The recent planning approval on appeal for a massive 70 acre solar farm at Gwinear near Hayle has once again highlighted the need to strengthen the position of local communities against inappropriate development.
I am a realist and understand that there are no easy answers or magic bullets when it comes to our future energy supply. In reality, we are probably going to require a mixture of different sources. Onshore wind is the most mature of all renewable energy technologies and is certainly far cheaper than offshore wind, but developments must be done with local communities, not to them. When it comes to solar panels, I have always supported their use on the roofs of buildings. Last year I visited a project in Pool where a whole estate have installed solar panels on their roofs and the residents are benefiting from free energy and some income from their investment.
However, I think we are now seeing far too many field scale solar farms being built. Not only are they often a serious blight on the countryside but they also take important agricultural land out of production. In the next few decades food security is going to become an increasingly important issue with a growing world population and demand for food growing. That is why we should protect the best agricultural land. The parish of Gwinear has some of the best land in Cornwall and the farm where the giant solar farm development is planned is rated as grade 3a - which means it is some of the best arable land in the county.
In the context of Cornwall, a third concern with field scale solar farms is that they undermine the potential for other more promising renewable sources of energy like wave power. Wave Hub at Hayle is really taking shape with many developers now showing interest. However, one of the main reasons they are choosing Cornwall over Scotland is that we currently have surplus capacity on our electricity grid which means they do not have to wait and hope for hugely expensive new investment in the grid infrastructure to come along. However, every time a solar farm is built, we not only sacrifice land but we remove surplus capacity from the grid.
Last year the government set out new guidance which sought to increase the weighting given to the loss of agricultural land and also to strengthen the consideration given to heritage assets. To be fair to Cornwall Council, they have abided by the new practice guidance and have used it as a basis to refuse permission in a number of cases. However, some developers have sought to get around the new rules by advancing sham arguments that suggest they might still be able to farm the land. Any farmer knows that such suggestions are pie in the sky. Crops need sunlight to grow and if fields are smothered in solar panels, there is no light left for crop production.
George Eustice can be contacted at email@example.com or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.