Ministers rule out changes to land categorisation in ‘turning point’ for the renewables sector

Solar can work alongside agriculture to provide additional diversified revenue streams for farmers. Image: Harmony Energy.

Ministers have ruled out expanding land categorisation to include 3B within the Best and Most Versatile (BMV) classification, in a “turning point” for the renewables sector.

Addressing the Commons’ Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee, environment secretary Thérèse Coffey said she backed “a lot more” solar generation on farms. This includes land designated as 3B, which denotes moderate quality agricultural land, suitable for supporting moderate yields of a narrow range of crops, principally cereals and grass.

She told MPs that she will be driven by the evidence on land use and food security, making an implicit rejection of the false claims that solar is in opposition to food security that have been voiced by a number of politicians in recent months. Additionally, she highlighted a key challenge for solar farms, connecting to the grid.  

Following on from Coffey’s comments, farming minister Mark Spencer provided additional detail over her position to The Guardian.

“We shouldn’t be stopping farmers who want to diversify their income from doing that as that would be harmful, so I’d have no problem with them putting some solar panels down on 3b land,” he write, adding that there “has to be a balance” with food production, as the existing system provides.

The comments follows Coffey previously saying that the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was still intending to review land use categories with regards to solar development, in response to a question from shadow minister for Climate Change and Net Zero Kerry McCarthy in the House of Commons in November.

At the time, Coffey replied: “It is really important that we make the best use of our land, to have the food security that was referred to earlier.

“It is also important, when considering land use, that we think about the best place to put renewable energy. By and large, I think most people in this country would agree: let us have good agricultural land for farming, and let us use our brownfield sites for other energy projects too.”

Her predecessor Ranil Jayawardena first raised the potential of a review into land categorisation in October, and was roundly criticised by the solar sector and its supporters, with McCarthy describing it as “nonsense” and an  “ill-thought-out proposal”.

In the UK, land is categorised as 1-5, with a number of subsections, within the Agricultural Land Classification (ACL) scheme. Grade 1 is considered excellent quality agricultural land, best for growing fruit and salad crops for example, whilst Grade 5 is very poor quality agricultural land, suitable mainly for just permanent pasture or rough grazing.

Currently, the majority of solar farms are developed on land that is designated as 3B. As such, the extension of the BMV categorisation to 3B would effectively ban solar from around 41% of land in England, or about 58% of agricultural land.

Comparatively, if every solar farm currently put forward was built, this would still account for less than 0.4% of the UK’s agricultural land and 0.28% of the UK’s entire land area, according to Solar Energy UK.

And even if five times as many solar farms were built as the country pushes to increase the share of renewables within the energy mix, they would still only occupy less than 0.3% of UK land – less than half that currently taken up by golf courses.

The solar sector has welcomed the confirmation that solar will not be banned from development on 3B land.

“Yesterday was a turning point for the entire renewables sector,” said Chris Hewett, chief executive of the trade association Solar Energy UK.

“It will be a great relief to the solar industry to hear that that Thérèse Coffey supports existing planning rules, which have successfully encouraged development away from the best-quality agricultural land while recognising the critical need to expand solar farms in response to the climate and energy price crisis. This looks like a significant shift from the anti-solar rhetoric of her predecessor.”

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