Audit of agricultural land needed before Meath Co Council accepts any more planning applications for solar farms

An audit of all agricultural land in Co Meath should be carried out before Meath County Council accepts any more planning applications for solar farms, an independent councillor has told Meath County Council.

That audit should be carried out in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Teagasc. This was necessary to establish a balance between sustainable development goals like zero hunger, good health and wellbeing and affordable and clean energy, Cllr Gillian Toole said. Her proposal was seconded by Independent Cllr Amanda Smith.

Cllr Toole said that she had tried to table an emergency motion on the subject at this year’s July meeting of the council because at that time she was alarmed at the number of applications for permission for solar farms. But another factor that alarmed her were reports about food security. She wondered where food supplies would come from next spring.

Council officials had replied to the motion stating that there was no provision within planning legislation which permitted a planning authority to refuse to accept a planning application. It was not open to a planning authority to create its own regulation unless it accorded with national policy, they said.

The cllr said she was raising the issue in the context of sustainable development. She said the council could use policies like those adopted in Cornwall and in Carmarthenshire where they had criteria for the acceptance of planning applications for solar parks. Certain land should not be developed for this purpose unless there was an outstanding need, Welsh authorities said.

Cllr Toole added that they had received a presentation from an official at an earlier strategic policy committee meeting in which it was revealed that the quantum of land projected for solar farm applications in Ratoath MD was 600-700 acres. When one looked at the number of applications made since 2017 there was just under 4,700 acres of land involved. Nobody should suggest she was objecting to solar, she said, but there should be a balanced approach to it. Because of the conflict in Ukraine, there was a continuing concern over the question of grain supplies. We were lucky in Meath to have Martry Mill available for home grown product, and also access to a mill in Dunany, Co Louth, she said.

Independent Cllr David Gilroy said that irrespective of the rights or wrongs of solar power, there was no legislation which would permit the council to refuse receipt of a planning application although he commended Cllr Toole for bringing the motion so that the subject could be aired.

Fine Gael Cllr Gerry O’Connor aid that there was a lot of merit and common sense in Cllr Toole’s motion but there was no legislation permitting refusal of application submissions. His party colleague Cllr Joe Fox said he knew where Cllr Toole was coming from but the motion did not make sense when it could not be implemented.

“We can’t refuse to receive a planning application, it’s as simple as that”. There was a danger that motions like this could be construed that the council was “anti-planning and anti-this and that”.

There was a danger that this could affect foreign direct investment, he said. Independent Cllr Brian Fitzgerald said that it was very hard to support a motion like this. He said there was 900 square miles of land in Meath. He said he was not a supporter of wind farms but would support solar because this was least damaging to the environment. He agreed with Cllr Fox that councillors should not send out a message that “we are against this and we are against the other”.