A Cornwall councillor said he fears there will be “no farmers left” in Cornwall if productive agricultural land is used for solar farms.

Brian Clemens’ comments came during a debate calling for Cornwall Council to establish the right balance between use of land for agriculture and solar farms, particularly the rise in controversial industrial-sized solar parks.

A motion was tabled by Conservative councillor Alan Jewell, who represents Falmouth Boslowick and is also a farmer, for the local authority’s chief planning officer to commission research to explore the economic role of Grade 3 land to ensure that planning decisions take into account the right balance between use of land for food production and solar farms.

It follows a number of contentious planning applications for industrial solar farms in Cornwall.

He told a full meeting of the council at New County Hall / Lys Kernow in Truro on Tuesday: “This is not a motion to stop solar farms or to stop farmers from diversifying, as many of us have, but that’s not to be at the expense of our core purpose to feed the people of Cornwall and further afield.

“What we have in Cornwall is unique to the UK. We can grow more of everything and at an earlier time, so all I’m asking you is let us take a closer look at our land and what’s been farmed over the last ten years, so we can decide the future role of solar arrays as part of the mix of farming enterprises in a diversified economy. If we don’t pause and re-evaluate what is happening, we run the risk of losing large areas of good land and instead turning it into an industrial landscape alien from what a mixed farming enterprise should be.”

South West Farmer: Solar fence and screeningSolar fence and screening (Image: LDR)

He added: “The more food we import, the more the carbon footprint, so the industrial-scale solar farms will not offset the carbon caused by more imports. Surely, that does not add up when we can grow it here in the first place? With a very unstable world, surely it’s better to be more self-sufficient in our food security that relying on imports? At the end of the day, you could live without electricity but you certainly cannot live without food.”

Cllr Lionel Pascoe (Conservative, Gwinear-Gwithian & Hayle East) seconded the motion. He told a packed chamber: “I’m not against solar panels, they have their place with climate change. However, they have to be in the right place – either on brownfield sites, commercial buildings, new developments or low grade farmland. There is enough low-grade agricultural land in Cornwall to put solar panels on to support climate change. There is very little land which is 3a and above, and 90 per cent of the land in west and mid Cornwall is 3b which is very valuable for food production. With 3b land you can double crop, which means you can produce two crops in one year, whether it’s brassica, potatoes or cereals.”

Cllr Martyn Alvey, Conservative portfolio holder for environment and climate change, agreed that planning policy needs to better identify and protect what is prime crop-growing land from that with solar development potential. “Hence the nub of this motion to better define Grade 3 land and how it is to be used.”

Independent councillor for Land’s End Brian Clemens, who has been heavily involved with Cornwall Young Farmers, said: “It saddens me that farmers in Cornwall cannot retire and enjoy their retirement like other people do because for generations we have not looked after farmers. If this motion is not taken notice of, it will be another nail in the coffin of farmers, farm workers and their families.

“I do not disagree with solar farms but the land in Cornwall of this grade is different from the land of this grade in any other county in this country. We can produce two crops a year, as you’ve heard. We have a duty – we have committed to climate change, but the right thing in the right place. My fear is that we will be losing land that will be productive and we will have no farmers left.”

Cllr Steve Arthur, who is now a “stand alone Conservative” after breaking away from the Tory group at Cornwall Council, citing the number of solar farms being approved as one of the reasons, said: “I support this motion, as saving 3b land is fantastic but I do worry it’s not enough. We also have to consider if people come on holiday down here really want to see row after row after row of solar panels, and ‘I remember Cornwall it’s that glass place, isn’t it?'”

Jennifer Cruse (Conservative, Lanivet, Blisland & Bodmin St Lawrence) said she supported the motion: “Cornwall is a beautiful place and we haven’t really discussed the visual impact which I consider is quite detrimental. We need solar power but we have to be careful where we put it.”

Not all councillors were in favour of the motion. Cllr Dominic Fairman said he respected the councillors who had brought the motion but “I do wonder what planet they’re on. We have just broken global temperature records for the tenth straight month in a row. Locally we’ve experienced a year of heatwaves followed by a year of record rainfall and floods. This is just a foretaste of the legacy we’ve baked in for our children and grandchildren. The greatest threat to food security and farming is, of course, climate change”.

He said that research by Exeter University has recently concluded that onshore wind and solar could provide enough electricity to power all the households in England two and a half times over using less than three per cent of the land. “Food security has become the last refuge of the nimby,” the Liberal Democrat councillor for St Teath and Tintagel added.

Farmer and Liberal Democrat councillor Adrian Parsons said: “Of course, food security is important but I, for one, know it also needs to be profitable. My best arable land for the last seven years hasn’t produced food for human consumption. Instead, the Government pays me to grow crops, not to harvest, but to rot in the fields for the birds and wildlife. It’s actually my most profitable crop and I get great satisfaction seeing the wealth of wildlife thriving in this habitat.

“Interestingly, saying solar panels take land out of agricultural production isn’t the case. I have an acre of solar panels and the sheep love them – in the winter they give shelter and in the summer they give shade, and this is the most profitable acre on the farm. It provides not just me with electricity but most of the settlement where I live. Energy security should not be dismissed.

“As far as I’m concerned the land hasn’t been lost, it’s still there – these are temporary structures that can be removed at any point, turning the land back into its original state. I worry what sort of message this sends out to those who are potentially looking to invest in Cornwall.”

Cllr Parsons added: “Be careful what you wish for. As for the grade of land, 1 or 2 should be ruled out but Grade 3 land in the right place should be fine. I know from my own experience that most Grade 4 land is either too steep, too wet or too boggy to even be suitable for solar. So effectively, if you say you don’t want solar on Grade 3 land you’re saying you don’t want solar.”

Following a number of other speakers, the contentious debate was cut short due to the length of the meeting, with many more councillors unable to comment. Members voted in favour to support the motion. It will cost the council around £30,000 to commission the proposed report.

Carland Action Group held a public meeting at St Erme Community Centre last month to discuss a planning application by Downing Renewable Developments LLP for a 210-acre solar park application, Fairpark, in a rural valley at Hendra near Mitchell, between Carland Cross and Landrine. More than 100 people attended with many residents airing their fears about the development.

Concerns were also raised about similar sized solar farms in the same area – two, at Burthy Row, Fraddon and Tregonning at Dairyland, which have already been approved, and a third at Trelion, St Stephen, which is at the pre-planning stage. Opponents say the solar panels at all four parks could cover 900 acres over a five-mile radius.