9 March 2022
George Freeman responds to debate on large solar farms

George Freeman, Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on the planning issues around large solar farms and the impact on the rural environment.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (George Freeman)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. May I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith)? The scale of attendance and the passion with which colleagues have spoken speaks to the importance of his advocacy and the issue.

I am standing in today for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change, but I am absolutely delighted to be doing so, for a number of reasons. First, I come from a rural, agricultural constituency that is itself facing the introduction of substantial, industrial-scale infrastructure connected to offshore wind energy. The industrialisation of rural constituencies in pursuit of the noble aims of net zero is a local issue. It is very important and we have to get that planning process right. I have seen that for myself. I also drive through the Cambridgeshire-Suffolk border on my way to my constituency and see the Sunnica proposal, the signs in every field around the area and the concern locally.

As the former Minister for agritech, I am passionate about the importance of this country leading the world in net zero farming and showing how we can pioneer the technologies for and approaches to net zero agriculture. Nobody in this Chamber needs to be reminded that agriculture is the next dirty industry on the block. We are cleaning the energy system, but we will then have to decarbonise agriculture and transport globally. That is a big opportunity for this country.

As the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, including for fusion, I see it as fundamental to my role to ensure that we turbocharge our drive towards the technological solutions that will allow the planet to grow and develop sustainably in the longer term. I am also committed to the science of the data metrics of sustainable development, by which I mean both agrimetrics, so that when consumers pick up a pint of milk or a piece of British food they are clear about its environmental footprint—that is the best way to reward advanced, progressive farming—and carbon metrics, so that consumers can be harnessed on the journey to net zero, confident that they are making enlightened choices. That requires good science, which a number of colleagues have touched on.

Alicia Kearns 

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is a strong advocate of human rights. He mentions enlightened consumers wanting to know what they are purchasing and what is in their community. Does he agree that we should not install solar panels when we know for a fact that they are being produced in genocidal camps where people are being exterminated? I am talking about the Uyghur in China.

George Freeman 

My hon. Friend makes her point powerfully. I absolutely agree that we should not be supplying to consumers and citizens goods whose production involves torture and illegal practices. I am not the consumer affairs Minister, but I will raise that point with those who have that responsibility.

In the time available, I will set out the Government’s policy on solar, acknowledge the 16 very important points made today by colleagues from across the House, summarise the process in terms of disapplication and more broadly, and then make what I hope will be some important and helpful undertakings.

It is striking that, for all the concerns raised today, there is unanimity in the Chamber about the urgency of tackling the climate emergency. I think that everyone present supports the commitment, as enshrined at COP26, to reduce global temperature increase to 1.5°. There is good science behind that, and I think that many comments were made in that spirit. That is why the Government have adopted carbon budget 6, which is the world’s most ambitious climate change goal, to reduce emissions by 77% by 2035—that might sound a long way away, but it is rapidly drawing near—compared with 1990 levels. With limited time until that date, the UK’s electricity supply is in urgent need of decarbonisation. That is why, in the net zero strategy that was published in 2021, the Government committed that all UK electricity will be from low-carbon sources by 2035, subject to security of supply. At the end of my comments, I will come back to some of the changes relating to the global markets, the Ukraine emergency and the Prime Minister’s announcement of a review of energy policy.

I want to touch on the benefits of solar, which merit highlighting. It is a very flexible technology. As my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock) has pointed out, we can be proud that we have deployed 99% of solar at huge scale, quite small scale and high scale across the country. Solar generates large amounts of electricity even on cloudy days, and from indirect sunlight. Solar also works at cooler temperatures, so its carbon footprint is normally much lower than that of coal or gas. Most solar panel components can be recycled.

Solar can complement other variable generation sources, such as wind, to balance the grid on summer days when wind speeds tend to be lower. We see solar as key to the Government’s strategy for low-cost energy and decarbonisation, and large-scale solar is one of the UK’s cheapest renewable generation technologies; I will come in my closing comments to where the externalities of cost may lie. That is why in the net zero strategy, the Government committed to a sustained increase in deploying solar in the 2020s and beyond, embedded through the contract for difference scheme.

I want to pick up the points that several colleagues have made, because those points are hugely important and need to be acknowledged seriously. The first was about the scale of what is being proposed. As the equivalent of 4,000 football pitches, this is not a small-scale development or even, by most people’s standards, a medium-scale one. This is huge, industrial-scale development in the countryside. There were fears about a wild west and a solar rush, and about precedent in the planning system—if one of these developments gets approved, it may be a signal that we are locked into precedent. There were concerns, which I share, about the use of good agricultural land and, particularly in the light of the Ukraine situation, about food security.

Concerns were raised about the solar supply chain—both the human rights point that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) made, and the carbon footprint point. There were concerns about the lack of metrics of sustainability, and about taking into account the full externalities of the carbon footprint of developments. There were concerns about the abuse of the local planning system. I have been very struck in my constituency by the fact that because this is critical national infrastructure, the views of local people and local MPs—frankly, anybody locally—are very downgraded. The planning advice states that those local views are important, so I think that there is a real issue there.

There were specific concerns about Rutland and habitat impact, and calls for a clearer national policy on tackling these policy tensions. Points were made about the impact of the Ukraine emergency on food supplies, food security and food prices. Points were also made about the link to surreptitious approvals of, effectively, battery farms in inappropriate locations, about fire risk, about the impact on rural tourism and about the need for better co-location of generation, where possible, with use. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) made a point about beauty, identity and character, which is not just a magnificent ethereal concept; it also underpins tourism in the countryside. Some very important points have been made, and they deserve to be repeated and acknowledged. Forgive me; I am not going to list everybody, but Hansard will report what has been set out.

Matt Hancock 

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because I have made several interventions. On the point about fire safety, will he take on board, and comment on, the need for transparency about past fires? I should also have mentioned in my speech that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), cannot speak because she is a member of the Government, but she wholeheartedly endorses my views and is a great campaigner for her constituency when it comes to the Sunnica plant—and more broadly.

George Freeman 

I will happily pick that point up. My right hon. Friend invites me—wisely, perhaps, given the time—to clarify that at the end of this debate, I will raise all the points that have been made today with the relevant Ministers, including, perhaps, the Minister for fire safety. When such a number of colleagues meet in the Chamber, their points deserve to be heard and passed through.

I want to pick up on the planning point. Colleagues will be aware, but those listening may not be, that planning applications for projects below 50 MW are determined by the local planning system. Many hundreds of them around the country have been approved satisfactorily. Projects up to 350 MW in Wales are devolved, with decisions made either by local authorities or the Welsh Government. Planning in Scotland and Northern Ireland is fully devolved. For projects over 50 MW in England and over 350 MW in Wales, planning decisions are made by the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con)

Local authorities’ declaration of a climate emergency seems to be overriding the requirement to avoid developments on best and most versatile land. Should there not be an absolute prohibition of solar farm developments on BMVL?

George Freeman 

My hon. Friend makes his point well. Let me come to the point I was going to make about planning, which tries to deal with that.

In 2021, the Government set up a national infrastructure planning reform programme, bringing several Government Departments together with the aim of refreshing how the nationally significant infrastructure project regime works to make it faster, better and greener. The Government will shortly consult on reform proposals—we will do so later this year. As a part of that, the Government are reviewing the national policy statements for energy. It seems to me that quite a lot of what has been said today is a call for a clearer national policy statement, and colleagues might want to raise that with the Minister for Energy and the Planning Minister. The draft revised national policy statement for renewables includes a new section on solar projects, providing clear and specific guidance to decision makers on the impact on, for example, local amenities, biodiversity, landscape, wildlife and land use, which must be considered when assessing planning applications. The Government plan to publish a response to the consultation on the revised national policy statement shortly.

Under both local and NSIP planning systems, developers must complete proper community engagement as part of the application process. Communities should and must be able to participate in the formal examination process run by the Planning Inspectorate. All large solar developers under the NSIP must complete an environmental statement for any application, to consider all potential impacts. Planning guidance is also clear that the effective use of land should be prioritised by focusing large-scale solar farms on previously developed and non-greenfield land. It seeks to minimise the impact on the best and most versatile agricultural land. It requires developers to justify using any such land and to design their projects to avoid, mitigate and, where necessary, compensate for impacts.

I am conscious of the time—I think I have one minute left—but I want to highlight that in relation to the planning process colleagues will understand that I cannot comment on the specifics of this individual case, because I do not want to prejudice it in any way. However, we anticipate that once an application is submitted to the planning inspector, it will be 15 to 18 months before it comes back to the Secretary of State after all the various consultations. Interestingly, in terms of precedent —all-important in planning—only one large-scale solar application has been approved, in Kent. One in Wales, Strawberry Hill—devolved, of course—was turned down on the agricultural land use point. I understand that one in Scunthorpe is imminent, and that Sunnica and one or two others are in the pipeline. The point about precedent is important: we all know that when a big decision is made it can trigger a wave of subsequent applications.

Let me close by congratulating and thanking colleagues for coming today. They have raised important points that I will undertake to pass on to Ministers who have responsibility for energy, planning, farming, tourism and fire safety. Colleagues have made a very important case for a stronger and clearer national policy statement, reflecting the situation in Ukraine and the Prime Minister’s emphasis on food and energy security. I will undertake to make sure that the points raised today are picked up by all the relevant Ministers.