New headache for solar developments as confusion grows over land policy

22.5.24 3 Minute Read

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A recent ministerial announcement creates a new headache for solar developments, as confusion grows over land policy – while the idea of a Land Use Framework remains opaque.

Although it has received almost no media coverage, Britain faces a growing dilemma. Competing uses for land, in a densely populated island, mean pressure is growing to allocate land for food production, energy generation, housing development and restoring biodiversity.  

The space around land use priorities is full of contradictions. For centuries, food production’s role as the primary use for land has been unchallenged. Yet today, Britain’s agricultural policy is almost entirely environmentally led. Renewable energy generation typically makes a big demand on land, particularly solar farms, yet projects need both land of the right quality - and with a viable grid connection. There is more pressure than ever to accelerate housebuilding – but planning policy remains incredibly complex and slow moving.

It was some years ago that the concept of a national Land Use Framework was offered; something which might bring coherence to how best to allocate a finite resource and present clearly defined principles for developers, planners, farmers and land managers. 

This was an idea promoted most recently by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, and was expected to be adopted by DEFRA in late 2023. Yet it seems to have lost momentum for now.

Government has been under increasing pressure to address food production – and national food security – as geopolitical tensions rise. This has led to a recent ministerial statement placing greater burden on solar developers to avoid better agricultural land, and make great efforts to justify development where they cannot.

National planning policy has placed restrictions on use of “Best and Most Versatile” land for some time, but it is only in recent years the issue has become really significant. 

“BMV” land is defined as that falling into Agricultural Land Grades 1,2 and 3a, which means the best and most fertile peats and silts, but also a lot of and that, in practice, supports only “broadacre” cereals and oilseed production. There are many shortcomings to this rather blunt approach, which we expand on below.

But to put the importance of the issue in context, one solar farm in Norfolk was refused planning permission because the developers had failed to present the ALC grade of the site to the planning authority with sufficient clarity, and the application was refused on the grounds of loss of productive arable land. 

The irony was, in that instance, that almost all the land in question fell outside the definition of BMV land – but in failing to address the issue early on in their planning, it cost the developer a delay of a year before (with our help) the decision was overturned at appeal. In that case, the problem could have been avoided.

In January this year, levelling-up minister Michael Gove made further comments about giving greater prominence to BMV land. And in February we saw the extraordinary news of a High Court judge upholding a council’s decision to refuse solar development – against the advice of its own officers – on the grounds that the application was “not sufficiently robust” to justify the loss of BMV land.

It was probably no coincidence that, the week after Rishi Sunak’s Farm to Fork summit, a written ministerial statement in the Commons gave the issue of BMV land for solar developments even more importance. While stopping short of an outright ban, larger rural solar farms, whether Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects or ordinary applications, should prioritise sites of lower land quality, and there is a greater onus on developers to show that the use of higher quality land is necessary. For most applications, the statement is clear that “high quality land is least appropriate”.

The rules are also tightened to standardise the practice of soil surveys to determine ALC grades (although arguably this is in place already) and require those conducting them to demonstrate suitable qualifications.

The fact of the matter is that the definition of BMV land, and the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food (dissolved in 2002) methodology for establishing land grade, is too blunt an instrument to adequately determine the quality or limitations of agricultural land. For instance, there is much “on paper” grade 3a or even grade 2 land that, for reasons of topography, stoniness, proximity to salinated water, or some other reason, is unsuitable for higher value cropping and restricted to producing average yields of mainstream crops for which, in most years, we have an exportable surplus. A great limiting factor on the real applicability of higher quality land is availability of irrigation water - but the current system does not consider these criteria, instead focussing on a narrow band of inert soil characteristics to arrive at an ALC grade.

Britain’s net zero commitments hinge on renewable energy production and the date for our internationally legally binding climate change commitments is coming up fast. There is no question that solar energy production needs to be accelerated. But unfortunately for developers, forced to give more weight to the issue of agricultural land quality, it may not be straightforward to determine the ALC grade, probably because the land was never surveyed. 

Before 1988 the ALC grades did not sub-categorise land – there were simply grades 1-5, with 1 being the best alluvial silts or fenland soils and grade five being pretty much rock and heather. So even if the ALC grade is known, it may not help you determine whether it falls within the BMV definition. Some land was surveyed post-1998 and did distinguish between 3a and 3b, but this is a far smaller area. So, if the answer cannot be determined, it will be necessary to commission a specialist to follow the old MAFF protocol to determine ALC grade.

The question then is: what does that information really mean? If the land pegged for solar is found to be all grade 3a, and therefore within the BMV definition, does that effectively rule the site unfeasible?

The answer is no, and the reasons for this lie in the space between the rigid dogma of classifying BMV land and what professional agriculturalists will be able to understand and interpret from a more holistic assessment of land quality. 

We are fortunate at Bidwells that our team includes people with a great deal of agronomic skill and practical farming knowledge who can support developers with a professional assessment of land quality and its limitations, making the case to support solar developments where truly appropriate. 

Until government seriously addresses the question of how we must use our most finite resource to balance the competing demands on land - and, by the way, the international ‘30 by 30’ commitment that 30% of a country’s land must be managed for nature by 2030 is only six years away -  we anticipate working with many developers who find themselves confronted with the issue of Best and Most Versatile Land. 

Could it therefore be time to look again at the concept of a Land Use Framework? 



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Ian Ashbridge

Partner, Head of Agriculture & Environment

Ian combines fundamental technical farming knowledge with wider investment and real estate experience when advising his clients.

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Amy Souter

Partner, Energy & Renewables

Amy is an environmental consultant and project manager with experience in feasibility, environmental assessment, planning, negotiation, land assembly, site acquisition, and due diligence for energy and infrastructure developments.

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