‘Solar farms: it’s the landscape that pays the price’

Solar panels are an increasingly common sight in the Essex countryside (pic Low Carbon)

With the number of solar farms proposed for Essex growing seemingly every time we open a newspaper, it is timely to share this letter from Richard Haynes published in the Saffron Walden Reporter.
Richard is a member of both CPRE Essex and the Uttlesford Local Plan Community Forum.

Dear Sir,
I refer to Edward Gildea’s letter (Broadcast and Reporter 17/12/20) which cannot go unchallenged.
First his reference to “trashing the countryside” did not originate from the Local Plan Community Forum. It was a quote from a Ministerial Statement which read “Protecting the global environment is not an excuse to trash the local environment”.
Central government policy has never, in fact, provided much support for solar farms. The recently published Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution makes no reference to them.
Renewable energy is advocated only in terms of offshore wind farms.
Similarly, national planning guidance has always indicated a presumption against solar plants being developed on the “best and most versatile” agricultural land (something that Uttlesford’s planning committee has to date chosen to ignore).
Most of Uttlesford’s farmland is in the “best and most versatile” category and if planning guidance is followed the conclusion is simply that Uttlesford is not a suitable location for large-scale solar energy plants. We should not be taking our best land out of food production.
Solar farms do not provide the idyllic wildlife habitat that Mr Gildea makes out. Bird deaths are frequent as they mistake the panels for water. The grass is, of course, mown and chemicals are used to control both weeds and pests.
It is also misleading to suggest that they provide farmers with a sustainable living. Farmers enthusiastically embrace opportunities to lease their land to solar-energy operators simply because they can get a substantially higher return than they can from cropping it.
The Agriculture Act 2020 to which Mr Gildea refers, and the related Transition Plan, will provide farmers with every incentive to return land to a more natural state with tree-planting schemes, rewilding and biodiversity projects. They do not need to create vast industrial landscapes to obtain an income from a more sustainable form of stewardship.
It is, though, the impact on the landscape that is the biggest problem with solar farms. Traditional views are ‘trashed’ by security fencing, floodlighting and CCTV cameras.
Buildings to house associated apparatus are allowed in areas where development would never normally be contemplated and the character of footpaths is altered beyond recognition.
Two hundred acres of sensitive landscape to the east of Thaxted is already being destroyed as part of a ‘green initiative’. Turpin’s Trail, formerly one of the loveliest walks in Uttlesford, will meander through an industrial site. Plans are now afoot for a similar operation to the west of the village.
Solar panels have a role to play in alleviating climate change. Planning policies could and should require conditions that new commercial buildings in particular have them fitted to their roofs. What would be unacceptable are policies that permit the destruction of our precious landscapes.
Thanks in large part to the efforts of CPRE, the government has reversed its decision over the ‘mutant’ housing algorithm with the result that Uttlesford’s housing requirement under the new Plan should be substantially reduced.
Let’s hope that the planning committee don’t try to fill the resultant housing site voids with solar panels instead!
Yours faithfully,
Richard Haynes