Government tightens solar panels on prime farmland rules

Rishi Sunak’s government has announced plans to clamp down on solar panel installation on prime agricultural land to protect food security.

Local councils will be advised by ministers not to approve planning permission for solar farms on high-quality farmland, if they believe prospective projects could put the nation’s food security at risk.

A written ministerial statement was laid before parliament by energy and net zero secretary Claire Coutinho on Wednesday 15 May – making clear that solar farm applications should avoid the best farmland and only be given the go-ahead when “necessary”.

See also: Key takeaways from Farm to Fork 2024

The measures extend to land that is of grade 1 to 3a, which are the most productive agriculturally.

In the statement, Ms Coutinho explains that the government recognises the need to balance energy and food security, but in some instances, solar projects have negative impacts on farming communities and local environments, such as in Lincolnshire.

The National Policy Statement, published in January, made clear that where possible, developers should target suitable previously developed land, brownfield, or contaminated and industrial land for solar projects.

But where the use of agricultural land for solar projects has been deemed necessary, “poorer-quality land should be preferred to higher-quality land avoiding the use of ‘Best and Most Versatile’ agricultural land where possible”.

Ms Coutinho posted a photo on X of farmland with the slogan “Putting food security first” and said: “Our energy security must not come at the expense of our food security.”

Mixed response

The statement has sparked an angry response from the solar farm industry, but it has been largely welcomed by farming and rural organisations.

The Countryside Alliance has repeatedly raised concerns over the threat to UK food security as a result of leaving less land available for agricultural production.

David Bean, the alliance’s parliament and government relations manager, said: “We long campaigned for energy infrastructure to be sited sensitively, and for food production to remain the primary use of productive agricultural land.

“We welcome this statement as an important supplement to the recent revised planning framework.”

The statement was made a day after Mr Sunak hosted the second annual Farm to Fork Summit at 10 Downing St at which he reaffirmed the government’s commitment to bolstering food security with a raft of measures aimed at boosting domestic food production.