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Sam Hall: Why today's announcement is a positive step towards unblocking new onshore wind


Sam Hall, Director of the Conservative Environment Network

Today’s announcement is a positive step towards unblocking new onshore wind in England. It significantly loosens the two planning tests that were imposed in 2015 that have acted as a de facto ban. Although not a full liberalisation as some have called for, these revised tests open the door to new onshore wind investment in England, provide reassurance to communities that they won’t have schemes imposed on them, and ensure residents will benefit financially from hosting this infrastructure.


This move builds on ministers’ decision in 2020 to allow the technology to compete in Contracts for Difference (CfD) auctions. Sir Alok Sharma and Sir Simon Clarke, backed by the dozens of Conservative backbenchers who signed their amendment, deserve particular credit for their tireless advocacy. Through their constructive pressure, the government has today been encouraged to deliver on their commitment from December last year during the passage of the Levelling Up Bill.


Unblocking onshore wind is good energy policy, especially given persistently high energy bills. According to the government, onshore wind is the cheapest source of new energy available, alongside solar and offshore wind, even when the Climate Change Committee’s estimates of an extra £10-30 per MWh for balancing costs are taken into account. Analysis from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit found that the English planning ban, combined with an exclusion of onshore wind from two of the government’s CfD auctions, could have added around £800 million to UK energy costs last winter.


Lifting the de facto ban is also good politics. YouGov polling found that 63% of 2019 Conservative voters had a ‘favourable’ view of onshore wind, while over two-thirds of 2019 Conservative voters would support new onshore wind in their area. Following the Uxbridge by-election, speculation has grown about the government’s ongoing commitment to the environmental agenda. Moving to allow more onshore wind in England sends a positive signal about ministers’ enduring support for the net zero transition.


The renewables industry will understandably question why onshore wind, despite being a highly popular energy source, faces distinct planning barriers. But it is important to acknowledge that the rehabilitation of this cheap, clean source of energy is not politically straightforward. The views of onshore wind sceptics have become entrenched, even as opinion polling shows perceptions have become more favourable, technology costs have fallen, and the energy security imperative of generating more homegrown power has become apparent. The government has taken a cautious approach as a result.


Today’s statement is based on changes to two highly burdensome planning tests from 2015, which took decisions about new onshore wind farms out of local people’s hands. For each test, the government is proposing significant loosening of the requirements, while respecting the principle of community consent.


Under the first test, councils had to designate areas for onshore wind in their local plans, which often take many years to develop, consult on, and adopt. This test was designed to stop speculative onshore wind developments, but it became a massive barrier to any new onshore wind, with only 11% of councils including onshore wind zones in their local plans.


Under the new policy, councils can instead designate suitable areas in supplementary planning documents, which are significantly easier and quicker to produce. The government is also allowing councils to use novel localist planning tools, such as Local Development Orders, which would grant permission in principle for new wind farms in certain areas, following local consultation. These tools could provide a streamlined process for new onshore wind farms, especially ones that are community-led. Of course, councils won’t necessarily have the expertise or the capacity to know the best onshore wind sites, so it is crucial that DLUHC and DESNZ provide technical support.


The second test stipulated that all planning impacts from a proposed new wind farm had to be fully addressed before permission could be granted. This meant, in effect, that a single objector could stop an onshore wind application, even if a majority of local residents were in favour. The policy now requires that impacts are ‘appropriately addressed’. This is an improvement on what was consulted on earlier in the year (‘satisfactorily addressed’) in terms of both permissiveness and clarity.


While the ministerial statement is explicit that this ends the individual veto, the wording is still rather arcane. The commitment to produce further guidance on its interpretation is critical for derisking investment for wind developers. Polling from Onward and Public First shows that winning local support is greatly helped by developers offering communities financial incentives, which is why the government’s commitment to community benefits packages is so important.


The threshold for community support should be a majority of local residents, rather than unanimity. Ministers have expressed an openness to using innovative digital tools to gauge local views. This could see apps like Octopus Energy’s Winder used to demonstrate the support from the supportive silent majority for new onshore wind, even where there are a handful of vocal sceptics.


Overall the new policy does move things forward in several respects. The approach taken will help foster the emerging cross-party consensus around locally-led onshore wind developments. The key barrier now is renewables developers, who will be weighing up the planning risk under this new system. Clear guidance will help, but ultimately the rules will need to be tested. As has been widely reported, last year England installed just two turbines. The ultimate measure of success of this new system will be whether we can significantly increase that number.

 

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