While protesters rage against the threat of fracking across the Conservative heartlands of rural southern England, a much quieter conflict over solar farms and energy policy is playing out on the outskirts of Faversham, in Kent.
The armies of protestors and police lining up against each other at Balcombe, West Sussex, and the arrest of Green MP Caroline Lucas, might be generating the headlines as the likes of Cuadrilla and Coastal Oil & Gas press on with exploratory drilling.
But plans for a solar farm – one of if not the largest in England – looks set to be quietly rejected in a local planning process which, by definition, is susceptible to vocal residents, parochial political agendas and ‘nimbyism’.
Potential boom industry
Nowhere is the lack of a coherent UK energy strategy more apparent than here. And though the south east of England consistently enjoys the best of the UK’s sunshine, there appears little enthusiasm for solar as a potential boom industry.
The proposal involves establishing a solar farm on a mix of grade 1 and 2 agricultural land at Little Manor Farm, near to the hamlet of North Street. Though many locals are in favour of the scheme, a clear majority is against in a battle that highlights the obstacles to continued expansion that the solar industry faces.
If approved, Little Manor would have a peak generating capacity of 9.5MW of electricity, enough to supply 3,000 homes and offset an estimated 4,300 tonnes of CO2 each year for 25 years, after which the 36,000 panels will be removed and the site returned to arable land.
The Little Manor site is ideal for a solar farm. Not only is it in sunny east Kent but, unusually, it is served by a grid connection with spare capacity, removing the need to construct new electricity infrastructure. Solar developers would have to go some way to find another site as readily useable – and, therefore, economically viable – as this.
Solar farms ‘industrialisation’
Today’s proposal, submitted by Little Manor Farm Solar Park Ltd (LMF), is a scaled-down version of a plan submitted in partnership with Solarcentury last year. That was withdrawn after residents argued that solar ‘industrialisation’ was inappropriate so close to a designated area of outstanding natural beauty. They also fear the precedent of allowing this scheme would open up countless acres of rolling countryside to solar colonisation.
Not only does today’s plan contain fewer solar panels, but woodland planting and ‘tree belts’ are to be situated along the site’s northern and southern boundaries, to hide the ranks of panels from view. LMF also says the scheme would boost biodiversity and retain the site’s agricultural character, as animals would be able to graze between the panels.
In short, LMF’s supporters believe the scheme would establish an economically and environmentally sustainable use for the land without causing the noise, pollution or additional traffic that other energy or agricultural uses might involve.
Not in our back yard
But despite the changes, many local people simply reiterate their objections to the removal of high-grade agricultural land from food production, and its transformation into a ‘blot on the landscape’ – even if the blot would only be visible to passing aircraft.
One opponent sums up the thoughts of many: “This land is prime, productive farmland – not a brownfield site, as supposedly deemed preferable by government. This type of development should be kept to brownfield sites, or incorporated sensitively with existing large buildings such as schools, supermarkets and warehouses.
“Alas, yet more beautiful landscape is in danger of being blighted with these ugly, incongruous panels and accompanying buildings. There is the worrying risk that in allowing this development, it would then set a precedent for further inappropriate schemes.”
Local feeling is such that, in July, Faversham Town Council voiced its opposition to the scheme, even though Little Manor does not fall within its boundaries.
Conservative town councillor Andy Culham supports the solar farm and suggested that the other members were “sticking their heads in the sand”. He blamed their apparent hostility on “a lack of information”, and added: “I think this is a very good scheme and I think we need to see many more schemes like this across the country. We need to cut our carbon emissions, and so we need to invest in renewable energy. This is the future.”
Meanwhile, Swale Borough Council’s planning officers are recommending the Little Farm plan be rejected at this evening’s (September 26) planning meeting.
According to the planning officer’s report, the proposal fails to comply with National Planning Policy Framework advice on the economic and other benefits of using the “best and most versatile agricultural land”. It added that the land’s productivity would be “unacceptably reduced. This harm would outweigh the potential benefit associated with the proposed renewable energy generation and the proposed biodiversity scheme.”
Arguments of convenience?
Supporters of renewable energy are likely to find these arguments unsatisfactory.
To start with, the proposed solar farm site covers a tiny proportion – 0.025% – of Swale’s total grade 1 agricultural land. In addition, the landowner could simply take the site out of food production without any need for a planning application by simply planting rapeseed for biofuel – or, indeed, any number of crops for pharmaceutical use. The food production angle, therefore, is a moot point.
Though it was on this issue that the planning officer’s recommendation turned, Swale council leader, Conservative councillor Andrew Bowles, said: “If it wasn’t for that, I’m sure most opinion would still be against, but my interpretation – having spoken to [the planning officers] – is if it wasn’t grade 1 land, they would be recommending approval.
“Having said that, the officers recommended approval on another site [at Hartlip] a month ago, which wasn’t on grade 1 agricultural land, and the committee overthrew their recommendation and refused it.”
Mr Bowles said that, as a quasi-judicial forum, he has little influence over planning committee members, but added that the council’s lack of a policy on solar farms probably doesn’t help a clear decision-making process.
He said: “Balancing all factors, and bearing in mind our energy needs, I would probably more often than not be supportive. I don’t think this type of application should necessarily be dismissed out of hand, even on greenfield sites, on lower-grade agricultural land.
“But I don’t have a formal position because nowhere in the current local plan – or in the emerging local plan we are consulting on – do we have a clause about solar power. We don’t, as a council, have a formal policy. This is something we’re considering bringing back to members for guidance.”
The National Farmers’ Union, meanwhile, supports a more flexible approach to the issue. In supporting the Little Manor scheme, regional environment and land use advisor John Archier said: “We have to take a pragmatic view. Many farms rely on non-agricultural diversification to underpin the core agricultural activity. In other cases, proposed developments have a wider public benefit that must be taken into account.
“Swale is fortunate in having a high proportion of higher-grade agricultural land, which makes it difficult to allow development of any kind without using some of it, but has the benefit of reducing the impact on local agricultural production when such development does take place.”
Archier also suggested that if solar is to expand, it is agricultural land that will, most likely, accommodate it. He said: “Brownfield sites usually have such a high development value that they are not financially viable for agriculture-related projects or for farm diversification enterprises, including renewable energy schemes.”
LMSP’s Sally Holmes, meanwhile, fears that Swale’s planning officers have bowed to political pressure, claiming they have “done a complete volte face in their attitude to the scheme, saying that they have no renewable energy targets to meet, despite national targets, and that the grade 1 land issue overrides everything else.
“They have made up their minds on the grading issue alone. Better that they take this high quality land for housing and out of food cropping forever! It’s very disappointing.”
In passing the Climate Change Act 2008, the UK set itself the world’s first legally-binding greenhouse gas emissions targets. These are incorporated into a series of reducing five-year ‘carbon budgets’, with a cut in total emissions of at least 80% by 2050 their ultimate aim. Emissions from power generation and heavy industry are also covered by the EU Emissions Trading Scheme.
However, the UK not only looks set to miss these targets, but it also faces the very real possibility of an energy shortfall within just a couple of years. Rising energy costs and the threat of electricity blackouts are also beginning to concentrate the minds of government, but the choices over how electricity is generated against the possibility of not having electricity at all is not a dilemma that has reared its head in Faversham.
Research by Cardiff University earlier this year suggests UK public opinion is generally positive towards renewable energy. But this appears not to be mirrored by the Coalition government, which seems to be consumed by an unresolved debate on the feasibility – perhaps, even the desirability – of greener energy generation. The Conservatives’ and Liberal Democrats’ claim, when they formed the Coalition in 2010, that this would be the UK’s greenest government ever, looks flimsy now.
Pressure has been rising within government circles to roll back the tide of green energy initiatives, even though the funding terms being negotiated for renewable energy generation are as generous as ever. Climate and energy minister Greg Barker this summer gave local planning authorities more leeway to consider local concerns when deciding on solar schemes.
There have also been countless musings by ministers and others close to government in recent months against both wind and solar power. For instance, Liberal Democrat Jeremy Browne, the Home Office minister, attacked the “monstrous desecration” of Britain’s countryside by “ugly and brutal” solar farms.
The Taunton Deane MP made the comments while supporting a local campaign against MS Power’s proposed 9.5MW, 20.6 hectare solar farm at Hele, in Somerset.
Browne said: “In no normal sense can these accurately be described as solar ‘farms’ – they are the industrialisation of agricultural land. They are ugly and brutal, with fences and CCTV cameras surrounding the rows of huge solar panels.
“Once planning permission has been granted for these hideous constructions, the original gentle countryside will be lost forever.”
Meanwhile, the Coalition government’s approach to another energy extraction process, fracking, is enlightening. Earlier this spring, Peter Lilley – a member of the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Advisory board – pushed fracking for shale gas and oil, claiming Britain was “dragging its feet” on the issue. Lilley pointed to the fall in US gas prices as proof of what shale can do for the energy economy. This was followed up by David Cameron’s public show of support for fracking last month.
However, the link between shale gas and low domestic gas prices is uncertain at best, and claims that fracking would help cut gas prices were described last month as “baseless” by Lord Nicholas Stern. And, despite the British Geological Survey’s reassurances and the fact that shale gas is one of the least carbon-intensive fossil fuels, there is widespread public distrust of the fracking process and the potential environmental damage and health risk that drilling for shale gas may cause.
As Climate Change Capital’s head of policy, Ben Caldecott, told the Guardian in December: “Fracking will continue to generate significant local opposition, which will undermine long term political support and the investment case for a UK shale gas expansion. This is fortunate as it’s clear from the latest Committee on Climate Change findings that another dash for gas will expose us to higher and more volatile fuel prices.”
Energy beauty contest
Returning to the comments around the Little Manor Farm solar scheme, it seems the energy generation debate has become little more than a beauty contest. No one has ever tried to claim that solar panels are beautiful, but then such a thing has never been expected of coal-fired or nuclear power stations either – both of which the UK has relied on for decades.
Surely the basic point is that if, as a society, we believe we need to secure a reliable supply of energy for everyone, but without the carbon emissions, then a balanced consideration of power generation schemes is required.
After all, if you really want to take the debate to base levels, what would the residents of Faversham prefer as a neighbour: a) a fracking operation, or b) a solar panel farm?
Underground drilling and high-pressure injection of chemicals and water into the ground, with the potential for landslips, subsidence and explosive tap water and all that stuff – all with associated carbon emissions. Or rows and rows of solar panels silently generating electricity, comparatively undisturbed by the outside world.
It may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s even more so if you consider Little Manor Farm is located in an area at risk of flooding if sea levels continue to rise, as is expected as part of climate change. That and the predicted changes to weather patterns threaten the very landscape that the solar farm opponents say they wish to protect.