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UK Government target: Net zero by 2050

The UK Government set a legally binding target to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 100% target by 2050, compared to 1990 levels. This is known as the ‘net zero target’. To meet this target, the government has set the aim of “a fully decarbonised, reliable and low-cost power system by 2035”.

The government said a fully decarbonised power system would be “composed predominantly of wind and solar”. The government intends to achieve a fivefold increase in solar power by 2035 (from a capacity of 14GW to 70GW).

Planning policy for solar farms

Installing solar farms usually requires planning permission. Depending on their size, solar farms will either require planning permission from the local planning authority (LPA) or from the Secretary of State for Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ):

  • Solar farms with a generating capacity below 50 megawatts (MW) fall under the remit of the LPA and require planning permission.
  • Solar farms with a generating capacity above 50 megawatts (MW) are considered ‘nationally significant infrastructure projects’ (NSIPs) and require development consent from the Secretary of State for DESNZ.

LPAs will decide planning applications, including for solar farms, in line with their local plan and the government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). In general, the NPPF guides development away from the “best and most versatile” (BMV) agricultural land (excellent to good quality land of grades 1, 2, and 3a). If the use of agricultural land is necessary, the NPPF advises LPAs to use poorer- over higher-quality land.

For NSIPs, the Planning Inspectorate will carry out an examination of the project. The Secretary of State for DESNZ will then decide applications in line with policies set out in National Policy Statements (NPSs).

Proposed reforms to planning policy

The NPS EN-3 for renewable energy infrastructure (PDF) currently in force does not include policies for solar farms. The government consulted on its proposed updates to the energy NPSs in 2021 and on further revisions in 2023.

The draft updated NPS EN-3 for renewable energy infrastructure (PDF) would advise that, although land type should not be the predominating factor in determining site location, solar farms should be sited on previously developed and non-agricultural land “where possible”. It notes, however, that solar farms on agricultural land, including on BMV land, are not prohibited.

Stakeholder views: Siting of solar farms on agricultural land

Some organisations have raised concerns about the siting of solar farms on farmland. For example, CPRE said it was “essential” to preserve agricultural land for farming purposes and food production.

Renewable energy groups, such as Solar Energy UK, have argued that, even under a fivefold increase in solar power, solar farms would have “minimal if any impact” on food security.

The Solar Power Portal also pointed to multi-functional ‘agri-voltaics’ land uses to highlight that solar power and farming are not necessarily mutually exclusive, for example, sheep could be grazed on solar farms. CPRE has said agri-voltaics did not compensate for the “lost potential of the land” (PDF).

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