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Copper Insights: Will the next leader of the Conservative Party take UK solar into the sunlit uplands?

This opinion piece was written by Zak Ivany, Account Director working in Copper’s Energy Practice.

For now it remains difficult to predict specific policy changes for solar. What will likely be needed is a change in political style, and an increased willingness to have difficult conversations about the necessary trade-offs to match climate rhetoric with action.


As the current front runner and one of the first to trigger the swathe of resignations from Boris Johnson’s government last week, the closing words of Rishi Sunak’s letter to the Prime Minister will surely be ringing in the collective ears of the Conservative Party over the months to come. ‘I firmly believe the public are ready to hear the truth. Our people know that if something is too good to be true then it’s not true’.

This it seems will become the lasting epitaph of the outgoing Johnson administration. He never was a prime minister well suited to delivering hard truths. As in most other areas, his government’s record on solar development was indicative of this.

For three years Johnson’s style of government has run on big announcements and ambitious-sounding headlines. As a populist in the truest sense of the word, he’s been able to capture people’s imaginations in order to win. What has more often been lacking though is a willingness to have the difficult but honest conversations with the public and Conservative Party base about the trade-offs required to deliver real change that meets rhetoric, particularly when it comes to
the climate crisis.


Under Johnson the Government to its credit has set an ambitious target for an additional 56GW of solar capacity by 2035. This has led to a conversation in the country and within the Conservative Party that is largely focused on rooftop vs large scale solar, and the associated impacts real and perceived of nationally significant solar projects on communities and the local environment.


It is undeniable that the UK will need a mixture of types of solar development to achieve its net zero aims. In the long run however, nationally significant solar projects will be essential if the UK is to successfully phase out coal, oil, gas and over-reliance on energy imports at the scale and pace required to hit net zero.


Copper undertakes regular public attitudes and political research to understand sentiment towards both infrastructure projects and the consultation process. Our Attitudes to Solar Energy report in collaboration with Solar Energy UK earlier this year highlighted that nationally only 25% of people oppose solar schemes in their area, as opposed to 56% who overtly support them. This perhaps explains the
populist appeal of solar ambitions in the country at large.


To date only two nationally significant solar projects have been consented. Neither have yet been fully constructed. With a growing wave of even larger-scale solar projects coming through the development pipeline in UK, what there has been however is an equally large groundswell of opposition to these among the grassroots of the Conservative Party and their backbench MPs.


Following the Conservative Party leadership contest, a general election this calendar year now seems unlikely. The new leader will inherit Johnson’s 80 seat Conservative majority and a mandate to continue to deliver on the party’s 2019 manifesto, with few expecting major changes to topline energy policy of achieving net zero by 2050 and the targets set out in the British Energy Security
Strategy earlier this year.


The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) is still due to respond to its November 2021 consultation on the first, long awaited changes to the energy national policy statements since 2011. Further consultation is also due on strengthening planning rules in favour of solar development on non-protected land.


With the long parliamentary summer recess and the outcome of the leadership contest still ahead of us, it is difficult to predict specific policy changes for the time being. What is likely however is that whoever the next Prime Minister is, Johnson’s departure will surely mark a change in the tone and style of government more than anything. What is needed now is a move beyond the headline-grabbing national targets of the Johnson era. In its place what developers now need is more detail-oriented leadership and a legal and policy framework that can give them the confidence and support they need from government to be able to meet the lofty ambitions which have been set.

This could include:
• Providing a route map for more collaboration between government and business, as well as community and environmental groups
• Prioritising support for flagship nationally significant solar developments through the planning process
• Greater local spatial planning of small and medium scale solar sites, including to support community-led solar generation
• Guidance to better unlock the wider community benefits of solar, in addition to biodiversity net gain
• Putting solar at the heart of the UK’s long-term land management strategy to support the commercial viability of the British farming industry

Ultimately however, the most important thing the next Government will have to do is to start living up to its role as the country’s Explainer in Chief when it comes to the climate crisis, and level with those communities, particularly those in the Conservatives’ own heartlands, about the scale and pace of solar developments required to help decarbonise our electricity supply and ween our reliance on
foreign imports.


Regardless of whether it is Rishi Sunak or another contender that the Conservatives choose to walk through the doors of Number 10 this Autumn, the party will inevitably remember one thing from last week’s political tumult. The public are ready to hear the truth.

-ENDS-

Copper Consultancy is a communications, engagement and consultation specialist for infrastructure and development, taking projects from initiation through to operation.

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The public attitudes report cited ‘2022 A Bright Future for Solar: Realising the UK’s Potential, A Study into Public Attitudes to Solar’ was jointly delivered by Copper in partnership with Solar Energy UK.


Click here to download the full report.