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Byers Gill Solar Farm

Volume 746: debated on Monday 4 March 2024

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Aaron Bell.)

My neighbour and hon. Friend, the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell), and I are incredibly grateful to be able to bring before the House this debate on the proposed Byers Gill solar farm. It stretches across agricultural and arable land between Stockton and Darlington. The proposed site neighbours a number of other solar farm sites that have already been approved and others that are being brought forward for approval, meaning that the cumulative impact on this beautiful rural community will be almost 2,500 acres.

The plethora of solar farms snake through and encircle some of the most beautiful rural villages in the region—and, in fact, the country. Villages, farms and even a local primary school are merely metres away from some parts of those sites, but it is not only villagers and farmers who will be impacted: the area is inhabited by a rich tapestry of wildlife and biodiversity. I have been contacted by one resident whose family had farmed locally for generations, and who will have the solar farm just feet from her boundary. She shared with me the list of species that regularly visit her plot: badgers, foxes, hares, deer, pheasants, woodcock, snipe, and grey partridge—which are, of course, a red-list species. That plot has daily visits from herons, and has seen coots, moorhens, geese, swans, various ducks, swallows, owls, buzzards, sparrowhawks and bats. A 2,500-acre scar on that countryside will undoubtedly affect those animals, their habitat and their food chain, and this resident is rightly devastated.

I thank the hon. Member for securing this debate. He is absolutely right to highlight the wildlife impact, but also the loss of good agricultural land. Is it not time that the Minister and Government, and any potential developers, understood that good agricultural land should be retained for food production? That is what we want, not the loss of that land to solar farms.

I could not agree more, and I will come back to that point. There is a balance between energy security and food security, and food security is incredibly important to many of the jobs that we talked about in the previous debate.

Where now people drive along country roads and look on to beautiful rolling fields, those views will be replaced by miles of 7-foot-high fences to prevent the movements of deer. Residents, many of whom have lived in the villages and farmed the fields in that area for generations, have shared with my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield and me their huge concerns about the impact that a development of this scale will have on their community. They understand the need to improve our energy security and the move to renewables, but the sheer cumulative scale of the solar farms densely packed into this small rural community will change it completely. An area characterised by rurality, nature and agriculture looks set to become characterised by industry, panels and battery substations.

Aside from the aesthetics, the complete change in the character of this rural community, the damage to people’s quality of life and the huge impact on biodiversity, this decision will also be about balancing competing interests and priorities. Energy security is a huge challenge for our country, but so is food security. Ironically, this debate follows one about the challenges that our farmers face. Many of them are looking at how to improve their financial outlook; they are being approached by developers, and have to make incredibly difficult decisions for themselves and their families. Our Great British farmers are the stewards of our countryside, who care for our natural environment and put food on our plates. We must back them, so that they can carry on doing that.

We are talking about prime agricultural land. Residents and I agree with the words of the Prime Minister:

“We must also protect our best agricultural land. On my watch, we will not lose swathes of our best farmland to solar farms. Instead, we should be making sure that solar panels are installed on commercial buildings, on sheds and on properties.”

I hope that the Planning Inspectorate will ensure that a robust and independent grading of this land takes place, so that it is given fair consideration, and ultimately protected for generations of farmers to come.

At present there are more solar farms pending approval than the national grid could hope to service. Let us ensure that we develop solar farms that are proportionate and rightly placed. There are further concerns about what the scale of this industrialisation will mean for the community. There are huge concerns that moving permeable, greened land into the muddy underbelly of acres of solar panels will have real consequences for country roads already suffering from flooding problems. The dangers of battery storage systems such as those destined for the site are well known and documented, and such a battery storage system being put near residential properties and in close proximity to a school is deeply worrying to residents.

Many residents have expressed their concerns about the developer JBM failing to undertake adequate consultation; in fact many would go as far as to say that it has actively stifled it. I have heard from several residents who feel that they have been given no voice in the process. Many residents were not afforded sight of circulated consultation materials; I understand that just 12 of the 356 affected residents received them. Only 120 planning brochures were provided and, illogically, these were placed at a library 9 miles away, inaccessible to many residents. Stakeholder meetings were organised, but residents were never informed. A face-to-face consultation was held in Stockton market place, miles away from the site, and an incorrect location was given to residents. Then the representatives left early, so those who did turn up did not get to speak to them. This catalogue of failings is well documented and will be made available to the Planning Inspectorate ahead of its decisions.

I pay tribute to residents from the affected villages, and those who have taken a role in bringing together the Bishopton Villages Action Group, which stands up for local residents. They have shown how amazing the power of community can be and what it can achieve. They have shown exceptional professionalism. They have mustered and used all the expertise in their community, and raised a huge amount of money to oppose these plans. They have produced professional submissions at every level, and I hope that the Planning Inspectorate will carefully read the report they have issued on JBM’s failure to consult in line with its duties under the Planning Act 2008.

I thank the Minister for her time. I hope that today we have allowed residents’ concerns to be thoroughly aired, and I look forward to this proposal, with its cumulative overwhelmingly negative impact on this community, being roundly rejected.

Order. I have no notice that the hon. Gentleman has asked permission to take part in the debate. Do the owner of the debate and the Minister agree that Mr Howell should speak?

I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker; you should have had notice. That was an oversight by my office and me.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for highlighting the scale of the problem, which is clear from the fact that we are both here speaking about this matter. I am sure that if my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) were able to be here, he would contribute, too; he is another constituency neighbour aware of the concerns about this proposal.

As has been said, the proposed Byers Gill solar farm would cover land between Bishopton and Brafferton in the Sedgefield constituency. I am particularly familiar with the area, as I was married in Bishopton nearly 39 years ago. The farm would cover over 1,200 acres of land, and in the nearby region, there are further proposals from other developers that would increase the land affected to well over 2,000 acres. Residents have approached my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South and me with significant concerns about the scale of the developments individually and in aggregate, as well as concerns about the “consultation process” that has been followed. To be fair, the proposals were refined after an initial round of consultations, and changes were made, reflecting some concerns.

I would like the Minister to be cognisant of the following critical points. Consultation must be real. I got into politics because I felt that the local Labour council was paying lip service to consultation; it was basically just telling people what was going on, instead of engaging and trying to consult properly, so I am particularly sensitive when I hear concerns about poor engagement. After my last meeting with the residents action group, I reached out to the developers to discuss the concerns. They have agreed to meet, but unfortunately I had to postpone the scheduled meeting. I will be catching up with the developers in the next few weeks, and I hope they will listen to what is going on today and react to the concerns. After all, it is not what the developers say to me that matters; it is what they say to my constituents and the people affected at the sharp end. My residents’ feedback concerns me massively, and I will be raising it again when I meet the developers.

Although communication always requires two parties to engage—sometimes people do not listen or hear—I always believe that the primary responsibility for good communication rests with the sender, not the recipient, and I encourage the developers to get on top of their game in that respect. On a slightly linked point, if the Minister caught the farming debate earlier, she will have heard about the concerns of farmers in this space. Farming economics are pushing farmers to accept solar farms on their land when they may prefer to keep farming. It is imperative that this country develops our food resilience, and it is critical that we are robust in our assessment of the land that could be used for solar to ensure that it is not consuming good farming land. I have heard concerns, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South, that the assessment of land, whether at grade 3a or 3b, is possibly being done by some who may have a vested interest in the process. We must ensure that the assessment has integrity and robustness.

It is of real value to our rural communities that their character is maintained. We need to ensure that the multiplicity of schemes in an area are jointly assessed to be certain that planning creep does not overwhelm that area. As I said, the possibility of more than 2,000 acres being covered in such a small and concentrated area is surely not reasonable.

We also have rules and guidance about the payments made to communities to support them when such schemes are approved; they must be explicitly fair and robust, and not merely bribes for compliance. It is important for the long-term resilience and value of our rural communities that they do not effectively turn into large industrial parks destroying our green and pleasant land. I support solar—it is one of the green power sources that we must develop in the right place—but it cannot be at the expense of the rural community’s way of life.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for securing this debate relating to the development consent order for Byers Gill solar farm. I also acknowledge the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell). They have both shown incredible commitment today and previously in raising awareness of this case within the House.

I must say from the outset that for propriety reasons, I am unable to comment on the specifics of the proposal. Byers Gill is considered a nationally significant infrastructure project, as defined in the Planning Act 2008, and any application would be determined by the Secretary of State. I understand that an application for the Byers Gill solar farm was received by the Planning Inspectorate on 9 February 2024. The Planning Inspectorate is responsible for considering whether the application should be accepted for examination and, if accepted, will carry out the examination on behalf of the Secretary of State, who will review the report and make the final decision. Given the quasi-judicial role of the Secretary of State in determining applications, I hope the House will appreciate that I cannot comment on the specifics of Byers Gill solar farm or any other proposed infrastructure project, as that could be seen as prejudging the outcome of any proposal subsequently submitted for decision through the planning process. I can, however, set out in general terms how planning works for large solar projects.

There are established routes in the planning system to consider the impacts of solar projects and to enable communities to raise concerns about developments in their areas. Developers taking projects through the nationally significant infrastructure projects regime must complete considerable community engagement before any approval is granted, giving communities and local authorities ample opportunity to feed in their views.

When a developer submits an application to the Planning Inspectorate, it must be accompanied by a consultation report. In that document, the developer must demonstrate that it has complied with the statutory pre-application consultation requirements and that it has had regard to the responses it has received. Among other things, the report must provide a description of how the intended application was informed and influenced by those responses, outlining any changes made as a result, and provide an explanation as to why responses advising on major changes to a project were not followed, including advice from statutory consultees on impacts. If an applicant has not followed the advice of the local authority or not complied with guidance published by the Planning Inspectorate, it must provide an explanation for the action taken or not taken.

On submission of an application, the Planning Inspectorate will write to relevant local authorities and ask for their views on whether the consultation has been adequate. The Planning Inspectorate will consider the consultation report alongside any representation made by a local authority on the adequacy of the developer’s consultation and the other application documents before deciding whether to accept the application for examination.

The planning system sets out how applicants and decision makers should consider the impact of solar projects on land use, the local environment, wildlife, biodiversity and, of course, landscapes. That should also include consideration of cumulative impacts: for example, where several solar projects are deployed in close proximity.

The Infrastructure Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2017 require all large solar developers to complete an environmental statement as part of any application. The environmental statement requires developers to consider all potential impacts during a project’s life from pre-development to construction, operation and decommissioning. The environmental statement must be conducted by a “competent expert”, which means that all surveys and studies, including soil surveys, must be conducted and overseen by experienced members of their relevant professional field, such as ecology or geology, and comply with relevant codes of conduct.

As set out in the recently designated national policy statement for renewable energy infrastructure, while land type should not be a predominating factor in determining the suitability of a solar site location, applicants should where possible utilise suitable previously developed land, brownfield land, contaminated land and industrial land. Where the proposed use of agricultural land has been shown to be necessary, poorer quality land should be preferred to higher quality land, avoiding the use of “best and most versatile” agricultural land where possible.

In terms of the safety of battery storage, it is a priority of the Government to ensure that an appropriate, robust and future-proofed health and safety programme is sustained as the industry develops and storage deployment increases. The framework is kept under review to respond to changing circumstances. Recent reviews have considered both the planning system and the environmental permitting regulations.

The United Kingdom was the first major economy in the world to introduce legally binding net zero legislation. We cut emissions by half between 1990 and 2022 while growing the economy by two thirds, decarbonising faster than any other G7 country. In 2021, the Government adopted their sixth carbon budget for the period of 2033 to 2037, to reduce emissions by circa 78% by 2035 compared with 1990 levels.

The Government have also committed to decarbonising the electricity system by 2035, subject to security of supply. That will require deployment across a range of homegrown green technologies at an unprecedented scale and pace. Renewables such as solar and wind, alongside other low-carbon technologies such as nuclear, will underpin the UK’s transition from reliance on fossil fuels to the new secure clean energy system. Solar deployment is a key part of the Government’s net zero strategy, energy independence and clean growth. We are aiming for up to 70 GW of solar capacity by 2035, which would be more than quadruple our current installed capacity. We need to maximise the deployment of both ground mounted and rooftop solar to achieve that ambition.

I again thank my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton South and for Sedgefield for raising this issue and for championing their constituencies. I will ensure that the points they have raised are brought to the attention of the Ministers who cover solar and planning within the Government. Although I have not been able to discuss the specifics of this case, I assure them when taking a decision on any development consent application, the Secretary of State will follow the relevant requirements in the Planning Act 2008 and have regard to a wide range of matters that are important and relevant to her decision.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.