Whatever the wording of any ‘food security’ clause in a revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), it is unlikely to bring practical change and may not achieve the desired effect of slowing the pace of solar farm development or controlling where they emerge.
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities proposes to factor food security into planning decisions affecting farmland, but the NPPF is just a material consideration. Local planning policy has primacy and few local plans reference food security.
This debate is more political than technical. Only 0.1% of UK land is given over to solar farms. That will grow, but the improving efficiency of photovoltaics means they will require less space in future and the concept of agrivoltaics – combining land use for solar and agriculture – is becoming more viable. Planning permissions for solar farms are temporary and, in theory, the land can revert to arable after 30 years.
Other factors will limit the deployment and location of solar farms. They need to be near grid connections and there is insufficient capacity. Some farmers will also be wary of losing agricultural property relief on inheritance tax if land is taken out of farming use.
But the financial motivation for rural landowners to convert land to solar farms is obvious. Even grade-one agricultural land can make more profit from solar and as new sources of potential income for farmers emerge from nature finance sectors, the competition for appropriate land with proximity to the grid is only likely to grow.
At present, local planning authorities should deliver sufficient homes to meet local needs but are under no obligation to deliver a specified amount of green energy. If this concept becomes a reality, the direction of local policy is clear.
Food security is a red herring. If it’s a real concern, let’s encourage regenerative farming and play our part as consumers by switching from imported to seasonal food.
Polly Montoneri is a partner in Forsters’ landed estates team and Victoria Du Croz is a partner and head of the firm’s planning team