New solar farm policy 'ducks the main issues', say campaigners

Solar panels on a green field

Campaigners fear "greenfield" sites could lose their status if solar farms are built on agricultural land - Credit: PA

Land used to build solar farms should revert to "greenfield" status when equipment is dismantled, Uttlesford councillors have said.

After a debate this month, district councillors agreed that solar farms which receive planning permission in the future should not create new "brownfields" sites in Uttlesford after they are decommissioned.

But campaigners have warned that the new policy "ducks the main issues" around whether solar farms should be permitted on agricultural land at all.

A spokesperson for Stop Battles Solar, which wants to block a solar farm development near Stocking Pelham, said the solar debate is stagnant.

The site of the proposed Battles/Pelham Spring solar farm.

The site of the proposed Battles/Pelham Spring solar farm. - Credit: Stop Battles Solar

They said: "Solar farms should be sited on already unproductive, ideally brownfield land.

"It's good to see that the issue of solar farms is on Uttlesford’s agenda, but their discussion doesn’t move the debate any further forward.

"Most of the land is Uttlesford is high-quality agricultural land it should be used for growing food.

"The council should acknowledge that this land is simply unsuitable for solar farms."

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The council's new policy, proposed by Councillors Susan Barker (Conservative) and Janice Laughlin (Liberal Democrat), concerns the decommissioning process.

It was supported by members across the council chamber, but can be overruled by the district's Planning Committee or inspectors in each individual case.

Cllr Barker said she proposed the motion after receiving "concerns" from residents about the development.

Cllr Lauglin seconded the motion.

She said: "Solar farms are often on agricultural land, often rented out by farmers.

"I don't think it's unreasonable for us to ask that they be put back into the condition that they were found in."

Uttlesford District Council members gathered at the Council Offices in Saffron Walden

Uttlesford District Council members at the Council Offices, London Road. Picture: Will Durrant - Credit: Archant

'It's no good if energy production comes at such a huge cost to agriculture'

Researchers have raised concerns around both energy production and a decline in agricultural land in recent years.

In 2014, University of Cambridge scientists warned that, in a worst-case scenario, the UK could be short of agricultural land by six million hectares (23,166 square miles) by 2030.

In 2020, a report by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH) noted that 2 million acres of UK grassland had been lost between 1990 and 2015.

Essex suffered the second-highest arable land loss in the country after a total 143.4 square kilometre reduction.

Norfolk saw the highest arable land loss (-215 sq km).

Cambridgeshire took third place (-130 sq km).

Professor Bridget Emmett, of UKCEH, said at the time: "With a growing population, the increasing demand for housing, food and fuel must be balanced with protecting the wildlife and ecosystems that bring a range of vital benefits for humans."

The energy production landscape is changing, too.

The government has said that the UK will stop using coal to produce electricity from October 1, 2024.

Two controversial new nuclear power stations have been proposed in Bradwell, Essex and Sizewell, Suffolk.

The reactor dome of Sizewell B Nuclear Power Station Picture: CHRIS RADBURN/PA WIRE

The reactor dome of Sizewell B Nuclear Power Station - Credit: CHRIS RADBURN/PA WIRE

Together Against Sizewell C (Tasc) opposes the new generator in Suffolk.

Pete Wilkinson, Tasc chair, said: "It's no good if energy production comes at such a huge cost to agriculture.

"In our case at Sizewell, uranium needs to be mined in other countries.

"But here in the UK, there needs to be a national strategy to manage competing demands.

"It's no good handing the responsibility to private developers to keep creating energy when we can drive down the demand.

"Energy saving should be part of the nation's infrastructure strategy."

Pete Wilkinson on Sizewell beach

Pete Wilkinson, TASC chair - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Plan for net-zero by 2050

The government's Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) acknowledged that electricity demand has decreased each year since 2015.

A BEIS spokesperson said: "We are committed to ensuring that developers engage with communities as we increase the number of renewable infrastructure projects as part of our plan to reach net-zero by 2050.

“We continue to ensure that developers complete impact assessments as part of their planning applications."

They added: "The government recognises the importance of food security.

"By 2028, we want to see a renewed agricultural sector, producing healthy food with farmers managing their whole business in a way that delivers profitable food production and the recovery of nature."

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