There were more than a few choice words bandied about in the North Nottinghamshire villages of Clayworth and Gringley when the Archbishop of Canterbury delivered the annual National Farmers’ Union ‘Henry Plumb Lecture’ on 22nd November, 2021. Justin Welby spoke wonderful words about UK agriculture, the importance of farming for rural communities, British food production and community resilience.
“We are looking to build a bold, exciting vision of Britain, a vision fit for the 21st century and beyond. Farming will be, in many ways, the backbone of that.”
Utility-scale solar farms
Except it won’t be. The UK now faces a tidal wave of planning applications for utility-scale solar farms that are completely unregulated, and the situation is akin to something out of the Wild West. Clayworth and Gringley are two conservation villages built on farming. Between them sits a landscape of 616 acres of beautiful countryside; a mix of arable farmland, ancient medieval pasture, hedgerows and woodland, full of wildlife and endangered species. A network of ancient bridleways and footpaths, including the Trent Valley Way, run through this landscape whilst the nationally significant Idle Valley Nature Reserve sits at the southern end. An abandoned medieval village sits on the north eastern side of the site.
Interestingly, a 17th century diary by Clayworth Rector William Sampson sits in Nottingham City Library. It documents the farming lives of these villages and the landscape. It is an ancient landscape that has fed families past and present. It should feed them into the future but won’t if the landowner and the Archbishop of Canterbury have their way.
The backer in the shadows
The landowner is The Henry Smith Charity (HSC). A London based charity which likes to avoid the spotlight, with no social media presence and assets exceeding £1billion. HSC have partnered with utility scale solar developer Island Green Power (IGP), to deliver the huge West Burton Solar project. The project consists of seven sites, of which these 616 acres is just one, the rest being in Lincolnshire. IGP have struck a land options agreement with HSC, worked up whilst villagers were dealing with Covid-riddled 2019 with this area, which has outstanding natural beauty, acting as their link to sanity during the dark days of lockdown.
The first any member of either community heard of the proposal was in September 2021 when a large surveying drone was spotted flying menacingly over the village. The deal gives IGP the right to seek planning for a solar farm (locally more accurately referred to as a ‘solar power plant’) on the full 616 acres, or as much of the area as they choose, over several years.
Ironically, HSC claim to be a charity that works to support and strengthen communities. Grant streams run by them include those with such worthy titles as ‘Improving Lives’, ‘Strengthening Communities’ and ‘Christian projects’. Their trustees are directly nominated by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Church of England receives significant amounts in grants from HSC annually. Yet HSC has never interacted with either village and they have owned this land, and thousands of acres alongside it, since 2000. They are a classic absentee landowner.
When news broke of the solar farm proposals, HSC’s Chief Executive Nick Acland, the Chair of Trustees Vivienne Dews and the whole array of trustees were inundated with letters from concerned residents, desperately pleading with them to come and discuss their proposals. These trustees all reside in and around London, bar one, who resides in the West Country. Amongst them are the great and good, including Lady Bella Colgrain, Lord Lieutenant of Kent.
Follow the money
Lady Bella publicly states on her trustee profile and elsewhere online of her love of the British Countryside and agriculture and her desire to protect it. Nick Acland is connected to the upper echelons of British society and Vivienne Dews is a retired senior civil servant who sits as a trustee of several national charities. Yet no one has felt the concerns raised worthy of a response, despite their supposed charitable ethos of supporting communities. The community concern over farming, access to nature, wildlife, village flooding, and the destruction of an ancient landscape was overwhelming.
So what was the response of HSC and their CEO Nick Acland? After weeks of lobbying, HSC issued a single blanket statement, seen by Central Bylines, on October 25 2021 washing their hands of the issue. They claimed it was a matter for the Planning Inspectorate, and that they “do not therefore consider it appropriate to respond to individual questions, comments or objections which should, instead, more properly be put forward as part of the formal pre-application consultation process.”
Yet the solar proposals were not at a formal planning application stage. They clearly had no understanding of what they had got themselves into, blinded by the claims of huge revenues from supposed efficient clean energy generation on a massive scale by their land agent Savills and the developer IGP.
More from Central Bylines
A planning wild west
The lack of a robust regulatory framework to deal with these sorts of applications on a national level is what these speculative developers are using as a window of opportunity. Critical to this is the inadequate National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). NPPF is a Government Energy White Paper which promises, but hasn’t delivered, a National Policy Statement for Energy.
Rising energy prices and the knock-on effect of the drive towards energy self-sufficiency means it is literally now the wild west in Britain’s countryside. Speculative developers with no experience of developing large scale solar in the UK have latched onto an opportunity to industrialise swaths of high-quality agricultural land.
The Government has failed to deliver a policy which balances the need for renewables against the need to provide food security. The National Policy Statement for Energy is supposed to provide planning guidance for solar infrastructure. This National Policy Statement for Energy is not yet in place. What is needed is a policy which puts greater weight on the cumulative impact of losing large amounts of agricultural land. The current situation of local authority planning departments or the Planning Inspectorate considering each case in isolation is leaving huge tracts of land, biodiversity, food production, ancient landscapes and their communities to unparalleled and un-policed decimation.
Clayworth and Gringley are not alone in their fight. Countless new solar projects now crop up daily. As a result, an affiliation of groups who are in favour of renewable energy but opposed to unregulated solar growth have come together to jointly lobby Government. The Solar Campaign Alliance has recently written to Government to demand a pause on all large-scale solar developments until an appropriate regulatory framework can be put in place.
Meanwhile, HSC lost any remaining respect when IGP began their ‘community consultation’. Following the establishment of the No Solar Desert (NSD) Campaign by concerned Clayworth and Gringley residents, the level of awareness of the project had reached vast proportions by the time IGP held a community consultation event on 16th November 2021.
NSD had already organised and ran a huge march through the endangered landscape which saw 212 walkers take part, with coverage on ITV and BBC local news. Local and agricultural press had latched onto the story. All IGP had done was a mail shot stating their intentions with an overwhelming degree of entitlement and quietly mentioning a community ‘consultation’ in Gringley. Clayworth was not even honoured with such a courtesy.
In a desperate attempt to keep HSC’s name out of all this, on the day of the community consultation, their land agent Savills issued a statement to NSD (November 16 2021, seen by Central Bylines) claiming laughably that “The Charity’s decision to enter into the Option Agreement with IGP is not a planning matter and falls outside the scope of the Planning Inspectorate and no further comment will be provided.”
It is true that HSC’s decision is not a planning matter for the Planning Inspectorate, but it is entirely their decision to allow planning to be pursued. They signed the Option Agreement back in April 2021, without knowledge of any of the key facts necessary to make an informed decision and without any consideration for the communities, wildlife, heritage and food production that all sit within this 616 acre landscape.
It is a planning and strategic decision they took that flies in the face of their supposed ethos and now sits at the heart of a national crisis of rural industrialisation of the countryside for very little genuine energy production at all.
Moving the goalposts
Crucially, IGP had actively tried to conceal their site selection criteria, in a desperate attempt to justify the inclusion of these 616 acres in their West Burton Solar Project. Prior to this scheme becoming public, IGP had a set of published site criteria on their website, which set out the types of land they would consider suitable for solar development. The Clayworth to Gringley site barely met half of this criteria, it was certainly plain it was in no way a ‘suitable site’.
|New Criteria: |
Low grade agricultural land or former brownfield sites (landfills, quarries etc)
Not located in designated or protected areas or national parks
Ideally flat or south facing land with as few on site obstructions as possible which might cause shading
Located in areas that minimise visual impact
Near a viable grid connection point
Land in excess of 40 hectares / 100 acres
By October, after word spread fast locally on the complete misfit of the IGP selection criteria against the 616 acres, IGP’s site selection criteria disappeared off their website, only then to re-appear, but buried deep inside their website and amended in a desperate attempt to make the site fit (see reproductions above). Savvy residents had recognised this risk early on and managed to keep a record of both the original and amended criteria.
Low grade agricultural land or former brownfield sites (landfills, quarries etc)
Located in areas that it will not cause any visual obtrusion to existing neighbours
Flat or south facing land with as few on site obstructions as possible which might cause shading
Not located in a protected area or national park
Located near a potential grid connection point
Land in excess of 15 hectares
IGP’s community consultation turned into farce. Residents were told they lived in a ‘degraded landscape’, scoffed at when they showed pride in their agriculture and mocked when they raised concerns about wildlife. Unable to answer any of the attendees’ logical and justified questions on the inclusion of the site, IGP Head of UK Projects, Dave Elvin, threw his hands up in despair and admitted publicly ‘no the site doesn’t fit, it’s a business deal’. This was recorded by many participants at the consultation, who also recall that IGP staff made no record of the so-called consultation.
When asked repeatedly about the level of energy generation, he admitted that the panels on the proposed site would be ’27 per cent efficient, at best’. This 27 per cent efficiency will only be in peak summer and is so poor because of the unsuitability of the site to begin with. Yet HSC had proclaimed in their statement that the 616 acres would generate energy for 50,000 homes. IGP stated conflicting figures across various media platforms of 100,000 homes and 155,000 homes. It appears no one knows what the site will generate but there can only be one reason for this. It does not fit and they don’t care; because it’s about money and not energy generation.
The Archbishop is not involved…
So where has all this left the Archbishop of Canterbury and his NFU Henry Plumb 2021 lecture? Well, it is interesting to note that Henry Plumb (now Lord Plumb), was NFU President from 1970 to 1978. He dedicates his time to helping young people gain great starts in careers in farming and food. Now 96, he continues this work. This is very poignant given there are local Clayworth and Gringley farmers that have expressed their worries about being unable to access more land because of the proposals, including young farmers worrying about the future viability of their businesses.
In his lecture, the Archbishop of Canterbury recognises the importance of Britain’s agriculture and food production. It is important to consider this alongside food security, the Church of England’s concern on poverty and affordability of quality food, and the awkward fact that the Church of England receive grants annually from HSC. The communities of Clayworth and Gringley, following the disastrous IGP consultation event, wrote to the Archbishop in his capacity as the nominator of the trustees of HSC and asking him to step in and help. His Adviser on Social and Public Affairs, Katie Harrison, responded simply with “The Archbishop is not involved with this project…thank you for your interest in this matter.”
Except that ‘interest’ is not going to wane, not in Clayworth and Gringley, not locally, regionally, and certainly not nationally, if Britain wants to be able to feed itself and retain countryside that provides multiple benefits that are way above “27 percent efficient, at best”.
A parliamentary petition on this matter by the Solar Alliance Campaign has just been approved. Find it here https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/606663