David Cameron has been hit by a major protest by Conservative MPs over the Government’s backing for wind farms, The Sunday Telegraph can disclose.
A total of 101 Tory MPs have written to the Prime Minister demanding that the £400 million-a-year subsidies paid to the “inefficient” onshore wind turbine industry are “dramatically cut”.
The backbenchers, joined by some MPs from other parties, have also called on Mr Cameron to tighten up planning laws so local people have a better chance of stopping new farms being developed and protecting the countryside.
The demands will be a headache for Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary, who joined the Cabinet on Friday when Chris Huhne resigned after being charged with perverting the course of justice.
Mr Huhne, who denies claims that he asked his ex-wife, Vicky Pryce, to accept speeding penalty points on his behalf, was an enthusiastic proponent of wind farms. There are currently more than 3,000 onshore wind turbines in Britain.
At least 4,500 more turbines are expected to go up as the Government’s drive to meet legally binding targets for cutting carbon emissions sparks a green energy boom.
Critics say wind farms are inefficient because the wind cannot be guaranteed to blow at times of greatest energy demand. They are also said to be unsightly, blighting the landscape.
Wind farms are also accused of forcing up energy bills while swallowing disproportionate amounts of taxpayer-funded subsidies.
The Tory MPs, including several of the party’s rising stars as well as former ministers, say it is wrong that hard-pressed consumers must pay for the expansion of onshore wind power.
In the letter sent to No 10 Downing Street last week, which has been seen by The Sunday Telegraph, the MPs say they have become “more and more concerned” about government “support for onshore wind energy production”.
“In these financially straitened times, we think it is unwise to make consumers pay, through taxpayer subsidy, for inefficient and intermittent energy production that typifies onshore wind turbines,” they say. The MPs want the savings spread between other “reliable” forms of renewable energy production.
They have also called on Mr Cameron to change the proposed National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) so that it gives local people who object to proposed wind farms a better chance of victory in the planning process. The framework has finished a public consultation process and is awaiting the green light from ministers.
The letter reads: “We also are worried that the new National Planning Policy Framework, in its current form, diminishes the chances of local people defeating onshore wind farm proposals through the planning system.”
The number of Tory signatories to the letter, organised by Chris Heaton-Harris, the Conservative backbencher, means that the controversy could be the biggest protest to hit Mr Cameron since the Coalition was formed. Last October, 81 Tory MPs defied him in a Commons vote on holding a referendum over Britain’s future in the European Union.
The letter’s backers claim that while other Conservatives who are ministers and parliamentary private secretaries are unable to sign because they are part of the government “payroll”, they too privately support the move against wind farms.
It is understood that there is also support from the Treasury. Among the signatories are former Conservative ministers including David Davis and Christopher Chope, as well as party grandees such as Bernard Jenkin and Nicholas Soames. They are joined by several rising stars including Matthew Hancock, Nadhim Zahawi and Steven Barclay.
Mr Hancock, who is close to the Chancellor, George Osborne, said last night: “I support renewable energy but we need to do it in a way that gives the most value for money and that does not destroy our natural environment.”
Another Tory MP who signed the letter, Tracey Crouch, said: “It is tragic that we blight our countryside with hideous electricity pylons and now we intend not only to do the same with onshore wind farms but also to subsidise them.
“I’d much rather see better planning regulations and greater investment in other sources of renewable energy, which will protect the beauty of our countryside for future generations.”
Latest figures from Ofgem, the energy regulator, showed that £1.1 billion in taxpayer subsidies was paid to the producers of renewable energy in 2009-10.
Of this, about £522 million was for wind power, with most going to onshore wind farms. Much of this cash ended up in the hands of energy companies and investment funds which are based abroad.
The highest-profile critic of the onshore wind industry is the Duke of Edinburgh. Last year it emerged that the Duke claimed farms were a “disgrace” and they would “never work”.
Mr Huhne, by contrast, has described turbines as “elegant” and “beautiful”. His successor, Mr Davey, is thought to be bringing a more pragmatic approach to the Department for Energy and Climate Change.
Mr Davey says he is committed to promoting a “green economy” but has also stated that he is “conscious” of the impact on households of high energy bills in tough economic times.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “We need a low carbon infrastructure and onshore wind is a cost effective and valuable part of the diverse energy mix.
“The Government has commissioned a review of subsidy levels and we are proposing a cut for onshore wind subsidies to take into account the fact that costs are coming down.
“We are committed to giving local communities the power to shape the spaces in which they live and are getting rid of regional targets introduced by the last government.”
Mr Huhne’s departure caused a limited reshuffle. The political comeback of David Laws has been delayed to allow the former Liberal Democrat Treasury minister to get a “big government job” within months.
Coalition sources said they expected Mr Laws to be a “major feature” of a wide reshuffle being planned by Mr Cameron for late spring or early summer.
Mr Laws resigned as treasury chief secretary in May 2010 after it emerged he had used taxpayer-funded allowances to pay some £40,000 in rent to his homosexual partner.
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