5 September, 2023
BusinessGreen, by Michael Holder

Proposed changes aim to 'increase our energy security and develop a cleaner, greener economy', but industry warns they will have negligible impact on renewable energy pipeline
Following days of speculation, the government has this afternoon moved to make it easier to develop new onshore wind farms in England, confirming plans to tweak planning rules that should allow projects to proceed if they can demonstrate a high level of support from local communities.

The new "streamlined" planning rules, which are due to come into effect from today, are designed to make it easier for local authorities to designate suitable areas for onshore wind development and provide guidance on how to determine whether a proposed project enjoys sufficient levels of public support.

However, the renewables industry was quick to warn the changes do not go far enough and amount to "a slight softening at the edges [of the current planning system], but nothing more".

Polls have consistently shown high levels of public support for new onshore wind farms, while green business groups, campaigners, and opposition parties have long called on the government to lift the 'de-facto' ban on the development of new turbines in England, which has been in place since 2015.

Current guidance means that new onshore wind planning applications can be blocked if they face a single complaint from local residents - a scenario that has resulted in onshore wind farm development virtually freezing since 2015.

However, in a written ministerial statement today Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove insisted that it had not been the "policy intent" of the original rules to block all onshore wind development in England.

As such, the government today confirmed changes to the National Planning Policy Framework that would broaden the ways that suitable locations can be identified for new onshore wind farms, including by communities themselves, and speed up the process of allocating sites.

It said the changes would ensure the whole community surrounding a proposed development would be given a say, rather than allowing for a small number of objectors to scupper a proposed wind farm. The government said the changes would "pave the way for more onshore wind projects to come online where they have community support".

However, precise details of how greater community input into onshore wind planning process will work in practice are yet to be unveiled, with the government saying it would come forward this autumn with more details on how to assess public support and how communities that host wind farms could benefit from lower energy bills.

Gove insisted the proposals, which are set to face opposition from some Conservative MPs who remain highly critical of new onshore wind projects, would help "increase our energy security and develop a cleaner, greener economy".

He also stressed the changes would would "only apply in areas where developments have community support", but argued the changes would "help build on Britain's enormous success as a global leader in offshore wind, helping us on our journey to net zero".

The announcement comes as the Energy Bill returns to Parliament this week, setting out plans to ramp up offshore wind, solar and nuclear capacity, in addition to backing the continued development of the North Sea oil and gas sector.

Energy Security and Net Zero Secretary Claire Coutinho touted the Energy Bill as "the most significant piece of energy legislation in a generation", arguing it would "help us provide a cleaner, cheaper and more secure energy system for the UK".

"Onshore wind also has a key role to play and these changes will help speed up the delivery of projects where local communities want them," she said.

The announcement was warmly welcomed from some pro-development and green energy groups, which have long fought for onerous planning restrictions on new onshore wind farms that have been in place for the past eight years to be lifted, pointing out that onshore turbines offer among the cheapest and quickest to develop form of new power generation available in the UK.

Sam Richards, founder and campaign director of Britain Remade, described the announcement as "a big win" and "a decision the Prime Minister should be proud of".

"Today's change tips the balance back in favour of local people who back onshore wind in their area, and should end the perverse situation we currently have whereby a single objection could block a development even if the majority are in favour," he said. "The changes will mean councils can use new ways of measuring levels of local support, something Britain Remade has being calling for - and our polling shows that in every part of England a clear majority would back new wind farms in their area.

"Lifting the 2015 ban will make Britain more energy secure, cut our dependency on volatile international gas markets, reduce energy bills for millions, and create high skilled jobs across the country."

Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said move was "long overdue" and could help to ease the upwards pressure on energy bills by reducing reliance on imports of expensive fossil fuels.

"Onshore wind is the cheapest form of clean energy and it was sheer madness for the government to have maintained barriers to new developments during an energy crisis that was triggered by our dependence on natural gas," he said. "We have all been poorer and colder because of the effective ban on onshore wind."

"It is quite right that communities have a say about the development of, and benefit from, energy infrastructure in their local areas. But the planning process has meant that a small number of individuals have been able to hold the country to ransom by blocking new onshore wind even where it has strong community support. Opinion polls show overwhelming support nationally for onshore windfarms."

The changes also represent a victory for a group of backbench Conservative MPs who had threatened to back an amendment proposed by former COP26 President Alok Sharma that would have forced the government to make good on its previous promise to lift the 'de facto' ban on new onshore wind farms.

However, the move could trigger a rebellion from a different wing of the party, with former Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg signalling that he now intends to vote against the government's energy bill.

Meanwhile, the government faced immediate pushback from some green energy groups, who argued the "minor" planning rule changes outlined today would do little to encourage significant new investment in onshore wind projects in England.

James Robottom, head of offshore wind at RenewableUK, said the "proposed changes don't go far enough".

"We will still face a planning system stacked against onshore wind that treats it differently to every other energy source or infrastructure project," he said. "A lot will be open to interpretation and there are still hurdles to navigate which remain in place. There has been a slight softening at the edges but nothing more. As a result, we're not going to see investment into new onshore wind at the scale needed to rapidly cut bills and boost energy security.

"While industry will work with government to see how these changes might be able to support a limited number of new developments, this is a missed opportunity to reinvigorate onshore wind in England after eight years of lost progress. It's clear that a significant number of Conservative MPs support holding the government to its promise to end the ban on onshore wind, and opposition parties are clear in their support for more significant planning reform. We need to build on this emerging cross-party consensus to develop a planning system that is fit for purpose, which supports communities who choose to host clean cheap energy projects, as well as our industry's ability to invest in them."

Alethea Warrington, senior campaigner at climate charity Possible - one of the most vocal green groups in calling for the effective ban on onshore wind to be lifted - pointed out that even under the proposed changes new onshore wind in England would still face higher planning barriers than new coal mines.

"It is extremely disappointing that, after months of dithering, the government is pandering to the backwards views of a few backbenchers rather than listening to people across the UK who are desperate for clean, cheap and secure energy," she said. "As we face unprecedented climate impacts and another winter of unaffordably high energy bills, it is mind boggling that this government refuses to get out of the way and ensure that all communities which want wind are able to just get on with it."

Greenpeace UK's policy director, Doug Parr, also branded the planning rule changes as "feeble tweaks" that will "result in very little wind".

"Developers will continue to face uncertainty over planning process and be beholden to quixotic decisions by local councils," he said. "Who will put their money into developing projects under those circumstances? Resistance to onshore wind is so ingrained into parts of the Conservative Party's psyche that - no matter how much we need cheap, clean energy to lower bills and slash emissions, and no matter how popular renewables continue to be - they just can't bring themselves to lift England's onshore ban."

And Labour's Shadow Climate and Net Zero Secretary, Ed Miliband, accused the government of having "bottled it again on onshore wind".

"It still remains easier to build an incinerator or a landfill site than onshore wind," he said. "The planning system remains stacked against onshore wind. This will mean higher bills and energy insecurity for Britain."