Signs are emerging of a thaw in the government’s attitude to onshore wind, writes Angus Walker

The current government is strongly in favour of offshore wind power, with a target of quadrupling capacity in the next nine years, from 10GW to 40GW. This is in stark contrast to onshore wind, where a few years ago the government deliberately put hurdles in place to hinder development. With RenewableUK polling suggesting that the public is heavily in favour of onshore wind together with even more ambitious electricity decarbonisation targets, are there winds of change in the offing?

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The Conservatives took against onshore wind in the early 2010s, which is likely to have stemmed from MPs with rural constituencies receiving delegations of opponents to wind farms in their areas. In its 2015 manifesto the party said: “We will end any new public subsidy for them and change the law so that local people have the final say on windfarm applications.” In case there was any doubt what that was meant to achieve, the heading of that section was “We will halt the spread of onshore windfarms”.

Accordingly, upon being elected, the government made three significant changes, all designed to make getting consent for onshore wind more difficult. First, it removed onshore wind farms from the scope of the Planning Act 2008’s development consent order regime, where wind farms larger than 50MW would have been decided on by the secretary of state rather than the local authority.

The significant gap in the government’s renewable electricity armoury really ought to be plugged

Second, it amended the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to introduce a requirement for mandatory pre-application consultation on specified developments (section 61W). The only developments to which this has been applied are, you’ve guessed it, onshore windfarms, namely ones of more than two turbines or more than 15m tall.

Finally, it introduced changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and associated guidance so that an onshore wind project should be refused planning permission unless it is in an area identified as suitable for wind energy in the development plan and it can be demonstrated that impacts identified by the affected local community have been fully addressed and the proposal has their backing – high hurdles indeed.

Coupled with those planning measures, the government introduced a financial one as well. It excluded onshore wind from the second and third bidding rounds of the “contracts for difference” price support process in 2017 and 2019 respectively, having included it in the first round in 2014-15.

More recently, however, the first signs of a thaw in attitude to onshore wind have emerged. The government has announced that onshore wind will once again be eligible to bid for the fourth round of contracts for difference, which is to be launched in December this year, albeit with a fairly minimal budget allocation of £10m to cover onshore wind, solar, energy from waste, hydroelectric and landfill and sewage gas, compared with £200m for offshore wind on its own. Nevertheless this is a tentative first step towards abandoning governmental hostility to onshore wind.

Planning guidance should be amended to put onshore wind on the same footing as any other planning application

The three planning hurdles remain in place, however, with no signs of them being relaxed, and so there remains a significant barrier to onshore wind returning to any significant degree.

If the government is serious about achieving net zero by 2050 – and the world’s eyes are upon it as it hosts COP26 in Glasgow this month – it is going to have to encourage all forms of low-carbon electricity generation as strongly as it can. Not only does the country’s existing electricity generation need to be decarbonised, but decarbonising other sectors generally means converting their sources of energy consumption to use electricity instead, cars being a prime example. This could result in a doubling of demand for electricity that must decarbonise at the same time.

Given that context, the significant gap in the government’s renewable electricity armoury that is onshore wind really ought to be plugged. The planning hurdles should be reversed as follows:

  • The Planning Act 2008 should be amended to bring 50MW-plus onshore wind generation back into the regime
  • The regulations requiring pre-application consultation for onshore wind should be revoked
  • The NPPF and associated guidance should be amended to put onshore wind on the same footing as any other planning application.

If the government’s reluctance to do this stems from a fear of the emergence of a multitude of inappropriately sited and designed onshore wind farms, it shouldn’t worry so much. The standard town and country planning and development consent systems that would apply if the above controls were removed already contain sufficient powers to prevent this from happening, and the government should have confidence that they would be effective. Any residual concern would be met by including in the NPPF and the Renewable Energy National Policy Statement an obligation to balance the benefits of onshore wind against visual, community and other impacts.

Angus Walker is a partner at BDB Pitmans