7 September, 2023
The Chemical Engineer, by Amanda Jasi

THE UK government has announced changes to planning policy in England that it says will allow onshore wind projects supported by locals to be approved more quickly. While some have welcomed the changes for lifting a de facto ban on onshore projects introduced in 2015, industry and experts don’t believe the tweaks will have much effect.

This came as the UK’s Energy Bill, also known as the Energy Security Bill, returned to parliament. Designed to boost long-term energy independence, security, and prosperity within the UK, the bill was introduced to parliament last July.

As the planning policy changes were announced, Claire Coutinho, secretary of state for energy security and net zero, said: “The Energy Bill is the most significant piece of energy legislation in a generation and will help us provide a cleaner, cheaper and more secure energy system for the UK.”

She said renewables are a crucial part of the energy transition and noted that the UK is already home to four of the world’s largest offshore windfarms. “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 added.

Michael Gove, secretary of state for levelling up, housing, and communities, said the changes “will help build on Britain’s enormous success as a global leader in offshore wind, helping us on our journey to net zero”.

The UK government said that renewable energies fuelled 42% of UK electricity generation in 2022, up from 7% in 2010. However, it noted it needs to “go further and faster to generate the clean and renewable energy the country needs”. The government said the changes to the National Planning Policy Framework build on the progress already made to expand renewables which has seen more than £120bn (US$149.8bn) investment since 2010, kickstarting new industries like floating offshore wind and tidal power.

Changes to boost onshore wind
In 2015, the government announced that planning applications for wind projects should only be granted if the location was identified as suitable by local development plans, and that impact concerns of communities were “fully addressed” and proposals had their backing. This led to a near-halt in new onshore projects, with even a single objection potentially stopping projects from getting the go-ahead. In a recent written statement, Gove said this was not the “policy intent”. Nevertheless, according to energy trade association RenewableUK, 2022 saw just two onshore installations in England while more than ten times as much UK offshore capacity was installed.

The government said that the changes now in effect streamline planning rules, meaning locals have a greater say in how onshore wind projects should be considered. It also expects that the changes will ultimately lead to increased national energy security and lower energy bills.

They were announced following a consultation on updates to the National Planning Policy Framework that concluded earlier this year. Among them is that suitable locations for developments can now be identified in several ways aside from Local Plans. In England, these plans are prepared by local planning authorities to set out a vision for the future development of an area. They must be reviewed at least once every five years.

Projects can now also be identified by means including Local Development Orders and Community Right to Build Orders, which simplify planning processes by allowing local authorities and individuals more power to propose and permit specific projects. This is expected to allow sites to be identified more quickly, speeding up site allocation, and ultimately bringing more clean and renewable energy online sooner.

Another change is that councils are encouraged to consider the views of communities as a “whole”, rather than deferring to the objections of a small minority.

Gove said that the government will publish a formal response to other wider proposals in the consultation this autumn. Around that time, the government will also respond to a consultation on proposals for improved benefits and rewards for communities backing onshore wind.

A missed opportunity
Sam Richards, CEO of economic growth campaign Britain Remade and former special advisor to the UK prime minster on energy and environment, is among those who consider the changes to have “dropped the effective ban on new onshore wind” in England.

He said: “[The] change tips the balance back in favour of local people who back onshore wind in their area…[It] 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.”

The decision was “long overdue” according to Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.

He added: “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. We have all been poorer and colder because of the effective ban on onshore wind.”

Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow climate and net zero secretary, claimed the Conservatives had “bottled it again on onshore wind”.

His view was echoed by James Robottom, head of offshore wind at RenewableUK, who believes the changes don’t go far enough and represent a “missed opportunity to reinvigorate onshore wind in England after eight years of lost progress”.

Robottom added: “There has been a slight softening at the edges but nothing more. We will still face a planning system stacked against onshore wind that treats it differently to every other energy source or infrastructure project. 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.”

Richard Howard, research director at power market analytics company Aurora Energy Research agreed that the development risk was still high, but added that onshore wind in England was not as economically favourable as at windier Scottish sites, regardless.

“Analysis by [Aurora Energy Research] suggested that lifting the ban would result in a few hundred MWs of onshore wind projects moving from Scotland to England but this is mainly displacement not addition, so [will have] little impact on overall emissions.”

Environmentalists also expressed their disappointment. The Guardian quoted Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK’s policy director, who said that developers will continue to be “beholden to quixotic decisions by local councils. Who will put their money into developing projects under those circumstances?

“If [Rishi] Sunak really cared about the climate, delivering energy security, or lowering bills, he’d stop obsessing over oil and gas and just actually remove the planning constraints to get wind turbines built here. It’s really not that hard.”

At the end of July, the UK government announced it would award hundreds of new oil and gas production licences, with the first of those expected to be granted in the autumn.