The new Environment Secretary Liz Truss has led a charge against solar farms recently, announcing that they should not be used on productive farmland, which is there to produce food. She called them “a blight on the landscape” and announced that subsidies for large solar arrays on farmland would be cut next year. This should sound the death knell for ridiculous schemes such as the Rampisham Down Solar Farm, which would be built on a Site of Special Scientific Interest if it is given planning permission next week.
It may be that Truss has followed her predecessor Owen Paterson into this troubled area of policy, though she is not climate sceptic as he is. Alternatively it may have more to with this things closer to home. For in her own constituency, the 69ha Barnham Solar Farm application is also causing a major stir, and could become a high profile issue when it comes to voting in the General Election, just six months away. The Barnham Solar Farm, like Rampisham, sits within a protected area, but in this case it is a European Special Protection Area (SPA) for the Brecklands. The special bird of the Brecklands is the Stone Curlew which breeds on arable land.
Liz Truss’ South West Norfolk constituency is covered in European nature sites (map from MAGIC)
SPAs are very tightly protected against impacts from development, and this protection is regulated by Natural England, Defra’s nature agency.One of the main ways that European sites (especially SPAs) are protected is through the Habitat Regulations Assessment (HRA) process. If a development is deemed to have a likely significant effect on an SPA, then an Appropriate Assessment is carried out. The Appropriate Assessment looks at all the possible impacts that could have a “likely significant effect” on the interest features of the SPA (in this case the stone curlew). If the Appropriate Assessment cannot conclude that an impact will have no adverse effect upon the integrity of the SPA, they should reject the development. The test is very strong because the applicant has to show no effect. Natural England ultimately recommend whether an Appropriate Assessment is required, from the Local Authority.
Natural England had initially objected to the proposal, on the grounds that more information was required to enable an appropriate assessment to be carried out. But it subsequently withdrew its objection. The RSPB are maintaining that Natural England were wrong and the Local Authority should have conducted an Appropriate Assessment to determine whether the application would have a likely significant effect on the interest feature, in this case the Stone Curlew populations at that part of the SPA which would be affected by the Solar Farm. Of course, it is all a lot more complicated than this, and I am no expert on it, but hopefully you get the gist of the matter.
Now all this took place before Truss took over as Defra Secretary of State, so she would not have had any say in it. Nevertheless the change in policy will play against this farm getting planning permission.
It would however be unfair to tar all solar farms with the brush that painted these two examples.
Solar farms can have a positive impact on the environment as well as generating clean electricity. I was recently contacted by a very concerned resident on the Somerset Levels who wanted help in objecting to a solar farm at Aller Moor, near Burrowbridge on the Somerset Levels. It’s true that it would have a visual impact, and given its location it would have to stick up quite high to avoid the flood waters. But although it is near to SPA land, it would actually be replacing fields of maize. As I have written elsewhere, Maize on the Somerset Levels is probably one of the worst ideas that farming has come up with in a long while. Is this a bad thing?
Maize is used to produce biogas, and while this Government are moving to shut down all new Wind and large Scale Solar production of renewable energy, they are very happy for maize and other biofuel production on farmland. To me this makes no sense on a number of levels. Maize is simply the most environmentally damaging crop grown in the UK. Growing maize to produce biogas is madness. This year, according to the NFU, 29000ha of land was used to grow biogas maize. that’s a 180% increase on last years 16000ha. The NFU are lobbying hard for 100,000ha of land to be under biogas feedstock (which would be mostly Maize) by 2020.
Compare that with the area of solar farm “in the pipeline” which, according to the Mail is 10,000 football pitches. A football pitch is not a real unit of area, but equates to about an acre. So all solar farms in the pipeline add up to about 4000ha, or less than one seventh of the area already covered in biogas Maize.
Kenneth Richter, renewables campaigner at Friends of the Earth tells me that France is already taking steps to stop biogas maize being produced there amid concerns, albeit about land being taken out of food production, as opposed to the environmental impact.
We need a campaign in Britain to get rid of the subsidies which drive increased biogas maize production, more than one to get rid of Solar Farms.