Coutinho delays another planning decision on solar project

Claire Coutinho has delayed a decision on plans for a huge solar farm on the border between Lincolnshire and Rutland.

In the latest in a growing string of renewable planning delays by the government, the energy security secretary has pushed back a decision on the Mallard Pass solar farm by a month.

She was due to make a decision on the scheme by today (Thursday 16 May) but in a written ministerial statement (WMS) to the House of Commons has set herself a new deadline of 13 June.

The statement adds that the delay will ensure sufficient time for the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) to consider the application.

The scheme’s planning application has been on Coutinho’s desk since mid-February when the Planning Inspectorate submitted its recommended decision following a public inquiry. The size of the scheme means that Mallard Pass is being handled by the inspectorate as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP), rather than by the area’s local councils.

Mallard Pass, which is located on agricultural land straddling the East Coast Main Line in Lincolnshire and Rutland, is designed to generate around 350MW.

The development would cover a total of 825ha, just over half of which will be covered by solar panels and associated infrastructure.

The remainder will be retained as woodlands, hedgerows, and agricultural land or used to create new belts of trees and areas of wetland and nature with picnic benches.

The site’s promoters say that 239ha, equating to more than a quarter of the scheme’s area, will continue to be used for agricultural production.

A further 419ha of grassland beneath the solar PV arrays will be kept for grazing and production of fodder.

The developers have also cut the amount of land earmarked for solar panels from an original proposed figure of 570ha to 463ha.

However the size of the scheme, which is located close to a 400kV National Grid substation at Ryhall, has generated a backlash amongst local Conservative MPs.

Alicia Kearns, MP for Rutland and chair of the foreign affairs select committee, recently claimed in a House of Commons debate on solar farms that Mallard Pass would result in the loss of 1,000 acres of highest-grade best and most versatile (BMV) agricultural land.

The delay is the latest in a series of deferred decisions. Coutinho has also recently delayed her planning decisions on the giant Sunnica solar farm in Cambridgeshire and for an energy from waste plant in Lincolnshire.

Responding to the twin solar farm delays, Chris Hewett, chief executive at Solar Energy UK, said: “We are disappointed in the delays in planning decisions on two major solar projects which could deliver 850MW between them. Slowing down the deployment of clean homegrown power, undermines Britain’s energy security and will increase our imports of expensive and polluting fossil fuels.”

The Mallard Pass planning delay comes after Coutinho set out further detail on how to balance competing priorities for land from energy security and food production.

It states that applicants for NSIPs, like Mallard Pass, should avoid the use of BMV agricultural land where possible and that the highest quality land is “least appropriate” for solar development.

It adds that there is a “greater onus” on developers to show that higher quality land must be used as the land grade increases.

The energy National Policy Statement, published earlier this year, stated that applications for renewable projects should seek to minimise impacts on BMV agricultural land, which is defined as land in grades 1, 2 and 3a of the Agricultural Land Classification (ALC).

Coutinho’s also stated that when vetting applications for solar farms, it is important to consider not just the impact of the individual scheme but potentially cumulative impacts of several proposals coming forward in the same locality.

In parallel with this move, DESNZ will expand its Renewable Energy Planning Database to include additional information on the types of agricultural land used by existing solar projects and those in the planning pipeline. This will enable the government to carefully monitor the use of land by renewable projects across the UK.