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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Helena Horton Environment reporter

De facto ban on solar farms in England to continue, Coffey signals

Aerial view of a solar farm in West Sussex, UK
Aerial view of a solar farm in West Sussex, UK Photograph: Pavel Babic/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The de facto ban on solar farms will be continued by Rishi Sunak’s government, the environment secretary has signalled.

Thérèse Coffey, fresh from her visit to Cop27, suggested to parliament that she would be continuing with policy plans initiated under the former prime minister Liz Truss, which would block solar power from most farmland.

Under Truss, Defra officials were looking at how to redefine “best and most versatile” land (BMV), which is earmarked for farming, to include the middling-to-low category 3b. Land is graded from 1 to 5, and currently BMV includes grades 1 to 3a. Planning guidance says that development on BMV land should be avoided, although planning authorities may take other considerations into account. This would mean 60% of all agricultural land would be off-limits to solar farms.

It was hoped the Sunak government would reverse this decision, as to reach net zero targets, the country needs a huge expansion of renewables.

However, when asked by the shadow climate minister Kerry McCarthy on Thursday, Coffey signalled she would be keeping the policy.

She said: “It’s really important we make the best use of our land to have that food security … It’s also really important when considering land use to consider the best place to put renewable energy, which by and large most people would agree, let’s use our best agricultural land for farming and make use of brownfield sites for a lot of these energy projects, too.”

Backing her up, in response to the Conservative MP Siobhan Baillie, who is campaigning against solar in her Stroud constituency, the environment minister Mark Spencer said: “She should be assured that my officials are working closely with other departments to ensure the right balance between boosting food production and energy security.”

McCarthy told the Guardian: “It is beyond belief that this government is still considering blocking new solar developments during an energy crisis. This will drive up bills, risk our energy security and prevent us meeting our crucial climate targets.

“From the ban on onshore wind to blocks on solar, every week it becomes clearer that Rishi Sunak is a fossil fuel prime minister in a renewable age. Labour’s plan would cut energy bills for good, creating thousands of good, green jobs and making Britain a clean energy superpower.”

The solar industry was also unimpressed by the statements. Chris Hewett, the chief executive of Solar Energy UK, told the Guardian: “Since the resignation of Liz Truss and Ranil Jayawardena, all the ministerial statements from the departments that matter on energy policy, the Treasury and BEIS [Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy], have all been explicitly supportive of more renewables and specifically solar farms.

“This gave the impression that anything that happened under Liz Truss’s brief tenure was to be disregarded, including the leaked proposals for changes to land classification leading to a de-facto ban on solar farms.

“The new prime minister’s support for renewables at Cop27, as a means to deliver economic growth and energy security, reinforced that message. It is concerning that Thérèse Coffey has not clarified the position of her own department but existing policy already balances energy and food security effectively.”

Speaking in the Commons on Tuesday, the exchequer secretary to the Treasury, James Cartlidge, said the new government was “serious about delivering cheaper, cleaner and more secure power” and would include solar farms in future auctions for “contracts for difference”.

He added that the existing English planning system was “designed to take account” of the need to balance “community interests, food security and securing a clean, green energy system for the future”.

Sunak has previously shown antipathy towards solar panels, and during the summer in his first run for leader he promised that “good agricultural land” would not be used for renewables.

When asked if Coffey’s remarks meant she would be pushing for the block on solar farms, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs refused to give an on-the-record comment but confirmed they had been looking at options to support farming and energy security while protecting nature and delivering on net zero.

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