I have always said we need to be careful about losing good agricultural land to solar farms and earlier this week, as Farming Minister, I announced our plan to end the payment of farm subsidies on land occupied by solar farms. The new rules, which will come into force from January next year, mean that farmers who choose to use fields for solar panels will not be eligible for any of their "single farm payment" available through the Common Agricultural Policy on that particular piece of land.
I think this is good news for the country but particularly for Cornwall, where we have been especially blighted by these ugly solar developments. Last year alone, 67% of new solar developments could be found in the West Country and Cornwall planners have been inundated with applications from developers hoping to take advantage of energy subsidies. During my time as MP I have been contacted numerous times by residents opposed to these developments and I have supported their cases all the way to the Planning Inspectorate.
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. Farming is what our farms are for and it is what keeps our landscape beautiful but crucially it produces the food we need. It makes my heart sink to see row upon row of solar panels here in Cornwall where once there were fields of crops or grassland for livestock to graze.
Some developers have attempted to claim that farming can continue underneath solar panels but I think these are sham arguments which developers just advance to try to get around planning guidance. There is no doubt that land covered in solar panels is, for all intents and purposes, lost to agriculture. Crops need sunlight to grow and if fields are smothered in solar panels, there is no light left for crop production and it is not possible to get tractor access to manage the soil. In addition, when it comes to the idea of grazing sheep or other livestock, while developers talk this up, in reality they are concerned that livestock will damage their expensive panels. Many write into their agreements that farmers can't use the land themselves but that only the energy company's sheep can occupy the land. I don't know whether they think they have specially trained solar friendly sheep or something but none of it sounds very plausible.
We do need to diversify our energy supply and there could be a role for some solar panels, but on roofs not on prime agricultural land. Solar panels are best placed on the 250,000 hectares of south facing commercial rooftops where they will not compromise the success of our agricultural industry and I hope that a more innovative approach along those lines could remove the threat to our Cornish landscape.
George Eustice can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.