon. Friends the Members for Newark (Robert Jenrick), for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) and for Staffordshire Moorlands (Dame Karen Bradley) and my hon. Friends the Members for Devizes (Danny Kruger), for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller), for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) and for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers).

I represent a vast rural constituency that encompasses some of the best farmland north of the border, which is itself looking at significant energy infrastructure build over the next few years, so I completely understand those concerns and have heard them myself from local communities worried about what that build will mean for the countryside in which they live and of which they are so fond.

Three years ago, the Government adopted our sixth carbon budget with the world’s most ambitious climate change goal—to reduce emissions by 77% by 2035, compared with 1990 levels. We also committed to fully decarbonising the electricity system by 2035, subject to security of supply. Renewables such as solar and wind, alongside other low-carbon technologies such as nuclear, will underpin the UK’s transition from a reliance on fossil fuels to a new, secure, clean energy system. Solar is an important part of the energy mix, and its deployment is a key part of the Government’s strategy for energy independence and clean growth.

As set out in the British energy security strategy and the energy security plan, we are aiming for up to 70 GW of solar capacity by 2035. To achieve that, we need to deploy both rooftop and ground-mounted technology. Ground-mounted technology is one of the cheapest forms of electricity generation and is readily deployable at scale. As such, the Government consider that there is a strong need for increased ground-mounted solar deployment, as reflected in the recently published energy national policy statements.

However, the Department and I recognise that, as with any new development, solar projects may impact on communities and, indeed, the environment. The planning system must allow all views to be taken into account when decision makers balance local impacts with the national need.

Because of the quasi-judicial role of Ministers in determining planning applications, I hope that Members will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on any specific matters in relation to specific projects in the planning system. Nor can I comment on the merits or harms of any particular proposals, as that could be perceived as prejudging the subsequent outcome. However, the Government recognise that solar projects can impact on land use, and I can speak to that. It is important that the Government strike the right balance between those considerations and securing a clean energy system for the future. Again, the planning system must take those issues into account.

As the recently published national policy statement for renewable energy infrastructure sets out, solar developers

“should, where possible, utilise suitable previously developed land, brownfield land, contaminated land and industrial land. Where the proposed use of any agricultural land has been shown to be necessary, poorer quality land should be preferred to higher quality land avoiding the use of ‘Best and Most Versatile’ agricultural land where possible.”

If it is proposed to use any land falling under Natural England’s best and most versatile agricultural land classification—grades 1, 2 and 3a—developers are required to justify using such land and to design their projects to avoid, mitigate and where necessary compensate for any impacts.

It is clear to me and to the Government that concerns remain about the scale and volume of projects that are being applied for on BMV land in specific areas of the country, particularly in areas with historic and established grid connections. We have concerns that not all developers are properly considering those requirements. That is something that needs to be rectified. We want to see that, following the new EN-3 publication. Although I can say little of detail in this Chamber, I want to assure hon. Members that we are listening and that work is ongoing to see what can be done to ensure that balance is met.

Reference has been made to the fact that there are no Liberal Democrat Members in the Chamber this afternoon. My hon. Friend the Member for Redditch described their policy as “bananas”, which means, “Build absolutely nothing anywhere ever.”

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

Near anybody—sorry. However, that is not actually the case. The Lib Dems’ proposal, which was voted on at their conference last year, is to remove restrictions on new solar and wind to accelerate deployment of renewable power. It is quite clear why there are no Liberal Democrats in the Chamber today; they would ride roughshod over the views of rural communities around the country to increase the deployment at pace and scale of solar and other technologies.

The reason why there are not many Labour Members in the Chamber is, as Dr Whitehead suggested, that not many of them represent rural communities, and they are not seeing the impact of the applications. I am now of the opinion, however, that they are just as confused about the Labour party policy on this issue as we all are, following what was a very interesting speech from the Opposition spokesperson.

Solar and farming can be complementary, supporting each other financially, environmentally and through shared use of land. Analysis shows that even in the unlikely scenario that all additional solar needed to meet the British energy security strategy ambition of 70 GW were to come forward as ground-mounted solar, which is not going to be the case, it would be less than 1% of all types of UK utilised agricultural land that was needed to accommodate it. However, as I have referred to, the concentration of so many of those projects in specific areas is concerning, and UK-wide analysis cannot take that into account. Again, although I am unable to say anything specific at this time, I can assure colleagues that we are listening.

The Government consider that improving our energy security is urgent and of critical importance to the country. I do not think that there is any disagreement on that, but it must be achieved together with maintaining food security for our United Kingdom. Solar projects and agricultural practice can co-exist. For example, the science of agrivoltaics is developing, in which solar is integrated with arable farming in innovative ways. That is coming on in leaps and bounds. Solar energy can also be an important way for farmers to increase their revenue from land less suited to higher-value crop production. Again, on that there is very little disagreement.

What we ultimately want to achieve is protecting our environment, backing British farmers and delivering long-term energy security with more low-carbon energy. I guarantee that this Government and this Department will not countenance the industrialisation of our green and pleasant land. It is possible to maintain and increase our food production in a more sustainable way in some areas and to see land use changes in others.

I turn briefly to the issue of cumulative impacts, which has been brought up multiple times. The planning system sets out how applicants and decision makers should consider cumulative impacts. When preparing an application for a development consent order, applicants for solar deployments and developments under the NSIP regime

“should consider the cumulative impacts of situating a solar farm in proximity to other energy generating stations and infrastructure.”

It is then a matter for the examining authority to consider cumulative in-combination effects with the other solar farm proposals and other developments in a locality when conducting an examination of a particular NSIP solar project. During the examination, the views of interested parties, which will include advisory bodies and local planning authorities, will be taken into account in the examining authority’s recommendations. Again, I assure colleagues that we are looking at that issue.

The Department and I appreciate the concerns raised about the clustering of projects around grid connections in some areas. As we bring more new energy infrastructure online to meet the demand for clean, secure electricity, so too must we increase grid capacity. As set out in the spring Budget, the Government are working with Ofgem and network companies to release more network capacity and prevent speculative projects from obtaining and retaining network capacity. That should result in more capacity across the country and help to reduce the clustering of projects.

Community engagement has also been raised. It is vital—this is where Conservative and Labour party policies differ dramatically—that communities have a voice in decisions about their local areas. There are established routes in the planning system to consider the impact of solar projects and to enable communities to raise concerns about developments. I know that there are concerns about how effective those routes are, but I will set out the policy as it stands.

The national planning policy framework, which underlies the planning system for projects below 50 MW, encourages developers, including those proposing solar projects, to engage with local communities before submitting an application. Local authorities will consider a range of factors when assessing applications, including visual and environmental impacts. Members of the public can submit their views to the planning authorities, and significant concerns will be taken into account as part of the local decision-making process. Developers taking larger projects through the NSIP regime must complete considerable community engagement before any approval is granted, giving communities ample opportunity to feed in their views. The level and quality of community engagement, among other factors, will be taken into account by decision makers.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

We had an extensive consultation in Wiltshire, and I went along to all the meetings with the PR people who have to do such things. I said to each of them, “Will you take account of the fact that most people here do not want this thing to happen at all? We want to stop it. We want to keep the green fields.” They said, “No, we can’t consider that. All we can consider is the design of the solar farm.” The consultation process is bogus.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

My hon. Friend makes a specific point about his constituency, on which I cannot comment, but I am sure that his concerns have been heard. They are certainly not new concerns; they have been raised with me in the past. As I said, we are genuinely and clearly listening to those concerns in the entire process.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Ceidwadwyr, Suffolk Coastal

The Minister is right to talk about how NPS EN-3 refers to the planning application process. One of the points that I made was about the connection process. Connections are being offered left, right and centre. Communities then see that as happening automatically in future, and indeed National Grid is building its infrastructure around the connections it is giving out, regardless of future planning applications. I appreciate that the Minister might not be able to reply today, but he and the Department need to look at the connection process. That is why I called for a moratorium on anything further.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

My right hon. Friend knows that I am no longer the Minister responsible for the network or the national grid, but I will ensure that her concerns are passed on to the relevant Minister. Ofgem and the electricity system operator are engaged in a considerable review of how connections are offered across the country, because there is a problem with that system. That is recognised and is being addressed.

Let me briefly touch on community benefits, which have also been raised. It is important that communities can participate in and benefit from the deployment of new low-carbon energy technologies in their local area. However, the Government do not have a formal role with regard to community benefits for solar and other large-scale renewable energy projects. We believe that those are best agreed at a local level, between the renewable operator and the local communities, so that they can be tailored to each community’s individual needs. They cannot be taken into account and, I am afraid, are not relevant to the planning decisions. A number of solar developers already provide community benefits on a voluntary basis. We are working with Solar Energy UK, the industry body, to provide further guidance and advice on community benefits for solar developers and communities and to develop a more consistent approach across the country that is fair to all parties.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

Does the Minister accept that under the present trading arrangements for energy, a developer cannot provide a trading benefit for a local area only and has to treat it as though it were a national benefit? Is the Minister interested in changing that so that benefits can come to local areas, rather than simply being spread across the national grid, as hon. Members have said?

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

As I said, we are working with the solar industry now to develop proposals and give guidance and advice on how best to support local communities and deliver community benefits, so that communities that host these projects on behalf of the wider nation see a benefit. We are not closing our minds to any suggestions that might benefit such communities moving forward. This is a wholesale change in how we deliver energy across the UK, so we should be open to thinking about how we do that in the most appropriate fashion.

I assure right hon. and hon. Members that we are deploying rooftop solar. It remains a key priority for the Government, and continues to be one of the most popular and easily deployed renewable energy sources. We want to see more rooftop solar on industrial and commercial properties, such as warehouses, factories and buildings, to make maximum usage of the available surfaces for business as well as for the environmental and climate benefits. There will be more on that in the solar road map, which will be published in the next few months.

The issue of forced labour was raised. I addressed that in the Chamber just the other evening in response to a debate that was secured by my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns. However, as it has been brought up again, I reassure Members that the Government are committed to tackling the issue of Uyghur forced labour in supply chains, including in the mining used for the manufacture of solar panels, and are taking robust action. Over the past two years, we have introduced new guidance on the risks of doing business in Xinjiang, introduced enhanced export controls and announced the introduction of financial penalties for those who fail to report as required under the Modern Slavery Act 2015. That followed our announcement in September 2020 of the package of changes to section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act. These changes will require large businesses and public bodies to report on specific areas within their modern slavery statements, including their due diligence processes in relation to modern slavery. There will be yet more on that within the solar road map on what the industry is doing to ensure that it is not reliant on forced labour anywhere in the world, but particularly in China.

We need an increase in ground-mounted solar alongside rooftop solar over the next decade to meet our energy security and net zero goals and to reduce the cost to consumers. But it is clear to me, the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero and His Majesty’s Government in general that this growth must be sustainable and enabled by a robust planning system that balances the wider benefits with the local impacts, that local communities are listened to and that food security concerns are addressed. That is what we are committing to do. I look forward to the publication of the solar road map, which is the result of the solar taskforce’s work. The document will set out deployment scenarios as well as key actions needed to address challenges in several priority areas, including the grid, rooftop supply chains and skills.

Once again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham for bringing forward this debate—

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department

Will the Minister enlighten us on when this solar road map will be published?

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

I assure my hon. Friend that it is imminent. We will see the publication within the next few weeks.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

Spring. I close by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham for bringing forward this important debate. The contributions have been enlightening and well informed, and show the passion with which Members, who I am proud to serve with, have for the local communities that they are honoured to represent in this place.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Ceidwadwyr, Sleaford and North Hykeham 3:14, 18 Ebrill 2024

I thank all my right hon. and hon. Friends for coming along to contribute either interventions or magnificent speeches. I started the debate with an agreement and I will finish it with one. We agree on so many things on the Government side of the House. Currently, my constituents feel under siege as they wait for the results of a planning process that could ruin many aspects of their life. Let us imagine: you own a house in a rural village, such as Scopwick, and when you walk your dog in the morning, you enjoy the beautiful countryside and the sunshine. However, under this plan you will be walking through field after field, for miles around, of 4-metre-high solar panels. That will spoil much of your enjoyment of the countryside and your house. We also know that it will have an effect on my constituents’ mental health and wellbeing.

We have heard about how inefficient solar farms and solar panels are as a form of energy compared with other forms of green energy, and how, as the technology becomes better over time, these large solar farms put in in the countryside will become obsolete long before their 40 years are up. We have also heard that they are not as green as they are said to be and they are certainly not as morally clean as we would wish them to be.

We have also heard about the importance of protecting the countryside, particularly productive farmland, and about food security. We have heard that it is important that everybody has the right to defend their area, not because they are a nimby, but because they care about where they live.

We have also heard about farmers. I should mention that my husband is a farmer so I understand, perhaps as well as most, the challenges of farming at the moment and the financial difficulties posed by some of the weather issues that we have had this year. I also heard today that there is no real objection among Conservative Members to small-scale development of solar for farmers, which will help to de-risk some of the farming challenges without having a huge impact on the community. We heard about the particular difficulties for tenant farmers, who may be chucked off land that they have farmed for generations simply so that solar farms can be put on it instead.

We heard about Government measures to incentivise the use of brownfield land and rooftops. I am very pleased that a solar plan is imminent and I am really looking forward to it. One thing the Minister said was that, where possible, we should use brownfield or poor-quality land and that a developer would have to justify themselves if they are not using that. In practice, however, in a county such as Lincolnshire, which has very little such land, developers can therefore claim that there is no rubbish land locally, because it is all good. That is therefore not tight enough for me; that loophole needs closing.

The Minister also talked about the cumulative effect. I want to draw his attention to something that he might not be aware of because it sits outside his brief: the reservoir that developers also propose to build in my constituency. That is yet another NSIP project that will take up many thousands of acres—5 sq km, indeed—of currently productive and in some cases organic farmland. So on the cumulative effect of development, when, as he puts it, we are hosting infrastructure for the whole country, it is important not just to consider the energy infrastructure that an area is being asked to host, but the wider infrastructure that an area or a community is being asked to bear for the greater good.

There have been lots of mentions today of a land use plan. Will the Minister tell me when he expects that to be published, or could he go back to DEFRA to find out when?

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Ceidwadwyr, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I see that the Minister is nodding. I also want to draw his attention to the widespread nature of this debate by listing some of the counties that we have heard from today: Suffolk; Yorkshire; Nottinghamshire; Wiltshire; Bedfordshire; Rutland; Shropshire; Worcestershire; Derbyshire; North Lincolnshire; Oxfordshire; Durham; Staffordshire; and Lincolnshire, which has the greatest concentration of them all. [Interruption.] And Buckinghamshire; I knew that I had missed one out. That should demonstrate to him the scale and the widespread nature of the problems that we face.

I was quite disappointed to hear what the Labour spokesperson, Dr Whitehead, had to say. He talked about solar being an important part of the solution to net zero and said that it is important to consider planning—well, yes, of course. He also talked about supporting onshore wind, which I know my constituents, by and large, do not support—they do not support the idea of covering their beautiful farmland with windmills instead of solar panels. He talked about spreading this out evenly, but what does that mean? Does it mean that every district council must have so many? How would that work in the centre of London? He did not really have a policy, and for a party who think that they might be in Government in less than six months’ time, that is really quite remarkable.

I was also pretty disgusted to see that there were no Back Benchers here from the Opposition at all—nobody from the SNP, the Liberal Democrats or Labour. Do they have no interest in the countryside? I have always thought that to be the case and this shows it to be true.

Finally, I met the Prime Minister just before Easter on a one-to-one basis, and I am certain both of his understanding of the importance of dealing with this issue and of his commitment to doing so. I am also very clear that we have a Minister here who is most capable and committed to achieving what his boss has asked him to do and of delivering for my constituents, but I ask him to do so as quickly as possible.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered large-scale solar farms.

Sitting adjourned.