Tuesday 6th June 2023 marked the 6 month anniversary of the announcement made by the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to remove the de facto ban on onshore wind in England. RenewableUK's Head of Onshore Wind James Robottom examines the lack of progress since then and outlines the steps the Government needs to take as a matter of urgency to fulfil that promise".
What with the war in Ukraine, the energy crisis and the resultant cost of living crisis, it can be difficult to find positives with so many people being put under enormous strain. In October 2021, 4.5 million UK households were in fuel poverty, now National Energy Action estimates that this number has risen to 7.5 million homes.
In the face of such hardship, people are asking decisionmakers to do everything in their power to reduce costs and diversify our energy supply (not to mention meet our legally binding net-zero targets and the impending climate crisis).
Yet, over a year on from Boris Johnson’s British Energy Security Strategy (BESS, April 2022), which promised to set out “how Great Britain will accelerate homegrown power for greater energy independence”,we still have an effective ban in England on one of cheapest and most rapidly deployable forms of renewable electricity - onshore wind.
This is despite the fact that, way back in December, Rishi Sunak responded to calls from a host of MPs – including two former Conservative Prime Ministers and the Leaders of the Labour Party, the Lib Dems and the SNP–by agreeing to ‘end the ban on onshore wind’.
But it’s now been six months since his announcement, and we still haven’t seen any changes. More worryingly, the only planning reforms the Government has suggested don’t look like they’ll make any difference.
How does the current de-facto ban on onshore wind in England work? And what has been the impact?
In June 2015, changes to planning legislation were made which intentionally restrict the development of onshore wind in England, through the addition of a single footnote in the National Planning Policy Framework.
This placed two high hurdles which any onshore wind development (of only one turbine or more, which is greater than 11.1 metres tall) must meet, unlike other type of infrastructure:
The impact of this has been stark.In England, a country with a land mass of 50,000 square miles, we’ve granted planning permission for just 15 new turbines in the last five years and only two new turbines in the last year. It has made investment in new projects almost impossible due to the huge uncertainty and risk involved and brought the onshore wind industry in England to a standstill for 8 years.
And the impact on billpayers? Those sixty-nine words in one footnote at the bottom of page 46 are estimated by Carbon Brief to have cost UK bill payers £5.1bn last financial year 2022/23 – that’s £182 for every UK household.
It’s also had a profound effect on local authorities’ ability to plan for climate change, as instructed in the same section of the National Planning Policy Framework. The de-facto ban has removed a potentially vital technology from the toolbox for local authorities and councils in England to reach net-zero -89% of which in England have a net-zero target and 84% have publicly declared a climate emergency.
Many businesses, farmers and communities could also benefit from the cost savings and clean energy that a turbine could provide – and in fact many have been in touch with me to ask whether the ban has been lifted following the release of two consultations by government this year. Unfortunately, it has been with a heavy heart that I’ve had to tell them it isn’t that simple.
What has been proposed so far by Government, and will it make a difference?
The short answer is not very much.
Although there was a brief period of time under Liz Truss where restrictions on onshore wind were removed (for one glorious month), we’ve still not seen any changes to the planning system since Rishi Sunak’s pledge six months ago to ‘end the ban on onshore wind’ - despite government polling consistently demonstrating support for onshore wind at over 75% and as high as 80%.
Whilst we have seen the re-commencement of two consultations initially proposed in the British Energy Security Strategy – the first looking at planning reform and the second looking at how to develop local partnerships with communities viii - the Government’s initial proposals are really concerning. The changes proposed by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to help “unblock” onshore wind in the first planning consultation consist of changing the footnote number from 54 to 63 and adding ANOTHER footnote:
It is our very strong view within the industry, backed by tens of thousands of supportive submissions, that the proposed amendments to the National Planning Policy Framework will not enable the deployment of onshore wind in England. In fact, they will severely hinder investment in the onshore wind industry and its supply chain due to the high level of risk and uncertainty they create.
Our key concerns are:
The is very little confidence that - given the increased complexity and ambiguous wording of the proposed planning reform - onshore wind planning proposals with broad local support would be approved. Given that it costs thousands of pounds to develop a project before you even submit it for planning approval (e.g. surveys of the land, wind resource in the area, natural environment etc) - it makes it unlikely that we are going to see proposals coming forward under this system, as it's just too risky– particularly considering the industry’s experience of the last 8 years.
Without investment, even supportive communities may struggle to find turbines on the market in England, or ones which might have to adhere to stringent conditions put upon them, let alone businesses or developers.
Continuing to single out onshore wind for special treatment will push supply chain companies and people to look elsewhere for work. Without sustained and predictable growth, it will be very difficult to find the skills and the companies to build projects, whatever their size.
Still treating onshore wind differently to other infrastructure does not constitute “unblocking” onshore wind.
About Community Engagement and Benefits…
An added complexity to Government’s developing policy towards onshore wind is that, though the first planning framework consultation closed in March, we had to wait until May to see the start of the second consultation, “Developing local partnerships for onshore wind in England” which runs until July. As a result, we do not expect to see any government response to the initial planning consultation until August at the earliest, but most likely September.
It is important to make clear, that we fully support the announcement of the second consultation and the onshore wind industry has a very long track record of working closely with communities and is currently doing so with a huge amount of success in Scotland.
Thanks to their more supportive planning framework, in that same six months since the Prime Minister pledged to ‘end the ban on onshore wind’, Scotland has brought online 179 megawatts of onshore wind (46 turbines), with another 518 MW under construction and due to be online before the end of the year. To put that into context, that’s the power equivalent of over 450,000 homes a year and could add as much as £3.5 million a year to local communities through benefit schemes.
It is imperative to ensure early engagement, not only on what form these benefits take, but also how they are spent depending on the needs and priorities of local people.
It would, however, be remiss of me not to highlight at this stage that although this consultation is being presented as positive news by the government, in reality it’s very difficult to provide benefits to communities from onshore wind if proposed planning reforms do not encourage the building of onshore wind.
How should onshore wind in England be treated?
It should I hope at this stage seem fairly obvious that - if the government wants an easy policy to address energy security, spiralling costs and climate change – unblocking onshore wind in England is such low-hanging fruit, you could practically kick it off the tree.
To that end, we would suggest:
Treat onshore wind like any other infrastructure in the planning process by completely removing the footnote(s) blocking onshore wind. It cannot continue to be treated more restrictively than other infrastructure, including incinerators and landfill sites.
(This is by far the most important one!)
Set up a taskforce and deployment roadmaps for onshore wind. This was recommended by the Conservative MP Chris Skidmore in his Independent Net-Zero Report (but dismissed in the UK government response) and would encourage investment in the industry, as well as enabling it to compete with other markets in the US and Europe.
Set targets for onshore wind deployment. We need to see a UK-wide target of 30 gigawatts of capacity by 2030 – more than doubling our current capacity of 14.5GW - but this should be updated to 2035 to reflect the amount of time it will take to restart the onshore wind industry in England. This would add £45bn to the economy and support 27,000 jobs.
Develop an Onshore Wind Policy Statement, similar to that produced by the Scottish Government, which sets out an ambition and a vision for onshore wind in England and the UK more widely.This will again provide certainty and show that the industry is seen as a proper part of the “critical energy mix” and go a long way to kick-start an industry which can provide so much benefit to England.
To conclude, Ukraine has just put up an onshore wind farm consisting of 19 turbines with a capacity of 114 megawatts in an active war zone. In England we have put up fewer turbines in the last 5 years combined, with a total capacity of only 30 megawatts - all thanks to sixty-nine words in one footnote. Surely, we can and must improve on this.