Chelmsford solar farm will remove grain capacity for city’s annual bread need

Renewable power developments are in the wrong place if they lead to the destruction of valuable farmland, a leading voice on rural environment has argued.

Mike Alder, a professor of Rural Environment and former principal at Writtle College for 20 years, says a raft of solar farms planned in Essex would lead to a loss of valuable food production land.

He said this is especially important given  that the UK currently imports 40 per cent of all food needs – a figure likely to soon exceed 50 per cent due to land loss, stabilising yields and the effects of climate change.

Sites identified include Eastern Lodge near Dunmow; Beckingham Road in Great Totham; Jackletts Farm in Bicknacre; Sandon Quarry in Chelmsford; Wicks Farm in Burnham-on-Crouch; Highfield Farm in Kelvedon; Generals Farm in Boreham and St Clere’s Solar Farm in Danbury – totalling to around 750 acres.

The largest site is Longfield’s Solar Farm in Chelmsford – currently proposed to be 1,400 acres. Professor Alder says the site has the capacity to produce enough grain to make enough loaves to feed Chelmsford and all the surrounding villages for over a year.

“Land loss is not just about food production there are also implications for biodiversity and landscape,” said Professor Alder.

“There is no reliable research that shows solar farms can benefit from biodiversity rather the reverse and Natural England recommend these ‘farms’ should not be sited near valuable ecological areas.

“In addition, solar farms and other developments can destroy important landscapes.

“Land use strategies in Essex and throughout the country must protect valuable farm land, biodiversity, green spaces and important landscapes. If the trade off is the destruction of these, then the developments are probably in the wrong place.

“It is important that politicians and planners recognise these issues and make the right decisions.

“Our children will not thank us if they do not have enough food to eat and we have destroyed their environment.”

Professor Alder said initiatives such as Essex County Council’s  Solar Together Essex, which helps households and businesses to purchase high quality solar panels for domestic roofs at a discounted rate, should be welcomed, but these should be sited in places which do not conflict with important areas for biodiversity and farming.

Professor Alder continued: “There is nothing wrong with solar power – it has a part to play as the country moves to a carbon neutral position.

“The issue is where does one put solar panels? The answer is in non-productive and low grade areas of limited environmental value of which there are plenty.”

Professor Alder added: “We take it for granted that we can go to a supermarket and buy all the food we need or get it delivered.

“However as we look forward that may not always be the case. The UK is rapidly losing farmland and that can be particularly seen in Essex.

“Consider all the land being lost for housing – examples might be the Beaulieu developments near Chelmsford, new housing at Witham and proposals for a Chelmsford Garden Village. There are business and industrial developments. For example the 65 acre business park near Braintree.

“In addition, there are infrastructure projects such as the Chelmsford Valley relief road. On top of these land losses we now have solar farms.”

Chelmsford City Council is currently drafting its response to the Longfield’s Farm proposals. It added that it promotes a sustainable form of energy generation, while accepting it may also have an adverse impact on the environment, nature conservation and landscape.

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter