Skip to main content

Conservatives draw battle lines on large scale solar

solar farm
Energy, Transport & Infrastructure

Debates on large-scale solar in Parliament are now an almost annual affair, and always draw a good crowd of MPs keen to highlight their constituent’s concerns about different projects that have cropped up in their area. Yesterday (18 April), it was Dr Caroline Johnson MP (Sleaford and North Hykeham) who secured a three-hour Westminster Hall debate on the topic.

The arguments presented ‘for’ and ‘against’ solar will be familiar to anyone in the sector, and we didn’t see much new ground presented for either this time round. What was more interesting, however, was the debate’s clear role in drawing a line in the sand between the Conservatives and other parties on solar ahead of the upcoming elections.

As polling puts even some of the safest Conservative seats under notice, MPs in rural constituencies are increasingly turning to local campaigns to shore up votes and, in some cases, even casting an eye on their future constituencies for such opportunities.

Throughout the debate, Conservative MPs took turns to highlight the lack of Labour, Liberal Democrat and even SNP presence in the Hall, with one MP calling a point of order to question why no Liberal Democrats had attended. His new constituency will be a key Liberal Democrat-Conservative battleground at the next general election, with a rare Conservative win (albeit with less than 2,000 votes in it) currently projected.

This sentiment was also reinforced in the government’s response, given by Andrew Bowie MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero. While he was careful not to deviate from policy, he made it clear that both Labour and Liberal Democrats could not be trusted with the countryside. Aligning more strongly with backbenchers on large-scale solar than in previous debates, the Minister even appeared at a photocall for MPs who spoke in the debate at an anti-solar protest taking place outside Parliament, endorsing their concerns on individual projects (while making it clear that the government could not formally comment on them).

In essence then, yesterday’s debate has created an opportunity to shift focus onto the relative merits and demerits of individual schemes without undermining the government’s national policy, as recently set out in NPS EN-3. Expect the upshot of this to be increased campaigning on specific schemes, and at the national level, potentially further delays in determining solar DCOs. The decision on Mallard Pass Solar Farm, due on May 16 (shortly after the local elections), will be an interesting test of this theory.

As Labour’s spokesperson, Dr Alan Whitehead MP (Labour, Southampton Test) was at pains to point out during the debate, Conservative and Labour policy is not too divergent on this topic. Labour is aiming for 50GW of installed solar by 2030, the Conservatives 70GW by 2035. Both agree that solar should predominately be installed on brownfield sites and rooftops first before the use of poorer quality farmland. Not too much to attack then, given that it is the Conservatives who have been implementing this policy for over a decade.

Instead, the Conservatives will be leaning heavily on the more emotional idea that only it can be trusted to protect the countryside, with the Lib Dems too reckless and Labour too inexperienced to grasp its importance. The Conservatives have an advantage here – almost all solar NSIPs are currently proposed in Conservative-held constituencies. With polling showing that seats could be won by a handful of votes, it could make all the difference.