4 September, 2023
BusinessGreen, by James Murray
Number 10 is reportedly in talks with rebel backbenchers over amendment that would end 'de facto ban' on new onshore wind farms in England
Rishi Sunak is reportedly poised to lift the 'de facto ban' on new onshore wind farms in England, almost a year after originally promising to do so.
The Telegraph reported this morning that Ministers have been locked in talks in recent days with a group of rebel backbench Conservative MPs led by former Business Secretary and COP26 President Alok Sharma, who are preparing to back an amendment to the upcoming Energy Bill that would force the government to ease planning barriers for new onshore wind projects.
Sharma unveiled the amendment earlier this summer, confirming at the time that it had secured backing from over 20 Tory backbenchers, including former Prime Minister Liz Truss. The group said it was "confident" it had the votes necessary to defeat the government, given Opposition parties have signalled they would back proposals designed to allow new onshore wind farms to be developed.
As such, Ministers have reportedly been locked in talks with MPs to reach a compromise deal that would see them drop their amendment.
The Telegraph reported that plans were being drawn up for a statement to the Commons this week committing the government to changing the current planning rules, which allow for an onshore wind farm planning applications to be blocked if just one person expresses opposition.
However, the rebels will be seeking watertight assurances that the government really will push through meaningful changes to the current planning rules, given the latest amendment was necessitated by the government's failure to honour a promise last year that reforms would be adopted.
A previous backbench rebellion last autumn headed by former Levelling Up Secretary Simon Clarke was only headed off by a commitment from the government that it would lift the effective ban on new projects. But a consultation on proposed reforms this
Spring left the current planning rules largely untouched.
"The government committed to change planning rules by the end of April 2023 to overturn the de facto ban on onshore wind, but this has not happened to date," Sharma said.
"This amendment therefore seeks merely to deliver on the government's own promise and help to unlock investment in one of the cheapest forms of energy, and ultimately bring down household bills and improve the UK's energy security."
Government sources told the Telegraph that Number 10 would back changes that would allow councils to "more flexibly address the planning impacts of onshore wind projects as identified by local communities" so that projects could be built "when it has been demonstrated that the planning impacts have been satisfactorily addressed".
The news was welcomed by Sam Richards, founder and campaign director of Britain Remade, who said: "Onshore wind is one of the cheapest forms of energy available, so if the Prime Minister is on the brink of lifting the senseless ban on building new turbines in England it's a hugely welcome development. This should be welcomed by everyone who wants to see Britain have a secure supply of energy that will bring down energy bills for millions of households.
"Our polling has found that people across the country back onshore with 67 per cent saying they would be happy with a wind farm development in their area. There is also a clear recognition of the benefits of clean growth with 69 per cent of people agreeing that tackling climate change is good for the UK economy."
However, industry insiders remain hugely concerned any compromise agreement between Number 10 and the Tory rebels based on the Sharma amendment would have a negligible impact on the pipeline of new onshore wind farm projects.
Industry insiders welcomed the amendment's requirement for the government to axe the rules that mean projects can be blocked if there is a single dissenting voice and introduce clearer guidance on when projects can be deemed to command community support.
But in an attempt to win over Tory MPs who are opposed to new wind farms, the amendment in its current form would also remove the right of developers to appeal if a planning application is rejected.
An estimated 40 to 50 per cent of current operational wind farms in the UK were refused planning approval at the first time of asking, with councillors frequently rejecting applications even if they had secured backing from planning officials. As such, many developers fear the proposed reforms would only make a modest difference to the risk profile faced by new planning applications.
"Unfortunately, just like the changes proposed in the recent National Planning Policy Framework consultation, the proposed amendments to the Energy Bill won't be sufficient to encourage investors and developers to go ahead with new onshore wind projects in England," said James Robottom, head of onshore wind at trade body RenewableUK. "The fact that there would be no right of appeal if a project was turned down by a local authority for any reason means that onshore wind would still be subject to significant restrictions which don't apply to any other type of infrastructure. So it would still be easier to get planning permission for a waste incinerator or a gas-fired power station than an onshore wind farm.
"Over 50 per cent of onshore wind projects currently operating in England were initially turned down by local authorities, or they refused to make a decision on them, so the odds would still be stacked against new projects going ahead. That's why we're still calling for a level playing field in which onshore wind is just treated like any other type of infrastructure - but it seems that those calls are falling on deaf ears."
Doug Parr, policy director at Greenpeace UK, similarly warned the amendment in its current form would have little impact on rates of onshore wind farm development. "This proposal looks like yet another example of this government deliberately blocking this country from having genuine energy security, lower bills and clean power," he said. "Why should onshore wind face more planning obstacles than new housing or roads when it's one of the cheapest, greenest and fastest forms of electricity to develop? The truth is that Sunak seems to be fudging this amendment to try and appease his backbench MPs with an ideological opposition to wind turbines."
In better news for the UK wind energy industry, energy giant RWE today announced that construction has officially started on its 1.4GW Sofia Offshore Wind Farm to install a subsea cable infrastructure to connect the north east coast to the site in the Dogger
Bank zone of the North Sea.
"Sofia is RWE's largest renewable construction project to date, and its furthest from shore," said Sven Utermöhlen, CEO at RWE Offshore Wind. "The project is setting new standards in terms of addressing innovation, sustainability, and engineering challenges.
The laying of the first section of export cable represents the culmination of 13 years of planning, preparation, and diligence, as well as a huge amount of support from suppliers and stakeholders alike."
The update comes just days ahead of the expected results of the UK's clean power contract auction, which is due to be announced later this week.
Fears are widespread that the contract for difference (CfD) auction round will deliver much less offshore wind capacity than previously anticipated, following repeated warnings from developers that the government has failed to adequately respond to the material and labour cost pressures facing the industry. Ministers announced a modest uplift in the budget for the auction round earlier this summer, but industry insiders have warned that the failure to provide more funding and increase the reserve price for the auction means only a handful of projects are likely to submit bids.
Experts have warned the failure of the auction could seriously jeopardise the hopes of meeting the government's target of delivering a net zero emission grid by 2035 and result in higher costs for consumers, given offshore wind projects can still deliver power at a significantly lower cost than new nuclear or gas-fired power plant projects.