The UK’s energy security secretary has said that higher quality agricultural land should be protected from large solar projects.

Claire Coutinho told UK Parliament that, with growing geopolitical tension, the best agricultural land must be protected for food security.

Solar projects should be developed on brownfield land, contaminated land, industrial land and lower quality agricultural land so as not to compromise the UK’s food security, she said.

The UK government expects a more than four-fold increase in solar deployment by 2035, up to 70GW.

To reach that goal, Coutinho emphasised the weight of planning policy and the need for solar to be delivered in a sensible way – ensuring developers and planning authorities consider the cumulative impact solar projects can have on local communities.

She also announced plans to expand the Renewable Energy Planning Database to include up-to-date data on the type of land used by existing and planned solar projects, allowing government to track use of high quality agricultural land more easily.

Food and energy security

Coutinho said rising threats around the world mean the UK must have a renewed emphasis on its security.

“That means protecting our food security whilst also delivering the cheap energy we need,” she said.

“We are taking further steps today to make sure we can get that balance right. 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.

“We will make sure we reach our solar targets in a sensible way that delivers clean, cheaper energy but does not compromise our food security.”

Environment secretary Steve Barclay said: “We’re committed to protecting and improving the nation’s food security, alongside action that safeguards our energy security.

“That’s why we’re ensuring our best agricultural land continues to be used for its core purpose of food production, while helping farmers expand their businesses through farming grants which will enable them to invest in rooftop solar and the generation of renewable energy on their farms.”

Soil surveys

Agricultural Land Classification Soil Surveys are currently carried out by soil consultants on behalf of developers, although the format of these can vary across projects and there is not yet a specific accredited body in place to oversee this process.

To ensure there is greater consistency and certain standards are always met in these surveys, the government is exploring options to introduce an independent certification scheme.

This should ensure that data is recorded and presented in a more consistent and objective way to help the government more monitor how agricultural land is being classified.

Earlier this year, the UK government launched the second round of the Improving Farm Productivity grant, making between £15-25 million available to farmers for the installation of rooftop solar and other equipment to help farms reduce fossil fuel use and improve their energy resilience.

The government has also made it cheaper for solar panels to be installed on homes and charitable buildings, which currently benefit from a zero rate of VAT until March 2027.