Ministers need to update planning policy on solar panels and solar farms

We face multiple and conflicting demands on land use. There are better places for solar panels to be installed to generate electricity – even though installation costs might be more expensive than using open fields.

Another case of a community opposing the construction of a new solar farm in/next to Cambridgeshire.

This follows the application on the other side of the county on the Suffolk border – the Sunnica proposals.

We have competing demands on land use. Leaving it to ‘the market’ is not an option because whatever the Government does, the market will always be a broken one and land supply fixed during our lifetimes. Therefore we have to deal with demands for land from:

  • food production
  • fodder production for meat production
  • housing
  • industrial space
  • mining for minerals
  • recycling, incineration and landfill
  • Forestry
  • Defence
  • Transport
  • Leisure
  • Rewilding

…to name but a few.

Moving campaigns from just: “No! You can’t build that sprawling complex here!” to include: “Ministers need to change their planning policy so that developers don’t submit proposals on such sites in the first place.”

And that also involves all of us acknowledging we are going to have to make some significant changes in our lifestyles. Interestingly, international status symbols of extreme wealth and/or corruptocracies are now coming into focus with the international sanctions regimes on the back of the invasion of Ukraine. And the UK should come under huge pressure given its offshore Crown dependencies and overseas territories are the ones that make for convenient places to register such things. We’re seeing some movement, but we will need to get to the stage where such conspicuous consumption is simply incompatible with the future of our planet that involves humanity surviving – one that results in political and legal consequences.

…because when it comes to the ultimate ownership of high profile professional football clubs, the questions are not going to go away.

…and it cannot be left to individual managers to make individual judgement calls while the governing associations, regulators, and ministers drag their feet. That said, each resignation on principle could generate just that little bit more pressure on politicians to act.

Large Solar Farms – what the House of Commons librarians & researchers say

You can read their paper here.

Such research papers are useful in they pick out both the academic research and also which parliamentarians have asked which questions, such as this one from Sir Edward Leigh MP

“A planning application has been submitted for a giant solar farm around Gainsborough, with an area equivalent to 5,000 football pitches. It is designed to be a so-called national infrastructure project in order to bypass all local planning. Local people will have no control; this development will enrich a few local landowners, and some entrepreneurs in London.

Is it not time for an urgent discussion throughout Whitehall about how we can stop these companies bypassing local planning and secure proper community gain and the protection of agriculture, and, for instance, ensure that there are buffer zones around villages?”

HC Deb 22 February 2022 | Vol 709 c162

The two issues raised in his question are:

  1. The deliberately large-scaling of proposals so that they fall within the remit of Development Control Orders process run by the Planning Inspectorate nationally, rather than through local councils – thus bypassing (the admittedly broken) local democratic processes;
  2. The lack of developments involving the installation of solar panels on already-existing large warehouses and large surface areas such as car parks.

Some of these issues are discussed in more detail by planning lawyer Simon Ricketts in his blogpost here.

“Where in Cambridge could we install solar panels?”

In a number of places, such as…

On the south-facing side of the Cycle Bridge? (AKA The Carter Bridge linking Coleridge/Romsey with Petersfield)

Above – I still call it “The Cycle Bridge” because in childhood it’s the only one I’ve ever known.

Below – the main Cambridge Leisure Park building with the bowling alley and cinema. It took them 20 years to decide what to do with the site and this is the best the developers and financiers could come up with.

Above – I took this photo in summer 2013. It’s one of the worst examples of early 21st Century cost-reducing, profit-maximising minimalist disaster capitalist architecture and urban design in the city.

You can find more local examples in Hideous Cambridge – A City Mutilated by Jones and Edwards.

Changing the behaviour of developers so they pick existing large buildings and industrial areas, not green fields.

It’s not just about people picking out where would be good, ministers need to approve a process that forces developers to approach owners of large buildings suitable for installing solar panels, or industrial and business parks that might be suitable for medium-sized wind turbines, or even highways authorities that could install noise barriers on motorways and dual carriageways that could also hold solar panels on them at the same time. Ditto for Network Rail and busy railway lines.

The two main methods ministers have are regulation – an extreme example being when Eric Pickles and co banned the construction of onshore wind farms to appease a part of the electorate. The other main method is through taxation and subsidies. Note The Treasury does not like this method of ‘Hypothecation’ – raising revenue through a very specific tax on something bad, and using the revenues to reduce the generation of whatever that bad thing is. It’s a can of worms that for this post I’d rather not open. But the principle of making new very large solar farms proposed for agricultural land & areas of natural beauty spots much more expensive to build, while making the installation of solar panels on large industrial sites and car parks is one that I can see the public working with.

The public policy challenge that could be thrown open to the public – design the system needed to get firms that install solar panels at a large scale to fit them to industrial sites and large buildings, and provide a significant disincentive for landowners and land speculators to acquire large areas of land for large solar farms that 1) don’t have community backing and 2) could be better used for other, more important purposes.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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