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Solar Arrays

Volume 566: debated on Thursday 11 July 2013

[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan.

I will start by making it clear that I am not here to deny the pressing need for alternative energy sources, and I am in no doubt about the threats that we face from the twin hazards of peak oil prices and rising greenhouse gas emissions. I also want to acknowledge the work of Rob Hopkins and Transition Town Totnes in my constituency. They have inspired not only a national movement but an international movement that is leading the way in taking practical steps towards more sustainable and resilient communities.

There is widespread support, in my constituency and nationally, for roof-mounted solar photovoltaic systems. Projects such as Transition Streets in Totnes, which the Minister very kindly visited in April, bring communities together, and they look at energy saving as well as microgeneration. I hope that the Minister can set out in his response to this debate how he plans to support community energy projects such as this, which have the potential to be rolled out at scale. However, I will not dwell on that issue in detail, because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) will elaborate further on community energy when she speaks.

I thank the Minister for his response this morning in oral questions, because it went to the nub of this issue. We do not want to resist solar PV as such; we want to resist inappropriate solar PV. I was immensely relieved, as all my constituents will be, to hear that he is working so closely with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to bring forward a change to planning regulations, in order to make it very clear to planners and local councillors that local opinion, the need to protect our heritage and our rural landscape, and all the other factors that matter so much to local communities, cannot automatically be overridden because of the need to go forward on renewable energy.

Perhaps I can just set out the scale of where we are and say why communities are so worried. At the moment, we have 1.6 GW of solar capacity within the UK, and almost all of that is in microgeneration. The average scale is 4/1,000th of a megawatt and only 71 of the current 369,912 sites that are listed on the renewables obligation and feed-in tariff database are more than 500 kW in size. To put that in context, that would be a site of more than 2.5 acres. These sites contribute just 203 MW of that total 1.6 GW of installed capacity. However, if we look at the Department of Energy and Climate Change planning database, we see that 1.7 GW is in the planning pipeline or under construction, which is even greater than the solar capacity that we currently have installed. The point is that most of that 1.7 GW is completely different; it is not microgeneration but large-scale generation. In fact, more than half of it is very large-scale; we are talking about projects that are more than 5 MW. To put that in context, 1 MW requires around five acres of land, so more than half of that 1.7 GW that is in the pipeline will be of a scale greater than 25 acres. That is the nub of this issue.

I will put that figure in context again by looking at the impact on Totnes. My constituency covers an area from Holne on Dartmoor down to the sea; it takes in an area of outstanding natural beauty, several sites of special scientific interest and several special areas of conservation. South Hams district council has received 28 applications for large-scale solar projects: 25 have been approved and they are either in construction or awaiting construction; one is at appeal; and just two have been withdrawn. It is hard to convey the scale of these projects, or how much they cause devastation to the landscape; people have to see them to understand why communities are so worried about them. Anyone who travels north from Diptford, which is a tiny community in a beautiful rural setting, will come over the brow of a hill and see the development at a place called Blue Post, and they will be in no doubt whatever about what the future holds if we do not do something about this issue. There are more than 20 acres of densely packed, ground-mounted panels. Anyone who wants to see this site can look on my Twitter feed and there is a photograph of what these things look like close at hand. Effectively, the site is an industrialised desert, and it is a world away from the misleading and I have to say—frankly—fraudulent impression given in some of the glossy advertising that is being targeted directly at farmers.

However, I must say that farmers are the one group that I do not blame for any of this development. If farmers’ cattle are suffering from the devastating effects of bovine TB and the farmers repeatedly see their beautiful herds of South Devon cows being culled, while they are also under pressure from falling milk prices and face losing their family farms, and through their letterbox they receive a deluge of advertising that promises them up to £1,000 an acre per year for having solar panels installed on their land, together with a maintenance contract, who on earth would not decide to do that?

Does my hon. Friend agree that there are a tremendous number of farmers in the south-west at the moment, particularly in her constituency and my constituency of South East Cornwall, who may be land-rich but cash-poor, and that that is possibly one of the problems?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The collapse in farming incomes is extraordinary and both of us know that, having worked closely with farming communities. There used to be a dairy farm on every hillside in the South Hams area, but I am afraid that we are losing that vital part of our heritage.

Far from the rural idyll of grazing sheep and wild flowers that we see in all the glossy literature about these sites, the reality is that where the panels are closely packed and close to the ground there is very little grazing land. There may be a margin around the edge of these sites, which of course is where the photographs are taken, but those photographs give a very misleading impression. We are often told that these projects will be sensitively screened. Well, anyone who has driven past Blue Post will see very high and very ugly wire fencing, often with security cameras and humming transformers. That is a very different world from the one that is portrayed in the literature. The industry guidelines talk about sensitive siting, consultation with communities and sensitive screening, but I am afraid that this process does not appear to be about renewables and saving the planet; instead, it appears to be about big money.

Diptford, the small community I referred to earlier, has already felt the impact of the arrays at Marley and Blue Post, and there are already two further large sites along the power line corridors nearby. Now, AAE Renewables is in the pre-planning stage for a further 83 acres directly bordering the AONB. There is a visceral sense that something is very wrong. I know that the community in Diptford will be immensely reassured that the planning guidelines will be updated by the Minister in the next few weeks.

However, I will just sound a note of caution, because we often hear the term “prime farmland” being used. Agricultural land is graded between one and five, but the grade is determined by a number of factors, such as gradient, flood risk, versatility, the yield and so forth. If the Minister looks at the map of agricultural land grading in my constituency, he will see that almost the entire area is grade 3 or 4. If we restrict the protections to prime farmland, and that is interpreted as being grade 1 or 2, that will be no protection whatever to the South Hams. I was relieved to hear this morning that landscape and rural views are also issues, because it is important that we focus not only on land type.

There is a wider point about food security, which has been made to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who would have liked to contribute to the debate. The projects in Suffolk Coastal are taking over not only areas of outstanding natural beauty, but valuable agricultural land. In summing up, therefore, will the Minister tell us whether any assessment has been made of the impact on food security, because we, as a country, are already unable to feed ourselves? There is also an issue about the impact on local food webs. The disruption to local food webs will be important in areas such as south Devon. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that.

Another real grievance relates to subsidies. We see from the correspondence between AEE and the planning department that it is not necessary for an 80-acre area of desecration—that is what it is, I am afraid—to have an environmental impact assessment. Small-scale, sustainable, self-build projects from the Land Society are held up, sometimes for years, by the need to have environmental impact assessments, but the real environmental impact is from inappropriate large-scale solar developments. In summing up, will the Minister refer to the need to have environmental impact assessments? Often, the image we are given is of projects that will be high off the ground and widely spaced—we all recognise that that has less of an environmental impact—but if Members go to look at the project at Blue Post, they will see that there is a major environmental impact when these things are densely packed and ground mounted.

Another issue is, how temporary is temporary? The planning officer referred in her correspondence to “temporary structures”. In 25 years’ time, I will be 76—

Yes, it is hard to believe, colleagues.

By that time, a whole generation of children will have grown up and left home in the community of Diptford, so 25 years does not sound very temporary. Furthermore, who will be responsible for decommissioning? What is to prevent these industrial wastelands from becoming tomorrow’s brownfield sites? That is another area I hope the Minister will address in summing up.

These developments have little to do with saving the planet; they are entirely about profit. The subsidies go to a tiny number of people. When I speak at public meetings, people who are in fuel poverty often ask why they are paying more to subsidise people who can afford the up-front costs of some of these developments. Indeed, these people might even have the entire cost—often including the entire planning cost—paid for them. As a result, literally nothing needs to be paid for by the person who will then have all the profit from the project.

As the Minister will know, there are many community-owned projects, and he will be aware of TRESOC—the Totnes Renewable Energy Society—in my constituency. I was proud to open its first community-owned array, which is on the roof of the local general practitioners. That is the kind of place these projects need to be. TRESOC has 502 members, who share the dividends. The point, however, is that people have to be able to afford the shares in the first place, so that automatically excludes those in fuel poverty. Will the Minister put some flesh on the bones as regards subsidies, because there are probably a lot of misunderstandings about how they operate and who benefits from them?

Will the Minister also review the system for distributing profits, so that those who suffer loss of amenity—particularly those in fuel poverty—can directly benefit from a reduction in their fuel bills? When I met AEE, it told me that Diptford residents could all benefit from the project because they could have a discount from the supplier, but only from a more expensive supplier, so it was no discount at all. That is what is fuelling a lot of the resentment about these projects.

In a recent speech, the Minister stated his ambition to have 20 GW of solar, but given the impact the 1.7 GW I mentioned will have, I hope that he will tell us, in summing up, how he will make sure that future solar, which we all feel enthusiastic about, is rolled out through community projects and brought up to scale, and that community-owned projects are supported.

Will the Minister also touch on how the national grid will cope? Another problem is that solar arrays function best at times such as this—in the middle of hot, sunny days in the middle of summer. However, peak demand will be on winter evenings, when these arrays have little, if any, input into the grid. I know they still function on cloudy days, but at times of peak demand—on dark winter evenings—they will be of no benefit at all. Another issue is that when they are functioning best—when demand is at its lowest—we also have background forms of energy generation, such as nuclear, which cannot be turned off. At the moment, our grid does not have the capacity to do that.

I understand my hon. Friend’s point, and I will respond to most of her points when I sum up. However, on the issue of demand on sunny days, if she goes to any of the buildings in the centre of London on a hot day such as this, she will find a great deal of air conditioning belting out chilled air produced almost exclusively using electricity. Increasingly, office buildings, commercial buildings, public buildings and even homes need cooling on hot days such as this in the summer.

I thank the Minister for his response, and I quite agree, but if we look at the statistics from National Grid, we will undoubtedly see that demand is at its lowest when solar produces its maximum output. At the moment, we do not have the capacity to store or export that energy, and nor do we have the kind of smart grid that can easily turn systems off. It would be helpful to understand a bit more about the investment that is going into the grid, so that our constituents can have the confidence that we will not be subsidising large-scale solar arrays and then turning off the electricity supply to the national grid. We want to make sure that the grid has the capacity to deal with these things.

The south-west understands that it has a responsibility to contribute to energy generation from renewables. It is encouraging that Regen SW’s figures show there has been a 50% growth in that contribution in the past year. Capacity in the south-west is now 1 GW, and 7.3% of that electricity generation comes from renewables. Devon is the major contributor, closely followed by Cornwall. Between them, Devon and Cornwall are responsible for the lion’s share of renewable energy generation in the south-west.

The real enthusiasm in the south-west, however, is for marine renewables. Those are a fabulous resource, and we have the potential to become world leaders in marine renewables. Will the Minister update us on his support for them? Other countries have taken the lead on technologies such as solar and wind, and they tend to hoover up the profits from those technologies, but Britain has the potential to be the world leader in marine renewables. I really hope, therefore, that he will be able to update us on how he plans to support marine renewables. Perhaps he could even look at a project in my constituency. Searaser was invented by Alvin Smith, and it is supported by Ecotricity. The university of Plymouth is standing ready and could carry out the tank testing of the technology, which looks very encouraging, if it had assistance to help it do so. Will the Minister look at that?

My constituents understand the need to keep the lights on, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and our dependence on imported fossil fuels, but they maintain that the greatest gains are in powering down and reducing energy use. We are about to spend £42 billion on High Speed 2, and I wonder what a fraction of that investment could do to transform cycling, for example, throughout the UK; to transform and electrify the entire railway system; and to invest in our vital future in marine renewables. I hope that our legacy will be in such developments. I am confident that with the Minister’s support, working closely with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, it will not be industrialisation and a wasteland across rural Britain.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who has made the case strongly. I want to reiterate what she said, but I will stick mainly to discussing my constituents’ views.

A thermal map of the UK shows that Cornwall is the best place here for solar arrays, but it is therefore also the best place for tourism. The tourism industry plays an important role in the duchy’s economy. Many of my constituents, from the beautiful Luxulyan valley in the west to the towns of the Tamar valley in the east, have contacted me about their growing concern that their beautiful landscapes and productive farm land are being covered in solar panels. The landscape is a prime visitor attraction, and they are concerned that the duchy’s economy will suffer.

Local councillors, who know the area best, refuse many of the planning applications, only to find that the planning inspector, based in an obscure location, with no knowledge of the locality or its topography or landscape, overturns the decision. Such interference in local decisions is a disgrace. Some constituents have expressed concern that local planning officers are now informing councillors that it would cost the local authority millions of pounds if they refused an application and lost an appeal. That cannot continue.

Many of my constituents are also concerned that the council’s planning portfolio is held by a member of the largest group on the council. They have expressed concern that the Liberal Democrat green agenda has the potential to cover our beautiful countryside and productive farm land in massive solar fields. We must not allow that.

I just want to volunteer a thought about some of the alternatives; Hinkley Point power station is not exactly the most beautiful building to adorn the south-west coast. There are probably some much more unattractive alternatives to solar panels.

I was going to come to the alternatives, but I thank the hon. Lady for making that point.

I am not against solar panels—in the right place, with local approval. I pay tribute to a business in South East Cornwall, Trago Mills, whose managing director, Mr Bruce Robertson, has massively invested in a solar array on the roof of his building. I understand that his other, very large facility, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride), also has solar panels fitted. I discussed that with my hon. Friend and he, too, pays tribute to that gentleman. The arrays produce a third of the electricity consumed in those popular out-of-town shopping centres, where, of course, the main energy consumption takes place during daylight hours. The benefit to one of South East Cornwall’s largest employers and to its economy is maximised. Using a company from the south-west to do the installation was a further benefit.

I applaud the recent written statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, in conjunction with the Minister, about the national planning policy guidance on wind turbines. I think that I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes confirm today that we can look forward to further planning policy guidance to local authorities on other sources of renewable energy. I hope that the Minister will confirm that.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

Before the suspension, I was just about to conclude my contribution.

We must ensure that local authority planning officers and planning inspectors are immediately made aware of any new planning policy guidance on solar arrays and other renewable energy sources to ensure that local councillors who make decisions locally have the best opportunity to adhere to the new guidance.

I fully support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes, and I know that if the Minister is able to confirm a change in the national planning policy guidance, it will reassure many of my constituents who have great concerns.

I thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) for initiating this debate.

I think that we can all agree that solar power is a real option for producing energy in the very near future, not only to meet our renewable energy needs and targets, but to keep the lights on. Solar arrays are swiftly installed and can balance the supply from more intermittent sources of generation, such as wind.

I was intrigued by the hon. Lady’s comments earlier, when she said that she would prefer to have solar panels than Hinkley Point, which will fulfil 8% of the country’s total energy needs. We would have to plaster the whole of the south-west and probably most of the farm land of the south-east to get anywhere near that amount of power. I am absolutely intrigued if that is actually Liberal Democrat policy.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but of course my comment was on the beauty or otherwise of Hinkley Point, as the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) discussed. My point was that I do not believe that Hinkley Point is in any way beautiful, nor could it be considered attractive from any point of view. I accept that it produces power, and I certainly was not speaking for my party. I accept that there has to be a mix and that I cannot possibly stop Hinkley Point on my own, much as I possibly would like to do so. It is a valuable part of the mix, but I do not think that it is a very attractive blot on our landscape.

I am a keen environmentalist, and I believe that we have to make huge strides on energy saving, as well as on renewable energy generation, to ensure that we meet the targets that we set ourselves in the Climate Change Act 2008.

Using solar PV on domestic roofs is not the whole answer, and there are compromises to be made between orientation and the difficulty sometimes fitting in with architectural constraints. None the less, there is an opportunity to use commercial roofs for solar PV, too. I cite the cow shed roof of Michael Eavis, the founder of Glastonbury festival, who hosted 200,000 people the weekend before last at a highly successful and very sunny festival. I understand that he is the biggest private solar power and electricity provider in the UK. He has 1,116 panels on his cow shed roof at Worthy farm, and he produces 200 kW of power and saves 100 tonnes of carbon per annum. He uses that power to charge the generators used for long periods during the festival.

The hon. Lady is obviously unaware that there are two facilities—one in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) and the other in my constituency—that I am absolutely certain are much larger solar arrays than the one she mentions. Perhaps she would be well advised to check whether her information is a bit out of date, because those two facilities are recent installations.

My understanding is that Michael Eavis is the largest private provider, but if I am incorrect, I stand that comment aside. None the less, he is a significant provider of solar energy, and it is to his credit that he has taken that step. Looking from the top of the Mendip hills or across the Somerset countryside, it is not unattractive to see the solar panels on those cow shed roofs. From a distance, most of the solar panels actually look like lakes, bits of water and, in some cases, the reflection off the polytunnels where strawberries are grown at Cheddar and where various other vegetables and produce are grown in the area. The visual impact can sometimes be quite attractive.

Of course, the good that is done is comparable and sometimes preferable, when we look at the money that goes into subsidies. Using subsidies for solar panels compares favourably with using subsidies for nuclear energy—that technology is certainly not new and should stand on its own in the market, but that debate is for another day.

In my part of Somerset, we are no stranger to solar arrays being planned and built. Up to 10 are planned or are in the planning process in my constituency alone. Locally based generation clearly reduces the use of the fossil fuels that often fuel the national grid at carbon-intensive fossil fuel power stations.

Electricity generation is moving to a model in which we can use a wide mix of technologies to provide power, and solar power is undoubtedly a significant contributor. Ground-mounted solar can come in a range of scales and sizes. In my part of Somerset, some proposed plans are suitable to the area, although some may be too big and intrusive. On the impact of solar arrays, I agree that wherever possible, they should be placed on brownfield land. In my area, though, it is equally feasible for agricultural land to be used for two purposes: farming and energy production.

The issue should be considered in respect of the wide benefits that solar arrays can bring to communities. I wish to place the themes of community and community energy at the heart of this debate. There are models for large-scale solar schemes that are appropriate and in scale. For example, in my patch is the Wedmore community power co-operative—a 1 MW scheme of 4,000 panels on about five acres of land, edged with hedges and a tree-lined road. The site, a little way outside the centre of the village of Wedmore, will power 300 of the 550 homes at the centre of that community. It is on a smaller scale than most of the larger arrays, but that is all the better, as it is a model for other villages in rural areas.

The Wedmore community power co-operative is encouraging as many local people as possible to invest in the scheme. As it is a community-led co-op set up by local people, every penny of the profit will flow back into the community. The scheme has a 27-year life, and the co-operative estimates that £605,000 will pour into the local area for all manner of projects to help the rural fuel-poor and help people with energy efficiency and insulation, particularly in hard-to-heat homes, which are common in my part of Somerset.

How does the project overcome the common difficulty that people must buy shares to benefit from it? How do those who are fuel-poor and unable to buy into the scheme benefit directly from it? Does the rest of the community directly make their fuel bills cheaper?

As I understand it—I hope to become a member of the co-operative—the threshold is £250, a moderate investment for those of us who might be able to afford it. I cannot remember what the maximum investment is, but I think that it might be something like £10,000 or £20,000, which is certainly out of my aim. For those who commit to the scheme, the co-op will use the profits created by the feed-in tariff to assist those who are identified as fuel-poor within the community. It might look at houses that are particularly hard to heat; there are a number of properties with very thick stone walls where people have particularly high bills.

For my part, I have been working with a charity organisation examining the amount of money spent in the community of Wedmore on electricity bills, gas bills and domestic heating fuel. They can see exactly how much is spent within a parish. Then the co-operative will move to reduce bills in the properties that are most expensive to heat for those who have the least funds to do so. I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I hope that that answers some of her questions.

To return to the details of the scheme, sheep will graze in the solar paddocks, as they have been called. The energy will not be intensively farmed; there will be space, and sheep will be able to graze. At the end of the 27 years, the panels will be removed and the land returned to its original use. I understand that the investors can expect a pretty healthy 7.2% average rate of return on their investment.

I hope that the Minister will consider speaking to his counterparts in the Department for Communities and Local Government, because there is an opportunity to take localism to the next degree by ensuring that communities start to aim for self-sufficiency in their energy needs. Communities should be able to consider their energy needs and how they might help reduce them by ensuring that buildings are built in a more energy-efficient way and by using all sorts of investment to ensure that people have lower bills.

It would be a good solution if communities could consider how they will take responsibility for the power that they use. My sense is that there has been enormous resistance to wind turbines in two or three parts of my constituency. The answer that I would always like to give to people is that they should be able to approach their district council and say, “Look, if you don’t want wind turbines, what are you going to offer instead?” We have to deal with the question of energy and energy production. We cannot just throw our hands in the air and say, “We don’t want that, that or that,” while carrying on using energy at the same intensity as before. [Interruption.] Is the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) making a formal intervention?

No, that is throwing one’s hands in the air. There is an opportunity for people to consider how they might take responsibility for their communities. As a second example, the isolated village of Priddy sits on top of the Mendip hills. When the weather is bad, the village is pretty much cut off. The children of Priddy have requested on a number of occasions that their parish council install photovoltaic panels. Originally, they wanted to put them on the school roof, but it turned out that the school roof was angled the wrong way. Happily, the village hall, just across the road, was absolutely suitable, and it was fitted with solar panels in 2010. Those cells generate 4,400 kWh of electricity and prevent the production of nearly 2,400 kg of CO2 each year.

To generalise, Regen South West’s latest progress report for 2013 shows that the south-west region now supplies about 7.3% of its energy through renewable means, but at current rates of installation, we will not meet the target of 15% by 2020, which is worrying. I would love to see more projects like the Wedmore scheme that work with and for communities. Community schemes benefit not an individual but the whole community, and there are ways to spread the wealth around. There will always be room for corporate players in the market, especially in industrial areas and on brownfield sites, but in rural areas, the community and co-op model is far preferable. Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes on bringing this debate to the fore.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I echo my colleagues in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on securing this opportune debate. It is not anti-solar panels, but it is about ensuring that solar panels are installed on barn roofs, industrial buildings and individual residences, not in huge arrays.

The hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) mentioned solar paddocks of four or five acres. The problem in my constituency is that we virtually have whole farms—I am not exaggerating—of 70, 80 or 90 acres in individual applications. I assure Members that anyone who has bought their house or lived there for years and who looks out on a beautiful hillside does not want 90 acres of solar panels in front of them. There is nothing pretty about them. They have huge industrial fences around them. They are not part of the countryside. People do not come to Devon and Cornwall—or even Somerset, dare I say—to see solar panels; they come to see beautiful countryside and wonderful farming. They do not want to see solar panels; they want to see sheep and cattle. As for the number of sheep that will graze under the panels, I assure the Chamber that it will not be very many. If the light is being taken to produce electricity, how much grass will grow, given that it needs to photosynthesise? A lot of what is being discussed is complete and utter myth.

We have 7 billion people and want to feed the world, and our nation, but all we are doing is taking out acres and acres of good farmland. Solar panels are being proposed for grade 1 and 2 farmland in my constituency; we have proposals for Bampton, Morebath, around Tiverton and around Cullompton. Mid Devon appears to be the solar panel farm capital of the world, and the council is inundated with the number of applications.

I have shown my hon. Friend an advert from Farmers Weekly. Does he agree that it verges on being fraudulent? It appears to show lush green grass growing directly underneath ground-mounted, large-scale solar panels.

I suggest that the grass and the wonderful flowers in the picture my hon. Friend has shown me were there before the panels were put up—the panels can only just have been put up for the advertisers to get such a picture. The whole thing is—but perhaps I had better not say what I was going to say.

I echo the words of my hon. Friends: do not blame the farmers for what is going on; blame the companies. Basically, the companies are using a scattergun approach. If they apply as many times and for as many sites as possible, they will not get many applications through, but they will get one or two of them, so they keep going. All they do is terrorise the population of those areas, who see planning application after planning application, costing Mid Devon a fortune to process. The council is now asking for environmental impact assessments, but everything still has to be processed.

The Minister wants the money that we are using to subsidise solar panels—we should not forget that panels can only get into place with vast amounts of subsidy—to go on community projects and individual households, so that people get real benefits. The problem is, however, that the money seems to have landed up in the vast numbers of field projects, because the price of panels has halved. A year or so ago, the Minister got lambasted for reducing the tariff on solar panel production, but in the meantime the cost of the panels has dropped and they have become lucrative. In the end, it is all about producing money, and the panels are too profitable. That is the problem.

I urge the Minister, therefore, to reduce the tariff further, especially for the field panels, although I am sure he is not keen to do so after his previous experience of reducing it. That will ensure that the money goes where he intends it to go. The planning process is good, and I welcome what the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr Pickles), and his Department have done, in that local authorities will now have a great deal more say. My argument, however, is simple: if the panels are not profitable, we will not get them. We will not get 90-acre farms covered in solar panels if they are not profitable; if such undertakings are profitable, the companies will try to get them up and running.

Just over the border from me, I have industrial buildings that are covered in solar panels, which is a great place to put panels, and as other hon. Members have said, there are some large farm buildings around the area. That is absolutely right, because farm buildings on the whole are not things of great beauty, and putting solar panels on them might even increase their beauty, and they certainly would not detract from it. Do not take the panels out into acres and acres of land. Where would it stop? If we take all that grade 1 and 2 land out of food production, we will be short of food, and we do not actually need the solar panels.

I take huge issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Wells. The Hinkley power station is already there; I am the first to admit that Hinkley A and B are not things of great beauty, but they are already in place. If we add two new reactors that will produce 8% of the country’s total electricity needs in the same place, no one will notice. In fact, the new power stations will be marginally better looking than the previous ones. They will certainly produce electricity for the whole country—some 8%—and we would have to cover virtually half the country with solar panels in order to produce a similar amount of electricity. Furthermore, during dark times of year when little solar energy is produced, we would not get that electricity, whereas a nuclear power station is a base load, which is there and producing electricity all the time.

People are getting cross, because they feel that they are being sold green energy as a total solution, but I am sure that the Minister will admit that we need all types of green energy in order to balance. We have got the balance wrong. I do not blame him for that, because he has done his best to ensure that the money goes to community schemes and individuals, but we have to do much more. My local council in Mid Devon was successful in putting solar panels all over council and social housing, which has been a benefit of about £3 a week to many of the tenants, who are hard-pressed for cash—that is a great way of using the subsidy.

Finally, I ask the Minister to look at the issue again. All through the valleys of east and mid-Devon we have large power lines in many places. The companies follow the power lines all the way through the valleys, which are right out in the open. Even quite large farms can be accepted in places—if they have trees around them and are reasonably well hidden, that is fine. The companies will carry on following the power lines all through the south-west, because the region—Devon and Cornwall in particular—is especially good for panels, on account of the light and the amount of production possible, making them lucrative. I wish the Minister well, but I want him to do much more than make the DCLG changes to the planning system; we need to alter the tariffs to ensure that those huge solar farms are no longer profitable.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir Alan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on securing what has been an interesting debate. Hon. Members have made many important points, and I hope to touch on a number of them.

May I begin my remarks with something a little different? I want to talk about the American inventor, Thomas Edison, who will need little introduction to hon. Members. He was one of the great pioneers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His achievements include the patented system for electricity distribution and the practical electric light bulb. The crux of the debate is that over the next decade a quarter of our power supply will be shut down or switched off for good. We are talking about how to keep the lights on. It is therefore appropriate to look at something Edison said about the future of energy more than 80 years ago. Shortly before his death in 1931, he told a friend:

“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”

Ever the visionary, Edison understood the value of planning ahead, making the most of our natural resources and investing in a low-carbon future, and that was before scientists had discovered that our climate was changing.

The solar opportunity is not a new one, therefore, but it is one that we desperately need to seize with both hands. Fifteen per cent. of our energy is targeted to come from renewable sources by 2020, but there are some big question marks about whether that target will be achieved. If we are to have any hope of meeting it, solar needs to be a vital part of our energy mix in the years and decades ahead, and many Members have acknowledged that in their contributions. I also welcome the question that the hon. Member for Totnes asked about the role that marine and tidal might play in the future energy mix.

Does the hon. Lady agree that the most appropriate siting of solar energy panels is on the roofs of industrial or other buildings and out of sight, or does she promote covering vast areas of our valuable productive farmland with solar panels?

I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. I will go through all her points in my contribution. If she has further questions, perhaps she will wait for my response, and I will be more than happy to come back to her.

Solar has numerous benefits to offer, and some have been picked up in the contributions that we have heard. It can complement other, less predictable renewable technologies. We do not always know how windy it will be, but we know to the minute what time the sun rises each morning and sets in the evening, so we can work out exactly what the minimum output will be.

Research shows that solar produces electricity at times of year when wind and hydro power generate less. Solar parks can help energy suppliers to balance supply from other forms of generation. Crucially, that helps to reduce the cost of supply to the bill payer because suppliers are less reliant on the short-term energy market, where power is more expensive. The time when electricity is generated from solar technology is a good match for demand, especially in daytime factory production, office and retail spaces. It would be misguided to put all our renewable eggs in one basket. This debate is a reminder about why it was folly for the Government not to commit to setting a decarbonisation target in the Energy Bill to clean up our power sector.

Looking at what is happening globally, the rest of the world is moving fast with solar. For example, the United States has today become the fourth country in the world to break through the 10 GW barrier for solar PV capacity, and it is not only large countries such as China that have broken through that barrier but Germany and Italy. In comparison, the UK currently deploys around 2.5 GW of solar PV capacity.

The Minister said recently that he wants to make the UK the destination of choice for any solar company looking to invest in Europe. I recognise and acknowledge that solar is a core technology in the revised debt renewables road map. He has also said that it is his ambition to deploy up to 20 GW of capacity by 2020. That is a fantastic ambition, which I would like to see realised urgently. Does he believe that it can be met solely on brownfield and roof top sites?

I understand that around one in 70 homes currently has a solar panel on its roof, and I hope that that number will increase. I acknowledge the contributions about community energy projects. I visited an energy co-operative in Brixton recently. It is using the roofs of social housing and reinvesting money raised from that project into the local community. However, we must acknowledge that roof-mounted solar projects often have to compromise their output to fit the architectural constraints of the building, and many people do not have the choice of having a solar panel. I would love one on my roof, but unfortunately it faces north so I cannot.

Ground-mounted projects can be orientated for maximum output, and many hon. Members have raised the planning and environmental issues associated with them. First and foremost, it is absolutely right that we take care to protect our rural landscape and our natural environment, in the same way as with all energy generation. Consent for generating stations of 50 MW or smaller is a matter for local planning authorities. Some applications will be for appropriately sited installations and will receive planning permission; others will not be appropriate and will not go ahead, as with any development.

We all accept that that is the ideal, but I am afraid the reality is that local planners often feel obliged to approve applications because they are unsure and fear the costs of appeal.

I thank the hon. Member for her intervention, and I will respond to that point in a moment.

Hon. Members have views about individual developments and applications that are being considered in their own constituencies. It would not be correct for me to comment on them. However, national policy guidance is that local planning authorities should avoid prime agricultural land for large-scale solar projects.

I do not know whether the hon. Lady heard my speech, but I have asked the Minister to confirm that national planning policy guidance will be amended in the same way as that for wind turbines. The guidance in place at the moment is not stopping the increasing use of good, productive farmland for solar arrays. The hon. Lady may not be aware of that because I believe that she does not represent a rural constituency. It might be good if she went back and tried to find out exactly what was happening in the countryside.

I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution. I do not represent a rural constituency, but I have spent a lot of time in rural constituencies throughout the country when visiting different projects. I understand the concerns that she raises, and having spoken extensively to the industry, I know that the Department is developing, and has been for a while, a charter on how some of the issues can be overcome. I hope that the Minister will refer to it. I will not speak for him, because I am not the Minister, but I expect that we will hear more about that and what the sector has been working on extensively with the Government to overcome some of the challenges that have rightly been raised by hon. Members.

I also know from speaking to the industry that many, but not all, solar companies voluntarily focus on lower-grade agricultural land where crop cultivation is unlikely, but I take on board the comments and representations from hon. Members. As they have said, many farmers are facing the challenge of tough times. It is not their fault, and we must do everything we can to support them. They are being offered opportunities to diversify their income and to keep farming.

On some projects, sheep can graze beneath the panels, and it is possible for solar parks to play a role in encouraging greater biodiversity in our natural environment. I understand that land can be resown in a way that provides food and habitat for pollinating insects, and that just last week a scheme was launched by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust to establish wild flower meadows across Solarcentury’s solar park sites.

I look forward to the Minister’s response to my questions, and I will conclude with this final thought. Just a fortnight ago, the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change reported that the UK had fallen behind in meeting our carbon reduction targets. If we are to get back on track we need an approach that makes the most of all our renewable energy sources, and that must include solar.

I began by with some old words of Edison about the untapped potential that solar technology presents. This has been a fine debate, but it is not one that I would want our successors to quote in 80 years. Clearly, there are issues to be aware of and we must tread carefully when necessary, but we must look at the opportunities for solar and I hope that we can make the most of it. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

This has been an interesting and worthwhile debate, although I was slightly surprised at the interesting segue into the debate taken by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) with her little eulogy for Thomas Edison. It was enlightening, but I remind her that he also invented the electric chair. I suppose one must take the rough with the smooth.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). This debate is not only important, it is extremely timely, and she has put her finger on the spot of a growing concern. I hope that this debate and the comments that I will make will nip in the bud what could be a very big problem and avert the loss of public support. I was fortunate to visit my hon. Friend’s beautiful constituency in the spring as part of a visit to Cornwall and Devon, and Transition Town Totnes is a genuinely inspiring community. What they have done and are planning to do there is a model that I hope will be rolled out in many communities across the country. Not only are they doing great things in their area, but they plan to share that with other people around the country.

I also know the hon. Lady shares my absolute conviction about the need to act against dangerous man-made climate change and about the imperative of growing the stock of renewable energy as part of our energy mix, but we have to do that in a balanced and careful way, and the two are not incompatible. Therefore, I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss what we might term the menace of inappropriate large-scale arrays, and hopefully, to allay some of the concerns that have been raised during the course of today’s debate.

As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree suggested, I am a great supporter of solar. I like to think of myself as a champion of the technology. Certainly, while I have been Minister, over the past three years, we have deployed an unprecedented level of solar; almost 2.5 GW has been deployed during that time, which is quite a record. Solar PV is a genuinely exciting technology of the future. It is flexible, intuitive, and it can be deployed in a wide range of applications and locations as part of a mixed energy economy. Whether in domestic installations, on commercial roofs, or even, on a large scale, generating for the grid, it has a strong role to play in our energy mix of the future. However, make no mistake: I am keen to see more deployment and for the UK economy to maximise the benefits that a vibrant solar PV sector will bring.

I do not know whether the Minister will come to my point about looking again at the amount of subsidy for large-scale solar farms, so as to ensure that they are not as highly profitable and lucrative as they are at the moment.

I will, but I am afraid I will have to disappoint my hon. Friend.

I am on record as stating my ambition, which has also been mentioned in the debate, of seeing up to 20 GW of solar deployed in Britain, building on the terrific 2.5 GW we have deployed since the coalition came to power. Let me put that in context: if we converted only 16% of suitable commercial and industrial rooftops, or only 8% of suitable roofs on our homes, or a mix of the two, that would be sufficient to meet my big 20 GW ambition.

I had the pleasure of an invitation from the all-party parliamentary group for the roofing industry but a couple of days ago. I wonder whether the Minister might consider ensuring that the green deal includes all sorts of solar roof tiling, and building that in, so that every time anyone’s roof is repaired or buildings are re-roofed, they use shaped pantiles or whatever. All sorts of products are out there that can create power as well as stop the rain coming in.

I have thought of my hon. Friend in many ways, but I have never really thought of her as a roofer. However, I take her point: there are some interesting technologies. Building-mounted solar, and particularly, building-integrated solar—roof tiles fall under that category—is interesting. Encouragingly, the cost of the products is continuing to fall. Building-integrated solar is still relatively expensive, so it is unlikely to meet the golden rule of the green deal, but of course, green deal assessments will prompt people to consider such measures for their homes. Building regulations will also prompt developers to think about including them in homes of the future. I think there is huge potential for home-grown products, and my vision of the future is for everyone’s home to become, at least in part, a power station, and for a much more decentralised, distributed energy economy.

However, although I have big ambitions for the solar sector, let me be equally clear: deployment will not—and must not—come at any cost, nor in any place, and certainly not if it rides roughshod over the opinions of local communities. Solar has huge potential, and unlike some renewable technologies, it still enjoys huge popular support in many places. We must not allow a few badly sited or inappropriately scaled solar farms to undermine broader public support and effectively ruin it for the whole industry. I am determined to stop that happening.

Deployment of solar PV, like any other major renewable energy source, must be thoughtful, sensitive to public opinion, and mindful of the wider environmental and visual impacts. That is exactly the point that my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray)made in her excellent speech, really speaking up for the beautiful countryside in her constituency, and that point was also made by my other hon. Friends. I fully appreciate people’s worries. As my hon. Friends have described, the deployment of large-scale solar farms can have a very real, negative impact on the rural environment, particularly in very undulating landscapes. However, it is also important to say that the visual impact of a well-planned and well-screened solar farm can be properly accommodated within the landscape if done sensitively. Projects such as Powis castle and other National Trust sites are great examples of that. I was hugely impressed by the vision for a large-scale local energy park when I visited Kettering this week. It was a well-thought-out mix of onshore wind, biomass and solar, done with the consent and sympathy of the local community.

I also understand concerns about changes in land use away from agricultural use at a time when so many of us are increasingly concerned about food security and food production. We simply must not—and will not—allow prime agricultural land to be taken out of active food production. I am sensitive to people’s worries and have taken note of the specific cases highlighted by my hon. Friends the Members for Totnes and for South East Cornwall, and by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). I will come back to that in greater detail, because fundamentally, I think we are on the same page.

Where are we now? What are we doing about this issue now? The fact is that my views are by no means exceptional. In fact, they are part of a broad consensus. The importance of getting the balance right and the imperative of retaining popular public support for solar is recognised by the vast majority of responsible solar companies as well. That is why the Solar Trade Association is well advanced in producing its own code of conduct for its members. I greatly welcome that initiative, which is likely to address head on the need for sensitivity to local concerns and visual amenity—so important in my hon. Friends’ constituencies; the importance of community engagement; the encouragement of dual land use; community benefits, including education and employment; and importantly, the need, at the end of its life, to return the land to its former use.

In addition, the National Solar Centre, which I was very pleased to open earlier this year, has produced detailed guidance for developers and planners, giving strict parameters to ensure that large-scale developments are sustainable. The National Solar Centre will be promoting the use of those guidelines to local planners and developers through a series of roadshows around the regions.

As welcome as those voluntary initiatives are, they are not enough. The Government have a role to play, too, so we are taking action. I have created a Government and industry taskforce to look at land use and the sustainable deployment of large-scale solar PV. The first meeting of the taskforce was just yesterday, but I have taken on board the points that my hon. Friends have made about food security, and I will ask the taskforce, which is chaired by the National Farmers Union, specifically to look into the issue and report back. The taskforce will look at how to ensure responsible and sustainable deployment and make sure that it works with communities and local planners to a localism agenda.

This complex issue requires an effective and well-considered solution. For example, we could just demand that large-scale development occur only on brownfield sites, but the simple statement “Brownfield good, greenfield bad” does not stand up to scrutiny. A brownfield site could contain a site of special scientific interest or be contained within an area of outstanding national beauty. It could be in a part of the landscape—on a hill or the side of a hill—where it can be seen for miles around. Likewise, even plots of the highest-grade agricultural land could have areas that are lower grade and could be legitimately used for solar PV deployment.

That is why—this is most important—I want to see these decisions taken locally, within the framework of sensible, robust planning guidance from the Government and strong sustainability criteria. However, as I said in a speech to the solar sector earlier this year, in general, we do have a strong preference for commercial, industrial and brownfield development. The Wheal Jane solar farm at an old tin mine in Cornwall is a very good example of where brownfield land has been used to create a solar farm.

I have set up a second taskforce, using the industry and other sectors, with the aim of maximising the quantity of solar deployed on rooftops across the country—not just for domestic households, as it will consider how to maximise deployment on industrial buildings, supermarkets, Government buildings and car parks and in other sectors. This is a huge potential resource, and we must ensure that it is exploited. As I said, just 16% of these non-domestic roofs could yield my big ambition of 20 GW.

I understand the argument, however, that some solar farms currently being deployed can scar our beautiful countryside. We need to ensure that all developers are sensitive to countryside and community. It is a fallacy to say that the deployment of ground-mounted solar PV must necessarily come with a negative visual impact, even in potentially sensitive and designated areas. The solar array at Powis castle, which I mentioned, is effectively shielded from the main visitor approach and the wider view not by industrial fencing, but by hedging. I have seen other larger arrays that sit comfortably in the landscape, and many others that do not.

We rarely hear mention of the spin-off benefits of sustainable solar PV deployment. Developers should always be encouraged to install natural visual screening such as hedges, which in themselves encourage biodiversity, by providing habitats for bird and insect life. The fallow land under solar PV panels can also encourage bird, insect and reptile life back to the fields. However, I certainly take on board my hon. Friends’ comments about the ridiculous notion that so many sites can be compatible with high-quality grazing land and the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes makes about some of the pictures that are displayed in the advertising materials. That needs looking into.

I am mindful of the other side of the coin. Indeed, one responsible major PV developer, Solarcentury, has just entered into a partnership with the British Beekeepers Association to enhance the prospects for the great British bumble bee, which, I think, the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) alluded to.

Does the Minister accept that spacing is also an issue? Where panels are very densely packed together, there will be very little opportunity for wildlife development. Those areas will just become wastelands and deserts.

Absolutely spot-on. This goes to the heart of the problem and is why we need, and will bring forward in the autumn, sustainability criteria. As my hon. Friend says, there is a very big difference between well spaced panels that are high off the ground and panels that are low to the ground and densely packed. It is almost like chalk and cheese. We must be clear what the reality on the ground is, not what it looks like in the brochure.

My right hon. Friend says that he will bring forward proposals in the autumn. May I reinforce to him the fact that we cannot wait until the autumn for something to be done about the planning situation? There is already a race to get a planning application in and through now. We will see our countryside destroyed unless something is done immediately.

I do take on board that sense of urgency. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the DCLG—we have been working very closely with colleagues in that Department—will bring forward, in a matter of weeks, the revised planning guidance. I believe that flexibility is already there for local authorities to exercise discretion, but we need to make that crystal clear, because as hon. Members have pointed out, there is some concern, and too often local authorities, out of fear of being challenged in the High Court, just roll over, rather than looking at the balance of community interest and visual impact, which they are quite properly able to do. We need to spell that out in a crystal-clear way that ensures that localism—local opinion—is reflected in the planning guidance.

I realise that some people treat agriculture and solar as going hand in hand with some scepticism, so I have asked my officials specifically to look into this issue directly, to look at the photographs and the materials that have been provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes and not to rely on the word of developers alone. That brings me to the localism agenda.

Localism remains a fundamental keystone on which the coalition has built its policies. It runs through the coalition like the words in a stick of Blackpool rock. We remain completely committed to ensuring that the voice of local communities is strongly heard in matters that directly affect them. The deployment of renewable energy is a perfect case in point.

I would like to draw the Minister’s attention to a subject that he knows is one of my favourites. Many communities would feel slightly sceptical about this, particularly with regard to energy. As he knows, there is a desire on the part of communities to have power lines undergrounded through areas of particular beauty in this country. Despite the fact that 8,000 constituents of mine and other hon. Members whose constituencies neighbour mine have submitted their objections, National Grid has taken no interest whatever and there is no way to prop up that very strong community view.

The hon. Lady makes a very valid point. Let me reassure her: Ofgem does provide additional funding for the undergrounding of overhead cables in sensitive areas. I think that it was a great shame that the previous Conservative Government did not adopt the proposal that was lying around to underground so many pylon lines as a legacy for the millennium and instead opted to build the millennium dome. It is not that I do not like a concert—I certainly do—but I cannot help thinking that, as a gift to future generations, undergrounding the complete pylon network might have been something that we could all cheer for long after Beyoncé has departed.

The difficulty is that all of us here are experiencing problems in areas that are not areas of outstanding natural beauty; they are just naturally beautiful landscapes. If an area is not designated, there is no protection. Nothing is written that is strong enough to stop such ignorance of the local view.

I do not want to be drawn too far down that road, but there are clearly planning issues. Planning must go through due process. We are mindful of the impacts. There is a balance to be struck. Undergrounding obviously comes at a cost. In the Department, we constantly have to wrestle with the desirability of our policies versus the impact on consumer bills. When so many families are struggling with the cost of living and rising electricity and energy bills, we have been mindful of delivering cheaper bills, as well as cleaner energy and an energy infrastructure that respects our landscape.

I reiterate that I strongly believe that a local planning process, backed up by strong community engagement and robust best-practice guidance, is the most appropriate vehicle for decisions on the siting of large-scale solar PV. The national planning policy framework is clear: an application for renewable energy development should be approved only if the impact is, or can be made, acceptable. However, the framework needs to be reformed and what is and is not acceptable needs to be made far clearer. I am pleased to say that, after excellent cross-Government working, the DCLG will shortly issue new guidance setting out that the need for renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protections or the planning concerns of local communities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes voiced concerns that the way the planning process treats applications could cause parts of her constituency, which are lower-grade agricultural land—pasture and land for other non-food uses—to be unduly targeted for development without considering their wider place in the local environment. That is precisely why our policies do not rely on a simple, coarse definition but require proper consideration of all the factors surrounding the siting of renewables infrastructure. The revised planning guidance for renewables, which the coalition Government will issue in the next few weeks, will state:

“The need for renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protections and the planning concerns of local communities”


“Care should be taken to preserve heritage assets, including the impact of planning proposals on views important to their setting”.

All the actions that I have mentioned that we are taking are important, but we accept that concerns remain and that we can do more to address concerns over the sustainability of large-scale solar arrays. I want the solar PV strategy, which we will publish in the autumn, to be informed by my solar taskforces. I also want it to be enriched by the evidence that is being provided for our forthcoming community energy strategy. I encourage all hon. Members to encourage their constituents in turn and the stakeholders to whom they are close to feed their views in to that call for evidence, to get the widest possible evidence base.

In conclusion, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes for raising this timely and important issue. I reiterate that I am committed to solar PV taking its rightful place in a 21st century renewable energy mix and the UK reaping the carbon savings and economic benefits that that will bring. I remain committed to my big 20 GW vision for the UK, but not at any cost. It will come only if we continue to drive down the cost of solar towards grid parity, work with the grain of public opinion and develop solar in a way that works with local communities and does not detract unduly from our beautiful countryside.

Sitting adjourned.