Liz Truss on collision course with Jacob Rees-Mogg over solar power ban

Posted on October 13, 2022Comments Off on Liz Truss on collision course with Jacob Rees-Mogg over solar power ban

Liz Truss is facing a rebellion from Jacob Rees-Mogg’s business department over plans to ban solar power from most of England’s farmland.

The prime minister and her environment secretary, Ranil Jayawardena, want to ban solar from about 41% of the land area of England, or about 58% of agricultural land, the Guardian revealed earlier this week.

But her business secretary, Rees-Mogg, is understood to believe it is “unconservative” to tell farmers what they can and cannot do with their land. Her climate minister, Graham Stuart, said on Wednesday he would be speaking to Defra about the plans as more ground-mount solar is needed to meet renewable energy targets.

In a piece for the Guardian, Rees-Mogg, who has previously decried “climate alarmism”, insists he is convinced by the need to boost renewable energy.

He also reveals new policies including loosening regulations for businesses to put solar power in place and giving homeowners grants to install panels on their houses.

In the piece, he says he is “not a green energy sceptic”, adding that his department would give “unprecedented support” to renewable energy sources. Rees-Mogg also brands coalmines and oil rigs as “dark satanic mills”, vowing to replace them with windfarms.

On solar, he adds: “We are exploring options to support low-cost finance to help householders with the upfront costs of solar installation, permitted development rights to support deployment of more small-scale solar in commercial settings and designing performance standards to further encourage renewables, including solar PV, in new homes and buildings.”

Stuart told the environmental audit committee in parliament on Wednesday that his and Rees-Mogg’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy opposed the ban.

He said his department would be speaking to Defra about its plans.

“We’re going to work closely with Defra, and the British energy security strategy set out an expectation for a fivefold increase in solar,” he said. “It’s clear that we need significant growth in both ground-mount and rooftop solar to meet this ambition.”

The rebellion comes after reports that Truss has berated her cabinet ministers for briefing against her more unpopular policies, including rumours she considered linking benefit rises to wages rather than inflation.

Truss’s spokesperson confirmed on Monday that the plans to ban solar from agricultural land were going ahead. This is despite analysis in the Financial Times showing that in doing so, England would lose £20bn in investment, which critics said would harm her growth agenda.

Asked about the Guardian’s report, Truss’s official spokesperson told journalists: “I can point you back to what the prime minister said, I think at the start of September, when she said she doesn’t think we should be putting solar panels on productive agricultural lands, because obviously as well as the energy security issue, we face a food security issue. So we need to strike the right balance.”

The prime minister has always had a personal ambivalence towards ground-mount solar, falsely claiming when she was environment secretary that solar panels harmed food security. During her leadership campaign this summer, she dismissed panels as “paraphernalia”, adding: “On my watch, we will not lose swathes of our best farmland to solar farms.”

Truss is understood to have the support of Jayawardena, who would have to submit the plans to change the farmland grading system to Rees-Mogg’s department and the department for levelling up in order for it to be approved.

He has asked his officials to redefine “best and most versatile” land (BMV), which is earmarked for farming, to include the middling-to-low category 3b, on which most new solar projects are built. Land is graded from 1 to 5, and currently BMV includes grades 1 to 3a. Planning guidance says that development on BMV land should be avoided, although planning authorities may take other considerations into account.

Rees-Mogg’s pro-renewable comments may come as a surprise to green campaigners, who have been alarmed by his previous remarks on climate.

Last month, he told department staff that Britain “must get every cubic inch of gas out of the North Sea”, a leaked video shows. Critics at the time accused the business secretary of “putting his ideology before the climate” and “greenwashing fossil fuels” by prioritising gas over renewables.

He has also been a keen advocate of fracking, with a leaked email showing he was trying to evade scrutiny of new energy projects, including those using the controversial method. Sources close to the business secretary later clarified that he wanted to be able to quickly build for all energy methods, including renewables and fracking.

An email to officials, seen by the Guardian, set out that he had noted that parliamentary legislation was not subject to judicial review, and could potentially be used to speed along new projects.

Rees-Mogg has also said he would be “delighted” to have fracking in his back garden, and has called those who oppose shale gas extraction “luddites” and “socialists”.

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