February 27, 2024

The Winds of the Anglo: How England’s onshore wind development has stalled

The government is facing an ever-growing backlash over the lack of onshore wind farm installations in England. So evidently broken is the current system, “that Ukraine has completed more onshore wind turbines than England, since it was occupied by Russian soldiers”.

Indeed, outside of England on British lands, development has progressed, mainly due to devolution and the increased regional powers that have come with it. England, however, has been less lucky. Since the tighter regulatory environment imposed on onshore wind since 2015, the sector has been stuck in turbulence. 

A history of onshore wind regulations in England

The regulatory environment for onshore wind development has long been a cause of contention. Since the aforementioned de facto ban of 2015, the regulation introduced stipulated that onshore wind farms could only be built where a proposal was located in a suitable area - as set out in local authorities development plan or supplementary planning document - and that the plan had the backing of the local community. This would become notoriously known as footnote 54 in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). 

In 2016, this was added to, requiring decisions on all onshore wind farms, regardless of size, to be made by local planning authorities (LPAs), while green subsidies were also removed from the sector.

In theory, while such decentralisation could offer a more democratic route for infrastructure planning, in practice a ban ensued. The ambiguity pertaining to “backing of the local community” was pivotal to this. In some instances, councils rejected planning applications from developers for onshore wind farms due to the objection of just one single member of the public

2016 research (after the regulations were introduced) showed 89% of overall LPAs in England do not have areas identified as suitable for the development of onshore wind farms. As of November 2023, the figure of LPAs with suitable land has only risen to a paltry 20.8%

Additionally, the fact that LPAs have final say over the development of all wind farms is different to the process for every other major infrastructure project, which are made by the Secretary of State. Unlike all other major energy endeavours, the government removed the sector's ability to be classed as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP). With no ability to bypass LPAs and constituents alike, the development of onshore wind in England plummeted.

In September 2023, after much pressure from environmentalists, green MPs, and industry figures, the Government announced it was lifting the de facto ban on onshore wind development. However, the actual regulatory changes which occurred were not the all encompassing ones expected, merely amounting to wordplay. The same basic blockages continued to exist.

Planning specialists highlighted this, stating that the changes to “footnote 54 in the National NPPF” will do nothing to turn the dial towards allowing the proliferation of onshore wind in England.

At the time, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), had recommended that onshore wind development be restored to NSIP, but to no avail. Cue Government rejection. 

Since September’s announcement, there have been no new planning applications in England.

Into the future: sector recovery?

One avenue to make onshore wind developments more palatable to potentially hostile communities is the inclusion of “compulsory community benefits”. Currently, additional community benefits can be granted to communities/ councils. These are separate to planning obligations and can take the form of ‘community funds’; ‘in-kind benefits’; and ‘shared ownership of the wind farm’. 

While accepted practice, the CPRE has raised concerns about the use of community benefits as amounting to bribes for development, and tacitly not working to secure the protection of the natural environment in some instances. The CPRE highlights that regardless of community support, this inherently does not alter the visual effect that onshore wind turbines have on local landscapes, reifying said landscapes were “enjoyed by a much wider population, including future generations”. In contrast, the NIC has argued that the government should set out a “national framework for compulsory community benefits”, to ensure clarity is granted to the communities where developments may occur as to what benefits they would receive. 

Support across the board: Bright Blue and abolishing the ‘triple veto’

Following the government's botched effort at unlocking onshore wind power, Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservatism, published a report in December 2023, highlighting the inconsistencies in recent approaches to onshore wind. Green Conservatives have since backed this.

One of the key recommendations of the report was to “abolish the ‘triple veto’ planning policy for onshore wind from the NPPF”. This would specifically abolish footnote 54 from the NPPF, and the problems it has created, granting onshore wind the same parity in development terms as other major infrastructure projects.

The report adds further policy detail to the conservative voices calling for new onshore wind development. Last year, a report from a group of Tory backbenchers argued for a 100% discount on energy bills for those living within one mile of a proposed site for the lifetime of the project

Ensuring onshore wind has the best possibility to proliferate in the UK is not a left-right issue. There is support across the spectrum in parliament, while 78% of those in England support the use of onshore wind.

Community Energy and onshore wind development

While applications around England have struggled or not been submitted, one of the brighter lights of onshore wind production since 2015 is the tale of Ambition Lawrence Weston (with help from Bristol Cooperative), who have built the UKs tallest wind turbine. This is made all the more impressive, when considering the turbine is a community-owned and community-led scheme.

The impact this wind turbine has had on the community is untold. Not only does it produce enough low-carbon electricity to power 3,500 homes, but it has galvanised support within the local community to facilitate tackling social issues impacting their everyday lives - Lawrence Weston is one of the most deprived areas in Bristol. The turbine is predicted to bring in £100,000 of revenue each year.

Here, locals are reaping the benefits of community ownership of a wind farm. Clearly, it does beg the question: how many more community-led wind projects could be possible with a more fit-for-purpose planning system, given Lawrence Weston have succeeded where private commercial entities have failed?

What next?

Such is the mess of the onshore wind industry in England, industry experts have speculated that even if the current Government were to change planning laws overnight, the industry would be unlikely to move towards re-development of the sector, instead favouring sitting on their hands to wait until the next government of the day. 

But this can’t wait and at Hope for the Future we are supporting people to talk to their MPs - to spur on the urgent action that is needed. Regardless of government, onshore wind farms are vital to any future energy mix for the UK.

We need action now. An extra year waiting is a further year in which fossil fuels will continue to be burned within England for energy. Global South countries around the equator are already dealing with the brunt of climate change, a crisis that they did not cause. The UK needs to stop shirking its responsibilities both internationally and domestically.

You could ask your MP to ask Energy Secretary, Claire Coutinho MP, what the government is intending to do to increase the level of development of onshore wind farms in England?

You could ask your MP to write in favour of the creation of an Onshore Wind Acceleration Taskforce

You could ask your MP to support local community energy organisations in planning for local-led onshore wind farms

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