Brooks Newmark leads a Parliamentary debate about the building of a solar PV farm on prime agricultural land in north Essex.
Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): As you are aware, Mr Speaker, I presented a petition to Parliament on 12 November 2013 on behalf of my constituents in the parishes of Foxearth and Liston. The petition, signed by more than 700 residents of Belchamp St Paul, Belchamp Otten, Foxearth, Liston and Pentlow villages was in opposition to a proposed solar panel farm. The proposal is for up to 300 acres of 8-foot high solar panels on prime agricultural land—the highest grade in all of Essex—for a minimum of 25 years, thereby degrading the land and, most importantly, spoiling the surrounding landscape. That point is especially important to my constituents, as the proposed site is on the edge of an area of outstanding natural beauty and what is known as Constable country.
Before I get into the substance of my argument, I wish to point out that I have no objection in principle to solar panels and believe that they play an important role in our country’s future energy mix. Indeed, there is another proposal for a solar farm in my constituency that I support. It is for a 50-acre solar farm on a disused airfield near Gosfield. The Gosfield solar farm would be on a brownfield site and has the support of Hedingham and Gosfield parish councils and the wider community. I mention that alternative proposal to draw the Minister’s attention to my view of what is an appropriate site and what is an inappropriate one.
Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): May I echo my hon. Friend’s support for the development of photovoltaic facilities on brownfield sites? In my constituency, at the old RAF Wroughton site, the largest PV installation in Britain has just received approval from the local planning authority. It enjoys support from the local parish council and local residents, and we believe it will make a meaningful difference to local energy generation and be an important part of renewable energy capacity in this country.
Mr Newmark: I thank my hon. Friend. That is exactly the sort of site on which we should support the building of solar panels.
One of the planned solar panel farms in my constituency has the support of the local residents and the local parish councils and is on a brownfield site. The other has no support from local residents or the local parish councils and is on prime arable land adjacent to an area of outstanding natural beauty.
Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): I generally support my hon. Friend’s view on alternative sites and I, too, support solar farms in the right place. Does he agree that when considering a solar farm we must take into account the power lines leading to that farm, and the impact they have on the environment?
Mr Newmark: My hon. Friend raises an important point. I fought a long, hard campaign in that part of north Essex to ensure that any power lines proposed were buried underground as they impinge on the environment I am seeking to protect.
Let me return to the proposal for a 300-acre solar panel farm in Foxearth and Liston as a case study for the Minister when he reflects on the planning regime for solar panels in rural locations—the subject of my Adjournment debate. A letter from the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) states :
“Inappropriately sited solar PV especially in the countryside is something that I take extremely seriously and am determined to crackdown on…support for solar PV should ensure proposals are appropriately sited, given proper weight to environmental considerations such as landscape and visual impact, heritage and local amenity, and provide opportunity for local communities to influence decisions that affect them.”
Given that excellent guidance from the Minister, given the quality of land under consideration—it is grade 2 agricultural land and protected as such under the national planning policy framework—and bearing in mind the almost unanimous opposition to acres and acres of solar panels blighting some of the most beautiful countryside, not just in Essex but in the country, the siting of this solar panel farm, unlike the one at Gosfield, is wholly inappropriate.
Unfortunately, notwithstanding the extremely helpful guidance from the DECC Minister, planning officers at Braintree district council take a very different line. Indeed, they say that the Minister’s letter is not worth the paper it is written on. They state that unless Department for Communities and Local Government planning regulations are changed specifically from those indicated in planning practice guidance for renewable and low-carbon energy, dated July 2013, to exclude grades 1 to 3A prime agricultural land, permission is likely to be given to the planned solar farms under current regulations.
In fact, the planning officer is minded to give planning permission for the initial 40-acre solar farm on the basis that the developer will abide by section 27 of the planning practice guidance for renewable and low-carbon energy, which states that
“particular factors a local authority will need to consider include: encouraging the effective use of previously developed land, that it allows for continued agricultural use and/or encourages biodiversity improvements around arrays”—
I assume that arrays are solar panels. The planning officer said that if the biodiversity condition is met, he is likely to give planning permission for the initial 40-acre plot. To my mind, that is absurd. It is absurd because he says that local objections are of little relevance and that the visual impact has little bearing on his decision, even though it abuts an area of outstanding natural beauty. It is absurd because as long as the proposal ticks his biodiversity box, such as sheep grazing among the solar panels, it is likely to go ahead.
Imagine, Madam Deputy Speaker, a Constable painting of some of the most beautiful Essex countryside, with sheep gently grazing amid 300 acres of 8-foot high metal solar panels. That goes beyond the imagination of even the most avant-garde surrealist and Dadaist painter. I strongly believe that the planning officer should take the other points from the DECC Minister’s letter into account, which the planning officer says has no basis in the guidelines.
Braintree district council tells me that it will, under current regulation, approve the application, given that it is for a temporary installation. However, given the damage that will be done to the area, I do not believe 25 years is temporary. Does the Minister honestly believe we should be building on some of the best food production land in Essex? Me thinks not.
The provisions of the national planning policy framework requiring “a demonstration of necessity” in selecting high-quality arable land over low-quality land are too often ignored by local planning authorities. Planning authorities seem too ready to compromise on their policies to accommodate such applications, and they remain behind the curve in taking Government guidance on board. That is the exact problem in my constituency, where planning applications have been made for solar panels to be placed on hundreds of acres of prime agricultural land. The planning framework needs to demonstrate more clearly the need to spare at least grade 2 agricultural land from being covered with solar panels. I believe the guidance should direct local planning authorities to consider roof tops and brownfield sites such as the Gosfield proposal for the installation of solar panels.
Given the DECC Minister’s guidance in his letter of 14 October, more needs to be done in the legislation, not just the guidelines, to impress upon local planning authorities the importance of not building on prime agricultural land. The DECC Minister has made it abundantly clear that agricultural land must not be used for solar farms, and that such installations should be directed towards brownfield sites, and commercial and industrial roof spaces, but there is so far little evidence that his words are getting through. A clear directive to local planning authorities in that regard by the Minister is obviously overdue, and a reassessment of the incentives and sanctions should be considered. Planning authorities must be given clear instructions as to their legal obligations in that regard, such that they comply with the law.
In addition, there should be an environmental impact assessment, which for some reason is not a condition for siting solar panels in rural areas, although it would be a requirement if one of the cottages in the same area wanted to build a garage. I do not understand why 8-foot high solar panels on between 40 acres to 300 acres should not be subjected to an environmental impact assessment, especially in cases such as the one I have described, in which the environmental impact through blight is high. Nevertheless, local planning authorities often elect not to call for an environmental impact assessment. It would appear that, because the operation of generating electricity by such means is clean, does not appreciably degrade the site on which panels are situated and is “of only local importance”, no environmental impact assessment is considered necessary. In reality, such installations fundamentally alter the character and visual environment of the location in which they are situated.
Overall, Government directives and letters from the DECC Minister appear to be having little effect in countering the headlong drive on the part of developers and landowners to get into the solar farm business by taking over food producing land, especially high-quality agricultural land, suggesting that the incentives may have been incorrectly set, or that the available sanctions are not being applied with sufficient rigour. I would like the Minister to consider changing the legislation to ensure that local planning authorities can consider the quality of land, the visual impact on the countryside and the views of local people before granting permission for solar panel farms to be built.
I have three specific questions for the Minister. First, can he confirm that the Government will issue updated planning practice guidance that explicitly states whether agricultural land classified as being the “best and most versatile”, meaning grades 1, 2 and 3a, is suitable for use as a solar farm? Secondly, does the Minister know of any plans to update the environmental impact assessment regulations in respect of solar farms, and specifically the criteria and thresholds for the purposes of the definition of schedule 2 development, meaning the thresholds at which the regulations suggest that an environmental statement is likely to be required in support of a planning application?
Thirdly, following publication by the Government of the “Solar PV Strategy Part 1” in October 2013, will the Minister give an update on the scheduled date of publication for the widely anticipated solar PV strategy that has previously been scheduled for publication in spring 2014? Will the advice in that document replace the current planning practice guidance?
I would like to end by thanking Braintree district councillors Julian Swift and Jo Beavis; the planning officers at Braintree district council; Nigel Harley; Clive Waite of the upper Stour valley renewable energy joint committee; and the residents of Foxearth, Liston, Pentlow, Belchamp St Paul and Belchamp Otten for their valuable input to my speech. I thank the Minister for taking the time to listen to the concerns of my constituents and I look forward to his response.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Nick Boles): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate on such an important subject for his constituents. It is a subject that he has raised with me in writing and in person, and now, rightly and properly, on the Floor of the House.
I hope I will be able to reassure my hon. Friend that there are already guidelines in place and policies in the national planning policy framework that are sufficient to support the kinds of decisions he seeks. I hope he will also understand that I cannot refer to, or make a judgment on, any particular application under consideration by any planning authority.
The policies in the national planning policy framework are clear that there is no excuse for putting solar farms in the wrong places. The framework is clear that applications for renewable energy developments, such as solar farms, should be approved only if the impact, including the impact on the landscape—the visual and the cumulative impact—is or can be made acceptable. That is a very high test. It should be approved only if the impact can be made acceptable. Where significant development is necessary on agricultural land, the national planning policy framework is equally clear that local planning authorities should seek to use areas of poorer quality in preference to that of a higher quality. Where land is designated at a relatively high grade it should not be preferred for the siting of such developments.
In addition, the framework is clear that planning should take account of the different roles and character of different areas. It should protect areas with a landscape designation. It should recognise the character and beauty of the countryside and support the rural communities within it. It is very important, given the particular countryside he was talking about, that areas of outstanding natural beauty have the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty. The framework is clear that great weight should be given to conserving them. I therefore encourage my hon. Friend to draw the attention of planning officers in his council to those elements of the framework, the clarity and the strength with which those policies are phrased, and encourage them to believe that they can assist them in their decisions.
Mr Newmark: I am listening very carefully to what my hon. Friend is saying, and many of his points reflect the excellent advice given by the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) in his letter to me in October. The reality, however, is that when speaking to Braintree district councillors—notwithstanding that it is the highest grade agricultural land, grade 2, in Essex—they say that as long as a biodiversity requirement is met, they are still minded, because, unfortunately, of the current regulations, to give planning permission for at least the first 40 acres. To me and to many of my constituents, that is unacceptable.
Nick Boles: I can reassure my hon. Friend that this is planning policy: the national planning policy framework is the framework of national planning policy. Every planning decision by every planning authority in the land must abide by the policies in the framework. I do not care what he has been advised by others; I am the planning Minister, and I am advising him that this is the policy that the Government have put through the House, and we intend it to be applied in every planning decision by every planning authority in the land.
Nevertheless, because we shared some of my hon. Friend’s concerns about how these policies were being applied, we issued further planning practice guidance on renewable and low-carbon energy. To ensure that these decisions reflected the environmental balance expected by the framework and that the views of local people were listened to, we published guidance last summer that made some things very clear. We reiterated that the need for renewable energy did not automatically override environmental protections and local communities’ planning concerns. The guidance made it clear that the deployment of large-scale farms could have a negative impact on the rural environment, particularly in undulating landscapes, and set out a number of factors that a local council would need to consider before making a determination.
We expect local authorities to encourage the effective use of previously developed land, and if a proposal involves greenfield land, the guidance clearly states that it should allow for continued agricultural use, but only if it has already met all the other environmental and landscape policy criteria that are set out in the framework and which are reiterated, underlined and expanded on in the new planning guidance. I and the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), believe that current policy and guidance gives every planning authority in the land the basis on which to take fully into account the landscape and agricultural quality of land.
Mr Newmark: I appreciate everything that my hon. Friend is saying, but unfortunately money talks, and this has become big business. Many planning officers are nervous, as are local councillors, that if they reject an application and it is appealed, local taxpayers might have to foot the bill. They tend to take a much more cautious—even prudent, dare I say it—approach towards planning and to err on the side of caution by saying, “Actually, we are minded to give permission”, because they do not want to risk an appeal by a wealthy business man or company.
Nick Boles: I am delighted that my hon. Friend has asked that question, because it is important that authorities across the land understand that when they make a decision that has policy support, in the national planning policy framework, and guidance support, in planning guidance, and if it is appealed, they have every right, if they are successful in resisting that appeal, to ask for their costs to be covered. They should feel confident in their decisions, where those decisions follow the policy that I have set out and which I believe is crystal clear. I should also add that it would be a brave planning officer or inspector who dismissed a letter from a Minister of State for Energy and Climate Change in the terms my hon. Friend suggested he had been advised they had to do.
I encourage my hon. Friend, if he is concerned about a particular decision, to familiarise himself with the criteria for call-in and recovery where an application goes to appeal. If he is concerned that a particular application raises issues of national policy importance—and are not, therefore, just of local importance—and in some other way meets the criteria for call-in, which are published in a written ministerial statement, he can write to the Secretary of State and request that the decision be called in for ministerial decision. That is open to him at any point. If he decides not to do that, and were the local authority to refuse an application, and were it then appealed, again he could write to the Secretary of State and request that the decision be recovered, so that it can be made by the Secretary of State, not a planning inspector. Those two opportunities are open to him.
My hon. Friend will, I am sure, be aware that there has recently been a recovery of a decision on a substantial solar farm, partly because this is a relatively new area of policy. We have been trying to strike the right balance, which is why we issued the new planning guidance, and we are keen for cases to reflect both the policy in the framework and that new guidance. My hon. Friend should not feel timid or shy about availing himself of the opportunities offered to him by both the call-in and the recovery policies.
I hope that what I have said will go some way towards reassuring my hon. Friend—and, perhaps equally important, his constituents—that they have not been abandoned, and that there is plenty of policy support for the respecting, valuing and protection of the beautiful Constable landscape that my hon. Friend described so lyrically.