Rishi Sunak: We won’t lose our best farmland to solar panels

Rishi Sunak - Christopher Pledger for The Telegraph
Rishi Sunak - Christopher Pledger for The Telegraph

Rishi Sunak has vowed to prevent agricultural land from being covered with solar panels as he aims to persuade farmers to support his bid for the Conservative leadership.

Writing for The Telegraph, see below, the former chancellor promised to reduce burdens on farmers by slashing remaining Brussels rules, reducing the number of heavy-handed fines and merging a whole slew of government quangos into one new “agriculture agency”.

He promised a new target to ensure more crops are grown in Britain – with a particular focus on tomatoes and cucumbers – so that salads no longer have to be imported.

And he said he would fight for British farmers in any future trade negotiations, following criticisms that those negotiated by his rival Liz Truss have given too much away to foreign farmers.

Mr Sunak will address members of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) on Friday, at a hustings event that the Foreign Secretary has declined to attend.

Minette Batters, president of the NFU, said it was a “shame” Ms Truss was not attending. The Foreign Secretary’s campaign team said she “cannot turn up to everything” and was focusing on speaking to Conservative members.

In his Telegraph article, Mr Sunak said he would bring in new rules to ensure that solar panels are erected on sheds and commercial properties, rather than on productive farmland.

“Likewise, we must protect our best farmland from ‘rewilding’, which should not take place at the expense of food production,” he said.

Mr Sunak said he will merge a series of environmental quangos whose main job is to enforce Brussels rules into one new agency.

The UK still abides by many EU farming rules, despite having left the bloc. Mr Sunak plans to reduce these as quickly as possible. He also wants to replace heavy-handed fines for farmers for breaking rules with warning letters.

He said many of his constituents in Richmond, Yorkshire, had complained about “utterly absurd rules”, with “fines for things like gateways being the ‘wrong’ width”.

Mr Sunak said he wants to increase British food security, with a new target to grow much more in the country.

At present, the UK grows 74 per cent of what it consumes. As Prime Minister, he would consult on a higher target.

Of particular concern is the high number of salad ingredients that are imported. Britain produces only 15 per cent of the tomatoes it consumes and 23 per cent of cucumbers. However, the UK grows almost all of its own carrots.

Ms Truss has faced criticism for some of the post-Brexit trade deals she has negotiated, with British farmers concerned that the New Zealand deal will see them outpriced.

In his article, Mr Sunak vowed to do better, saying he would “fight for the interests of our farmers and food producers rather than trading away their interests for the sake of meeting self-imposed deadlines”.

A spokesman for Mr Sunak said if elected he would get rid of “pointless” EU rules and rather than fines, there would be a system of warning letters.

‘We must protect our best agricultural land from solar farms’

By Rishi Sunak

Farmers and food producers have a central role to play in delivering our food security. The last few months have put a renewed focus on food security and served as a timely reminder that domestic food production really matters.

The pandemic, with the initial period of panic buying, the war in Ukraine and even the recent weather – in which we have seen the driest summer in decades – have made us think about it.

As a nation, we are incredibly lucky that we have a high degree of self-sufficiency. We must never take it for granted and that is why I want to see us maintain and boost domestic food production through a new UK food security target.

I also want to make sure that our farmers are properly supported, so that they can rise to the challenge. Farmers are facing overwhelming challenges at the moment, with increased input costs like manufactured fertiliser, energy, fuel and livestock feed. We have limited levers to pull, but I will do everything that I can to help.

I backed and believed in Brexit and we have an opportunity to put in place a domestic agricultural policy for the first time in half a century. We have made good progress, but there is more to do.

The beauty of putting in place a domestic policy is that we can work with farmers to design it. Where something doesn’t work, we should listen and we should change it. The farming budget should be demand-led by farmers – I don’t believe in EU style "pillars" and I want farmers to be supported in the choices that they take for their own businesses.

We also have flexibility now, something we certainly didn’t have as members of the European Union. Many of my own constituents in Richmond, Yorkshire, are farmers and I can remember speaking to them about some of the utterly absurd rules that they had to abide by, with fines for things like gateways being the “wrong” width.

We can use our new policies to adapt to the challenges that we face. For example, I supported bringing forward 50 per cent of the Basic Payment Scheme to July to help ease cashflow pressures.

When it comes to grant schemes, they must support farmers to increase their productivity and profitability. We have just seen the impact of exceptionally dry weather, and as part of my plan to boost our resilience to drought, I would make sure that our grant schemes fund things such as trickle irrigation to help farmers make more efficient use of water.

Farmers are the stewards of our natural environment. I passionately believe that farming and the environment can and must go hand in hand. They are two sides of the same coin. We cannot have successful food production if we don’t look after the natural assets that support it. But we need to make sure that the right support is in place and that it is accessible for all, including tenant farmers.

We must also protect our best agricultural land. On my watch, we will not lose swathes of our best farmland to solar farms. Instead, we should be making sure that solar panels are installed on commercial buildings, on sheds and on properties. Likewise, we must protect our best farmland from rewilding, which should not take place at the expense of food production.

While our farmers are facing huge challenges, there are also big opportunities ahead. Our manifesto was clear that we want people at home and abroad to be lining up to buy British.

At home, I am clear that we should be supporting local produce and the public sector should lead by example. There are also opportunities for British produce overseas – for example dairy in India and Canada, and lamb in the Middle East. But we need to fight for them.

In any trade negotiations, I would fight for the interests of our farmers and food producers rather than trading away their interests for the sake of meeting self-imposed deadlines. To be clear, I am very pro-trade and I am very pro-farmer, and the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

If we let our farmers down, we will be rightly punished at the ballot box at the general election. Our farmers are the lifeblood of our nation. As Prime Minister, I would listen to them, work in partnership with them and make sure that they are supported to underpin the food security that is so important to us all.