Solar Farm Planning Permission: The Ultimate Guide

Topic: new solar projects Read Time: 14 mins
Landowner type:
Independent landowners | Institutional landowners
Energy: Solar
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Are you looking for an in-depth rundown on solar farm planning permission in the UK? This ultimate guide covers everything from planning difficulties to differing requirements between the devolved nations.

When we speak to landowners, planning permission is always a worrying sticking point. Whether they’re concerned about getting it for a new project or are confused about the many processes behind it, it’s certainly a tricky part of any renewable energy project.

But in our book, solar farm planning permission doesn’t need to be a minefield. So, to help you, we’ve put together the ultimate guide to planning permission for new solar projects.

Our goal is to demystify everything for you. So, we’ll cover everything from planning permission definitions to a detailed look at current processes across the devolved nations.

Now, let’s get straight to it.

In its most basic terms, planning permission is:

“The approval given by a local authority under the power given to it by the 1948 Town and Country Planning Act to allow the building of, or changes to, a building. Its primary purpose is to ensure that any proposed development aligns with local planning policies, considers the impact on the surrounding area, and adheres to design and safety standards.”

The process involves contacting a local authority, submitting plans, and having your application assessed.

In the UK, you’ll need planning for everything from:

  1. Extensions
  2. Renovations
  3. Building a new house
  4. Altering listed buildings
  5. Building a large-scale project (like a solar farm or wind project)

The type of planning permission you’ll request for solar farms will differ depending on the proposed size. Solar farms with a generating capacity of less than 50 MW will require permission from the Local Planning Authority (LPA).  If their generating capacity is above this level, they’re considered Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs). These enormous projects require permission from the Secretary of State for the Department of Energy Security and Net Zero.

Just so you know, official guidance states that you’ll need planning permission for any panel system larger than 9 metres squared. So, larger domestic projects will also need to look into getting planning permission.

Simply put, if you try to make significant changes to your land without legal permission, you’ll quickly find yourself in hot water. This is because all projects that may negatively impact the UK landscape are closely vetted to keep the country looking uniform. While planning permission may be considered too strict in the UK, it does prevent the landscape from being engulfed by unnecessary projects. So, planning permission is both a legal requirement and a way to manage the way the UK looks.

To explain why solar farm planning permission is so hard to get, we need to look critically at the history of subsidies in the UK.

The number of applications for solar farms with a capacity over 1 MW submitted to LPAs increased yearly between 2010 and 2015. However, following a reduction in subsidies, it dropped substantially in 2016 and 2017.

These subsidies took the form of Renewables Obligation Certificates, which the government initially introduced in 2002. They supported new renewable energy projects and accounted for 40-50% of the average project’s income. To get an idea of the scale of this scheme, during 2015/16, 90.4 million ROCs were issued based on 69.1 TWh of renewable electricity generation.

While the closure of this scheme to new projects in 2016 halted progress quite a bit, it didn’t stop it entirely. Some developers felt that new solar projects needed to be more financially viable. Still, the capacity of planning applications to LPAs has increased substantially over time, from an average of 4 MW in 2010 to 27 MW in 2022. So, we wouldn’t necessarily say that ROC removals led to a significant decrease in applications.

Now that you’ve got some context, let’s take a closer look at the figures.

Around two-thirds (66%) of the planning applications for solar farms with a capacity over 1 MW submitted to LPAs in England between 2010 and 2022 received planning permission. 11% were refused permission, and 14% were either abandoned or withdrawn by developers. It’s not all doom and gloom, as the Secretary of State has approved 3 out of 9 large-scale NSIP solar applications since 2018. But if we’re to meet net-zero obligations, we have a long way to go.

Local authorities rarely grant planning permission for sites on high-quality agricultural land. They will have bookmarked these as “best and most versatile” plots and reserved them for farming. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but sites graded 3b and above are far more likely to get planning. To give you some context, here’s a rundown of the different agricultural gradings.

Agricultural GradingMeaning
Grade 1 – Excellent Quality Agricultural LandThis land has no limits to agricultural use and is basically considered perfect. It can support plants, fruit, and vegetables. It generally offers high yields.
Grade 2 – Very Good Quality Agricultural LandThis land is somewhat limited, and landowners may see some effects on harvests or crop yields. However, it’s still very high quality and supports everything but demanding crops like winter harvested vegetables.
Grade 3a – Good Quality Agricultural LandThis land is capable of producing moderate to high yields of some arable crops like cereals. The crops need to be less demanding than those commonly grown on Grade 1 and 2 land.
Grade 3b – Moderate Quality Agricultural LandThis land is capable of producing moderate yields of a narrow range of crops (mainly cereals and grass).
Grade 4 – Poor Quality Agricultural LandLand in this bracket suffers from serious limitations that may reduce the types of crops that can be grown here. Yields are variable and there are often difficulties with growing much of any crop.
Grade 5 – Very Poor Quality Agricultural LandThis land restricts use to pasture or rough grazing as it’s of extremely poor quality.

It’s also partly down to political opposition. The Conservative Party has been preaching the importance of reserving land for agriculture for several years. However, this doesn’t align with public opinions on solar in the UK. Most of the country supports solar, but the government is reluctant to encourage new projects or change current planning rules.

Solar farm planning permission has always been relatively difficult to get, and significant changes aren’t set to come anytime soon. However, there is a glimmer of hope for solar projects.

In line with net-zero efforts, the government also said it would set up a government-industry solar taskforce in 2023 to achieve 70GW of solar power by 2035. It also said it would publish a roadmap in 2024, setting out step-by-step plans for furthering the deployment of solar energy.

The solar industry has praised these developments. Changes to planning permission are hoped to give developers the confidence to invest in new renewable energy projects. Although this “Mission Zero” review has yet to come to fruition, it’s hoped that it will be one of the first steps toward loosening planning regulations.

In England, solar farm planning permissions are split into two distinct categories.

Developers will either:

  • Submit their application to Local Planning Authorities for smaller-scale projects


  • Submit them to the Secretary of State for DESNZ if they’re above 50 MW.
Photo of English countryside

LPAs will decide on planning applications in accordance with the government’s National Policy Framework Planning (NPPF) and their Local Plans. Generally, the NPPF guides development away from high-quality agricultural land and will only approve applications in these areas when necessary.  This is incredibly rare, which explains why most planning proposals are for land graded 3b and above.

The LPAs usually look at the following factors before deciding to grant planning permission to a new English solar project:

  • The cumulative impact of the project on its surrounding amenities and landscape
  • The effect that the solar project may have on Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty
  • Information about the sizing, colour, and design of solar projects and how they will complement or distract from the local area
  • The visual impact from any glare caused by the panels

Overall, LPAs primarily seek to grant permission for areas not designed for agricultural use.

We’ll start this section by mentioning that NSIPs applications are few and far between. And that’s simply because very few solar farms are above the 50MW threshold. However, the Secretary of State makes the final decision about whether to grant or refuse development consent for an NSIP. Developers won’t need further approval if the Secretary of State approves the project. 

For this reason, it may take longer to grant planning permission for these projects (if it’s granted at all). Before it reaches this point, the Planning Inspectorate will review the project. They’ll then present the application to the Secretary of State.

Now that we’ve reviewed the general makeup of planning permission in England, let’s examine how this differs across the devolved nations.

Photo of Cambrian Mountains in Wales

Solar farms in Wales will require planning permission from an LPA or dedicated Welsh Ministers. If they’re larger, they’ll require development consent from the Secretary of State for DESNZ (like England).

One main difference here is that farms with a generating capacity above 10 MW are considered Developments of National Significance (DNSs).

These require development consent from the Secretary of State for DESNZ under the Local Planning Act 2015. This is considerably more than the 50 MW cutoff for large projects in England. Anything between 10 MW and 350 MW will be referred to the Secretary of State and reviewed as quickly as possible. However, aside from the size cutoff, the review process is identical to those seen in England.

Permitted development rights cover any project under 50kW. So, you won’t need to seek planning permission for these projects.

In Scotland, the UK government is not remotely involved in deciding on solar farm planning permission. Instead, applications exceeding 50 MW will go straight to the Scottish Government Energy Consents Unit (ECU). Scottish Ministers will then answer individual developers about whether a project is feasible and will proceed.

Any project exceeding 20 MW will be referred to the equivalent of Scotland’s Local Planning Authorities. However, Scotland requires all developers to present their projects to the local community before they submit a planning application (regardless of size).

In Northern Ireland, the Department for Infrastructure decides whether a solar farm is regionally significant. Usually, any project above 30 MW is considered by the panel before being marked as significant. Any application below the 30 MW mark is made to the relevant Local Planning Authority.

So, like in the rest of the UK, there’s a marked distinction between significant developments and typical developments. Like in Scotland, developers need to run potential plans past the local community before filling out and submitting an application.

Solar panels on a residential home's roof

If you plan to install four or five solar panels on your roof, it’s unlikely that you’ll need to apply for planning permission as the project is incredibly small. However, panels up to 50kW on rooftops don’t need planning permission (as they’re considered permitted development).

If you’re dealing with a commercial property, you can install up to 1 MW on a rooftop before you need planning permission. However, between February and April 2023, the government proposed increasing the threshold for commercial properties. So, commercial buildings could install far more panels before requiring planning permission.

In short, domestic properties need far less “permission” than larger solar farms – and it’s because they’re less intrusive and don’t typically impact the community.

The planning process for solar farms is relatively straightforward but involves several steps. We’ll briefly run you through each step to give you an idea of what to expect as a project progresses.

Any developer will first find a suitable site before applying for planning permission. We won’t go into too much detail about this here, as we have a dedicated rundown on what makes a site suitable for solar development.

However, a typical, promising solar site will have:

  • Flat ground
  • High levels of solar irradiance
  • A decent number of sunshine-heavy days throughout the year
  • A lot of space (around 200 acres is usual)
  • Sturdy soil for mounting panels

Download our Solar farm checklist to find out if your land is eligible for a solar farm project.

    A Local Planning Authority will only sometimes request an Environmental Impact Assessment, but certain developments will need them. It intends to ensure that the environmental impacts of a proposed development are assessed and can be considered by decision-makers (the LPA or the Secretary of State). The Levelling Up and Regeneration Act 2023 allows the government to replace environmental impact assessments with ‘environmental outcome reports,’ but this is only applicable to specific projects.

    These impact assessments aim to show a project’s overall environmental and socio-economic impacts on the landscape. Developers are asked what actions they plan to take to minimise negative impacts of the project. The developers compile their findings and present them to the regulatory authority for review.

    If your site falls on Grade 3a land or below, you’ll need to provide the following information in addition to the impact statement:

    • Explain why the site needs to be located on this land instead of in a less agriculturally valuable area.
    • Information about the impact of the proposed development on the area’s supply of farming land.
    • Viability of a farm’s ability to function with the development in situ (if the site is part of an existing farm).
    • A rundown of the cumulative impact of the proposed development on the supply of agricultural land within the same classification across the local area.

    Suppose a solar farm will significantly impact habitats or species protected by the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017. In that case, the LPA usually undertakes a Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA). For context, there are 656 special areas of conservation and 286 special areas of protection in the UK. So, if a developer proposes a project in any of these areas, they’ll need an HRA.

    At the application stage, a developer pays a planning application fee and provides the Local Planning Authority with extensive information.

    This includes (but isn’t always limited to):

    • Location plans
    • A site/block plan
    • Elevations for the site
    • A design and access statement
    • A supporting statement for the project
    • Fencing specifications and details
    • Details of Grid connection
    • A landscape/visual assessment to outline how the project would impact the local area
    • A Flood Risk Assessment
    • Construction Traffic Management Plans

    Generally, solar PV projects on previously developed land—such as brownfield, contaminated, or industrial land—are preferable.  Any project submitted on land with natural beauty is unlikely to be approved, as the impact on the surrounding area would be deemed too great. At this stage, developers will also meet with a planning officer. After all the meetings take place, the LPA will consider whether they should grant the project approval.

    If the Local Authority grants planning permission for the site, the developer can start construction as soon as possible. However, if the project isn’t granted approval, it will either head to the appeals stage or be abandoned. Projects aren’t usually abandoned until the appeals stage is exhausted, but the decision at this stage is usually final.

    In a February 2024 report on solar planning, the government highlighted that the average time for a decision on NSIP-level projects has increased to 4.2 years. This figure is up significantly from the 2.6 years that used to be commonplace in 2012.

    Although the actual planning application takes roughly this long, you’ll also have to work the following considerations into a project’s timeline:

    • Option agreement negotiations
    • Feasibility studies
    • Grid connection applications
    • Construction
    • Power Purchase Agreement arrangements

    All of the factors above can seriously prolong the time it takes to get a project fully up and running. In fact, there’s currently a Grid connection backlog that recently hit ten years. Now, many developers will apply for Grid connection as soon as the landowner has signed over their land. However, the process can still take years (even with serious foresight).

    It’s almost impossible to pin down an exact figure, as surveying the land, applying for checks, and paying application fees can yield very different numbers. Application fees were said to have risen 20% in 2018 to £462 per hectare. For the average 200-acre project, this would put planning fees at approximately £36,960. While this figure isn’t an exact science, it gives you a decent idea of just how expensive these projects can be to fund. And that’s before construction and maintenance costs are added to the mix.

    Sadly, you can’t do much to boost your chances of getting planning permission. Not only are there several hoops to jump through during the application phase, but Local Planning Authorities are generally incredibly strict. It isn’t personal, but they’re forced to follow strict planning regulations that only leave a little leeway for projects that don’t fit a specific mould. Unless the government significantly loosens planning regulations, the best developers can do is approach local authorities in areas with green-lit projects underway. This way, you’ll know that the local authorities have already approved projects nearby. So, your chances of ALSO getting approved increase significantly.

    Many things can hold up solar projects, but Grid connection is the most significant barrier. Solar Energy UK said that a survey of its members in 2022 found that Grid connection issues delayed at least 40 projects in that year alone. This represents approximately £1.37 billion of blocked capital from new projects. Aside from Grid connection holdups, projects can also face resistance from residents.

    For example, residents in Eynsham Village in Oxfordshire recently protested a solar development called Botley West Solar Farm. This would cover 18 kilometres of countryside and power approximately 330,000 homes. However, the residents claimed that the project would be “just too big” or “not right for the area.” To add insult to injury, they claimed that the development would cover too much agricultural land in the surrounding area.

    So, while over 80% of the general public support solar, a small portion of the country can certainly slow down (or halt) planning permission for new projects.

    Over the years, obtaining planning permission for solar in the UK has become more complex. However, there’s still reason to be optimistic.

    The government said it would update its National Planning Policy Framework (NPFF) in late 2023. This includes any policies relevant to deploying solar power as part of a package of planning reforms it intends to deliver as part of the Levelling Up bill. It consulted on the proposed updates to the NPPF between December 2022 and March 2023.

    Although nothing is set in stone yet, it’s hoped that the government will move things along quickly because of net-zero pressures. One of the bill’s main positive points is that it will make it more accessible for generators to repower existing renewable projects. The updated NPPF is set to advise LPAs to approve applications for re-powered sites where their impacts “are or can be made acceptable.”

    To make this even sweeter, the bill would require LPAs to consider “the relative value of agricultural and food production” when assessing and determining applications. So, if local authorities preserve agricultural land for the sake of it, they’ll need to think twice.

    As you can see, there’s a long way to go before getting planning permission becomes a seamless process. Until the government loosens planning regulations, developers will be unable to construct many new projects anytime soon.

    We’re not saying that the government shouldn’t try to preserve agricultural farmland. However, we simply must approve more projects to reach net-zero limits by 2050. This way, the UK will have a greater percentage of its overall energy mix coming from solar, reducing our reliance on natural gases, oil, and coal.

    If you want to learn more about planning permission in the UK (or need help to get it), get in touch. Our expert team is well-versed in the ups and downs of solar farm planning permission, and we’ll happily guide you through it.