March 9, 2022 6.30 pm

Lincolnshire MPs call for tighter controls on large-scale solar farms

They say developers are ‘cheating the planning system’

Lincolnshire MPs accused those behind major solar farms of ‘cheating the planning system’ as they called for tighter controls for local authorities to make decisions on renewable energy sources.

A debate in Westminster Hall on Wednesday, led by MP for Bassetlaw Brendan Clarke-Smith, called for more regulation for large solar farms to allow local people to have their say, to protect farmland and to ensure renewable energy proposals were in the right place.

Mr Clark-Smith told fellow members that there was a lot of scepticism about the use of agricultural land,

He warned against a “wild west-style gold rush” where developers looked to increase profitability.

“Sensitive planning has an important role to play in the visual impact of solar farms and low carbon infrastructure,” he said.

Many of the MPs were keen to point out that they were supporters of renewable energy and its use in making the country self sustaining and secure.

However, they feared there could be an unbalance between the gains from the farms and the losses of the agricultural land – particularly around a lack of food security, with wheat imports currently being impacted by the Russian invasion in Ukraine.

They also had concerns around human rights abuses in the production process of materials and equipment, the carbon impacts across the entire lifespan of the farms, the lack of grid infrastructure involved and the safety of the batteries used to store the power.

There are currently several major solar farms in the pipeline for Lincolnshire and on the borders with its neighbours in Rutland.

Gainsborough MP Edward Leigh.

Gainsborough MP Edward Leigh said his constituency was “going to be ringed” by a solar farm equivalent in size to 4,000 football pitches.

The Gate Burton Energy Park, near Knaith Park and Willingham by Stow, anticipates that it will generate 500 megawatts and power more than 160,000 homes.

However, Mr Leigh accused the size of the farm of being a “cheat of the planning system”.

“They actually look to accumulate a certain acreage so it becomes a National Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) and bypasses the local planning system,” he said.

NSIPs are decided by the government’s planning inspector instead of local planning authorities, though they can submit comments to the minister.

Under the government’s current policy, solar farms under 50MW can be decided locally, but those above are passed to government.

“Nobody is against solar farms, the point we’re making is that we want a proper planning process and we want local people to be involved.

“We fear it will go straight to a government planning inspector who will be working to national guidelines to create more solar energy and our concerns will be over-ridden.

“Surely WLDC, representing the people, should have the right to have a say and their say should be enforceable.”

Rutland MP Alicia Kearns.

Rutland MP Alicia Kearns said the Mallard Pass Solar Farm, covering 2,000 acres of farmland across the Rutland and Stamford border, was an example of developers using the NSIP process to “bypass the will of the community”.

She reiterated her concerns over the supply line, with Canadian Solar having strong ties to China.

“Canadian Solar is a company that’s seeking to infiltrate our country with Uyghur blood labour,” she said.

“This is the company proposing to build in Rutland.

“They are putting Uyghur people into concentration camps and using them to build solar panels and I will not see these installed in Rutland.

“We will be delivering a petition to parliament.

“Ultimately we need a national policy on solar farms, we cannot see this constant competition for the biggest possible solar farm imposed all across the UK.

“We need to make sure we do not have tainted supply lines and we make sure we protect our natural environment and ability to feed our people.”

Gareth Davies, Grantham and Stamford MP. | Photo: Conservatives

Grantham MP Gareth Davies said plans for Mallard Pass were causing a “tremendous amount of concern for local people”.

He said the response from the developers to his queries “has been unconvincing”.

“They have done little to address the concerns of my constituents,” he said, telling the debate they were “relying on statutory requirements”.

He said the planning inspectorate needed to fully take into account residents concerns, saying they had so far “been left disillusioned”.

He said there also needed to be a national infrastructure strategy including local developments.

Sir John Hayes MP for South Holland and the Deepings.

Spalding MP Sir John Hayes said the sites were “often grade 1 or 2 land” adding that they should instead be used for food production.

“It’s absolutely right we should put it on industrial, commercial and domestic buildings with power long before we should consider putting it in the fields and from demand with all the transmission costs.”

“Until we have solar panels on every building there should be none on fields at all,” he said.

He added that the Secretary of State for Levelling Up and Housing had “made it absolutely clear that beauty should be at the heart of the process”.

“No solar park, or industrial wind turbine, could pass any test of beauty except the most perverse and corrupted one,” he said.

“It is right that we consider renewables but not on any terms at any cost”

Some MPs, however, said it was imperative that there was a large need for renewable energy, however, indicated that they needed to go somewhere.

They suggested that placing them on buildings would not generate the level of power needed.

MPs were told by Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy George Freeman that there were strict controls being consulted on including controls over consultation and environmental statements.

He said the comments would be fed back to the relevant people and policies would be made clearer going forward.