The public will find it more difficult to object to wind farms being built near their homes under rule changes planned by the Prime Minister, as more than a hundred sites are poised to go ahead.
The move would reverse reforms from 2015, brought in under David Cameron, requiring the buy-in of locals for developments to go ahead.
Those rules meant that wind farms built in England must be part of a “local plan”, requiring the local authority to explicitly support them. In practice, this has meant there is an “effective moratorium” on their construction, according to frustrated Whitehall insiders.
There are several developments that were given planning permission before the reforms, but never received a government subsidy to be built because the money was withdrawn under the Cameron government.
At least 135 sites are currently approved but awaiting construction, with planning applications submitted for a further 50 wind farms.
Hundreds more across the country which have been rejected by planners could yet be revived if the rules are changed.
Others have secured planning permission under the painstaking requirements imposed on the industry, but are listed by the Business Department as “awaiting construction” amid concerns about funding.
Boris Johnson’s government has already reversed the ban on subsidies, which could see new onshore wind farms being built in England in the coming weeks and months.
They include sites in Bury St Edmunds and Yatton, Somerset, in Conservative constituencies represented by Jo Churchill, a minister, and Liam Fox, former defence secretary, respectively.
Two more are expected to go ahead in Bristol and Beccles, a small town in Suffolk.
Onshore wind turbines generate about a tenth of UK electricity, most of which comes from Scotland, with more needed if Britain is to meet its “net zero” commitments by 2050. About 14 gigawatts of capacity is deployed currently.
When ministers devolved planning powers for onshore wind farms seven years ago, they promised it would ensure local communities had “the final say” over new projects.
The reforms were pushed through at a time when David Cameron reportedly told aides to “cut the green crap”, as Tory voters complained about wind farms spoiling views and levies on their energy bills.
However, industry experts say the result has been a ban on onshore wind development in England, owing to almost insurmountable hurdles that must be cleared by companies.
The rules require a chosen site to be included in a council’s local or neighbourhood plan, while developers must demonstrate that concerns raised by the community are addressed and that the scheme “has their backing”.
Only 10pc of councils have subsequently set aside areas for wind farms, while the vast majority of neighbourhood plans left them out too.
Frank Elsworth, head of onshore wind at Vattenfall Wind Power, says he agrees with the need to win community support for projects but warns that the current “blanket approach” has stunted investment in England.
More accommodating policies in Scotland and Wales have led to a greater number of wind farms being built there.
“It has put in place too many barriers in England and needs reform,” he said.
This is borne out by official figures, which show a 98.5pc drop in the number of onshore wind turbine applications since 2015, according to analysis by the University of the West of England.
In the five years to the end of 2014, applications for 333 sites with almost 1,500 turbines were submitted to English local authorities.
From 2016 to 2021, however, the figure plummeted to just 14 sites with 23 turbines.
The number of sites approved has dropped from 157 to 11, meaning that where before 1,614 megawatts of capacity was added to the grid during the previous five years, just 42 megawatts came on during the following period.
Instead, ministers have largely chosen to focus on offshore wind farms in the intervening years, which are for the most part out of the public view.
Dr Simon Evans, policy editor at Carbon Brief, says this misses a vital trick as onshore wind is cheaper and faster to build than offshore schemes that tend to require more infrastructure.
In fact, along with solar panels, it offers pretty much the cheapest form of electricity on the market.
Whereas a typical gas power plant costs about £359 per megawatt hour just to keep running at the moment, he explains, an onshore wind project might generate electricity for less than £50 per megawatt hour.
Better yet, onshore wind farms can be built in a matter of months, rather than years.
Dr Evans adds: “Onshore wind and solar are the cheapest sources of power out there and you can make it happen quite quickly.
“If the Government is serious about making onshore wind a bigger part of the electricity mix, they will need to ease the planning rules.
“Engineers realise that the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine, but even when you include the costs of strengthening the grid, building storage and backup capability, it is still the cheapest.”
Mr Elsworth agrees that planning policies in England should be loosened. He says a start would be to allow developers to propose wind farms for sites regardless of whether they are included in a local plan.
At the same time, the Government could issue policy making clear that onshore wind farms are beneficial and should be looked on favourably – but he stresses this should not be used to steamroll local communities.
“Clearly you do not want a situation where you just carpet the entire countryside with wind farms,” he says, “and there are areas that are protected and should remain untouched.
“But there are lots of other places where actually it would be very good for wind, and there are communities where they already exist where it has been very well-received.”
Data shows public attitudes to onshore wind may also be softening, with 80pc of respondents to a government survey last autumn saying they supported it.
That may not necessarily prove the case for everyone when asked if they should have one in their own backyard.
But if ministers can persuade communities to embrace onshore wind, the boost to Britain’s energy security – at a time when the Ukraine war has sent gas and oil prices soaring – could be a big prize indeed.
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