The Chancellor has taken difficult decisions to put our public finances on a more sustainable footing. With spending on debt interest expected to hit £120 billion this year, the UK must get back to living within its means. But it’s equally important we tackle the root cause of this borrowing – the energy crisis – by building the cheapest sources of new clean energy.
The Chancellor rightly said clean energy is the route to shield households from global gas markets. But the truth is we are not delivering this strategy as wholeheartedly as we could. Onshore wind is now among the most popular and cheapest sources of homegrown power. Yet it is almost impossible to build a new onshore wind farm in England. Under current planning rules, the objection of just a single resident can stop development in its tracks, leaving us all paying more for our electricity each month.
Some of my colleagues will doubt me when I say that onshore wind is a vote winner. They will remember when turbines sprouted up all over the country, with local communities sometimes forced to host an expensive technology against their will. But things have changed: 73 per cent of those who voted for the Conservatives in 2019 support onshore wind near them. Wind turbines are, after all, symbolic of the fight against climate change, now consistently a top-five issue for voters.
There are also fundamental economic and national security reasons for reviewing our policy. The UK’s sluggish growth and exorbitant public borrowing are being caused, in large part, by ruinously high energy prices. The reason for European energy costs surging is Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent cuts to gas exports to Europe. By expanding our own home-grown energy supplies we will burn less expensive gas, protect ourselves against malign dictators manipulating global gas markets, and achieve greater energy sovereignty.
We all stand to gain from reducing our reliance on gas. The price of gas doesn’t just hit those with boilers, but also hikes up electricity bills because of how much we rely on it for power production. It pushes up the cost of food and cripples our manufacturing. Building more onshore wind stations means we need fewer gas-fired power stations running at full pelt, freeing up gas for heating and industry.
But while there are wider societal benefits, I believe those who host new infrastructure can and should benefit disproportionately. I welcome Octopus Energy’s scheme offering people £350 off their energy bills and innovative tariffs if they live near onshore wind farms. This approach could be the key to unlocking local support for similar new projects.
This is not an overnight fix to the energy crisis. The pipeline has withered away due to years of prohibitive planning restrictions. It will take a few years for firms to bring forward projects and start generating power. But we have a duty to start building a cheap, clean energy system that can power long-term economic growth.
Not every village or town will want turbines near them. We shouldn’t go back to the old system of forcing them on unwilling communities. But equally, it’s not right that there is a top-down veto. That is why I have tabled an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. It asks ministers to update national planning guidance to enable onshore wind farms to be built where there is community support. I urge my colleagues to back it.
I am concerned that we are not being honest with people about the costs of not building infrastructure. We cannot complain on one hand about our reliance on expensive imported energy, and then not permit the building of cheap, clean, secure energy here in England, even where people are asking for it. I hope ministers can start to put this right by liberating onshore wind.
First published by the Daily Telegraph. Simon Clarke MP (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) is a member of the Conservative Environment Network.