Eustice says local authorities are ignoring guidelines for solar development on farmland

The Environmental Audit Committee met last week following the release of CCC’s most recent progress report. Image: Getty.

Local authorities have been accused of ignoring advice on the use of farmland for the development of solar farms by the environment secretary.

Speaking at a meeting of the Environmental Audit Committee last Wednesday (June 29), George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was asked about the use of land for solar energy in light of the increase in the number of projects under development. .

He pointed to guidelines issued in conjunction with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to local authorities in 2015 – when around 4,000MW of solar power was deployed, of which around 3,000MW was mounted on the ground as the developers claimed to take advantage of the subsidies. before they are cut.

These guidelines “created a strong presumption against solar farms on the best and most versatile land, and which are classified by law as Grade 3B or higher”, he said, and solved the development problem. on farmland for some time.

Category 3B land is a subcategory that designates medium quality agricultural land. The lowest grade that counts as Best and Most Versatile (BMV) in the Government’s Agricultural Land Classification (ALC) is 3A, with grades 1 and 2.

“We are aware that there have been quite a few major projects in recent months or in the past 12 months where planning authorities seem to have forgotten or started to ignore this advice,” Eustice said.

“I don’t think any new guidelines have been issued by the MHCLG, but if they don’t understand the legal definition of BMV land, we will discuss it with them. But 3B is BMV land.

His comments were welcomed by select committee member and Conservative MP for North Wiltshire James Gray, who said there was a need to clarify acceptable land for solar development given he was aware of the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) declaring that 3B is eligible.

“Your argument that 3B is not acceptable is correct,” Gray said.

He has previously expressed concern about the rollout of solar and battery storage in the UK, including speaking during the debate on solar farms and battery storage in the House of Commons on 8 June, where he said he was not anti-solar, anti-renewable or anti-green, but expressed concern about the widespread development of the two technologies.

“Right now we have a gigantic number of requests in my constituency for solar farms – I know of at least four,” Gray commented during the session.

“Many of them are said to feature battery storage units, which are horrible industrialized containers that often take up an entire field. There are safety hazards attached to them, as they occasionally burst into flames. , so they are quite dangerous.They turn a rural area into an industrialized center, which is really unacceptable.

As the UK seeks to continue to decarbonise its electricity system by 2035 and become more energy independent – particularly in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its impact on resilience and electricity prices – the number of solar and storage developments across the country has increased. .

Research of Solar energy portal Publisher Solar Media earlier this year suggested there had been a meteoric growth in new solar planning applications, with the UK pipeline reaching 37GW.

With this growth, opposition to a number of sites has emerged from local communities, including the 350 MW Mallard Pass solar farm being developed between Windel Energy and Canadian Solar in South Kesteven, Lincolnshire and Rutland.

Regarding the site, Rutland and Melton MP Alicia Kearns said during a debate in the House of Commons on Wednesday March 9 that: ‘We need to make sure we don’t have tainted supply chains , and we must protect our natural environment and our ability to feed our people.

Despite the opposition of some sites, however, solar is widely supported by local communities. A report by Copper Consultancy and Solar Energy UK found that 56% of people support the development of large-scale solar projects in their area. Only 25% oppose the development of projects, while 17% neither support nor oppose and 2% don’t know.

Significantly, support for solar farms increases over time, according to the survey, with support increasing by 17% when a solar farm is developed in their area.

Moreover, far from harming the natural environment, solar farms have proven to have a largely positive impact on biodiversity. For example, developing solar farms on previously arable land allows them to take a break from intensive farming, which can boost biodiversity, soil health and regeneration, according to a Solar Energy UK report in May.

The environmental audit committee meeting and questioning of Eustice follows the release of the committee’s latest progress report on climate change, which concluded that progress on decarbonization in the agricultural sector was “glacial “.

Amalia H. Mercado