Plans could see solar farms banned on over half of England’s farmland, according to reports

The environment secretary Ranil Jayawardena has reportedly asked his officials to expand the definition of prime farmland, to include lower category land, which could see renewable energy projects banned from most of England’s farmland

According to the Guardian, Jayawardena has asked officials to redefine “best and most versatile” land (BMV) to include moderate quality category farming area (3b). BMV currently only includes excellent to good quality grades (grade 1 to 3a). The worst grading land can get is five, the best is one.

The reason this would scupper renewable energy projects, such as solar, is that development “should avoid unnecessary loss of BMV land”, according to the government guide on assessing development proposals on agricultural land. According to the Guardian, this will result in 41% of the land area of England, or about 58% of agricultural land, being unsuitable for solar development. Much of grade four and five land has ‘severe limitations’ for farming and also for solar farms, as it is often in upland areas, according to the Guardian.

The recent news was foreshadowed during Truss’s leadership campaign in August, when she vowed: “I will change the rules to make sure we’re using our high-value farming land for food”. Currently, all solar farms in the UK account for 0.08% of total land use. To meet the government’s net zero target, the Climate Change Committee estimates that between 75-90 gigawatts of solar will be needed by 2050.

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A spokesperson from Solar Energy UK said the industry completely opposes these mooted plans, and highlighted their own factsheet which counters claims that solar energy hinders food production. The group, which represents over 300 member companies from the energy sector, highlighted that solar energy is much cheaper than natural gas that solar could supply 17% of the UKs annual electricity needs by 2035 if growth continues.

Solar Energy UK, joined by nearly 20 environmental and other groups, recently co-signed a letter to prime minister Liz Truss, outlining their concerns.

During her speech at the Conservative party conference last week, the prime minister, Liz Truss, described her opposition as the “anti-growth coalition”, Solar Energy chief executive  Chris Hewett said that this anti-solar stance means the label applies to her own cabinet.

“The UK solar sector is alarmed by attempts to put major planning rules in the way of cheap, homegrown energy,” he said.

“Solar power is the answer to so many needs and policy demands: it will cut energy bills, deliver energy security, boost growth and help rural economies. Ranil Jayawardena’s opposition to solar farms must surely make him part of the anti-growth coalition."

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Greenpeace UK policy director Dr Doug Parr said: "The government is once again trying to sabotage one of the cheapest and quicker-to-deploy energy sources we have. Since it's perfectly possible to use land underneath solar panels, we don't face a stark dilemma between homegrown clean energy and food.

“If ministers are keen to put our land to better use, perhaps they should take a look at golf courses and biofuel crops, which take up seven and 77 times more space than solar farms, respectively. With energy bills at an all-time high, the government should get rid of barriers to the cheapest energy sources we have, not put up new ones."

A DEFRA spokesperson did not deny or confirm the reports that Jayawardena is looking to expand the BMV category, but told ENDS: "The environment, farming and economic growth go hand-in-hand, and as stated in the Growth Plan, we are committed to increasing our long-term energy security and strengthening the UK’s food security.
“That’s why we will be looking at the frameworks for regulation, innovation and investment that impact farmers and land managers to make sure that our policies are best placed to boost food production, increase resilience, drive growth and protect the environment.”