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October 17, 2023

Large scale solar farms generate cheap, clean electricity, yet account for only around 30% of our power. The government is therefore keen to see new solar farms delivered as part of efforts to decarbonise the UK.

Most solar farms are located on agricultural land, which creates a tension between the need to generate clean electricity and the need to grow our own food. The role of the planning system is to balance those two objectives.

What are the planning rules?

In England, the quality of farmland is graded using the Agricultural Land Classification system. The most productive land is classed as Grade 1, with the least productive as Grade 5. About half of all land in England is classed as Grade 3, so it has been split into two – Grade 3a and Grade 3b. The planning system defines any land that is rated at Grades 1, 2 or 3b as “best and most versatile” – BMV for short – and gives it more protection than less productive ground.

National planning policy, set out in the National Planning Policy Framework, highlights the tension between growing food and producing power. It requires councils to increase the supply of renewable energy but also requires them to consider the benefits of BMV agricultural land when deciding where development should be located.

Planning Practice Guidance provides further detail on how national policy should be interpreted. It says that when deciding to whether greenfield sites are suitable for renewable energy projects, councils should consider if:

the proposed use of any agricultural land has been shown to be necessary and poorer quality land has been used in preference to higher quality land”; and,

the proposal allows for continued agricultural use where applicable and/or encourages biodiversity improvements.”

The second point is really about how the solar farm is designed. It is the second point, which deals with the quality of the land, and whether a site is suitable for a solar farm at all. In practice, satisfying that requirement means carrying out an assessment to show that there is no lower quality agricultural land where the scheme could be built. On the face of it, that seems a daunting task – surely solar farms could be located almost anywhere?

The grid connection is key

This is where grid capacity becomes very important. For a commercial-scale solar farm to be useful, it obviously needs to be connected to the electricity network. However, in most locations the grid doesn’t have sufficient capacity available for the power being generated. In those circumstances, the network operator will require solar farm developers to pay to upgrade the grid to create the capacity needed. If the costs of those improvements are too high – and the sums requested can be in the tens of millions - the scheme isn’t financially viable and doesn’t progress. In other cases, sites might simply be too far away from a point of connection into the grid.

As a result, there are only a limited number of locations which are actually suitable for solar farms – they need to be close to a cost-effective grid connection. If there is an area of available capacity, developers only need to show that there aren’t any sites on lower quality agricultural land which could also use that available grid capacity. That dramatically reduces the number of alternative sites that need to be considered. In some cases, where large areas are of the same agricultural land quality, it can make that process very straightforward indeed.

How this works in the real world

A proposed solar farm on a 78 hectare site near Wisbech, in Lincolnshire, shows how this is interpreted in practice. South Holland District Council had refused the application because of the significant loss of BMV agricultural land. The developer thought that decision was wrong and appealed against the decision.

The planned solar farm was to be located entirely within Grade 1 agricultural land – the highest quality rating. The developer had carried out a “Site Selection” study, looking at other sites within 5km of the electricity substation that would be the connection point to the grid, to show that there weren’t any other suitable sites on lower quality land – just as the Planning Practice Guidance suggests. In common with most farmland in the District, that whole area largely comprised either Grade 1 or Grade 2 agricultural land.

The Planning Inspector considering the appeal noted a number of matters which were in the scheme’s favour, including.

1. As with most solar farms the use would be temporary – for 35 years in this instance – meaning the agricultural land wasn’t being “lost” forever. The panels could be removed and the land farmed again at the end of that period.

2. The land wasn’t being entirely taken out of an agricultural use in any event – sheep would be grazed around and under the solar arrays during its operation.

3. Biodiversity and landscape enhancements were to be delivered as part of the solar farm.

4. The UK Government and the local council had both declared a Climate Emergency, highlighting the importance of moving swiftly to reduce carbon emissions.

In reaching a decision, the Inspector considered those pros and cons.

The climate emergency was an extremely important consideration. He noted that: “Given the scale and urgency of the emergency, I attach significant weight to this material consideration, including the impact of climate change on food production. A balance therefore needs to be struck to reduce the former to protect the latter, including in certain cases BMV. Energy and food security are therefore both key issues, which are affected by foreign markets.”

The Inspector went on to observe: “BMV land is plentiful in the Councils’ administrative areas and the proposal would utilise a small amount of that land. Furthermore, given the proposed connection to the intended substation, this proposal could also not be located on previously developed land or non-BMV land.

As a result, the appeal was allowed and planning permission was granted.

This pattern is repeated on sites across the country. Such is the urgent need to increase the amount of electricity we generate from renewable sources, planning permission is often granted even on the highest quality agricultural land – provided the planning application is approached in the right way.

That’s where we can help. The Strategic Land Group works with landowners to deliver solar farm schemes at our cost and risk. We deal with the planning application, the grid connection approvals and even find an operator for the scheme. Once operational, you can expect rental payments of around £700 to £1,000 per acre per month for the life of the scheme. If you think your site could be suitable for a solar farm, get in touch today for a free, no obligation assessment.

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