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12 October 2022

The Tories’ war on solar is an act of self-destruction

Liz Truss labels the opposition the “anti-growth coalition” but is trying to strangle one of the few private sector success stories of the past decade.

By Paul Mason

I’d never heard of Ranil Jayawardena until he was tasked with destroying the UK’s net-zero strategy. Even Farmer’s Weekly noted upon his appointment as Environment Secretary that he was “relatively unknown in agriculture” and had no direct experience of farming.

But in the annals of the Truss administration, for however short its tenure, Jayawardena will have a bigger part than his obscurity suggests. This week he instructed civil servants to begin reclassifying land targeted for building solar farms – 58 per cent of agricultural land – as unbuildable. That would leave £20bn worth of investments potentially worthless and the UK’s energy strategy in ruins.

It’s not that we weren’t warned. Liz Truss framed her Conservative leadership campaign as a crusade to protect Britain’s green and pleasant farmland from photovoltaic “paraphernalia”. It’s just that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was told the opposite: that this was all a temporary sop to rural Nimbys. Sources close to Truss said the same to solar industry executives, I am told.

As it turns out, Truss and Jayawardena are determined to sabotage the UK’s switch to a clean, cheap energy source that could be vital for our national security. Britain’s farmland is graded by an official system into five classes. Grades 1, 2 and 3a were, until 2021, considered unsuitable for building solar farms because they’re likely to deliver high yields of crops. As a result, much of solar building has targeted at Grade 3b, which is known as “moderate quality” land because its most economic use is for grazing – and there’s a lot of it.

Until now, having focused mainly on such sites, the solar industry has managed to cover a grand total of 0.1 per cent of Britain’s surface area and it accounts for just 2 per cent of our energy needs. The problem is, if we’re to transition to a mixture of renewables plus nuclear power by 2050 – as our legally binding energy target demands – we’re going to need up to 40 per cent of our energy to come from solar, an equal amount from wind and the rest from uncompleted nuclear power stations.

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So in 2021, before the Cop26 UN climate conference in Glasgow, the Johnson government began a consultation on relaxing the land-use rules. Yes, relaxing. The Draft National Policy Statement on energy stated that solar farms are “not prohibited on sites of agricultural land classified 1, 2 and 3a” and that, in any case, land type “should not be a predominating factor in determining the suitability of the site location”.

In the business world that’s better than a nod and a wink. Johnson’s stated target was to produce 70 gigawatts of solar energy by 2035, five times the current output. Industry insiders told me it was signalled as a “clear move to reduce the risk of refusal on land classification grounds”.

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[See also: What is on the agenda at Cop27?]

As a result, serious money poured into proposed solar development projects, including in Truss’s own constituency of South West Norfolk – not just the money of energy wheeler-dealers but major pension funds. Consultations on the policy ended a year ago and the results should have been presented over the summer. They were not. 

Instead, Jayawardena’s predecessor, George Eustice, began an insidious campaign to stop solar development on 3b land – extending the restrictions rather than lifting them. Eustice even told the Environment Select Committee that building solar on 3b land was prohibited – and was forced to publicly backtrack last month. And then we got Truss.

Let’s be clear on what will happen if Jayawardena’s plans go through: Britain’s solar building programme will stop. Much of the remaining land available is moorland in the north of England, where there’s not enough sunlight, or National Parks, or remote areas where there’s little chance of getting a connection to the National Grid.

So, as I write, the business and environment departments are at war. It’s not even farmers versus the energy guys, because due to the price and stability of solar energy switching to it makes good economic sense for many landowners. And with energy security in question, some major energy users – for example Eurotunnel – have begun to commission their own direct supplies of solar power.

The move makes zero sense, either for the Tory party or British capitalism in general. Solar helps our energy security, cuts the price of household bills and – above all – helps to cut carbon emissions and save the planet. It’s not even as if the oil and gas industry is sitting in the corridors of power saying “don’t do solar”. Truss labels the opposition the “anti-growth coalition” but is trying to strangle one of the few private sector success stories of the past ten years. 

Kwasi Kwarteng’s unfunded tax cuts made zero sense – as the Office for Budget Responsibility would have told him if he’d asked. Moving the UK’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, as has been suggested, makes zero sense. Cancelling HS2 – another rumoured demand coming from Downing Street – makes zero sense.

Until you realise that this is a government of randoms. Truss has assembled a coalition of third-rate politicians pursuing their pet obsessions, often at odds with each other. Some want more migration from India, others see Indian migrants as “overstayers”. Some want to cut benefits, others don’t. And this is just the cabinet. 

So the war on solar – which will cause major rifts if pursued – is a parable for the wider problem. Britain has no coherent growth model. Truss believes cutting taxes will boost growth but she does not understand that even the most free-market economies require state direction of the private sector. The UK needs clear, long-term signals such as the ones Johnson was trying to provide in the guidance document that has now disappeared.

And that’s why this government must fall. It will fall, if we are lucky, over the financial crisis. But what replaces it must be coherent. That’s the real problem for the Tory party: it is out of ideas.

[See also: Liz Truss U-turns and fudges through her second PMQs]

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