Blanket solar clampdown on farmland in England won’t go ahead, Defra Ministers confirm

Pictured: Coffey in discussion with the EFRA Committee. Image: Parliament Live TV

The proposals were first reported on in early October, when Liz Truss was Prime Minister and Ranil Jayawardena was in the top job at the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra). Truss spoke against solar development during her leadership campaign, calling solar panels “paraphernalia” and arguing that solar development to date in the UK has compromised food security, despite the fact that arrays cover just 0.1% of farmland.

Under Truss, Defra was reportedly set to extend its ban on solar for high-grade farmland to land categorised as 3b, or “sub-grade”. Land within this category accounts for the majority of the planned pipeline for ground-mounted solar on farms. The ban already applies to grade 1, 2 and 3a land.

Shortly after Rishi Sunak was elected, his pick for Defra, Therese Coffey, was asked by Shadow Climate Minister Kerry McCarthy whether the Department would  go ahead with this change to planning regulations. Coffey stated that she was minded to stick with the proposal.

But she appears to have changed her mind. On Tuesday (6 December), Coffey was questioned by MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee. She confirmed that a Government review of planning and land use would go ahead early next year, but stated that there will be no de-facto ban on solar across all 3b land. She added that Defra would rather “work through this land use framework properly” than “jump to policy decisions” this side of the new year.

She stated: “We have 14GW of solar now. Right now, the ambition within the energy security strategy is to raise it up to 70GW.”

Coffey also acknowledged that adding solar could be a means for farmers to diversify their income at a time when they are facing skyrocketing fertiliser and energy costs that are impacting their bottom line.

Nonetheless, she did not come across as a vocal advocate for solar. She stated:“There is competition for land. I’m not suggesting by default I just want to put solar over every bit of 3b land. I think we do need to get that careful balance across that and make the best use of land. I’m more inclined about brownfield sites and certainly thinking through how farms and others can do a lot more self energy production.”

Farming Minister Mark Spencer later clarified Coffey’s position by providing additional information to The Guardian. He told the paper’s environment editor Fiona Harvey and environment reporter Helena Horton: “I believe Beis [the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy] and Defra are looking together at this, how we best use land and a land use framework is coming. But I am not in favour of a broad brush approach.

“We shouldn’t be stopping farmers who want to diversify their income from doing that as that would be harmful so I’d have no problem with them putting some solar panels down on 3b land. But we can’t then have thousands and thousands of acres taken away that could otherwise be used for food production. It has to be a balance.”

The news has, of course, been welcomed by the solar sector. Solar Energy UK’s chief executive Chris Hewett called Coffey’s comments “a great relief to the solar industry” and welcomed a “significant shift from the anti-solar rhetoric of her predecessor.”

It has been a busy 24 hours in the UK’s renewable energy sphere. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities announced on Tuesday that it will look at changing planning rules for onshore wind to make development in areas with strong local support easier. The change has come as a result of a campaign led by Simon Clarke MP, who had the support of Truss as well as Boris Johnson, Alok Sharma and more than 20 other Tories. Read edie’s full article on that story here.

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