[Caroline Nokes in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered planning and solar farms.
Today I would like to shed light on an issue that has the potential to have a significant adverse effect on the constituents I represent in Sleaford and North Hykeham. I am concerned about the industrialisation of our countryside through large-scale solar farms. Solar power does have its merits in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the transition to a sustainable future. However, while acknowledging the merits of solar farms, it is also essential that I address the concerns that have quite rightly been raised by my constituents. Some of the solar farms proposed in my constituency would dramatically alter the landscape for the worse, shattering the character of what is not only beautiful countryside but highly productive arable land.
Rural constituencies such as mine have been plagued by applications for large solar farms. As I am sure is the case for many of my hon. Friends, my inbox is often filled with passionate pleas from constituents whose homes, and sometimes their entire villages, would be surrounded by a sea of solar panels. Not only will the landscapes they love and cherish be destroyed, but in many cases, it seems, people lack any effective means to stop such plans. It is a core tenet of our democracy that we listen to the voices of our communities and address their concerns. Transparency and an inclusive consultation process are key to fostering a sense of ownership and ensuring that those affected are heard and their concerns are addressed. Sadly, the consultation process for some solar farms has fallen short of expectations and failed to engage adequately with the affected communities.
The Government have produced plans to reach net zero and create sustainable and reliable energy production —for example, yesterday my hon. Friend the Minister announced plans to expand British nuclear. It is estimated by the Government that we will need to need use 0.5% of land to meet the solar panel target, but it is also estimated that 600,000 acres of south-facing industrial roof space is currently unused, and I do not believe that the Government anticipated all the panels being in Lincolnshire, or would wish for such an outcome.
There are essentially three ways to gain permission to build solar panels. The first is through permitted development rights. Planning permission is not usually needed for up to 50 kW on a domestic roof, or for up to 1 MW on a commercial roof. Between February and April this year, the Government consulted on expanding the permitted development rights for commercial installations—for example, on the roof of a warehouse. The consultation proposed removing the current threshold of 1 MW, as well as expanding rights for solar canopies on non-domestic car parks. That would liberate smaller developments that do not destroy the character of the countryside. The Government have not yet responded to the consultation, but the “Power Up Britain” document said that they would amend the relevant regulations by the end of the year, and I would appreciate an update from the Minister on when he intends to do so.
The second mechanism is for mid-scale farms that do not have permitted development rights but fall below 50 MW. These are applied for using local planning authorities—essentially, elected local councils. The planning guidance says that local planning authorities should consider the site, size, colour and design of solar panels, their visual impact, the effects of glint and glare, the need for renewable energy not to automatically override environmental protections and, pertinently, the cumulative impact of solar panels on local amenities and landscapes.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. On the point about local planning authorities having the power to look at and consider individual planning applications for solar farms under a certain size, does she agree that there is potentially an effective way forward here, which is for local authorities to introduce their own planning policy frameworks for solar farms to allow them to have local discretion to look at certain local circumstances that may exist in the national guidance?
My hon. Friend is right, but as I will come to later, where such frameworks are produced, they are being circumnavigated using the nationally significant infrastructure project process to avoid local community engagement.
The NSIP process is final way that planning can be attained for large-scale solar farms. According to part 3 of the Planning Act 2008, solar farms with a generating capacity above 50 MW are considered NSIPs. These are not decided locally; they are decided by the Secretary of State. NSIP applications, if successful, can contain an element of compulsory purchase orders, and from speaking to constituents, I am aware that some landowners feel intimidated by this fact. When they are being produced by a plethora of people prospecting and asking them to rent their land, they worry that if they do not comply, they will lose their land to compulsory purchase orders. The Government must address this.
There is a problem in Suffolk with solar farms being proposed, but very few of them have used that final mechanism that my hon. Friend has outlined. In a lot of cases I can think of in my constituency in mid-Suffolk, it has been down to the discretion of the local planning authority to examine on their merits. The lack of a local framework against which the planning authority judges these applications means that the developer is empowered and local communities are disempowered, and unfortunately a number of applications have gone through. Will she join me in pushing this issue with the Minister?
My hon. Friend is right that if these applications are of the size decided by local authorities, a local plan in place can enable a local authority to made decisions based on what it wants locally, rather than what it is told to do. My hon. Friend is right that a local plan can be very helpful when dealing with a smaller application.
I was informed yesterday that there are 12 NSIP applications currently in process in Lincolnshire for large solar farms, including Beacon Fen, Springwell, Heckington Fen and Fosse Green Energy, which all appear in my constituency. I am also reliably informed that there are a further two NSIP solar applications in the pipeline for North Kesteven. However, it is notable that as of yesterday there is only one small-scale application to our local council. The Government need to reflect on why they have created a planning system for solar panels that drives applications off the NSIP scale, as we have so many NSIPs in Lincolnshire and so few small applications.
As we have just heard, through NSIPs, local people have decision-making power taken away from them rather than given to them. The upgrade of substations on the electrical network, such as the ones in Navenby, should be a positive enhancement to local infrastructure, but in practice it has acted as a magnet for speculators seeking to cash in. Where substations have been upgraded, we get a cluster of large solar farm applications near to them, as it is cheaper for the companies that want to build them. As a result, instead of a large number of small, low-impact solar farms, we get a small number of gigantic industrial farms, which utterly ruin the landscape, in some cases choking entire villages of potential future expansion and turning what has traditionally been a food-producing haven into a vast glimmering desert.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. On her point about food-producing land, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is just finishing a food security inquiry, and one of the key areas we looked at was land use. Solar has a big part to play in our energy mix, but we must be careful of the unintended consequences of taking prime food-producing land and the greenbelt out and replacing it with these installations. It is similar to the trees debate: we must have the right trees in the right places. We should have the right solar panels in the right places. Does my hon. Friend agree that there are right places to put them, including the many roofs across the country, and not least those on agricultural buildings?
I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. In some respects, he has paraphrased my speech into a few sentences very eloquently, so I thank him. I ask the Minister to ensure that when the Government improve infrastructure they do not destroy the countryside in the process. The scale of these applications is quite difficult to imagine from a map alone, though I see that my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) has brought a map with him today. Each covers around 2,000 or more acres—that is just over 3 square miles. Some of these NSIP applications are larger than that, sometimes substantially.
I would also like to raise the threat of glint and glare from light reflecting off solar panels. In Lincolnshire this is especially significant due to the presence of the RAF. The Red Arrows operate from RAF Waddington, which sits on the edge of my constituency. The limestone cliff top means that the Fosse Way site that is being proposed will be an especially visible eyesore from across the constituency. Many of my constituents choose to live in a rural setting because of the superb views, which solar farms threaten to spoil entirely. The impact will also extend to house prices. Many of my constituents fear that houses with unburdened views will sell for much more, leaving residents individually out of pocket as well.
Before my hon. Friend moves to her next incisive and powerful point, I wonder whether she might recognise, given her expertise in this field, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) said, that arable land available to grow the food that we need to be secure is at its lowest level since 1945 and is being lost at around 100,000 acres a year; we lost over 750,000 acres in the 10 years to 2019. We cannot have it both ways: either we have food security from the production of domestically produced foodstuffs or we give up land for solar and onshore wind.
As ever, my right hon. Friend is right and has read my mind—I was going to move on to talk about food production.
I am particularly concerned about the use of good agricultural land because farming is a cornerstone of my constituency. It does not just form the backbone of the economy in my constituency, but it has evolved to underpin the area’s very culture. The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have revealed the fragility of the global food market, so it is more important than ever that we make strides towards becoming agriculturally self-sufficient.
I am informed by the Greater Lincolnshire Local Enterprise Partnership that Lincolnshire alone produces 30% of the UK’s vegetables and 18% of its poultry, and is responsible for 12% of the country’s total food production—all from a county covering less than 3% of the UK’s land mass. Lincolnshire, without a doubt, has some of the UK’s best and most versatile farmland, yet it seems to be particularly targeted by large solar farms.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler) is not able to take part in this debate today, but she told me that she has similar issues in her constituency, and is particularly aggrieved by the loss of good agricultural land. I am aware of the concerns of Members of the House of Lords, too, including Lord Taylor of Holbeach, who told me of his concerns about the use of good-quality agricultural land local to him for solar farms.
My hon. Friend is quite right. The national planning policy framework has a presumption against the use of good quality agricultural land, but that is not the problem—3a land is exempt from solar. The problem is slightly less good quality land, 3b in particular. In the old days the Government said solar was banned from 3b, but they have now changed their mind and are allowing 3b to be used. It is slightly less than good land that we are looking at.
My hon. Friend is right. However, what I have seen across local applications is that in some cases the application does contain land that is of a higher grade, but two things are happening. One is that the companies tell me they are going to re-analyse the land to check that it really is of that grade. After all, it might be of a much lower grade if they re-test it. The fact that they are marking their own homework concerns me as well. Secondly, speculators have explained to me that they are told that if their application contains mostly lower grade land, and they have demonstrated that there is no other land locally that they can use or is available to them, or that it is in a corner or surrounded by panels, they can use the higher grade land, too. So it is not just land below grade 3a that is at threat.
The Heckington solar farm in North Kesteven promises to power 100,000 homes, but there are only 45,000 homes in the entire area of North Kesteven. It is unfair to expect that area, which already punches well above its weight in food production, to also provide much more than its fair share of electricity. After all, the National Farmers Union estimates that the total land use for solar farms at present is no more than 20,000 hectares. If the 12 proposed farms in Lincolnshire all went ahead, they would cover 9,109 hectares, increasing the land used in the whole country by almost 50%.
The impression is given by some—this comes back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray)—that class 3b land is not particularly good for farming, but that is not true because 3b land can support a wide variety of crops. In Lincolnshire such land is often flat, relatively easy to cultivate and accessible by roads. As we face continual food inflation and a growing global population—by over 40 million so far this year—that land is needed more than ever. Now is not the time to be increasing our carbon footprint by importing yet more food.
An argument I have heard in favour of large solar farms is that they are occasionally used for grazing sheep or beekeeping, but I am concerned that those are mere token gestures that do not compensate for the damage done to the wider environment. Transitory animals such as deer have their routes blocked; that would not be such a problem if a solar farm covered only one field, but one proposed site in my patch covers 1,400 hectares or 5.4 square miles. Birds and bats that mistake glass for water can be killed when they land on the hot panels. Worst of all, the presence of solar panels limits the potential for biodiversity due to the persistent shadow cast and the set channels created by rain water run-off without proper dispersal.
I am not against solar power in principle, but I am desperately concerned that the character of our beautiful countryside could be completely altered by continual rows of glass panels, sometimes stretching for miles and miles. I am also concerned for my constituents, who did not seem to have been given an adequate say in projects that ultimately affect them the most. There is a great deal that we can do to transition to green energy, but surely there is a better alternative to industrialising our countryside.
In the UK, 600,000 acres of south-facing industrial roof space is currently unused. Prioritising industrial, residential and brownfield land for solar farms is a step in the right direction. The large Bentley factory in Crewe, its roofs coated in solar panels, is a brilliant example. It produces an average of 75% of Bentley’s daytime electricity demands—equivalent to demand from more than 2,300 homes—a year, all without using as much as a square metre of productive and beautiful agricultural land.
It is perhaps fitting that the proposal near Aubourn and Thorpe on the Hill looks like someone standing and throwing a shot putt, since it will drive a wrecking ball through the area if Ministers do not stop these applications going ahead.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) for securing this important debate.
It is really good that the issue of solar farms and planning has been raised. It is obvious to us all that we have to shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy; nobody would demur from that. As well as the environmental benefit of saving the planet, renewable energy also has the advantage of cutting people’s bills, and again nobody would argue against that.
The hon. Lady said that it can sometimes feel like all the solar panels in the country are in her Lincolnshire constituency, but I assure her that that is not correct: we have stacks of them in my part of Devon. The small parish of Hawkchurch, a village in my constituency that borders Dorset and Somerset, is already home to more than 100 acres of fsolar arms.
Although I recognise that the hon. Gentleman is advocating passionately for his constituency, I must point out that more than 50% of land nationally with proposed solar plants is in Lincolnshire, Leicester and Rutland, so we are disproportionately at threat.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that point. We have heard that nationally there are 600,000 acres of roof space on which solar panels can be put. That is an excellent point to make. Certainly, for some of my constituents, it can feel like the solar panels are concentrated in some small areas.
When approval is sought for renewable energy projects—not just solar but onshore wind—they can hit a roadblock and get stuck in limbo. That is why this process can drag on and become a real scourge on our communities, as the developers and the local people battle it out.
Anyone buying a new Ordnance Survey map today will see something they would not have found 20 years ago: many new solar farms. I am not a big fan of the term “solar farm”, because to me a farm is for producing food, not electricity. Solar and wind are two of the quickest and cheapest forms of sustainable energy. If we are to reach net zero, we need a joined-up plan for connecting our existing power grid to renewable sources of energy. Solar accounts for just 5% of total electricity output, compared with about 27% for wind.
Between them, the solar schemes awaiting construction would generate 15,000 MW per day, which is enough to power 1.9 million homes. An enormous number of solar schemes are in the planning stage but have not yet been approved, and some of them could affect people in my part of the world. One enormous solar farm between Talaton and Whimple, near my constituency, would power 12,000 homes.
As people increasingly transition from heating their homes with oil to heating them with electricity, we need to think about not only power generation but insulation. In 2012, the Government were insulating 2.3 million homes per year, whereas now they insulate fewer than 100,000 homes per year. Let us think about not only how we can generate more but how we can conserve electricity.
Two of the main challenges in respect of advancing plans for solar are, first, how we plug into the national grid and, secondly, how we address the concerns of local communities. I hear the point about how prized agricultural land can appear to be lost under solar panels. The effect on local communities relates not only to the site—people sometimes get a little bound up with what solar panels look like—but to the sustained level of heavy goods vehicle traffic, because a lot of traffic goes back and forth to maintain the panels. We have to properly address local communities’ concerns to ensure that we do not hold up all solar panels and all solar renewable energy in this country.
The Liberal Democrats in general are, and I in particular am, very much in favour of renewable energy, and I am happy to put that on the record. On solar in particular, some of the proposals for solar farms, as they are called, are too large; we need to distribute and disperse such renewable energy projects so that they do not take up vast tracts of land, as they do in my constituency.
I was going to ask the same question as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray). To clarify further, is the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) saying that he is against large solar developments on prime land? Or is he is saying that he wants many more of them and for them to be spread, meaning he would presumably like many more applications, in many more places, for smaller solar farms that eat up agricultural land?
I am sorry to keep pressing the point, because I am using up the hon. Gentleman’s time. Am I right in thinking that he is talking about a great many more solar farms, albeit smaller ones? If so, will he send a message to Devon County Council that he would welcome a large number of smaller—up to 200 acres, perhaps—solar farms in his constituency, rather than the bigger ones that the county proposed? Is that what he is saying?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for again seeking clarification. I will not be writing to Devon County Council, because that is not the local authority charged with planning, but certainly the local authorities in my patch that are charged with planning know that, in general terms, I am in favour of renewable energy generation, but that I am not in favour of the concentration of solar farms that we are seeing in particular parts of my patch.
My final point is that we need to think about the lifespan of these projects in the planning process. We are seeing enormous technological development. Solar photovoltaics and battery technology have moved on staggeringly in recent decades. We must not handcuff ourselves to technology that becomes out of date very quickly; instead, we must ensure that when these things are built at a small scale, they use the latest technology and are built in such a way that, if new technology comes along, we can retrofit to ensure that our methods are the most efficient means of producing renewable electricity possible.
In summary, if we are going to invest in schemes such as solar farms, their lifespans must not be too long and we need sustainable renewable energy solutions that work with farmers and local communities so that we can take people with us.
Everyone is in favour of renewable energy and there is no harm in having some solar farms; the problem is the sheer scale in Lincolnshire and Leicestershire. Ten thousand acres of applications ring the small town of Gainsborough, and are marked on the map in the red and black. This is ludicrous overdevelopment. To distribute, say, 1,000 acres —that is the offer—in a large rural district such as West Lindsey, covering perhaps up to 600 square miles, would be reasonable, but 10,000 acres ringing one town is just ridiculous overdevelopment.
The point I want to make is that when it comes to a public inquiry—and there should be a public inquiry—the applications must be taken as one, because developers are trying to have their cake and eat it. On the one hand, they say that these solar farms are nationally significant infrastructure projects. They say that simply because they want to bypass local opinion—that is the only reason. They want to bypass the whole planning process. They say that they are nationally significant infrastructure projects and therefore must be considered by Whitehall rather than by the local authority. That is their point of view, although when Tony Blair brought in the new planning system, it was designed for nuclear power stations, not for one little company making numerous applications and subverting the local planning process.
On the other hand—this is where the devil comes into all this—the developers are dividing the projects into separate applications. One of my constituents noticed that some developers submit multiple applications, but under the same project management team. All three of the developers in our part of England use the same law firm. When the Department considers such applications, it must consolidate them into one and look at them as a whole. I do not think any fair public inquiry would allow development on 10,000 acres ringing one town, as long as the applications were consolidated into one. But they are trying to pick us off one by one.
We all know that if the applications were approved, thousands of acres of good farmland would be lost. This is at a time when food distribution networks worldwide have been turned upside down by Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Even this week, since the latest attack on the Crimean bridge, Russia has said that it is suspending the agreement to allow grain to be exported through the Black sea. Our own national planning policy framework presumes against the approval of applications that would build on highly graded agricultural land; that is because Britain’s food security is of the utmost importance.
I am sure that when the Minister responds to the debate he will say that we do not want to build solar panels on good agricultural land. We all know that the protection applies to land grades 1, 2 and 3a, but we must extend the exemption to 3b as well. Talk to any farmer in Lincolnshire—my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) is married to a farmer, so she knows this issue more than anyone else—and they will say that the quality of land is all much the same for wheat, grain and barley. Any farmer will say that. Solar companies are trying to conduct so-called analysis of the land to prove that it is 3b when no one in the past has cared whether it is 3a or 3b. The whole thing is a con and a cheat.
It is worrying that there is some evidence that some of these companies have Chinese backing. All this stuff is made in China. What are we playing at? Opposition to the projects is both broad and deep. I have had objections from the parish councils of Brampton, Brattleby, Broxholme, Burton, Cammeringham, Fillingham, Glentworth, Ingham, Kexby, Knaith, Marton and Gate Burton, Saxilby with Ingleby, Scampton, Springthorpe, Stow, Sturton by Stow, Upton and Willingham.
Consider the visual impact. Look at the cliff that runs all the way down the centre of Lincolnshire. If all the applications are granted, anyone looking from the cliff will see a sea of black. Instead of seeing unique farmland stretching away to the Trent, perhaps all the way to the Pennines, there will be a sea of black. The developers have offered almost nothing in community gain. We have heard all about the threat to good usable farmland. Building solar farms on that land undermines farming as a profession and the agricultural sector as a whole. Farming is a challenging, all-consuming and difficult calling in life. It is incredibly rewarding for those involved in it, and absolutely necessary for the lifeblood of the country.
As we have heard, Lincolnshire is the breadbasket of England, and we would like it to stay that way. Covering 10,000 acres around one town is not the way to do that. The land covered by the applications I have talked about could feed two cities the size of Hull for a year. The panels would stand 4.7 metres tall. I have known tenant farmers, whose families have been farming 200 or 300 acres for 200 years, who will be thrown off their land. They have absolutely no rights: the landowners can come in and throw them off the land they have been farming for generations.
Who gets all the benefits? I have nothing against large landowners. Unfortunately, I am not one myself; I would love to be a large landowner. We have many large landowners in Lincolnshire. To be fair to them, they are good people. They are already quite well off, but they are going to get fantastic rewards. The rewards that landowners get are staggering.
The situation may vary for different landowners. I have talked to those in my constituency—that does not include my husband because, although he is a farmer, he is not planning a solar farm, or at least not to my knowledge—and the amount offered is more than they would get for farming the land. It takes out the risk of things such as bad weather. Equally, the difference after tax is not so great. In fact, the money is going to the speculating companies—the prospectors who approach landowners to rent the land from them.
I am worried about where those companies come from. This has all grown up very suddenly and they have huge financial resources. I suspect that they are not very interested in Lincolnshire; they are based in London. They are a group of entrepreneurs who are going to make shedloads of money and then sell the planning application on. They do not care a damn about us.
When I became the Energy Minister, I assumed that the renewable industry would be full of people like Richard Briers of the Good family. Remember the Goods in “The Good Life”? They were people interested in keeping goats in their garden and doing a lot of composting. In fact, they were the kind of people who drove flashy sportscars and had been selling double glazing the week before. It is clear that this is not about the environment and renewable energy; it is about getting rich quick.
In that brief period of the Government of my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), tried to change the definition to include 3b land. A huge mountain of well-funded lobbying money was put in immediately to frustrate the whole process. Make no mistake: this is not about the countryside and it is not about producing green energy in the right controlled way. It is about money. Some people are going to get very rich indeed.
Solar power has a vital part to play, but solar panels belong in moderate amounts—perhaps—on poor agricultural land, atop buildings and on brownfield sites, not on good farmland. Put them on top of large logistics centres at the side of motorways. Sit them on top of factories and industrial buildings. Put them on schools and houses, by all means, but good land needs to be kept in agricultural use.
I commend the hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) for securing the debate and the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution. In Northern Ireland, there are examples of solar farms being integrated into small farms where sheep are able to graze. There are a couple of examples of that in my constituency. Solar farms have been agreed to in places where there is industrial land with which it has not been possible to do anything. That land might have been corroded by lead mines or something like that. Those are the best places for solar farms. Productive land should be kept for farming, as the Ulster Farmers’ Union wants.
Industry always responds to subsidies. I cannot understand why the Government do not create a new subsidy regime whereby if someone builds a massive warehouse, it is in their benefit to put a solar panel on top of it. That is something the Government could do. Let us keep solar panels off good agricultural land, and let us have them in proportion. I hope the Minister will respond positively to this important debate.
I might come across as taking a slightly different view, but that is absolutely not why I am here. I represent a beautiful part of the world. There is not a massive amount of housing going on in my part of the world, and there is not a huge population. There is a huge amount of countryside. There is lots of farmland, and it is very productive land. Natural England—God bless it—has just taken a huge amount of farmland out of production for a site of special scientific interest. We must recognise that the land squeeze is not just about renewable energy.
I come at the issue from a different angle, in that the reform of policy allows us, as we have just heard, to get solar in the right place, deliver the right thing for our communities and address the cost of energy and the pressure on energy security. To give some context, the size of the prize, as we heard in the Chris Skidmore “Mission Zero” report on the upside opportunity of net zero, is likely to be over £1 trillion by the 2030s. That is a generational economic growth opportunity in relation to renewable energy. The downside risk, stemming from current issues in the UK planning grid and the wider investment climate, is potentially £62 billion of missed investment in the same period. That is not £62 billion-worth of solar farms all over our beautiful green and pleasant countryside. It is about having that £62 billion of investment in the right place. I will touch on that later.
The risk is crystallising in part due to the negative global headwinds that are adversely affecting the UK, such as post-covid inflation and the war in Ukraine, but also because of proposed policy decisions that have been deeply unpopular with investors—for example, the electricity generator levy and the continued issues with planning. Although the EGL was a negative indicator to the markets, more important issues pertaining to planning are holding up the connection of solar projects to the UK grid, slowing our transition to net zero and harming our ability to secure national energy security.
The situation is impacting a crucial partner in solar generation that often goes forgotten. We have referred to them today: the farmers and landowners. I have heard the comments about posh Land Rovers and very wealthy landowners; that is not the case in my neck of the woods. Farmers there are not extraordinarily rich and have not made a huge amount of money by using their land for things other than producing food. They are able to put renewable energy infrastructure, solar farms, and other stuff such as mobile connectivity, on their land in the right place where the land is not productive. That has actually helped farms to survive. We all know that if farms are not viable, they are broken up and sold off. Then we do get the very rich, Chelsea-tractor drivers coming into beautiful parts of the countryside and not looking after it. Maybe they have hobby farms or estates that do not protect the countryside.
My hon. Friend talks about small-scale connections; one of the things that is driving against small-scale connections is their price. The price is determined by the electric companies, which are driving people towards the massive scale, because that is the only way to make the connection commercially viable.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. I wanted to come to that, which is why I was hesitant about appearing to take a view different from the rest of the room. That is the thing: it is not just the suppliers that drive out the smaller-scale solar installations but the planning process. I am told that the cost of going down the NSIP route to get permission could be £10 million. If someone is going to spend that kind of money on a solar farm—I agree that the term is dreadful—I can understand why they go for a huge solar installation. The cost of that route makes the installations so concentrated and on such a scale. It would never be delivered in Cornwall.
Currently, a site is limited to, I think, 50 MW under what I would describe as the traditional route of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, which is much healthier for local communities to engage in—it is easier for them to have their say and for the right solution to be reached. I therefore suggest that consideration be given to reforming that traditional route to allow slightly bigger sites to be used without having go down the NSIP route. I say that because land-use planning is key to everything. A lot of work is happening in the Lords and in the Government, with lots of conversations about how we plan land use for housing, transport, growing food, producing energy and caring for the natural environment, but that work must accelerate. It is the best possible tool to deliver the energy and food that we need and to enhance the natural environment, while doing it in a way that works for communities and in everyone’s interest.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the more of these things that can be decided at the local level, the better it will be. First, we are talking about sites of up to 200 acres, which is quite large, particularly in places such as Cornwall. Secondly, the fact is that if Government policy has a presumption in favour of solar, and if counties like Cornwall or Wiltshire have targets that they must achieve, local authorities will have to have a presumption to allow solar farms, because they will know that if they turn them down and get an inspector, the inspector will allow them. Therefore, having the local authority decide this is not necessarily a solution.
I hear that. We were and perhaps still are hopeful that the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill will address some of the opportunities relating to the inspector. The call for proper reform and understanding of where solar fits into the whole of land use planning is key. I absolutely agree that we need a proper plan for how land is used and what kind of land is available for what kind of purpose.
The elephant in the room is grid capacity. When we consider planning and solar installations, surely it is better to look at where there is good grid capacity and where land can be made available, and to prioritise those areas. We are all committed to moving away from fossil fuels, and we all recognise that we must have energy security and reduce the cost of energy. We can do that through renewable energy. We have shown that in Cornwall; for a long time, we were the leading county for onshore renewable energy. That position has been stolen from us, partly because of grid capacity. The clever move is to understand not only what land use is about and how we identify what should be on that land, but where the capacity is, including grid capacity and the quality of land.
May I press my hon. Friend on grid capacity? One thing that is driving the problem in my constituency is the issue that we had with grid capacity. The National Grid upgraded a substation and, therefore, for several miles around it, everything is open to applications for solar panels. That is what is driving those massive applications that destroy the countryside.
I hope not. I am arguing that there is a real danger—as happened with onshore wind, and I do not object to onshore wind in the right place—that we create a situation where these things cannot happen at all. We would then hinder the right kind of development and movement in the right direction. In Cornwall, we have the opportunity provided by the Celtic sea, with a huge amount of offshore wind, which is a much better solution. I still think, however, that grid capacity, land use and reform of planning that understands and recognises everything that has been said can stop the gold rush for something that does not deliver anything for food or our countryside, so we can enjoy our green and pleasant land as we should. We must not cut off our nose to spite our face when it comes to delivering energy as close to home as possible to meet our constituents’ needs. That is what I am getting at, and local community networks are an important part of this debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) for securing this important debate. It is no coincidence, as I said earlier, that many of us speaking in this Chamber today represent Rutland, Leicestershire or Lincolnshire, which have historically been known as the breadbasket of England. They have fed our nation for centuries, yet we are seeing a concentration of solar developments in those areas, with more than 50% of all land nationally proposed for solar plants being in Lincolnshire and bordering counties. Colleagues might wish to adopt the term “solar plants”, because that is what they are. I worry that it does not bode well for our national food security when the heartlands of our agriculture are being assaulted.
At my last count, there were 77 solar plants currently proposed in Lincolnshire and bordering counties, totalling over 38,000 acres of land in just our corner of this great country. In Rutland and Melton alone, we have solar plants proposed or in place in Exton, Ryhall, Essendine, Ragdale, Barkestone, Plungar, Ketton, Ranksborough, Pilton, Muston, Uppingham and Belmesthorpe, let alone in nearby Stamford villages such as Carlby, Braceborough and Casewick. It is unacceptable that we are seeing this assault on our local planning infrastructure.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is very clear in its guidance that grade 3a and above best and most versatile farmland should not be used for energy projects. Solar Energy UK says that solar plants
“generally utilise previously developed land, such as brownfield sites, and land of lower agricultural quality”,
but that is simply not true. Here are a few examples by geographical location. In Bassetlaw, 100% of all solar plants are on BMV land. In Scruton, it is 97%; in Drax, 94%; in Shropshire, 97%; in Camblesforth, 94%; and in Old Malton, 60%. That cannot be right. In my constituency of Rutland and Melton, there is the proposal for the 2,000-acre Mallard Pass solar plant, which is made up of just 6% grade 1 land, 47% grade 2a land and 47% grade 3b land. If it goes ahead, we will lose 2,000 acres of productive farmland. If we are serious about food security, we cannot allow that to happen, because if it does, by 2050 only 9.2% of land classified as BMV will still be under cultivation for food purposes.
Everyone needs to stand by the protection of our farmland. To make that a reality, I am calling on DEFRA to make its guidance against energy projects on BMV land legally binding. I will table a clause to the Energy Bill to protect BMV land from excessive solar development, and I hope that all Members here today will sign it, to make clear that we need to put this into law.
I want to touch briefly—in contrast with the comments made by many colleagues—on solar developers essentially making a mockery of our planning process by putting in proposals for plants producing 49.9 MW to avoid the scrutiny of being over 50 MW as a nationally significant infrastructure project. From my research, I have discovered that one developer, Econergy, which has two applications for solar plants in the UK—one is in Rutland—is claiming to the planning authorities that those plants will produce just 49.9 MW. However, in internal presentations that are apparently only for shareholders but have been put on the company’s website, those developments are listed as generating 80 MW and 53 MW. Essentially, these applications are going into the local planning system under the pretext that the plants will produce 49.9 MW, when they are not and have no intention of doing so. This suggests foul play.
If solar developers are playing the system to avoid scrutiny, they must be punished by the Planning Inspectorate, just as any person would be if they broke planning laws. I have given those documents to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to ask for an urgent investigation, because due process must be followed.
I also call on the Government to act on forced Uyghur labour in solar supply chains. The US and the EU have both taken concrete actions to protect their markets from goods that are produced by Uyghur slaves, yet we have done nothing. Consequently, we are now a dumping ground for goods made with Uyghur slave labour, making a mockery of our modern slavery laws and the vote in this House to declare the persecution of the Uyghurs a genocide. From June to November 2022, over 1,000 shipments of solar panels from China were seized by the United States due to their links with Uyghur forced labour. Not one shipment has been seized in the UK.
Canadian Solar, the developer behind the proposed Mallard Pass solar plant in Rutland, is one of the worst offenders. Not only have its suppliers been sanctioned by the US Government, but it has had shipments seized, and it is now being done for tariff dodging because it put its products through Thailand, hoping that the US authorities would not notice that they were originally made in China. Canadian Solar was named in the Sheffield Hallam University report as guilty of being complicit in genocide, and even its shareholders tried to deselect its board over links to forced labour. It then called my office and said, “What would Alicia like, to drop her opposition to our solar plant? We’d love to know what she would like in return for this.” No, I will not be bought off and I hope that no one on my Lib Dem-led council is meeting Canadian Solar and having similar conversations.
Why is Canadian Solar allowed to apply to build nationally significant infrastructure in our country, and why are the Government not taking action? Something is not right here, and if the Government will not act, I ask hon. Members to back me and the other clause I will table to the Energy Bill to insulate our market from panels tainted by Uyghur blood and other forms of forced labour.
Solar will be an important part of our push for net zero. That is what we in Rutland want, but we will not have it at any price, and communities in Rutland and the Stamford villages will not accept blood-tainted products. To ensure that solar’s contribution is truly a positive one, I call on the Government to make guidance against building energy projects on BMV land legally binding. I ask them to urgently investigate solar developments misrepresenting their applications as generating only 49.9MW and to punish any offenders, and to follow the US and EU in finally blocking solar imports made with Uyghur forced labour as part of genocide, because to fail to act would be immoral.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate, Ms Nokes, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) on securing it. Like her, I take a profound interest—as she and certainly my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) will know—in all matters that concern the great county of Lincolnshire. They are right to say that Lincolnshire is disproportionately affected by this matter. Similarly, Lincolnshire is disproportionately the area that grows much of the food that is consumed across our country and which fills shop shelves and pantries in homes, so it is right that we take a profound interest in the use of its land to grow the crops we need to assure our country’s energy security.
I will speak about three things in this brief but telling contribution: energy, the environment and agriculture. When I was the Energy Minister, I discovered that it is critical for any country’s energy policy to have an energy mix—some baseload energy of the kind provided with nuclear power and some flexible energy that can respond to changing patterns of demand, because demand for energy is unpredictable. Of course, it is true that we heat and light our homes more in winter, but we can get sudden surges of demand, for instance, in a particularly cold snap, so we need flexible energy provision of the kind provided, for example, by gas.
Renewables are an important part of that mix. They do not have the flexibility of fossil fuels but are important in delivering our ambitions on carbon emissions. Renewables are not a good per se; they need to be in the right places and deliver the right volume of energy.
On those terms, when I was the Energy Minister and later in Downing Street and in the Cabinet Office, I was partly responsible for the moratorium on onshore wind. That had the effect—I would not want to suggest that I knew this at the time; I was not prophetic—of driving wind power offshore and catalysing the extraordinary success of our offshore wind industry. When the developers could not build onshore, they looked to how they could maximise offshore production and developed specialisms in doing so, which became world beating. Offshore wind is infinitely preferable to onshore wind for many reasons: first, because of the volume, size and number of turbines and the amount of energy that can be produced; and, secondly, because there is a single point of transmission back to the grid, rather than multiple points.
That brings me to solar, because solar is much the same: it is important but it needs to be in the right place. For the most part, solar should be on buildings. It is extraordinary that we drive around our country and see a proliferation of every kind of large building, particularly warehouses, without a solar panel anywhere near them, yet, simultaneously, we have these applications for large-scale solar farms on prime agricultural land. By prime, I mean grades 1, 2, 3a and 3b. Even grade 4 land is actually not entirely unproductive, but certainly in Lincolnshire, where there is a great deal of grade 1, 2 and 3 land, it is preposterous that on that very land, which could be making more of the food that our country needs, we put these huge solar developments.
I say to the Minister, who is sensitive to these subjects—I met him recently to discuss them, and I know that he is an extremely good and diligent member of this Government—that we need to refocus our efforts on developing on-building solar. Successive Governments have been inadequate in that respect.
What about the environment? The environment and an interest in the climate are related but not synonymous. Of course, the climate affects the environment, but the environment is more than just the climate. The environment is a matter of ergonomics, but it is also a matter of aesthetics. We either want to preserve what my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) called our green and pleasant land, and believe in our landscape and its use, or we do not. I do, frankly; I want our countryside to continue to be productive and beautiful. Why should we not make a case for beauty? I have been doing so in relation to buildings for years, so let me now do so about our landscape and countryside.
Do we really want to continue to industrialise the countryside? People say to me, “These solar developments will not last long.” How long, and why would another application simply not be put in at the end of the life of the solar development? As for onshore wind, it is not the turbine but the concrete that anchors it that will last forever. Solar panels on buildings are therefore essential to protect our environment.
The third thing I want to talk about is agriculture. Colleagues across the House understand, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough said, that a combination of the covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine has refocused attention on how we can be more secure, both in energy and in food production. That is a delight to those of us, like my right hon. Friend and I, who have wanted to protect our economy for years. We have started to see the liberal obsession with free trade unravel, and that is a very good thing. In essence, that means that whereas the proportion of food produced in this country has declined over our lifetimes—we used to make more of the food that we consume here in Britain—we now need to move in the opposite direction. That will not happen if we use up all the land for these other things.
In the 30 seconds I have left, let me say this: this is an argument about energy, but it is actually an argument about much more than that. I hope that the Minister will be characterised, as he looks back on his legacy, as being the man who for the first time took seriously our concern for the environment, our need for an appropriate energy mix and our belief in British food for British consumers.
I have been a passionate environmentalist for most of my adult life and most of my time here in Parliament. I went to the Earth summit in Rio de Janeiro as a special adviser in 1992, and since then have been involved in almost every aspect of environmental discussion in this place.
For that reason, I am passionate about the necessity to achieve net zero by 2050. We must do it; there is no question about it. I spent a lot of time travelling in both the Arctic and the Antarctic, and I have seen the effects of global warming. There is no question about it: we must do this thing, and renewable energy is of course the way we must do it. We should not come away from our commitment to the use of renewable energy to achieve net zero. I am also absolutely convinced that solar supplies a very large part of that. It is by far the cheapest, most effective and most efficient way of producing renewable energy, so I am a passionate supporter of solar energy, too. That is how I should perhaps preface my remarks.
However, I have a number of concerns, and the first is about solar energy itself. The planning permissions that have been granted are for 40 years. The technology is developing at breakneck speed, and I do not believe that the solar farms across Wiltshire—incidentally, Wiltshire is the second largest solar county in Britain—will still be there in 40 years’ time. They will be removed, and those sites will then be brownfield sites and will be replaced by something equally obnoxious. It is extremely unlikely that they will go back to being productive farmland.
That is perhaps compounded by the fact that much of this activity involves, as some of my hon. Friends have said, complex financial shenanigans. Wall Street and Chinese financial companies are investing in this business, because they know it is enormously profitable. They could not care less about renewables. They could not care less about agriculture. They could not care less about Britain. They do care about making a substantial buck out of it. We have to look into the way in which these things are funded; we have to look into these companies. Who pays for these things and who is getting the profits from that? It is an important point.
On exactly that point, Canadian Solar, the company that I mentioned earlier—I am sure that the Foreign Office Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra), will report back, now that he is here—needs to be sanctioned urgently. It is not Canadian. In fact, it is a Chinese company—Chinese run and based in China—pretending to be Canadian. I wonder why it would not choose a Chinese name for the business. Can my hon. Friend help me?
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend; she is of course quite right.
We are concerned about the technology; it will not last. We are concerned about the 40-year planning permission that has been granted. We are concerned about who stands behind this. I am also very concerned, in a technical sense, about battery storage units. These solar farms are no use at all, because the use of energy fluctuates during the day and therefore there have to be very substantial—and hideously ugly—battery support units to make them work. These things are ugly, huge and dangerous—many of them burst into flames spontaneously. A very large question exists with regard to their technology. We must be very careful indeed about the way in which we use this stuff, for that reason alone.
Secondly, my hon. Friends have made a very important point about food security. Post Ukraine, we are deeply worried about who will feed us in Britain and who will feed the world. It strikes me as morally quite wrong to be covering good agricultural land—3b is good agricultural land—with vanity mirrors being paid for by overseas investors. That seems to me to be morally unacceptable; morally, it simply cannot be sustained.
The food production versus energy security argument is a potent one, and of course the very simple answer to the energy security question comes, as my hon. Friends have said, from putting solar farms or solar panels off agricultural land. I am proud that in my constituency I have RAF Lyneham, which has the largest solar farm in Europe. It is huge—absolutely enormous—but cannot be seen by anybody. It is on former military land. The same applies to Wroughton, just outside my constituency, where, again, one of the largest solar farms in Europe is on entirely unproductive land. That is absolutely fine, but why are we having a spate of applications right across North Wiltshire for 200-acre or 300-acre sites on grade 3b land that has been used for years for the production of wheat and of grass? Indeed, in the west country, those crops are very important with regard to dairy. It has been used for donkey’s years to do that, but all of a sudden, because it is 3b and these companies are going round proving it is 3b, somehow there is a presumption in favour of them getting the application.
That brings me to my final point.
I am rather short of time. My hon. Friend will have time to reply in a moment.
That brings me to my final point, which is on the planning system. Wiltshire, as I said, is the second largest county in England, and we have hundreds of these applications right now. We have found that the Government have laid down targets for the county and therefore the planning officers very correctly say to the planning committee, “If you turn this down, as you may well want to turn it down, it will without question go to appeal. The inspector will without question allow it. And the barristers’ fees for the public inquiry will be down to the county.” Therefore, having a target for renewables on the county means that there is a huge presumption in favour of the local authority allowing this. That must be turned round.
I would like to see two things in the national planning policy framework when it comes forward later this year. First, I would like to see a return to the days when there was a presumption against using 3b agricultural land. That was the case. When my right hon. Friend George Eustice, whose constituency I cannot remember—
My right hon. Friend appeared in front of the Environmental Audit Committee, on which I serve. He made it plain that, in his view, 3b land was included in the presumption against and it would be in the NPPF when it came out. He then had to write to me to correct that; officials made him correct that particular point.
We need to see, first, a reference to 3a and 3b. Secondly, we need to find some new way of applying the planning law so that there is no longer this presumption in favour of the developer. We must find a way of presuming against the developer and presuming in favour of preserving our green and pleasant land—presuming in favour of food security rather than energy security—and a way of putting these solar installations not on agricultural land but on large-scale industrial land and on previously used military land of the kind that I have described. We are in the process of concreting over our countryside for these things, covering it in totally unproductive mirrors in a way that will never be reversed. We will not go back to that agricultural land. We risk saying to our future generations, “We did this to your countryside; blame us for it.”
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Nokes and to respond to what has been a genuinely interesting and thought-provoking debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) on securing the debate and thank all hon. Members who have participated this afternoon.
Last year was the UK’s warmest on record and one of the sixth warmest ever recorded globally. The record-breaking temperatures we experienced last summer, including our first ever 40-degree day, caused an unprecedented number of heat-related deaths, wildfire incidents and disruption to infrastructure. Yet the occasionally severe weather we experienced last year is only a foretaste of what is to come, unless our country plays its full part in decisively slowing the rate of global heating to prevent it reaching catastrophic levels. On that, I think the room is ostensibly agreed.
The science, as we all know, is unequivocal. Bold action is required and it is required now. However, when it comes to the UK’s net zero emissions target, the Government have consistently been long on aspiration but short on tangible progress. The UK’s nationally determined contribution requires emissions reductions of 68% by 2030 compared with 1990 levels and the Government’s sixth carbon budget requires them to be slashed by 78% by 2035. Yet in their June 2023 progress report, the Climate Change Committee states plainly that its confidence in the achievement of both targets
“has markedly declined from last year.”
Put simply, the overall pace of climate delivery under the Government remains woefully inadequate.
If our country is to meet its interim targets, reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and lower energy bills for consumers, the Government need to do far better, including when it comes to the domestic deployment of established low-cost technologies such as solar. Having over recent years subjected solar to a series of erratic policy changes and reductions in support, including slashing rates for the feed-in tariff scheme in 2015, the British energy security strategy published in April of last year finally provided a welcome measure of certainty, committing the Government to a fivefold increase in solar deployment by 2035 and taking levels from the current 14 GW of capacity, the bulk of which is ground-mounted, to 70 GW.
The Government have also been clear as to the scale of solar deployment likely to be necessary to meet the UK’s wider net zero targets, with a technical annex to the “Power Up Britain” policy paper published in March suggesting that approximately 90 GW of solar will ultimately be necessary. Yet last year saw just 0.7 GW of new solar deployed, in a rate of installation that falls well short of what is required to meet the Government’s target. As the Climate Change Committee has stated in its 2023 progress report,
“The deployment of solar capacity is significantly off track to meet the Government’s target of 70 GW by 2035.”
To get on track for that target, the committee makes clear that the Government need to facilitate the delivery of
“An average annual deployment rate of 3.4 GW”.
This House can debate what the precise split should be between large and smaller-scale projects, what types of land should be prioritised for solar deployment and how we best maximise the efficiency of land that is utilised. However, the only fundamental question is precisely how we markedly drive up solar deployment rates, not whether we need to. Moreover, every hon. Member who is engaging with the debate today in good faith needs to at least have an answer as to how the extra 3.6 GW of annual solar capacity implied in the Government’s target should be accomplished.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Surely he recognises that by far the best way of doing so is to put solar on buildings. Every public building, warehouse, agricultural building, office and industrial estate could have and should have solar. The advantage of that would be to bring energy production and consumption into closer union and reduce transmission and distribution costs that make up about 15% of every energy bill.
The right hon. Gentleman has a lot of expertise in this area, and I agree with him wholeheartedly. He pre-empts a point that I will come to. We think the Government should be far more ambitious and creative about rooftop solar, which we think can meet the bulk of our solar needs.
As the House is aware, the Labour party has committed to delivering a zero emission power system by 2030—five years ahead of the Government’s target date—and we assess that honouring that commitment will require us to triple the deployment of solar by the end of this decade to up to 50 GW of capacity. We are under no illusions: we know that is a stretching target, but it is essential to achieving zero carbon power by the end of the decade, and a Labour Government will do what is necessary to meet it.
Our plans are premised on a significant uplift in solar photovoltaic deployment on rooftops, which analysis suggests could provide the bulk of the 50 GW of capacity that we want to be installed by 2030. I think hon. Members are broadly in complete agreement on that point. As I said, we want the Government to be far more ambitious and creative in how they do that.
The hon. Gentleman is setting out what he thinks a Labour Government would do were they to get the chance. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) talked about the new clause she will table to the Energy Bill to say that grade 3a and 3b land should not be used for solar panels. Will the Labour party support it?
That is a good question. I listened with great interest to the suggestion from the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns). There should be greater protections for best and most versatile land graded 1 to 3a, but we disagree with Government Members when it comes to category 3b land. We think there is sufficient flexibility in the system, and that we need 3b land in certain circumstances. We certainly would not exempt 3b land in its entirety, as a couple of hon. Members suggested.
Although we want the majority of solar to be deployed on rooftops, there is no question but that we will need to take steps to enable the deployment of far more ground-mounted solar than is presently being installed, and that will include a number of large sites. That will require reform of our planning system. We believe that the planning system as a whole needs to be overhauled and aligned fully with our net zero emissions target.
The right hon. Gentleman tempts me to stray outside my departmental responsibilities, which I will not do. I am afraid that we are in complete agreement with his Government, who say that there needs to be far more solar deployment on category 3 land. He may want to take it up with the Minister outside the debate.
We believe that the system needs a renewed focus on integrated spatial and infrastructure planning to ensure we are developing and using land strategically, and ensuring that large sites of more than 50 MW are appropriately distributed across the country. I listened with great interest to the comments of the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) about a land use framework. We certainly support that direction.
We believe the planning system needs proactive and strategic energy deployment to be integrated fully into local and neighbourhood plan development, and renewable development should feature prominently in the development plan’s soundness test. We believe the system needs to speed up the process for securing planning consent for renewable generation of all kinds for projects over and under 50 MW capacity.
That is not to say that we do not understand and appreciate the concerns that have been expressed in the debate. As I have made clear, there is no question but that we need a more strategic and planned approach to ground-mounted solar deployment across the country. We need to do more to drive up rates of rooftop solar installation and prioritise solar deployment on previously developed or lower-value land. We need to take steps to further maximise the efficiency of sites used for renewable deployment, and co-locate infrastructure wherever possible to mitigate its impact on communities. We need environmental protections to remain in place, and we need communities to continue to have a say about where large-scale projects are best located.
Ensuring we have a sensible approach to large-scale ground-mounted solar deployment does not mean that there is an option to refuse it wholesale.
I am slightly surprised that the hon. Gentleman has not mentioned human rights. He has dashed my hopes of the Labour party’s support for my new clause to the Energy Bill—although I will come back to him for a flip on that in a few weeks’ time—but what about the amendment that recognises that we should not be importing Uyghur-produced slave labour solar panels?
I will certainly feed the point back to my colleagues. [Interruption.] I am answering the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton. In general terms, we are very concerned about and share the concerns about the supply chains for solar and the use of slave labour. I have listened to the hon. Lady speak very eloquently on the subject many times, and I think we generally agree with the approach, but I cannot speak to the particular amendment she mentioned.
As I said, having a sensible approach to solar deployment does not mean that it can be an option to refuse it wholesale. It is deeply problematic that rates of solar farm planning permission refusal have risen significantly over recent years. We are committed to ensuring that communities have a say on where large-scale solar deployment should take place in their areas and want to do more in particular to boost community participation and engagement upstream at the plan-making stage, as well as ensure that communities directly benefit from local renewable installation. However, we feel strongly that the Government must address delays in the planning process and other regulatory processes that currently present a barrier to low-carbon infrastructure installation at scale.
I am coming to an end. To conclude, large-scale solar is safe, reliable, versatile and of overwhelming environmental benefit. It is one of the cheapest renewable generation technologies that exist and can effectively complement other, more variable sources. In the global race for clean energy, it is a particularly easy technology to deploy at scale. We need a planning system that properly engages communities in its roll-out and mitigates its local impacts, but also one that enables its deployment to take place at the rate and scale we need to rapidly reduce our emissions and reap the full advantages of the green transition. That is what a Labour Government intend to deliver if we get the chance to serve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes, and to respond to this incredibly important debate. It is incredibly important. I represent a vast 1,900 square-mile rural constituency, so I understand the pressures that are being felt in many of the constituencies represented here today.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) for securing this debate. Let me say in advance that if I am unable to answer any of her questions today, I will get back to her at a later stage and will ensure that Ministers in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs do so as well. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and my hon. Friends the Members for St Ives (Derek Thomas), for North Wiltshire (James Gray), for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) and for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) for taking part. I also thank the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) for taking part. It is especially good to see one of my predecessors, the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes). It is always nerve-racking when a predecessor comes into the room, but I thank him for his kind words and assure him that he has left some big shoes to fill in the Department.
I assure everybody here that sustainability remains at the heart of the Government’s ambition for development. That includes the protection of the environment and local communities. Energy security, food security and protecting our environment are some of the key challenges we face in the UK. Meeting these goals is urgent and of critical importance to the country. We believe they can be achieved together for the United Kingdom. We believe that solar energy will continue to play a key role in helping to secure greater energy independence while building a more sustainable and greener future for generations to come.
However, the Government recognise that solar farms, as with any new infrastructure, will have local impacts. It is therefore essential that we have a robust planning system that not only helps to deliver energy security but protects the environment and local communities and supports wider Government ambitions, such as food security. As several hon. Members have pointed out, and has been pointed out to me in the past, we are not able to create new prime agricultural land.
The dramatic rise in global energy prices following the covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has emphasised the urgency of the need to build a strong, home-grown renewable sector. Solar energy is key to achieving this. Solar farms are one of the most established renewable energy technologies in the UK and the cheapest form of electricity generation. We have seen an increase in the number and size of developments coming forward and expect this trend to continue. In the net zero strategy, the Government committed to installing up to 70 GW of solar capacity by 2035. That represents a fivefold increase in our current capacity, and we need to maximise the deployment of all types of solar to achieve this ambitious target.
It is important to stress that this does not mean seizing large swathes of the countryside and turning them into industrial solar farms and storage units. Yes, ground-mounted solar will be needed, but smaller-scale commercial and domestic rooftop projects will be just as essential, if not more so. The Government believe that solar and farming can be complementary, supporting each other financially, environmentally and through shared use of land. Therefore, we seek solar deployment across the UK, looking for development mainly on brownfield, industrial and low and medium-grade agricultural land, and we encourage solar technology that delivers environmental benefits, with consideration for ongoing food production or environmental improvement.
I will come on to planning for solar farm developments, but I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord). As we could not know from his contribution, I looked up the Liberal Democrat policy on planning for solar farms. Some people listening in Somerton and Frome might be interested to learn that the Liberal Democrats’ plan is to remove restrictions on new solar and wind to accelerate the deployment of renewable power across the country. They want to remove some community input into the planning process for new solar deployment, which is certainly not the position of His Majesty’s Government.
Planning applications for solar developments below 50 MW capacity are determined by local planning authorities—in the case of the hon. Gentleman, it would be the Liberal Democrat-run authority in Devon—through the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, and in accordance with the national planning policy framework and the relevant planning policy guidance.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for highlighting the role of local authorities in determining some of the lower-output solar farms. East Suffolk Council is run by a Green-Liberal Democrat coalition, which has already given the green light to developers and controversial developments in Framlingham. What reassurance can he give my constituents that the Government will make sure that controversial applications for solar farms are not green-lighted by local authorities?
I will come on to the role that the Government play in the planning process. It is really important that local authorities—be they Liberal Democrat, Green, Conservative or Labour-run—take into consideration and listen to communities when they have expressed deep concerns about the deployment of solar farms or, indeed, other energy infrastructure projects that may be planned for those constituencies. I urge those listening to the debate to hear that message, and I urge Members present to ensure that party colleagues of theirs who run rural local authorities also hear it loud and clear.
Planning applications for solar farms with over 50 MW capacity are decided by the Secretary of State through the nationally significant infrastructure project regime, in accordance with national policy statements on energy. There are currently no operational projects of that size in England. However, there are 23 projects currently in the planning system, with the latest—the Longfield solar farm near Chelmsford—gaining consent from the Secretary of State just last month, ahead of the statutory decision deadline.
The problem of clustering has been raised several times. The Government recognise that as a problem, and we certainly think it needs to be looked into. Is the Minister able to give us a sense of why the Government did not include in in their NSIP reform action plan, published earlier this year? It was silent on the issue, despite the Government recognising it. Why is that?
My hon. Friend the Minister has just made the point that 23 planning applications are currently in the NSIP process. As far as I understand it, not a single proposal has been turned down yet by the Government. Does that mean that, no matter what, NSIP projects will be given the green light to go ahead, even if the Planning Inspectorate blacks out MPs’ responses and all sorts of other things? Are the projects genuinely being looked at on a case-by-case basis, or will we just green-light any NSIP project to get more green energy?
Absolutely not. There is no automatic green-light system, and I am assured that every proposal is looked at on a case-by-case basis and on its merits, taking into account the opinions and concerns of the local communities it will affect.
The NPPF makes it clear that local planning authorities should have a positive strategy for producing energy from renewable and low-carbon sources, such as solar farms. It sets out that where a significant development of agricultural land is shown to be necessary, areas of poorer quality should be used in preference to those of higher quality. If it is proposed to use any land that falls under Natural England’s BMV classification—best and most versatile agricultural land—that needs to be justified during consideration of the planning application. As defined in the NPPF, “best and most versatile agricultural land” constitutes land in grades 1, 2 and 3a of the agricultural land classification planning decisions, and decisions should continue to be made based on that definition. However, I have heard the concerns raised by hon. Members, and I will ensure that DLUHC Ministers are made aware of them.
I know time is brief, but can we take it that there is a presumption against development on prime agricultural land—certainly grades 1, 2 and 3a? I take the point about 3b, but let us just deal with the first three. Is there a presumption against the kind of development that takes valuable land out of food production?
My right hon. Friend will have heard my earlier contributions. We are determined to ensure that land is protected for food security reasons and that this green and pleasant land that we are all so proud to represent continues to be just that. However, I understand the concerns of right hon. and hon. Members, so I will ensure that DLUHC Ministers hear them loud and clear.
Before I conclude, I will briefly turn to the issue of slave labour and China. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton knows my personal position on the issue, and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will have heard loud and clear her representations here today. We are supporting the UK solar industry’s main trade association, Solar Energy UK, in leading the response from business to include securing the solar panel industry’s commitment to a robust supply chain traceability protocol, supporting a global co-ordinated response from the solar industry—the Solar Stewardship Initiative—and communicating relevant UK and international human rights frameworks. I will meet my hon. Friend in due course to discuss her proposed new clause to the Energy Bill.
I am grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members for attending today and to my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham for securing this important debate. I will of course ensure that DLUHC and DEFRA Ministers are made aware of the issues and serious matters raised this afternoon. We are committed to reforming policy so that it continues to complement wider Government ambitions: food security and preserving agricultural land, reforming the infrastructure planning system that focuses on improving community engagement, and introducing a new framework of environmental assessment through DLUHC’s Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. I once more thank everybody for their contributions this afternoon.
Thank you, Ms Nokes. I will be brief as time is short. It has been a very interesting debate. I think there is broad consensus that solar panels are not a great idea and should not be on agricultural land.
I want to address points made by other hon. Members. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) talked about the massive scale of the speculation and the 10,000 acres surrounding Gainsborough. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) talked about the absolutely huge scale of the very good, in his view, solar plant at RAF Lyneham. That huge thing is reported on the internet as being 250 acres. The scale of the applications we are talking about in Lincolnshire are each over 2,000 acres, sometimes much more than that, so they really are enormous.
My right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) made good points about the potential for innovation and how wind farm innovation has driven a much better solution. In fact, restrictions on food-producing land lead to innovation on buildings and the types of panels that can be used on top of commercial centres.
The Minister talked about protecting best and most versatile agricultural land. We also need to consider the concept of planning justification, which is based on what else is locally available. In Lincolnshire, the land is good land. We have to travel a long way to find land that is not good land, so justifying something on the basis of what is available locally is not helpful. I would like him to look at that.
I think we all agree that the use of brownfield sites is better. I will support the proposed new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) on the use of best and most versatile agricultural land.
Finally, the Government need much more joined-up land use planning. They want to build more houses and create more energy, and they want more land to be set aside for the environment and more land for growing food. They cannot have all of them. In this case, the Minister cannot have his cake and eat it. In fact, without the best and most versatile agricultural land producing eggs, flour, sugar and other ingredients, he will not be able to have his cake at all.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered planning and solar farms.