Can the Conservative party be trusted with solar farm policy?

In the latest of his solar series for elemental, Dr Seb Berry discusses Conservative opinions and policies on solar energy.

As sure as night follows day, in an election year, Conservative politicians will inevitably attack solar farms as a blight on the countryside. Throw in the Prime Minister’s current focus on “food security”, and you have the perfect excuse for a bit of pre-election solar farm bashing.  This is nothing new.  Conservative politicians have been doing it ever since the pro renewables “detoxification” process under David Cameron began to break down during the coalition period.

Ten years ago, the Daily Mail was welcoming then Minister Greg Barker’s “plan” to shift away from “huge solar farms that blight the landscape, in favour of small panels on the roofs of homes, offices and schools”. When Andrea Leadsom was Minister, she announced that “our strong preference is for deployment of solar PV to take place on buildings and on previously used land over high grade agricultural land”.

More recently, who can forget Liz Truss’s “plan” to effectively ban solar farms from most farmland in England, proclaiming that farmers should not be filling their fields “with paraphernalia like solar farms”.  And so, to this week and Energy Security and Net Zero Secretary Claire Coutinho’s Ministerial Statement on “Solar and protecting our Food Security and Best and Most Versatile Land”.

Coutinho reinforced the existing National Planning Policy Statement’s clear guidance that “where possible”, solar farms should be built on “suitable previously developed land, brownfield land and industrial land”. The Secretary of State confirmed that solar developers should “minimise impacts on the best and most versatile land and preferably use land in areas of poorer quality”.  Coutinho said she wanted to “see more solar on rooftops”, (where have we heard that before?), and crucially in the context of the coming election, that the “cumulative impacts” of multiple solar farms on “local villages” should be considered by local planning authorities and the NSIP process.

Industry response

How has this gone down in the solar industry?  Many, who are busy actually trying to deliver the UK government’s demanding 70GW solar target, will have greeted Coutinho’s statement with a combination of weary eye rolling and a resigned shrug of the shoulders. Most point out that there’s really very little new in the Secretary of State’s Statement. This mood is reflected in the Solar Energy UK media release “welcoming” her statement for re-emphasising existing planning policy, while observing that “without solar farms, hundreds of traditional farming businesses would have gone to the wall”.

SEUK characterised Coutinho’s statement as confirmation that “existing land use policies will continue to provide stability as the sector expands”, noting that her broader food security comments were “directed at a small minority of anti-solar Conservative backbenchers”.  Well yes. Whilst it is certainly true that in terms of substance, there was very little new in this statement, beyond a welcome new commitment to establishing an independent soil quality assessment process, political mood music is surely important, particularly in a sector which has been buffeted by huge political uncertainties and U-turns in the past.

It is for this reason that others in and around the industry have been more critical.  Dr Nina Skorupska CBE, CEO of the REA warned that restricting further solar development would pose a serious threat to the jobs and investment created by the solar industry and the large solar farm sector that is being built now, largely without public billpayers’ support.  As James Murray of Business Green has astutely pointed out, this statement would simply not have been made if a General Election wasn’t imminent.

Whilst polling, including the government’s own public opinion tracker suggests very broad and high levels of support for solar, it’s just a fact that in some constituencies the cumulative impact of multiple solar farms is proving less popular. Several rural Tory MPs in what would normally be considered “safe” seats, rushed to signal their support on social media, for what they are characterising as a crack down on large solar farms.  Greg Smith MP for Buckingham posted that he would “continue to push for all farmland to be protected”, whilst Rob Butler MP in neighbouring Aylesbury welcomed Coutinho’s statement, with the observation that “many people in Bucks have raised serious concerns about farmland being used for solar panels”.

Many in the solar sector will be hoping that this is just predictable pre-election rhetoric, and that the serious, policy substance will be boosted by the now overdue government/industry Solar Taskforce report, expected in the “coming weeks”. In the meantime, it is inconceivable that the UK government’s 70GW solar target can be delivered without a very significant increase in solar farm deployment, but you’d never know that looking at some Conservative politicians’ statements this week.

The final word on this issue must go to Greenpeace UK Policy Director Doug Parr, who asks pointedly “if ministers are so adamant” they want “to keep solar panels off farms, perhaps they should take a look at golf courses, which currently take up many times more land that solar farms”. One thing that we can be sure of in an election year is that rural Conservative MPs are not going to come out against golf courses.

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