Ministers plan to ban solar farms from most of England’s farmland, The Guardian can reveal.
The new Environment Secretary, Ranil Jayawardenais believed to oppose solar panels being placed on farmland, claiming it hampers his program for growth and increased food production.
To this end, government sources say, he has asked his officials to redefine “best and most versatile” land (BMV) earmarked for agriculture to include medium-to-low category 3b. Soil is classified from 1 to 5, and currently includes BMV grade 1 to 3a. The planning guidance states that development on BMV land should be avoided, although planning authorities may take other considerations into account.
Currently, most solar parks are built on and planned for 3b land, so this move would eradicate most new developments of the renewable energy source.
Extending the BMV to Class 3b would ban solar from around 41% of England’s land area, or around 58% of farmland. Much of the Class 4 and 5 land is in upland areas unsuitable for solar installations.
Speaking at the Conservative Party Conference last week, the Prime Minister said, Liz Truss, rolled out a list of “enemies”, including green campaigners who make up what she characterized as the “anti-growth coalition”. But green campaigners say blocking the building of renewable energy would make her government part of such a group.
Chris Hewett, chief executive of trade body Solar Energy UK, said: “The UK solar sector is alarmed by attempts to put major planning rules in the way of cheap, home-grown energy. Solar power is the answer to so many needs and political demands: it will cut energy bills, deliver energy security, boost growth and help rural economies. Ranil Jayawardena’s opposition to solar farms must surely make him part of the anti-growth coalition.”
To get this policy across the board, Defra would have to get opt-out from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Department for Leveling Up, Housing and Communities.
It is understood BEIS ministers are against the move as they try to show they are deregulating not only the oil and gas industry and fracking, but also renewable energy.
However, No 10 is believed to be sympathetic to the idea, with Truss having promised to block solar farms on agricultural land during his election campaign.
Dustin Benton, policy director at the Green Alliance think tank, said: “It would be strange to redefine ‘best and most versatile’ farmland to include non-high-quality land just to block solar farms. It sounds like a tactic, which the ‘anti-growth coalition’ can use.
“Britain desperately needs to expand renewable energy so we don’t have to pay the exorbitant costs of gas. Solar is one of the fastest sources of energy to deploy so we should move quickly to build more in the face of the gas crisis .”
Andy Mayer, chief operations officer at the Institute of Economic Affairs think tank, said: “The government cannot on the one hand declare war on the ‘anti-growth coalition’ while on the other it enforces the right to veto development or waste time and money with excessive regulation.
“Farmers and green entrepreneurs are itching to provide solutions to the false claim that energy and food security cannot coexist. The City of London is ready to fund them. Long-term solutions to network and storage congestion are possible. The market reform can provide a level playing field for competition. Communities can benefit from more personal rewards from permitted development.
“This is what a supply-side revolution looks like to encourage growth while supporting a transition to a cleaner, greener future. Not rigid rules, plans and targets that confuse, contradict and encourage resistance to change.”
Ed Miliband, shadow climate change and net zero secretary, said: “If the government goes ahead with blocking solar, it will be yet more unilateral energy disarmament from a government that has a 12-year record of driving up bills by blocking clean power .
The blame for this plan lies squarely with the Prime Minister, who has repeatedly opposed solar, the cheapest, cleanest, fastest form of power – and it will be the British people who pay the price in higher bills, higher gas imports and energy uncertainty. “
Ministry of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs refused to deny that this change was on the cards, saying only that the government had been looking at ways to support agriculture and economic growth while protecting nature and delivering on net zero.