Dramatic falls in the cost of installing new wind turbines and solar panels mean that the biggest barrier to a low-carbon energy secure grid is not the cost of the infrastructure itself, but our broken planning system. 

Britain’s coastline has some of the strongest and most consistent winds in Europe. We have already made massive progress in harnessing this abundant natural resource building the world’s largest offshore wind farms off the coast of Yorkshire, the world’s best offshore wind turbine testing facility in Blyth, and one of the world’s biggest offshore wind turbine factories on the site of Redcar’s old steelworks.

To end our reliance on imported fossil fuels by 2030, we need to go even further and move even faster by tripling the amount of energy we produce from offshore wind. It can be done, but only if we change the way our planning system works.

As it stands, it can take up to 13 years for an offshore wind farm to progress through the planning system and start generating power, despite construction only taking two to three years. Off the coast of Yorkshire, construction on the world’s largest offshore wind farm, Hornsea Three, is about to begin but it nearly didn’t happen due to unnecessary delays. To get approval, renewable developer Ørsted produced an environmental impact assessment five times the length of War and Peace and were still forced to wait two and a half years for a yes-or-no answer.

It is possible to put up an onshore wind farm in less than a month, but England isn’t building the cheapest source of clean power because it is nigh-on impossible to get planning permission. In fact, since Putin’s invasion, Ukraine has installed more than 12 times the onshore wind turbine capacity than England. The 2015 de facto ban on onshore wind, where one objection was enough to stop a project, may have recently been lifted, but England’s planning policy still treats it harshly.

The cost of solar panels and batteries have fallen over the last decade by 87% and 82%, respectively. Solar could play a vital role in our energy mix but planning delays, restrictions on development, and unnecessary costs, like the requirement to do larger-than-necessary archaeological digs, hold it back.

To cut bills and become energy secure by 2030, we need to unlock an additional 70GW of renewable power generation. To do that we need to get building faster. 

The time it takes to build an offshore wind farm must more than halve to six years. The time it takes to build even the largest onshore wind farms must fall to less than five years. Timelines for smaller onshore wind and solar farms need to be cut by even more to just under one year. It will be hard, but it can be done.


Fully ending England’s ban on onshore wind

Onshore wind is one of the cheapest sources of power, but barely any projects are coming forward in England due to planning rules. To get more clean cheap renewables built, the next government should remove remaining anti-onshore wind rules from the National Planning Policy Framework. The ban on onshore wind projects using the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project system should also be lifted, bringing onshore wind in line with all other types of energy generation.


Creating new clean energy zones for onshore wind and solar

To get planning permission to build, solar and wind developers can be required to produce environmental impact assessments stretching to almost 15,000 pages, even though clean energy is clearly good for nature and the environment. Britain should adopt the European Union’s new policy of exempting most solar and onshore wind projects from the requirement to do an environmental impact assessment in special areas of low biodiversity value.


Taking a smarter approach to environmental protection

Britain’s approach to environmental protection is failing. Forcing renewable projects to produce mammoth environmental impact assessments has not prevented Britain from becoming one of the most nature depleted countries in the world with every key biodiversity indicator from farmland birds to insect life in decline. A better approach is possible – one that unlocks more money for nature recovery while getting more green energy built. To reverse the decline in biodiversity, the government should replace Environmental Impact Assessments and Habitats Regulation Assessments with Environmental Outcome Reports that are hundreds (not tens of thousands) of pages long.

The next Government should simplify the long and overlapping list of protected sites, strengthening protections in areas with high natural capital and restoring habitats with private sector investment from clean energy providers, while greenlighting clean energy projects in areas with poor biodiversity.

Where projects are likely to lead to negative environmental outcomes, developers should either be required to purchase off-the-shelf nature recovery solutions from a government-approved list that is linked to species abundance targets in the Environment Act - or contribute to a central Nature Restoration Fund that is deployed to bankroll the recovery of species by 2030, in line with the strategic targets set out in the Act. A version of this approach partially exists for offshore wind already, but should be extended to all infrastructure.


Changing the way we do consultations to cut delays and prevent lawsuits

Britain has a problem of over-consultation. When done well, consultation can improve projects and address local people’s concerns, but fear of legal challenge is leading to round after round of consultation holding up development. There’s a better way. Britain should create a National Consultation Commission modelled on the French Commission Nationale Du Débat (CNDP) public and give it an explicit proportionality mandate. The commission would make clear to developers what is and isn’t needed eliminating unnecessary delays.


Fast-tracking all clean energy projects

To hit the UK’s 50GW Offshore Wind target, the Government has promised to cut statutory planning timetables by a third for offshore projects. This positive change should be extended to all clean energy projects.


Scrapping unnecessary and disproportionate trenching rules

In order to gain planning permission, solar developers can be forced to carry out massive archaeological digs even though scanning technology is available, which can more easily identify whether any artefacts are present. For the largest solar farms, trenching rules can require excavating the equivalent of 50 football pitches and cost millions of pounds. This represents up to half the cost of solar planning applications. The government should remove these unnecessary requirements given the minimal impact of solar farms on artefacts below the ground.