The government has received no new applications for onshore wind farms in England since cabinet ministers eased planning rules earlier this year – in a further sign that Rishi Sunak’s anti-green policy shift is driving investment abroad.
So far this year, only one new project, with a single turbine, has become fully operational in England, with many more being built in the EU – and in Scotland and Wales, where planning rules are less burdensome. This is despite renewables being seen as the cleanest and safest form of power, and having wide public support.
Since early September, when the communities secretary, Michael Gove, and energy secretary, Claire Coutinho, introduced changes to planning rules, claiming these would boost onshore wind investment, there have been no applications to local authorities, according to the industry’s representative body, RenewableUK, which has studied data held by the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero.
The fall-off in onshore wind projects in England contrasts with rapid increases in investment in Germany, France and Sweden.
The collapse will add to growing unease in Whitehall after no one bid for licences in the latest auction for offshore wind projects because the price companies could charge for the energy was set at too low a rate.
The Observer understands that, with panic setting in behind the scenes, ministers will announce a new framework of pricing within days to try to attract more investment into the sector before it is too late. There is also dismay among civil servants and government advisers, past and present, over the effect that recent government pronouncements on the green agenda have had on companies’ investment thinking.
In last week’s king’s speech, the government announced an energy bill with plans for a new annual system of oil and gas licences, despite the UK’s commitment to net zero targets, prompting outrage from the green lobby. Coutinho said more oil and gas “wouldn’t necessarily bring bills down”.
Sam Richards, a former climate and energy adviser in No 10, who now runs Britain Remade, a campaign group promoting economic growth, said recent anti-green rhetoric from the government risked lasting damage to the UK’s bid to be in the vanguard of a green industrial revolution.
“Unfortunately, the government has been sending mixed messages to industry about the net zero transition – which could mean we lose out on the cheaper [energy] bills and good jobs that will come from building the industries of the future here in Britain,” he said.
James Robottom, head of policy at RenewableUK, the body representing about 500 companies in the sector, said other countries were doing far more to maximise opportunities. “Unprecedented financial incentives are being offered to renewable energy developers by the US and the EU,” he said. “International competition to secure private investment in clean energy projects is intense as other countries seek to lure developers away from the UK to work elsewhere”.
He added: “The government’s very slight changes to the planning system aren’t going to bring about a significant increase in the number of new onshore wind farms in England. There are still restrictions to onshore wind that aren’t faced by any other infrastructure – despite widespread cross-party support to end the de facto ban – which is dampening the confidence of investors who would otherwise be interested. Local communities that support onshore wind are being denied the chance to benefit from cheap clean power.”
In 2015, before the government changed planning rules to make it easier for local people to block onshore wind farms in their areas, there were 158 new onshore projects in England, involving the construction of 228 new turbines. By last year, only two projects, involving four new turbines, were built in England.
Ed Miliband, Labour spokesperson for energy security and net zero, said: “The British people are paying the price of this government’s dogmatic, ideological and self-defeating opposition to home-grown clean power – in higher bills, energy insecurity and failure on climate.
“The Conservatives presented an energy bill that won’t bring bills down. Their supposed lifting of the onshore wind ban doesn’t do anything of the kind and it is costing families £180 every year on their bills.”
The government said that across the whole of the UK – not just England – substantial progress was being made. “The last Contracts for Difference round saw a record number of successful projects across renewables, including onshore wind projects.
“The streamlined National Planning Policy Framework aims to make it easier and quicker for onshore wind projects to come forward where there is local support.”
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