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Solar farm or food farm?

6th June 2023

By Dr Mark Robbins

These have been particularly interesting times for CPRE and those of you who read the Stratford Herald may have noticed increased and supportive coverage of planning issues highlighted by the Warwick Office. Of course, there have been local and district council elections at the start of May. Obviously as an apolitical organisation we cannot comment on the results, apart from noting that some new council members are aware of many of the concerns of CPRE members and we look forward to working with them in a friendly and positive manner.

One of the unexpected, but perhaps predictable, consequences of the elections has been a surge of applications before the changes of administration in Stratford (now Lib Dem Controlled) and Warwick District Council (NOC but with Greens being the largest party). It will be interesting to see whether these councils will choose to review the South Warwickshire District Plan, the South Warwickshire Economic Plan, land allocations made before the election and the possible extension of green belt South of Stratford.

There has almost been an explosion in applications for solar farms, which have been challenged on a number of occasions on the grounds of visual intrusion and for being industrial developments within or near to Green Belt. As explained by this office in previous newsletters, there have been some unexpected consequences regarding such farms and government legislation regarding Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG). Briefly it seems that siting solar developments on arable land is deemed appropriate if the land below is converted to pasture; if the development is on grassland, no BNG up-rating is possible and additional off-farm biodiversity purchases are required. Therefore more and more agricultural land for the production of food will be removed from production for the next 30-40 years unless the regulations are amended.

Interestingly and perhaps relevantly, there are reports according to Guardian Newspaper (8 May 2023) that the National Grid may nearly be full. By which, this means that in the near future the electric grid may be unable to accommodate additional green electricity supplies for the next decade or beyond. Harald Overholm of the Swedish renewable energy company (Alight) has commented, ‘It’s sad when national governments lack [that] vision’. David Kipling of On-Site Energy has noted the increase in solar and other renewable developments which in his view are growing exponentially and that ‘The grid is just not ready for it. You could argue that it’s negligence…[The government has] been speaking about climate action for over a decade now, so you would assume that they knew what would be required’. As a previous advisor to the UK government on energy policy I can only agree.

This is not just a theoretical argument and may have direct implications for rural Warwickshire. If companies now realise that their solar arrays will not be connectable to the National Grid, then we might expect the number of such applications to decrease dramatically. Alternatively other European countries have deployed local electricity grids to make use of locally produced electricity from wind or sun, is this going to be a plan in Warwickshire and is this the sort of development that would receive support from CPRE and local members?

Anyway, regarding actions from this office, I would like to highlight a recent letter in the Stratford Herald where I was able to highlight issues regarding the size of solar farms in the county. I mentioned that 10ha applications were now being replaced by 100ha versions and enquired whether councils were enacting any size limits or will we soon be looking at applications of 1,000ha or more. Finally (and I have been advised by Myles not to go on-and-on!), interesting things are happening in Wellesbourne. The University of Warwick has ambitious plans to create an eco-campus on the site of the old Horticultural Research Site, additionally there are plans to ‘revamp’ the airstrip nearby. Please be assured we shall be monitoring such developments closely and if members do come across plans in the county which might merit investigation, please contact the office.

solar farm vs food farm