The University of Surrey has partnered with SSE Energy Solutions to propose the development of a 12.2 MW solar facility situated on three fields on the University’s land to the west of Guildford. The full planning application 22/P/02178 has now been submitted and the deadline for comments is 1 March.

The issue of solar farms on agricultural land is complex, and opinions are divided on their acceptability. National planning practice guidance encourages the siting of large-scale solar farms on previously developed and non-agricultural land. Research published by the CPRE found that 1,400 hectares of the best farmland had been taken out of agricultural production for renewable energy projects over the previous 12 year period, and that as this land produced less than 3% of the UK’s total installed solar capacity, it was “entirely possible for the government to balance managing both food and energy security, particularly if solar panels on rooftops are prioritised.”

In defence of this, the application argues that this site will only meet 34% of the University’s renewable energy needs, “so there is ample scope for additional capacity on rooftops to add to this”. It claims further that “There are no sites on the University’s campus that could be used to provide the proposed amount of solar power generation (12.2 MWp installed capacity on 21.7ha of land). The existing campus uses mean it is not feasible to provide this amount of solar panels even by assembling a complex combination of installations on open spaces, car parks and buildings across the campus.” (That last assertion is disputed by others who point to the successful installation elsewhere of solar panels over existing car parks, allowing cars to park underneath.) In other words, the applicants claim that this project is a necessary, but not sufficient, part of the solution to the problem the University faces.

Leaving aside the arguments about renewable energy versus food security, there is the question of the environmental sensitivity of any particular site. This one sits on the edge of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and is a strong candidate for inclusion when proposals to review the AONB boundaries are tabled later this year. The detailed maps available in the proposal on the planning portal show the full extent of the installation and in addition a Transport Statement shows the routes that will be taken and where upgrades to existing tracks will be needed and the extent of the traffic movements during construction works. The proposal also includes considerable detail on how the site would be managed during its lifetime to maximise the ecological benefits of leaving the land relatively undisturbed.  Finally, there is the surely somewhat hypothetical claim that this is a temporary installation, and that the land could be restored to agricultural use after 35 years.

While everyone will applaud the University’s intention to move to 100% renewable energy, the fact is that the only land it owns on which it can build a solar farm that will allow it to deliver on this target (it says) sits in a particularly sensitive part of the Green Belt, which is already adjacent to, and is quite likely to be proposed for inclusion in, the AONB. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) states (para 175) that “Plans should…allocate land with the least environmental or amenity value…”, and that (footnote 58) “Where significant development of agricultural land is demonstrated to be necessary, areas of poorer quality land should be preferred to those of a higher quality.” The land on this site falls into the category of ‘best and most versatile’ (BMV) agricultural land (land graded as 1, 2 and 3a in the Agricultural Land Classification (ALC) system.

In addition, with regard specifically to renewable energy projects, the NPPF states (para 151) “When located in the Green Belt, elements of many renewable energy projects will comprise inappropriate development. In such cases developers will need to demonstrate very special circumstances if projects are to proceed. Such very special circumstances may include the wider environmental benefits associated with increased production of energy from renewable sources.”

We suggest therefore that the issue that needs to be addressed by GBC is whether “very special circumstances” apply in this case or not, and that this needs to be considered in the round, i.e. taking into account the wider environmental dimensions and stipulations of the Guildford Local Plan. Are there other, better, ways of Guildford's delivering on its net zero commitments?

To the extent that NAG has a position, it is one of disappointment that the University could not have found a more innovative solution to meeting its renewable energy needs than one that involved planting a large solar farm in such a sensitive location. We appreciate the constraints, but we are bound to look at this in terms of the harm that will be done to the local landscape, and the threat to the openness of the Green Belt in our part of the world posed by the gradual westward expansion of Guildford.

We hope that the above information is helpful and we would urge anyone interested in this matter to take a look at the documents on the planning website and decide for themselves whether they wish to comment, either for or against the proposal. There are 92 documents, but it is not necessary to read them all, and a good place to start is the ‘Statement of Community Engagement’, which describes the main issues to have featured in public consultation to date, and also includes some helpful maps. The principal document is the ‘Design and Access Statement’, which sets out the proposal in detail.

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