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Is red tape choking onshore English wind farms?

Many believe English wind farms have a crucial role to play in meeting Net Zero targets, but some say planning restrictions are blocking new onshore projects.

Aerial view of three wind turbines (Photo credit: Adobe Stock/Studio-FI)

It was June 2016, a week before the EU Referendum, when Michael Gove, an ardent supporter of Brexit, famously declared that “people in this country have had enough of experts.” Spool forward seven years and Gove, one of British politics’ great survivors, is the Levelling-Up Secretary, but he hasn’t been able to escape the experts – and growing support for English onshore wind farms.

In late February, Gove received a letter coordinated by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, a celebrity chef, and signed by over hundred experts, each drawn from the worlds of academia, conservation and business.

All the signatories are passionate about onshore English wind farms and see it as playing an integral role in the energy transition. However, since 2015 the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has made it virtually impossible for developers to deliver onshore wind projects. Proponents of onshore wind were given a small glimmer of hope when the government opened a consultation in December, which has now closed, to assess local support for onshore wind projects. But Fearnley-Whittingstall and the hundred-plus signatories, believe that the government has no intention of removing the restrictions and unblocking onshore wind projects.

A single paragraph of the letter summarises their concerns. It reads, “…the proposed changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which are currently under consultation are entirely inadequate to bring about the required change in policy. The decision to replace (paragraph 158) Footnote 54 with some marginally revised wording, in the form of new Footnotes 62 & 63, looks to be almost identical in effect, and inevitably means the effective ban will remain in place.”

However, a government spokesperson told Gas Outlook that English onshore wind “has a key role to play in meeting the UK’s Net Zero targets” and it is the Energy Security Secretary’s ambition to “have the lowest wholesale electricity prices in Europe by 2035.”

The spokesperson, who preferred not to be named, added that the government is serious about “delivering cheaper, cleaner, more secure energy,” and is exploring “giving local authorities greater flexibility” to respond to views of their communities when considering onshore wind development in England.

Local Authority and community support

Dr Rebecca Windemer, a senior lecturer in Environmental Planning at UWE Bristol, has studied the NPPF in great detail over a number of years. She says there are two major issues with the existing and proposed legislation.

She says, “The first is that the government has placed sole responsibility on the shoulders of local authorities and neighbourhood planning groups to locate appropriate sites for onshore wind projects. However, research that I conducted revealed that 90 percent of local authorities had been unable to do this due to a lack of resources and specialist knowledge. The proposed changes, provide an alternative route for Local Authorities to allocate sites, but this does not address the key challenge of local authorities not having the resources available.”

The second requirement, says Windemer, is that projects are required to have “the support of the local community.”

But Windemer questions how you define and demonstrate “community support.” She says, “The NPPF framework gives no clear and definitive guidelines or roadmap and existing experience has shown that this is not easy to measure or judge. The existing requirement for ‘community backing’ has dis-incentivised developers from investing in onshore wind in England.”

Perhaps that is best illustrated in figures supplied to Gas Outlook by RenewableUK, the trade association for UK wind power. They show that the pipeline for onshore wind projects in England is vanishingly small.

Unlocking the potential of onshore wind

Tellingly, since January, only one onshore windfarm is under construction, while another is at the early stage of development. And since 2010, RenewableUK says that only 66 projects were given planning approval, and of these, only a fraction are fully operational.

James Robottom, the head of Onshore Wind at RenewableUK, says, “England’s draconian planning system has not helped. It is a great shame because onshore wind has so much potential to deliver England with the energy it so badly needs.”

So, if the barrier to realising onshore wind projects lies in planning, how can the planning system be suitably reformed to unlock onshore wind development?

Duncan Law, Head of Policy and Advocacy for Community Energy England, which represents over 300 community energy organisations across England, says if the government is serious about unlocking the potential of onshore wind, “it should remove proposed footnotes 62 and 63 completely and the requirements for local authorities to ‘designate’ areas for onshore wind.”

Law adds, “The Levelling-Up Secretary is cutting off his nose to spite his face. On a practical level the proposed changes to the NPPF, which would continue to block onshore windfarms will prevent the government from meeting its own legal obligations for net zero, meaning it will probably miss carbon budgets six and seven. And why it is stopping onshore wind? Because it is under the misguided impression that Tory voters don’t want it.”

However, Law points to a government attitude tracker, which he says reveals that 70 percent of Tory voters actually support wind, and another study by Survation, a London-based polling and market research agency, which he says shows that 74 percent of people support onshore wind projects.

Law says that the government should let “strong, well-informed and capable communities” take advantage of their renewable energy resources in a way which allow them “to build a more localised, democratic and sustainable energy system.”

Community-led projects

But how exactly would this work in practice? Law believes that while local communities must be the beating heart of onshore wind projects, the planning rules surrounding onshore wind projects should be similar to the regulations in place for solar farm projects. Secondly, he says that legislation should allow for developers to approach local communities, rather than the weight of responsibility for selecting sites lying solely with councils.

Law explains, “Communities need to be involved in projects right from the start. Ideally, we would like to see them developing and owning onshore wind developments, or at least part-owning them with at least 20 percent of the shares being offered to the local community. However, there may also be instances where there is no community ownership, but some mandated community benefit.”

And what would this look like? Says Law, “I don’t think it would necessarily translate to cheaper bills in all cases. However, it might mean developers working with the community to set up a real community-led organisation that funnels the profits into local projects, especially ones that reduce emissions and increase energy justice.”

Lack of infrastructure a barrier to entry

Before any conversations of this nature can take place, Robottom of RenewableUK, thinks that key changes to planning regulations may not be enough to accelerate development.

“The pandemic and Brexit have not helped onshore wind supply chains, but arguably a far big challenge is the fact that even if planning restrictions are eased significantly, the UK does not have an onshore wind manufacturing industry sector and that is a major hurdle that it will have to overcome. Therefore, whether, it is a small-scale community project or several large-scale commercial developments, sourcing the materials and components may be challenging.”

But, while there are currently more questions than answers, Robottom maintains that the potential benefits of onshore wind vastly outweigh the negatives.

He says, “Our statistics, for example, show that we have 14,427,310 MW of onshore wind capacity operation in the UK. That’s enough to power 9,465,336 homes. As for energy bills, the Energy Intelligence and Climate Unit, a non-profit organisation, says that without significant investment in onshore wind, in the event of another gas crisis, every single household would pay approximately an extra £125 a year.”

Maybe Gove should listen to the experts for once.

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