Written evidence submitted by Robert Sturdy and Emma Sturdy (FS0004)



We welcome the Call For Evidence by the House of Commons Select Committee.  We have also submitted our written evidence to the House of Lords Land Use Committee earlier this year.  As there is a significant crossover between the two matters, there is much duplication in our submissions which deals largely with questions 5 and 6.



1.     We are Robert Sturdy (50) and Emma Sturdy (43) of North Yorkshire. The evidence which we set out below reflects the general knowledge and experience which we, and Robert in particular, have acquired from working full time in agriculture for approximately 30 years. It also reflects our more specialist experience in agricultural tenancies and the production of solar energy on agricultural land which we have acquired in recent years. We anticipate that our views will be shared by other tenant farmers whose views are all too often drowned out by the strident voices of the owners of landed estates.

2.     We fully endorse the comments by Rosie Pearson, Chairman of the Community Planning Alliance.



3.     Eden Farm is in Malton, North Yorkshire. It comprises 280 acres of mainly arable land, a range of traditional out buildings and Eden Farm House in which we live with our two children. Our farmland is good quality land enabling us to grow a variety of crops, wheat, barley, oil seed rape and fodder beet. We have approximately 100 beef cattle and we have 14 acres of grassland which makes hay to feed to the livestock in winter. For just over 20 years we have also recycled the local town’s garden green waste in an attempt to diversify and do our bit for the environment. This helps to combat desertification and reduce nitrate pollution of rivers and streams, restores degraded land and soil by returning carbon and nutrients back to the soils, reduces crop disease, increases biodiversity, adding compost and non-inversion tillage can considerably increase earthworm numbers.  The waste is turned into compost and spread on the land as a soil conditioner.  We have lots of wildlife on the farm, deer, buzzards, barn owls and a wide range of farmland birds. We do what we can to protect and look after the countryside in which our farm is situated.

4.     For centuries, the system of land ownership and agricultural cultivation in the UK has benefitted from large estate owners leasing agricultural land to tenants on terms which enabled tenants (and landlords) to engage in long term planning and investment which is necessary for good land management. The freehold of Eden Farm is vested in the Fitzwilliam Trust Corporation Ltd. (FTCL) and Robert is the leasehold owner, pursuant to an Agricultural Holdings Act tenancy dated 2014 which provides for a further generation to take over from him in due course. He is the third generation of his family to have lived at and farmed Eden Farm. This began with his grandfather in 1954 after which Robert’s father (John) took over and agreed a new AHA lease in 1971. Robert is the second generation under that lease.

5.     Robert’s lease (which is in much the same terms as the 1971 lease in his father’s name) contains a provision that is not uncommon in AHA tenancies, namely that if the landlord obtains planning permission for a non-agricultural development on the tenanted land, he can then serve on the tenant a notice to quit the relevant land. However, when the AHA was passed in 1986 no one had heard of solar parks and, generally speaking, the developments that were anticipated were for residential housing where systems were in place to ensure that they were in accordance with pre-existing planning policies. However, solar developments are not subject to similar restrictions, which has resulted in what might best be described as a planning ‘free for all’. The AHA includes provision for compensation for dispossessed tenants but this is now hopelessly out of date as will be apparent from paragraph 11 below.

6.     In October 2020, FTCL informed us that they were to apply for planning permission to develop a solar park on 130 acres of the land which is subject to our tenancy (with a further 50 acres of adjoining land which is subject to a similar tenancy in favour of a neighbouring farmer). The landlord further stated that if the permission is granted, they would then serve Robert with a notice requiring him to quit 130 acres of land that he and his family had farmed for the previous 68 years. This would leave us with a farmstead comprising only 150 acres, which would be insufficient to be a viable arable unit in its own right.  After having gained possession of the 130 acres, FTCL proposed to lease it to a developer who would construct a solar park comprising some 92,500 solar panels. Despite the landlord having stated on a number of occasions that the planning application was imminent, it has yet to make a formal application, thereby leaving us in a state of considerable uncertainty.

7.     The land which has been earmarked for development has been classified as grade 1, 2 and 3a land with a small area as 3b. Land of this quality is known as Best and Most Versatile Agricultural Land, or BMV land for short. The National Planning Policy Framework, Government policy set out in a Parliamentary Statement and the Ryedale District Council Local Plan all say that BMV land should not be used for solar development, for the simple reason that it is highly productive land and contributes significantly to our national food security. In contrast, solar developments can and should be sited on poor quality land, brownfield sites and roof tops. Despite this, those who seek to let their land to developers are set make huge amounts of money – in excess of £1,000 per acre per annum index-linked over forty years – and seem able to persuade Planning Authorities to grant applications which are not in accordance with the stated guidelines. In addition, of course, the developers themselves will generate further (and probably far greater) income from selling the solar electricity to the power companies. It seems to us that the dominant factor in the solar debate is not food security or climate change, but how much money land owners and developers can generate from such ‘get rich quick’ schemes.

8.     The situation which faces us as tenant farmers is very different from the situation facing those who farm freehold land. If a freehold farmer obtains planning permission to erect a solar park on his land, he can then lease it to a solar developer (typically for a 40 year term) who will pay him rent that is far in excess of the return that he can generate from farming – and without all the toil that such work entails. In contrast, if an estate owner obtains permission to build a solar park on tenanted land, the tenant will be evicted from his land, lose his livelihood and possibly his home and yet receive only a very modest amount in compensation (para 11 below).



9.     BMV Land. Our principal submission is that BMV land must be used for agricultural purposes to enhance the nation’s food security and maintain self-sufficiency levels. Non-agricultural development on BMV land should be prohibited by law, unless it can be proved that it is necessary for such a development to be sited on BMV land and that it cannot be sited elsewhere. However, even if this proposal were to be enacted, it will still be the case that the amount of BMV land that is available for agricultural purposes will decline because new land cannot be created and some non-agricultural development (housing, roads, commercial buildings, schools etc.) on such land will be an unavoidable necessity. In addition and at the same time, the population will continue to increase making greater demands on a reducing amount of agricultural land. This makes it all the more important that such BMV land as is currently in existence be used correctly and not be allowed to be diminished in consequence of ill-considered solar projects.

The recent Food Security Report published in December 2021 insists that biggest medium to long term threat to the UK domestics production is climate change.  As farmers who work outside in the natural environment every day, we see this too often and fully appreciate the concern and affect this has on our industry.  Wheat yields dropped significantly in 2020, largely due to the wet planting season of 2019 but they have bounced back and this harvest has been very successful for us in North Yorkshire.  We are fortunate to farm good BMVL land (including grade 3b) that can withstand the large periods of dry weather we have seen this year. 

The Food Security Report states that climate is likely to have a negative effect on the proportion of high grade arable farmland available in the UK.  It is for this very reason, that our good, prime arable farmland must be protected now.  Our Local Plans and NPPF say that our Best and  Most Versatile Land  (BMVL) should be avoided but this directive is being over-ridden by planners and developers alike.

If regulations are bought into place now to protect our good farmland for the longer term, renewables such as solar can be placed now on the land where our crops cannot be grown, brownfield sites or even better, warehouse rooftops.  This will enable the farmers to farm the good land in a sustainable and regenerative way alongside environmental schemes to enhance biodiversity. Farmers need the good land to be able to do this. If there is insufficient good yielding land available to earn a living, farming methods will only intensify which will have negative effects on the environment.

Following Brexit, land use and food production is undergoing a state of change, the impact of which is yet to be become clear.  By not protecting our good farmland for food, we risk seeing a reduction in our self-sufficiency as early as next year

We agree with the Government Food Strategy which states “our food system must not only feed our nation today but also protect it for tomorrow”.  It also states that it makes sense to focus land use change at the least productive land to increase the environmental benefits from farming, increase yields with minimal impact on food production. 

If we wish to maintain current levels, a simple action is required.  Regulations and stronger protections for our farmland.  Nobody is making any more land. If we look after the land, it will look after us. Our farmland is finite, it is precious and who knows what uncertainties we face in the future.  We were encouraged to see the Government backing British farmers in their recent Food Strategy and we are encouraged by this Call for Evidence but we must have planning regulations in place to protect the land and tenant farmers like us.

10. AHA 1986. Our relationship with our landlord is defined by a tenancy which is made pursuant to the Agricultural Holdings Act that was made law in 1986, before anyone had even heard of solar energy or solar parks. The Act needs to be brought up to date so that the rights and responsibilities of agricultural landlords and tenants reflect today’s world.

11. Compensation. The AHA includes provisions which require a landlord to pay compensation to a tenant if he (the landlord) serves a notice to quit. However, the level of compensation is not assessed by reference to the tenant’s future loss or what he has invested in the land or what the landlord is to gain in consequence of the tenant’s eviction. Instead, it is calculated according to the amount of rent that the tenant would have paid to the landlord for the next 6 years, a calculation that bears no relation to what either party may have lost or gained in consequence of the landlord’s decision to evict the tenant. Legislation must be enacted that will require landlords to pay to tenants compensation that is based on what the tenant has lost and, in part at least, what the landlord will gain by evicting a tenant who has otherwise fulfilled his obligations under the terms of his tenancy. However, if landlords are not to be deemed responsible for the payment of proper compensation to their former tenants for the loss of their tenancies, responsibility should pass to the public purse on the basis that the purpose of the eviction is the production of solar energy for the public benefit. It is frequently said that the public should adopt collective responsibility in the battle against climate change. It seems to us that, in reality, the burden of that responsibility is being placed on dispossessed tenant farmers rather than the general public or central government.

12. Solar Strategy. There are no national or (to the best of our knowledge) local strategies setting out how much solar energy the country requires, how much land should be earmarked for solar park development and where such developments should be placed. The consequence of this is that land owners/developers are rushing forward on a ‘first come / first served’ basis looking to get their developments authorised and built before the bubble bursts. Local Authorities are in the unfortunate position of having to grant or refuse such applications without any means of assessing them in a regional let alone a national context.  The Government must, as a matter of urgency, publish a solar energy strategy dealing with these issues.

13. Solar energy/agricultural produce. Public discussion on the subject of solar energy is frequently depicted as being a binary choice between solar panels on the one hand and agricultural produce on the other. This is a wholly misleading characterisation. The country needs solar energy and agricultural produce and this can be achieved without difficulty if solar panels are located on poor grade agricultural land, brownfield sites and roof tops and agricultural produce is grown on BMV land. This is in accordance with current guidelines but legislation must be passed to ensure that the two aspirations become an enforceable reality. Unlike agricultural produce, the quantity and quality of solar energy does not improve by being built on good quality land. In contrast, the quantity and quality of agricultural produce will decline if it is grown on poor quality land.

14. Planning Process. When an application is made to a Local Authority for planning permission, the individual members of the planning committee are able to vote for or against the application as he or she might chose. There are no enforceable regulations that are binding on the committee members. Their decisions should reflect the guidance set out in the Local Plan, the NPPF, Government policy statements etc. but there is nothing that compels them to do so and there are many other factors which may influence councillors’ decisions to grant or refuse an application. The situation is made worse by the fact that if a Council grants a planning permission which is contrary to the relevant guidance, those who are affected by this have no right of appeal although an aggrieved developer is entitled to appeal. Without losing sight of the importance of local opinion and individual discretion in deciding planning applications, consideration must be given to the codification and enforceability of factors that are of fundamental importance in planning regulations.

15. Land Values. When considering the respective and conflicting claims that landlords and tenants might have in relation to land that, in years past, had been of modest value, it should be noted that in many cases the value of land is no longer related to the value of the produce that the land is able to produce. The value of land can be, and frequently is, fundamentally skewed by two factors, firstly the grant of a planning permission and secondly the fact that agricultural land is exempt from IHT and therefore acquires a premium of up to 40% of its face value. This puts the purchase of agricultural land beyond the pocket of ordinary working farmers to the considerable benefit of those who are already financially advantaged.

16. We conclude by saying that if the Committee requires us to give evidence in person we would be happy to do so.

Robert and Emma Sturdy

26 April 2022