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Solar Energy: Agricultural Land

Volume 709: debated on Tuesday 22 February 2022

6. What discussions his officials have held with their counterparts at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on agricultural land being repurposed for solar energy. (905670)

My officials have regular discussions with DEFRA about the deployment of low-carbon solar photovoltaics on farms. Many solar farms are constructed with raised panels that enable the continued grazing of livestock. Solar energy can also help farmers to increase their revenue streams from land less suited to higher-value crop production.

A planning application has been submitted for a giant solar farm around Gainsborough, with an area equivalent to 5,000 football pitches. It is designed to be a so-called national infrastructure project in order to bypass all local planning. Local people will have no control; this development will enrich a few local landowners, and some entrepreneurs in London. Is it not time for an urgent discussion throughout Whitehall about how we can stop these companies bypassing local planning and secure proper community gain and the protection of agriculture, and, for instance, ensure that there are buffer zones around villages?

As my right hon. Friend knows, I am unable to comment on potential planning applications. Solar projects developed through the nationally significant infrastructure project planning process are subject to strict controls to protect local communities and the environment, including requirements for environmental impact assessments and public consultations. The Government recognise the importance of preserving the most productive farmland. Planning guidance is clear: where possible, large solar farms should use previously developed land, and projects should be designed to avoid, mitigate, and where necessary compensate for impact.

May I start by paying tribute to Sir Richard Shepherd, who has sadly died? He was a fantastic parliamentarian in the constituency next to mine, and he was very kind to me when I first came here.

There is a plan to build a battery energy storage system on green belt land. We appreciate that such a facility is needed to provide capacity for green energy, but will the Minister give a commitment that it will not be built on green belt land?

Let me first join the right hon. Lady in her tribute to Sir Richard Shepherd. I share her sadness at his passing, of which I was not aware. He and I used to overlap with each other, and enjoyed a number of very productive times together.

I do not know whether the right hon. Lady is referring to a specific planning application, in which case it may be difficult for me to comment on it. What I will do is agree to meet her to discuss it, and if it does relate to a specific application in or near her constituency, I will ensure that I have officials there to hear what she has to say about the proposal.

A large number of solar farm applications are being processed in Lincolnshire. Some are comparatively small in scale, but others, such as the Mallard Pass development, are significant and are causing great concern locally. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the Government have a strategy to ensure that solar farms will be spread evenly across the country, so that rural areas such as mine do not see a disproportionate amount of development?

We are committed to ensuring that solar developments are carried out with local community support. That is the most important consideration. We recognise that in some cases solar farms can affect the local environment, which is why applicants must complete an environmental statement as part of their planning application, including assessments of the impacts on wildlife, land use and biodiversity. However, well-designed solar projects have been shown to enhance biodiversity.