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Residents have been promised lower energy bills if they consent to wind farms near by, after a ban on turbines was relaxed in a deal with Tory rebels.
Planning rules were changed last night to make it clear that a single local objection cannot block onshore wind, as Rishi Sunak moved to head off a Commons defeat. However, wind turbines will remain harder to build than other projects, leading to accusations that Sunak had “bottled it” and predictions of only a few new sites.
A de facto ban was imposed by David Cameron in 2015 but Sunak promised changes last year under pressure from environmentalists and pro-growth Tories, who see wind power as a way to boost the economy and ensure domestic energy supplies.
MPs led by Sir Alok Sharma, the former Cop26 president, and including Liz Truss, forced the issue with an amendment to the Energy Bill, which had its final Commons stages yesterday, prompting ministers to make immediate changes to head off a vote.
Michael Gove, the levelling-up secretary, said: “Current policy has been applied in such a way that a very limited number of objections, and even at times objections of single individuals, have been taken as showing a lack of community backing. This is not the policy intent.” He said he was clear that supportive communities should benefit through discounts. He promised to set out details within weeks, with some schemes offering 10-50 per cent off.
Sharma said the changes were a step forward. Claire Coutinho, the energy secretary, said that onshore wind power had a key role to play and that the changes would speed up projects where local people wanted them.
Softer rules – but turbines will still be hard to build, say experts
Only a handful of onshore wind farms are likely to be built in England because the end of a de facto ban still leaves them harder to approve than other projects, experts said.
Changes to planning rules set out yesterday will make it harder for small groups to block new turbines, but industry leaders complained that wind farms would still be treated more stringently than other energy projects.
Conservative rebels had wanted wind turbines on land treated like other renewable schemes. Ministers rejected this, with updated planning guidance retaining a presumption against wind farms unless they have local consent.
However, councils have been given more ways to identify potential sites and told to allow online consultations, which could encourage younger voters to show their support.
Gove said: “We need to strike the right balance to ensure that local authorities can respond more flexibly to suitable opportunities for onshore wind energy, contributing to electricity bill savings and increasing our energy security as well as respecting the views of their local communities.”
He added: “We hope that this will mean sites are identified more quickly, speeding up the process of allocating sites for onshore wind projects, and as a consequence more clean and renewable energy is generated sooner.”
Rishi Sunak had promised reforms to the rules for onshore wind last year. They were fast-tracked after negotiations with Tory rebels, with Gove saying that “minor changes” had been made to the new policy.
Sir Alok Sharma, who has led the push for onshore wind, welcomed the changes, which have immediate effect. “I do understand that some would have liked an even more permissive planning regime, with onshore wind treated like any other infrastructure, but we have to recognise that this has been a contentious issue in the past,” he said.
However, James Robottom of the industry body RenewableUK said: “We will still face a planning system stacked against onshore wind.”
He added that the changes might “support a limited number of new developments”, but described them as “a slight softening at the edges but nothing more. As a result, we’re not going to see investment into new onshore wind at the scale needed to rapidly cut bills and boost energy security.”
Twenty-seven wind farms have been rejected since 2015 and the industry said these projects were unlikely to be revived as companies had moved on to other projects. Aurora Energy Research, a consultancy, suggested that only about 160 extra turbines could be built in England in the coming decades as a result of the relaxation of planning rules.
The consultancy said that about 650MW of onshore wind capacity could be built in England rather than Scotland, enough to power more than 400,000 homes. This would add about 5 per cent to UK onshore wind power capacity, but 20 per cent to England’s.
Tom Smout, an expert on the British power market at Aurora Energy Research, said that although wind speeds were typically higher in the west of the country, it would expect a lot of wind projects to be in east England “because the lower population density means an easier time getting through planning, and cheaper land costs”.
Ed Miliband, the shadow climate secretary, said ministers had “bottled it again on onshore wind. It still remains easier to build an incinerator or a landfill site than onshore wind. The planning system remains stacked against onshore wind. This will mean higher bills and energy insecurity for Britain.”
Rishi Sunak is treading a path between pro-turbine and wind-sceptic factions on his own backbenches, energy companies and green lobby groups
As in so many policy areas, England’s new rules for onshore wind farms are the result of Rishi Sunak’s attempt to tread a path between warring Tory MPs (Chris Smyth writes).
Energy companies and green groups are protesting because, although a de facto ban is ending, the rules still presume against onshore wind unless community support can be demonstrated. This makes planning permission harder than for other projects.
Pro-wind Tories wanted to go further, but say they have to be realistic when many other backbenchers and activists remain sceptical. But there is no doubt that the balance of opinion has shifted. When the de facto ban was imposed in 2015, even an avowed moderniser like David Cameron could say that voters were “fed up” with “unsightly” turbines.
The surge in energy prices has caused many to look again at the cheapest and quickest form of domestic generation.
There remain practical questions about how many suitable sites there actually are in England, especially compared with the plentiful supply of remote, windy locations in Scotland. MPs have started to notice, however, that polling has shown voters back wind turbines near them. Even Tory voters support local wind farms by solid majorities – in principle at least. Many question whether voters will be so tolerant when presented with the actual prospect of turbines in the middle of their favourite view. But advocates believe the prospect of discounted energy bills will be a clear incentive.
Such direct local inducements are likely to be used for an increasing range of contentious developments. They are also backed by Labour, which sees a big expansion of infrastructure projects as a way to boost growth and draw a clear dividing line with the Tories. Sunak has been reviewing climate policies after an Uxbridge by-election victory attributed to the expansion of the Ulez, and the energy bill was assailed by critics on the right who say that ending net zero commitments offer a route to election victory.
Others counter that wind power will bring down costs. Sir Simon Clarke, the former levelling-up secretary, argues the Tories should pursue net zero “by harnessing the transformative power of new technology”.
Sunak – not to mention Sir Keir Starmer – would probably agree. But, as on other green issues, Tory consensus is fragile. Should they lose the election, this debate will only intensify.
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