In her speech to the Conservative Party Conference last week, Prime Minister Liz Truss singled out an ‘anti-growth’ coalition as responsible for the UK’s lack of economic progress. The coalition appears to have a new member – Environment Secretary Ranil Jayawardena, who yesterday was widely reported as, ‘planning to ban solar farms from most of England’s farmland.’
The reality is less dramatic. Mr Jayawardena’s proposal is, in fact, to expand the definition of ‘best and most versatile’ (BMV) farmland to include land graded 3B. Guidance issued by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) discourages but does not preclude development of solar farms on BMV land. The change would therefore make it harder to put solar panels on farmland but not ban it outright.
Any change will also require the consent of DLUHC and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). This is less than certain – BEIS, notably, is pushing to deregulate oil and gas and other forms of renewable energy.
Mr Jayawardena’s position is, nonetheless, likely to alarm anyone who recognises the role solar farms must play in helping meet the UK’s energy needs. It is reported as being rooted in concern for the UK’s food security. This reflects comments made by Ms Truss to Conservative members on the campaign trail and of the various Conservative MPs campaigning against solar farms in their constituencies.
The solar industry has argued in response that restricting new solar development is unlikely to improve food security. Solar Energy UK, for example, has pointed out that even if every solar farm currently put forward was built, this would still account for less than 0.4% of the UK’s agricultural land and 0.28% of the UK’s entire land area.
This points to a broader need for a strategic approach to land use in the UK. The country faces an urgent need to deliver more of its own food and energy, at the same time as delivering enough housing and helping nature flourish. The current House of Lords enquiry on land use in England has received a range of detailed and valuable submissions which could help inform this strategy.
Yesterday’s news suggests that policy is currently being made ad-hoc. It represents a change to what the Government considers good farmland based not on the characteristics of the land itself but its desire to restrict its use.
The risk is that the Government will make it harder to meet its net zero commitments – without meaningfully improving food security. A more comprehensive reckoning with land use will help avoid this.