Following a ministerial statement made by Energy Security Secretary Claire Coutinho urging councils not to approve planning permission for solar farms on high-quality farmland, we’re seeing a government-led push toward rooftop solar.

Coutinho’s statement says: “I want to see more solar on rooftops and, where that’s not possible, for agricultural land to be protected and for the cumulative impact on local villages to be considered where they are facing a high number of solar farm applications.”

The suggestion is that rooftop solar will provide the generation capacity necessary to reach net zero by 2050; when it comes to residential solar, permitted development applies in almost every case.

However, as Independent Advisor noted in its report identifying the UK’s solar hotspots, urban areas tend to see low domestic solar installations partly due to the planning restrictions on historic buildings.

But are these barriers really a significant blocker to listed building solar?

Key barriers to wider adoption

At the beginning of 2024, a review led by the Departments for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ); Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC); Media and Sport identified planning rules as one of the key barriers preventing the wider adoption of solar panels.

Dubbed Adapting historic homes for energy efficiency: a review of the barriers, the publication outlined that “obtaining planning permission or listed building consent took ‘too long’, which not only led to frustration but could also mean losing out on financial support. It was suggested that some people have been put off from pursuing retrofit measures for their home by their perception that the planning process is too complex and uncertain to navigate”.

The review cited Kensington and Chelsea council’s Local Listed Building Consent Order (LLBCO) as a positive example of how planning might be approached more widely. It said that extending such provisions is necessary due to “significant variance” in how applications for solar photovoltaics are handled across the nation, “sometimes owing to poor planning knowledge and/ or practices”.

As a result, the government outlined its intention to streamline the process of installing solar panels on various historic buildings across the UK. Historic England responded in March 2024 with an article entitled Considerations When Planning a PV Installation.

It notes that the impact an installation will have on a listed building must be considered; this consideration was made in the Kensington and Chelsea LLBCO under the provision that solar panels must not be facing a road or protrude more than 20cm.

The scale of the issue

In the sample considered by DESNZ’s review, the perception that consents are slow to obtain was not supported. Eight weeks was typical, with few exceptions.

Indeed, solar continues to be installed on historical buildings across the UK, despite the challenges. Recently, Sandringham House lodged plans to develop a solar and battery storage facility for use on the Estate.

The application, submitted to the Borough Council of King’s Lynn & West Norfolk, would see around 2,000 panels installed on land currently used as horse grazing paddocks. The cumulative generation capacity would be 2.1MW. In addition, the building itself already has rooftop solar panels installed.

In March 2023, it was revealed that one of the globe’s most iconic cathedrals, York Minster, was set to install solar PV panels onto its roof following approvals by City of York Council and the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England.

Commenting on listed buildings, CEO of the Global Solar Council Sonia Dunlop told Current±: “Installing PV on historical buildings, of course, needs to be done with the utmost respect for the heritage and history those buildings represent.

“The design of the installation needs to be carefully considered to be in keeping with the existing roof and building facades, and in some cases, BIPV could be appropriate. The key thing is that planning restrictions need to be proportionate. Solar Energy UK’s Stunning Solar campaign from a few years ago showed how solar PV can be installed in a way that is visually appealing and in keeping with the local built environment.”

Edinburgh Castle had solar panels mounted to its roof in 2022 by AES, which also installed solar thermal at Balmoral Castle Royal Estate. The 31.5kWp system is surrounded by a high parapet, meaning the panels aren’t visible from the castle grounds or other vantage points within the city.

Dunlop added: “We are keen at the Global Solar Council to ensure that permitting processes for small-scale solar around the world are proportionate to buildings and local environments.

“Our Empowering People with Solar PV campaign has just done that, with a comparative analysis of distributed solar policy frameworks around the world. I am sure there is much that the rest of the world can learn from the UK’s regime around this.”

Homes of the future will not need retrofit

The Government aims to introduce new Building Standards for homes built from 2025, something that the MCS Foundation says should provide “meaningful deployment of solar panels on the roof of all new homes”.

A survey of MPs carried out by the foundation found that almost eight in ten (79%) believe all new homes should have solar panels on their roofs. Ultimately, although building comes at an added cost, the long-term savings—and the avoidance of retrofit work—justify that up-front expense.

As part of its response to the government’s consultation on the Future Homes Standard and Future Buildings Standard in December 2023, Solar Energy UK estimated that solar installations increase homebuilders’ costs by an average of £ 6,200. However, annual bills are reduced by an estimated £910-£2,120 per year.

In January, the trade association praised the UK government’s intention to simplify solar installations on listed buildings. It estimated the change would affect 350,000 listed homes and 2.8 million in conservation.

Gareth Simkins, senior communications adviser for Solar Energy UK, points out that the appropriate action to improve a building’s sustainability must be judged individually. Solar panels are often suitable for cathedrals, such as King’s College Chapel and York Minster.

Speaking to Current±, he said: “There are certain circumstances where a building is so exceptional that you cannot put solar panels on it; there are some circumstances where it is appropriate because it doesn’t affect the building as you see it from the ground.”

Is solar uptake affected?

According to Simkins, Solar Energy UK would like to see a policy similar to the LLBCO in Kensington and Chelsea adopted nationally.

“Either local councillors or the Secretary of State can make the order. [Simkins] would like to see it adopted by the government, which would be a lot simpler than hundreds of councillors doing it individually.”

So far, there are no official figures to show how residential solar uptake was affected by the LLBCO in West London. The city’s poor performance as a solar hotspot—with only 0.25% of households choosing solar panels across 2023/24—suggests there are more factors at play. City properties must also account for a lack of space and a large proportion of rental homes, which naturally impacts uptake.

Unfortunately, there is no short answer to the listed buildings conundrum. Cutting the consent red tape will likely only go so far in increasing solar uptake. What’s needed is a sympathetic solar policy that takes into account a variety of factors rather than a blanket policy for rooftops, listed buildings and Agri-PV. Ultimately, though, attractive as the upsides are, the UK’s route to net zero is unlikely to hinge entirely on its listed buildings legislation.