A SOLAR farm plan split councillors on a choice between food and renewable energy.

Councillors voiced worries about "carpeting" arable land with solar panels at a time of uncertainty over food supply.

The decision came to a casting vote by a planning committee chairman and farmer who said: "We've got to have food."

Lightsource BP applied for planning permission to build a solar farm on fields at Croxdale Farms, Hett, adding to its two solar farms already approved in County Durham.

Kelsi Bolstad, representing the company, said the Hett Moor Solar Farm would help tackle energy security, climate change and net zero commitments.

She said it would save more than 14,000 tonnes of carbon emissions a year, like taking 7,000 large cars off the road, while planting more than 3,900m of hedgerows and continuing agriculture through livestock grazing.

She said it would bring 250 jobs during construction, 10 to 15 while operating, while contributing £1,000 per megawatt to a community benefit fund.

The farm would run at the 108-hectare site off the A688 Thinford Lane and Hett Mill Lane for 40 years before the land would return to its original use.

Ms Bolstad told councillors: "Safe, secure and low-impact domestic energy supply has never been more of a necessity as it is today in the face of climate change and geopolitical events pushing supplies to the brink.

"The climate is already in trouble. The stability we all depend on is breaking. The UN relayed the message that it's truly now or never to act."

The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, Croxdale & Hett and Ferryhill parish councils and one resident objected.

They raised concerns over the impact on landscape, conservation area, biodiversity, health and wellbeing, loss of agricultrual land and lack of community benefit.

Council landscape officers warned it would harm the character, quality and distinctiveness of the landscape and important views.

Senior planning officer Chris Shields said: "The application represents a significant renewable energy source with power for up to and over 13,800 homes.

"This would reduce dependency on fossil fuel power stations with the additional employment benefits as well as biodiversity and landscape improvements."

Planning officers argued this outweighed the harm and recommended approval.

Councillor Patricia Jopling said: "This is a very large swathe of arable land.

"I get quite worried every time we carpet our arable land. I agree with you on climate change, absolutely. But to me it seems so enormous."

The Northern Farmer: Cllr Patricia Jopling. Picture: Durham County Council.Cllr Patricia Jopling. Picture: Durham County Council.

Referring to Ukraine grain production, she said: "Do we look at our food security or do we look at the carbon footprint?

"This march of solar is not going to stop. We need to find ways that are not so invasive in my view."

Cllr Peter Molloy said: "Where are we going to grow our crops to feed the local population?"

He argued looking elsewhere would increase the carbon footprint: "I don't think it benefits us at all so I will be opposing this application."

The Northern Farmer: Cllr Peter Molloy. Picture: Northern Echo.Cllr Peter Molloy. Picture: Northern Echo.

Cllr Sam Zair said: "The problem I have is, where do we stop? We already have two large farms.

"We need to be more self-sufficient. We've got to strike an even balance here."

Cllr Craig Martin supported the plan, saying: "There's a great need at the minute for solar farms."

As councillors voted 5-5, chair Cllr George Richardson said: "I'm a farmer and I consider myself a countryman.

"Whereas we do need electricity, first and foremost we've got to have food.

"If we're going to take up 260 acres at least of agricultural land, that's a heck of a lot of bread.

The Northern Farmer: Cllr George Richardson. Picture: Durham County Council.Cllr George Richardson. Picture: Durham County Council.

"The actual cost of grain now has trebled. That's if you can get it. We can't afford to lose agricultural land.

"If you think food prices are high now, just wait a little while. They will really be astronomical.

"It's my opinion that we need to support agriculture and the production of food, particularly in these current uncertain times."

The proposal was refused with his casting vote.