Leconfield is the first of four pilot installations at British Army sites as part of Project Prometheus. Image: Centrica.

One of the most interesting developments in the past couple of years in the UK – within the wider uptick of renewables, and in particular solar energy – has been the identification of land owned by government departments and local authorities, and a surge of full planning applications lodged.

In almost all cases, these planning applications have been approved and many solar farms have been built during 2021 and 2022 so far; all scoped, developed, financed, and owned by one of several government departments or a local council.

This article looks at some of the different stakeholders within the UK government and local authorities that are currently investing heavily into new solar farms on land in the UK. This includes solar farms built – or about to be constructed – by the likes of the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), and Local Councils.

MoD behind some of the largest solar farms built in the UK

Within the past 12-18 months, the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO), part of the Ministry of Defence (MoD), has been in the headlines regarding its strong desire to build solar farms.

Recently, Project Prometheus was initiated by the DIO to increase renewable energy deployment across the MoD’s estate, as part of the Army’s target of reaching Net Zero by 2050. A good picture of the first solar farm completed (Leconfield Solar Farm) can be found here, on the Public Power Solutions website.

However, this is not the first time the DIO has been involved in solar farms in the UK. Back in 2015, the DIO was behind the largest solar farm at the time being completed in the UK (Lyneham), and there was widespread cheer from all quarters when this was announced: the government just completed the UK’s largest solar farm. Additional land was set aside for large solar farms also completed at Coltishall and Wroughton. Together the sites have a total rated capacity just under 200MWp-dc.

DEFRA to build its own solar farm on the Green Belt in 2022

Another government department that set in place a solar farm strategy recently is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). DEFRA is now well advanced on one of the largest solar farms (Lea Marston Solar Farm) being developed currently by a UK government entity. Let’s have a look at how Lea Marston proceeded through the planning process.

DEFRA submitted its first plans for a solar farm with North Warwickshire Borough Council (NWBC) in September 2021 (planning application PAP/2021/0562). The application was ultimately approved in March 2022, with DEFRA stating it is planning to build this solar farm in 2022.

Normally this would not be overly significant, but what makes this interesting is that the application was on Green Belt land, something that the BBC picked up on in March 2022.

It is not the first time a solar farm has been approved on the Green Belt. Indeed, during the planning application process (within the past year), planning documents submitted highlighted that DEFRA’s investments into solar farms were “part of a wider strategy being implemented by DEFRA to identify opportunities nationally for projects that will positively contribute to the UK’s commitment for net zero carbon emissions by 2050 whilst delivering a completely carbon neutral site within their estate portfolio.”

Additional commentary was supplied: “The Environment Agency and DEFRA are seeking to deliver a completely zero carbon site at Lea Marston, aligning with the Greening Government commitments and Green Growth Strategy, along with recognition of the Warwickshire Climate Emergency.”

Within DEFRA’s submission, it is interesting to quote planning consultant Mott MacDonald’s justification for the solar farm application to be approved, despite being located in on Green Belt land:

“The Energy White Paper – Powering Our Net Zero Future, published on 14th December 2020 sets out the Government’s goal of a decisive shift from fossil fuels to clean energy, following the Prime Minister’s November announcement of a Ten Point Plan to lay the foundations for a Green Industrial Revolution. Clean electricity will become the predominant form of energy, entailing a potential doubling of electricity demand and consequently a fourfold increase in low-carbon electricity generation. The delivery of this transition will require billions of pounds of investment in clean energy infrastructure or new low-carbon technologies, and a major shift away from spending in fossil fuels. Along with onshore and offshore wind, the White Paper identifies solar power as a key building block of the future, with the sustained growth in capacity of these sectors, over the next decade, being vital in the goal of meeting net zero emissions.”

The justification continued: “The site for the proposed development is located within the Green Belt, as defined by the North Warwickshire Local Plan Policies Map (2006). Policy NW3 (Green Belt) sets out a general presumption against development that is inappropriate within the Green Belt, except in very special circumstances. The Government attaches great importance to Green belt.”

Before the solar farm was approved for construction, the (planning) Board Report flagged a number of interesting points, including being “concerned about the cumulative impact of new development in the Green Belt”, and went as far as noting: “The proposed development constitutes inappropriate development in the Green Belt.”

Ultimately, the application was approved, with the Board Report justifying its final decision “in light of the fact that this development is to enable renewable energy generation…, ‘special circumstance’ do [sic] exist here in light of national infrastructure need.”

The Board Report noted DEFRA’s claims that: “The applicant [DEFRA] draws attention to a November 2015 Ministerial Statement which set out priorities for UK energy and climate change policy. It explained the need for secure, affordable and clean energy being critical to the economy as well as to national security.”

“It is acknowledged that solar PV technology is accepted as one the key technologies currently available to contribute to the decarbonisation of electricity supply as the UK aims to achieve Net Zero and thus this circumstance will carry substantial weight.”

The local press was quick to jump on the news: 'Inappropriate' solar farm development in Warwickshire gets the green light.

Finally, just a few months ago DEFRA cited its solar farm planning success in its June 2022 Environment Agency corporate scorecard 2021 to 2022 – quarter four; “We have continued to deliver on the government Property Agency net zero programme…”. “Planning permission was granted in March for… Lea Marston”.

MoJ makes UK prisons among the ‘greenest’ in the world

The Estates Directorate within the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has been one of the most prolific builder of solar farms in the UK during the past couple of years, with nearly 20 ground-mounted sites. Similar to the MoD and DEFRA, the MoJ has been happy to announce a very successful solar farm roll-out strategy, covered frequently by Solar Power Portal; see for example, Government expands solar rollout with 19 prisons to see installs.

Local Councils start to build large solar farms on council-owned land

While the planning committees of Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) are often the ones under the spotlight when having to decide on solar farm planning applications, Local Councils themselves have overwhelmingly adopted solar farm builds as a key part of their net-zero targets. Indeed, in recent years, sites identified (and the size of these sites) has increased significantly.

A large proportion of the land owned by Local Councils – that is earmarked for new solar farms in the coming years – is on Grade 3b (or indeed Grade 2 and 3a in some cases).

Let’s look at one such site, Cambridgeshire County Council’s North Angle Solar Farm which at >40 MWp-dc is the largest completed council-financed/owned solar farm in the UK today. There are many interesting aspects of this site, one of which is the land classification.

According to the planning documents for the solar farm application, “The Agricultural Land Classification Plan reference S43/2 shows the distribution of grades 2, 3a and 3b” as 20.3% Grade 2, 52.3% Grade 3a and 27.4% Grade 3b.

Even more interesting are the following comments to this, also from the planning documents:

“The previous tenant, who farmed the land for more than 20 years, was very surprised at the grade 3a classification and that it should be described as best and most versatile. In his experience the land is very heavy and has been problematical to access and work in wet conditions which has prevented cultivating and drilling in some years. In terms of practical workability he made no distinction between the areas of grade 3a and 3b but noted that the site is very exposed to wind. This is borne out by the Cambridgeshire County Council land management team who have confirmed that the land could not be drilled in 3 or 4 years of the last 20 and is some of the heaviest land in the 35,000 acre Estate.”

In total, we are tracking more than 500MW of solar farms on land owned by Local Councils. Almost 200MW of solar farm capacity has been built, with the three largest solar farms completed within the past couple of years. Over 100MW has been approved during this time period also, and is set to be built before the end of 2023. The remainder of the overall pipeline (about 200MW and growing by the day) is for land scoped for a possible solar farm, but yet to submit a full planning application. In light of current news stories, it would obviously be a useful exercise to look at the land quality (grades) across these sites.

Rooftops also available, but the numbers are simply not there

While the focus has been heavily weighted to solar farms, there has been activity putting solar on rooftops of owned-premises. But looking at the numbers, the volumes are a fraction of the ground-mounted sites and anyone relying on this to reach net-zero targets is likely to be disappointed come 2030 or beyond.

It will be interesting to see how solar farm applications on new sites evolve in 2023, in particular from government departments and local councils. Most have already identified solar as a key part of reaching net-zero goals and are very much in the early days of land allocation for solar farms. Any changes in planning or land classification could clearly have an impact on the strategies being played out now.