A turning point for onshore wind in England? Consultation proposes discounted energy bills for host communities

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For those of us who enjoy a government consultation we’ve never had it so good. Planning and energy sector enthusiasts may even be feeling a sense of consultation burnout, having thoroughly vented their spleens during the recent consultation by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities (which closed in March 2023) on proposed reforms to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). As a final (?) sting in the tail, the newly created Department for Energy Security & Net Zero (DESNZ) is currently consulting on proposals for “developing local partnerships for onshore wind in England” which closes on 7 July 2023.  Are we finally being presented with a route out of the de facto ban on onshore wind in England? This is already being lined up as a key election pledge from Labour, but where are we now?

The consultation document: Developing Local Partnerships for Onshore Wind in England (publishing.service.gov.uk)

Through the mill – a short history of onshore wind in England

The current effective ban on onshore wind in England can be traced back to planning guidance introduced by David Cameron’s Conservative government in 2015. Firstly, the guidance introduced a pre-requisite for wind projects to only come forward in areas where the relevant local authority has drawn up a local plan which identifies the locations where onshore wind development may be pursued in its administrative area. RenewableUK reports only 11 per cent of English local authorities have any such plan with land allocations. Second, the planning impacts raised by the local community must be addressed in full – effectively any objection to a planning application for onshore wind (a single individual’s objection would pass the test) could stymie the planning application. With guidance and policy so strongly weighted against onshore wind it is perhaps no surprise investment in onshore wind in England has been seen as commercially unviable.

NPPF reforms

The future looked bright, it was September 2022 and Liz Truss had just stormed to power. Radical economic proposals followed, along with a declared end to the moratorium on onshore wind power in England. What could possibly go wrong?...  

Quite a lot, it turned out. During Sunak’s leadership campaign he declared his opposition to onshore wind, though publicly at least the current government remains committed to a renewables revolution and has acknowledged the scale of the challenge if the UK is to meet its legal obligations under the Climate Change Act 2008 and net zero by the year 2050. The current consultation notes “a low-cost net zero system of the future will predominantly be comprised of home-grown clean energy, such as wind (both offshore and onshore) and solar”.

Having consulted on proposed reforms to the NPPF, the government continues to take stock (having initially promised its response by Spring 2023). Perhaps we should have some patience – after all, we have come this far – and allow proper thought to be given to the estimated 26,000 responses to the consultation. However, there remains no clear mandate to release onshore wind from the constraints which have existed since 2015. The NPPF consultation indicates the requirement for local plans to include wind development allocations will still be a pre-requisite, and applications will remain heavily weighted towards objectors. Local authorities face potentially years of local plan development to get to a stage where they have allocated sites for wind development, so this approach is simply not feasible. The industry has shown a real sense of compromise and given support to proposals for increased local community empowerment as a means of delivering wind development absent of any clear local policy framework. So how will onshore wind promoters work with local communities to deliver their schemes?

Consultation on ‘local partnerships’

The latest consultation acknowledges that the changes in planning guidance introduced in 2015 resulted in “an overly rigid system that is preventing local authorities from being able to respond to the views of their local communities when they wish to host onshore wind infrastructure”. The consultation proposes a shift towards best practice community engagement which must be demonstrated through the planning application. Earlier and more detailed engagement will be key for steering projects through the planning system. However, one question sums up the continuing challenge where so much hinges on community engagement – “Are there ways community support for onshore wind can be defined?”. Without any certainty that seemingly positive engagement will ultimately be considered to be “community support” by planning decision makers, there is a risk onshore wind investors will remain hesitant, perhaps until those trailblazer projects begin to take on the planning system and we see the results of appeals and legal challenges where projects are initially unsuccessful.

The headline element of the consultation is the proposals to bolster “community benefits” packages which elsewhere in the UK are frequently used to deliver local facilities including schools and social projects. Such packages are not material planning considerations, so community support based on their agreement cannot be taken into account when considering the relevant planning application. The government sees an increased emphasis on these packages in light of the energy price shocks resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with proposals for communities to benefit directly from the energy generated by their local onshore wind projects through reduced energy bills. 

This latest consultation does not propose the radical shift in policy support that the onshore wind sector has been wishing for.  Rather, the government appears committed to mere tinkering, with onshore wind the apparent last bastion of its failed localism agenda and set apart from other renewables which continue to come forward at pace – showing the appetite for investment in such projects – through the local and national planning regimes. The bar may be lowered a few notches if the latest consultation proposals are pursued, but few onshore wind schemes are likely to clear it any time soon.

For more information, please contact Thomas Ewings.

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