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Boris Johnson’s eco-socialism: Land may be seized to make way for solar farms in Net Zero drive

Boris Johnson’s eco-socialism: Land may be seized to make way for solar farms in Net Zero drive
The Sunday Telegraph, 16 January 2022

Homeowners and farmers are being threatened with having their land effectively confiscated to make way for solar farms to meet Britain’s net zero target, The Telegraph can disclose.

Energy firm Sunnica has submitted plans to build a 2,792 acre solar farm and energy storage infrastructure on the Suffolk and Cambridgeshire borders.

If the Planning Inspectorate recommends to ministers that the plans should be given the go-ahead later this year, it will be the largest solar farm built in the UK so far, providing power for 100,000 homes.

But MPs and residents living in many of the small villages in the area have decried proposals by Sunnica to use compulsory purchase orders for land on which it needs access and where it cannot reach a negotiated settlement with owners.

This would include significant sections of land under which to lay electricity cables connecting the solar panels and battery storage units to the Burwell National Grid Substation in Cambridgeshire.

It could also see the compulsory purchase of land to create wider roads and access points to allow construction of the huge project, which is equivalent to the size of 2,115 football pitches.

The company stated that it “requires powers of compulsory acquisition to ensure that the scheme can be built, maintained and operated, and so that the Government’s policies in relation to the timely delivery of new generating capacity and achieving ambitious net zero targets are met.”

‘Completely wrong’

Matt Hancock MP, the former health secretary, who along with Lucy Frazer, a Treasury minister, represents the area earmarked for the development, told The Telegraph: “By attempting to force through unpopular proposals they [Sunnica] damage the case for delivering the renewables we need.

“I support solar developments locally where they are in the right place, with the support of us locally. The way Sunnica has gone about this is completely wrong.”

More than a dozen land and property owners are thought to be holding out against Sunnica’s attempt to acquire “an interest” in their land in order to lay cables and gain or improve access to the sites on which the solar farm would be built.

In all these cases Sunnica say “no progress” is being made in negotiations, indicating they may need to move to compulsory purchase.

Richard Tuke, a landowner who is refusing to allow 800 acres of his land at Freckenham to be used by Sunnica, stated in a consultation document: “Our withdrawal from the scheme does not prevent Sunnica from including our land in their submission to the Inspectorate nor does it stop them from applying for compulsory powers to purchase our land should they choose to do so.

“We have however written the Inspectorate formally telling them that Sunnica are including our land without permission.”

Local views ‘squeezed out’

The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, which supports solar power in brownfield sites, has criticised Sunnica for pursuing its plans through the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) regime, saying “this risks squeezing local views and local scrutiny out of the decision-making process”.

It added: “It’s worrying that the applicant is also proposing to apply for Compulsory Purchase Orders where it can’t reach a negotiated settlement with affected landowners.”

Critics have also decried the size of the solar farm on what is open agricultural land and the potential danger of the large lithium-ion battery units needed to store the electricity generated by solar panels before transfer to the National Grid. In recent years similar battery units have been involved in fires and explosions in Britain and abroad.

Mr Hancock said: “Even the most ardent supporter of renewable energy can see that putting a huge battery farm right next to villages is a bad idea. Those behind this proposal have completely failed to bring the community with them, refused to attend all the key meetings and haven’t even tried to win over local support.”

South Korea saw 23 battery farm fires in just two years and a recent battery fire in Illinois burned for three days, with thousands of residents evacuated. Lithium-ion batteries used in solar farm energy storage systems were deemed an “unacceptable risk” in Arizona after causing two serious ­fires in 2019.

In Merseyside, one of three battery cabins on a site caught fire and exploded in 2020 and nearby residents were ordered to stay indoors.

Solar farm battery units are not covered by the Control of Major Accident Hazards regulations and are unregulated under UK law.

Risk of explosions and toxic gas

Professor Wade Allison, emeritus professor of physics at Oxford University, and a panel of experts last year warned that with the potential for huge explosions, fires and clouds of toxic gas, they could devastate towns and villages nearby.

Sunnica did not respond to requests for comment, but it states on its website that “we have considerably reduced the degree to which our scheme impacts on nearby communities as part of this process”.

It said that around 26 per cent of land within the scheme’s boundary would now be used for landscaping and environmental mitigation measures.

Sunnica’s website also states: “Whilst the cable corridor route has been confirmed, the width of the corridor remains wider than will actually be required as we are still undertaking environmental assessment and design work.”