Large amounts of fertile Somerset farmland will be put out of action for 40 years after plans for a new solar farm were approved.

Novus Renewable Services Ltd applied to build a new solar installation at Preston Farm in the hamlet of Preston Bowyer, near Milverton.

Numerous local residents objected to the proposals, arguing that the UK’s food security was critical and there were more appropriate sites available for solar panels.

But Somerset Council’s planning committee west disagreed, arguing that the solar farm was needed in light of local housing growth and rising demands for electricity.

The solar farm will be built north of the existing farm buildings, with access from the B3227 which links Taunton and Wiveliscombe.

Once connected to the National Grid around one kilometre south of the main road, it will be able to generate around 24,000kWh of electricity – enough to power up to 7,000 homes across Somerset.

The majority of the site comprises agricultural land which is classified by Defra as grade 2 or grade 3a – meaning it is among the more fertile and versatile for growing crops.

The site will be operational for 40 years, with sheep being allowed to graze during its operation and the land being returned to full agricultural use after 2064 (though its operation could be extended under future planning applications).

Philip Knowles, who lives near the existing farm, was among the local residents who spoke against the plans when the council’s planning committee west (which covers major applications in the former Somerset West and Taunton area) met in Taunton on Tuesday afternoon (January 23).

He said: “Senior political figurers are concerned that we are installing these facilities at the expense of good agricultural land. Just because something is government policy doesn’t mean it is a good idea.

“We currently have a climate emergency – how much longer before we have a food emergency as well?”

“Forty years is half a lifetime if we’re lucky – who’s to say what condition the land would be left in? I expect this land will be lost to agriculture for good.”

Michael Davis, who lives in the neighbouring village of Halse, called for a decision to be delayed until information about alternative sites had been properly taken into account.

In a statement read out on his behalf, he said: “I am an advocate for solar energy, but you are being asked to make a decision without adequate information.

“We need to keep agricultural land in production – feeding the nation should be a priority.”

Somerset County Gazette: Plans for the solar farm.Plans for the solar farm. (Image: Novus Renewable Services Ltd)

By contrast, Dr. Ian Gauntlett (a retired anaesthetist and Milverton parish councillor), said Britain’s need for energy security should be the primary concern.

He said: “We’re facing a massive climate crisis. Urgent expansion of renewable energy sources is absolutely essential.

“With regards to agriculture, looking across the nation, ground-mounted solar panels take up just 0.5 per cent of usable farmland – four times as much is used for golf courses.

“This solar farm is fully reversible. The extreme effects of climate change are already wreaking havoc on our agriculture.”

Hannah Montag, who lives in Runnington near Wellington, added: “Through my work I have visited around 100 operational solar farms. They can be a haven for wildlife.

“Taking land out of intensive agricultural production means that it can become hugely valuable for wildlife and preventing surface water run-off.

“We are one of the most nature depleted countries in Europe. We’ve lost 97 per cent of our wild-flower meadows in the UK, and solar farms can help to mitigate that.

“We have more than enough land to become self-sufficient without imports – it’s our diet that’s the problem.”

Councillor Gwilym Wren (whose Upper Tone division includes the site) said he had mixed feelings about the proposals.

He said: “The loss of high grade agricultural land is a serious matter. I’m also not entirely happy with the applicant’s rationale, which is that this is the only suitable place in the area.

“This land has been in continuous arable use for some years, and if you do that its fertility starts to deplete. I’m an advocate of giving land a rest so it can come back, but I‘m not at all convinced that sheep are the best solution here.”

Councillor Mike Rigby (who represents the adjoining Lydeard division) contended that the solar farm would have a minute impact on residents’ lives compared to recent house-building.

He said: “As we sit here, more than half of our electricity is being provided by renewable resources. In order to fulfil the aims of our climate emergency, we’ll need a lot more than that.

“I think we need a really good reason to refuse new energy generation in our area. I’ve had several solar arrays built in my division, and the effects have been fairly negligible compared to 173 new houses being built on the edge of my village [Bishop’s Lydeard].

“I think this strikes the right balance.”

Councillor Caroline Ellis (Bishop’s Hull and Taunton West) added: “This seems to be an altogether better scheme than some. I’m impressed by the biodiversity net gain.

“I’d love to have solar panels on every roof, but that isn’t going to happen fast enough.”

The committee voted to approve the plans by eight votes to none, with three abstentions. Construction is expected to begin later in the year.