January 28, 2012
Opinions, U.K.

Trouble in the air for Cameron as angry Tory MPs aim to blow his wind farm vision off course

Jonathan Reed, Yorkshire Post, www.yorkshirepost.co.uk 28 January 2012

When David Cameron sought to overhaul the image of the Conservative Party, he urged people to “vote blue, go green”.

It included a trip to the remote Norwegian island of Svalbard to see for himself the impact of climate change – including that infamous photo opportunity being pulled on a sledge behind a pack of huskies.

But in the corridors of Westminster, Mr Cameron is finding that going green is not as straightforward as he may have hoped.

And there’s one topic in particular which is reaching boiling point within the Prime Minister’s own ranks – onshore wind farms.

Wind power has been controversial for as long as it has been part of UK plans – under governments of all colours – to generate more renewable energy and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

Clean and in plentiful supply according to its supporters, critics brand it expensive and unreliable. But economics aside, it is the visual impact of wind farms that causes the biggest stir.

Last year, the Yorkshire Post revealed that more than 100 industrial turbines were already installed across the region, with at least 250 more being planned. And developers have made clear they intend to bring forward even more projects.

In North Lincolnshire and East Yorkshire, communities feel they are shouldering more than their fair share of wind farms, with ferocious campaigns against many of the plans.

Elsewhere in the region, there has also been anger at plans for turbines to be installed near beauty spots like Bolton Abbey and even cherished Yorkshire Dales landscapes like Wensleydale.

Yet, despite vocal community campaigns against wind farms and complaints that local people are powerless to block them, governments have generally continued with policies which back the installation of more onshore turbines.

The coalition announced last year that it will cut subsidies for onshore wind by 10 per cent from 2013 and says its Localism Act will give communities more control over where wind farms can be located, but Ministers continue to insist the technology remains part of the energy “mix” to keep the lights on.

On Parliament’s backbenches, however, the mood is changing. This week Tory MPs gathered in a House of Commons committee room to discuss a campaign against more wind farms, and Downing Street may be well advised to keep an eye on developments.

Many MPs, conscious of the battles waged by constituents against plans for turbines in their constituencies, feel at the end of their tether and now want the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to rethink its approach. Some would prefer backing for other renewables like biomass, while others prefer more nuclear power plants.

The instigator of the meeting was Chris Heaton-Harris, a leading light among the eurosceptic group of MPs elected for the first time in 2010.

Until now, he had been seeking to introduce his own legislation giving councils powers to set up exclusion zones banning turbines from being put up closer than a set distance to nearby homes.

But now he has changed his focus, and is taking on a bigger cause – “changing the mindset” of DECC where he claims officials “seem to only have eyes for wind energy”.

And the signs are he has healthy support among his colleagues.

Mr Heaton-Harris, MP for Daventry, admits his real aim in introducing his Bill in the first place was to “try and get the Government to stop for a few weeks and fundamentally review its massive support (through subsidies) for a renewable technology that I believe does more harm than good”.

On one hand, complaints about wind power are nothing new. But this new alliance – which is likely to attract support from sceptical MPs from other parties as well and unites those who oppose the visual impact of turbines with those who reject the economic argument – is significant for two reasons.

Firstly, most Tory MPs had previously accepted the Government’s pledge that localism – its flagship drive to devolve more power to local communities – will give more control over the location of controversial developments such as wind farms.

But now they are doubtful. Mr Heaton-Harris said he was “no longer sure this will be the case”, and others agree. One of the immediate priorities for MPs is to lobby for changes to the Government’s controversial planning reforms to give communities real powers over developments.

Secondly, with household budgets and the public finances strained and gas and electricity bills having risen in recent years, MPs are paying even closer attention to energy costs. And while there is no direct public funding, customers subsidise onshore wind generation through their bills thanks to the Government’s renewables obligation.

One MP rejected the notion that the campaign was a rejection of the party’s green credentials and insisted it was right to adopt a “sceptical view” of every area of spending in order to ensure good value, and many still question whether wind passes that test.

The good news for Ministers and MPs alike is that the advance of offshore wind farms – which are generally less contentious and promise to bring thousands of jobs to the Humber where turbines are set to be manufactured – means more attention is likely to be focused here in the future.

But Mr Cameron made clear this week that onshore wind will remain part of the plans, even if only “the most cost-effective” developments are supported.

As his own MPs prepare to turn up the heat, he may be about to find out that, just as getting people to vote blue in 2010 was more difficult than he had envisaged, going green may not be as straightforward as he had intended.

URL to article:  https://www.wind-watch.org/news/2012/01/28/trouble-in-the-air-for-cameron-as-angry-tory-mps-aim-to-blow-his-wind-farm-vision-off-course/