Government lifts onshore wind restrictions in England: will it deliver?

read time: 5 mins
“This is good news indeed. The Good Energy proposed windfarm in North Cornwall [Big Field] should never have been turned down, as were many others. This is a real opportunity to catch up on a lost decade of development and to support the outlook for future generations.”
Peter Edwards, developer of the first onshore windfarm in the UK at Delabole and past Chairman of the BWEA and REA.

On 8 July, the Government changed the National Planning Policy Framework to lift the ‘ban’ on new onshore wind developments in England. They have put onshore wind on the same footing, in policy terms, as other renewable energy technologies. 

This article provides detail on the Government’s plans to lift the ban and gives insight into how this will affect the delivery of onshore wind proposals going forward.

Gone are the laborious requirements to adequately address the impacts identified by the local community and for sites to be allocated in a local plan. 

Gone are the misguided references to progressing projects by way of Local/Neighbourhood Development Orders or Community Right to Build Orders (all of which have rightly been called ‘absurd’ restrictions by the Chancellor, Rachel Reeves). 

In addition, the Government wants to see a doubling of onshore wind in England by 2030 and they will look at amending the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) regime to incorporate larger proposals.  

The effective ban was introduced in 2015 under a Conservative Government. It saw the very efficient decapitation of the onshore wind industry in England (all the while the Government supported a dash for gas by supporting fracking). Since 2015 only a handful of single stick turbines have been consented by Local planning authorities. The change introduced by the new Government yesterday is fantastic and fully welcomed by all of the industry. However, what does it mean in terms of delivery?

Whilst the change is a great move that will support the twin pillars of energy security and combatting climate change, it is important to understand that putting onshore wind back on the same footing as other renewable energy technology is not necessarily going to see the speedy delivery of new consents.

Onshore wind proposals can take years to finesse and finalise before a planning application is submitted. All current applications will remain subject to scrutiny by local communities through the local planning process. This is not a concern per se and a lot has changed since 2015, including the political landscape, widespread support for onshore wind and the declarations by many local and national authorities, which recognise that we are living in the midst of an increasingly severe climate emergency. 

However, there are still challenges to deliver onshore wind proposals and more will have to be done to reach the new 2030 ambition. Opposition to wind can be vehement (look at the current opposition to new pylons in England) and we need to avoid projects being stuck for years in a relentless application/refusal/public inquiry doom loop that result in consents taking five to seven years or longer to be issued.  

A huge number of onshore wind proposals between the mid-1990s and 2015 were subject to lengthy and costly public inquiries. There were quite literally hundreds of inquiries in England during that period all of which caused delay and cost and inevitably many projects fell away. 

Whilst we would hope the level of objection to onshore wind has subsided since 2015, the industry has moved on some way in terms of size and scale of the turbines proposed. In Wales, proposals are typically in the region of 180m to 220m tip height – bigger and more efficient than the 125m we were dealing with in 2015. Schemes are looking for longer to operate as well, with some seeking 50 year consents.  All of this will need to be carefully managed and presented to communities.  

Of wider concern is resource. The current positive green agenda could be great for the green economy and supporting the jobs that will inevitably be in demand. However current experience shows that there is not enough resource or experience in the industry to support existing proposals - not only on the developer side but also at the local planning authority, statutory consultee, consultancy and decision maker levels. 

Local planning authorities will have lost a lot of expertise and experience they had in onshore wind and will now, we suspect, have to rely heavily on Planning Performance Agreements to ensure they can effectively consult on, perhaps outsource and determine these applications. The industry can keep supporting the drive to encourage new skills and job creation by engaging with schools, colleges, apprenticeships and universities but it will take time for new resource to come through. As such, the short-term skills gap is a concern although we know the Government is keen to address this by supporting jobs and skills growth as part of a wider drive to grow the green economy.  

Bringing onshore wind back into the NSIP regime could speed up delivery. We assume that this will be based on the old 50MW threshold again. Drawing analogies with the solar industry, we think the 50MW threshold is outdated - reflecting a Planning Act drafted in 2008 when a 50MW solar farm or wind farm was considered large scale. 

To be frank, we have never understood what generating capacity has to do with land use. We would advocate using the number and height of the turbines as a threshold. In a similar vein we have advocated using acreage for solar farms because this gives certainty on land use impacts coupled with the flexibility, to increase MW output where technological advances can be incorporated. 

Whatever thresholds are used, they should be set at a level that means even the smallest projects meeting the threshold are viable and can be delivered through the process. A real frustration with solar, for example, is that proposals falling in the circa 50MW – 150MW range are often not viable, in part, because the NSIP process is too costly. This means we are losing a potentially significant swathe of clean MWs because of the arbitrary thresholds. This should be given careful consideration by the Government as part of their consultation on onshore wind. 

To reiterate, it is fantastic news to see the effective onshore wind ban lifted after nearly a decade of ‘lost’ projects. However, the consenting difficulties that we all faced in the pre-2015 Written Ministerial Statement world remain and now the key is to dissolve the ongoing constraints to realise the much needed delivery of new onshore wind in England and, of course, to catch up and fill the void created by a decade of inactivity.

Ashfords LLP’s energy and renewables team is currently advising developers on a number of new onshore wind farms in Wales and England - circa 500MW of proposed capacity. Please contact the team for further information.

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