Landmark Malton case proves solar farms on rural land is false economy – George Dunn

THERE is nothing which more aptly demonstrates our modern inability to properly think through how we address complex issues as a society than the plan to install just short of 100,000 solar panels on approaching half of the area farmed by Robert and Emma Sturdy, farm tenants at Eden Farm, Old Malton, 
on the Fitzwilliam Trust Corporation Estate.

Are solar farms a threat to farming? The Tenant Farmers Association poses the question.

In an increasingly social media-driven context, we have reduced some of our most difficult conundrums to just two words – “climate emergency” and “biodiversity crisis” to name but two.

We seem to have lost the capability to think about these issues in a systematic way to avoid solutions which create unintended consequences.

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The stark, simplicity of the messaging lulls us into a false sense of belief that 
the solutions are also simple – they are not.

George Dunn is chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association.

The potential of harnessing more of our solar energy has long been recognised as a major contributor to allow us to move away from fossil fuels.

However, in much the same way as the good idea of delivering energy through the treatment of waste in anaerobic digestion (AD) systems has led to the inappropriate use of crops, including maize as feedstocks for AD plants, we have allowed ourselves to become fixated with concentrated, large scale solar schemes.

What is wrong with utilising the millions of acres of roofs on domestic, commercial and civic buildings in urban areas where the demand for power is the greatest in any case?

Covering precious landscapes supporting biodiversity, local food production and valued public access with tonnes of glass and metal structures is surely not the way forward.

We may be able to obtain a significant lump of renewable energy but at the expense of losing the soul of the place, its contribution to the lives and livelihoods of local people and its beauty.

At its heart, the planned solar park is not an act of altruism, it is very much a commercial decision by a landowner which has very publicly espoused its role in playing an important part in supporting the livelihood of its tenants.

Something has clearly gone wrong in fulfilling this ethos in respect of Robert and Emma. They are the most recent of the generations of the same family which has farmed at Eden farm in the belief that they were secure under the terms 
of their Agricultural Holdings Act 1986 tenancy.

Who would have dreamt that someone would have allowed this prime, iconic agricultural land to become developed and taken out of farming altogether?

Disappointingly, Robert and Emma appear to have had no meaningful consultation with their landlord, in clear contravention of joint industry guidance drawn up by the Tenant Farmers Association, Country Land and Business Association and others.

If the solar scheme is allowed to progress, then only minimal compensation will be available to Robert and Emma for the loss of this land which will be dwarfed by the extent of their true loss.

Bizarrely, the calculation of the statutory compensation relates to an archaic formula based on a multiple of the rent paid by the tenant.

Ultimately, it will be for the planners to decide whether to allow this solar scheme. Whilst they should be persuaded to turn it down based on the impact of the development on the landscape, biodiversity and rural economy, they must also consider the impact on the personal circumstances of the farm tenant where it is the landlord who is making the application for change of use.

It is difficult to see, at any level, why this solar scheme should be allowed to progress. Lessons need to be learned about how we can avoid lurching to unsustainable solutions to problems which lead to great loss in other ways.

At the same time, it highlights the need to consider greater protections for those who do not own the land that they use within their farm businesses.

Farming, at its heart, is a long-term endeavour requiring the security to allow significant capital investment, patience, good soil management and the ability to balance the profitable years against the bad.

To be at risk of losing a considerable area of land with minimal compensation at short notice is not a good basis to promote the long-term stewardship of land.

George Dunn is chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association.

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