The government has implemented reforms to planning regulations in England that would make it easier to build onshore wind farms. But what specifically do these policy changes entail, and do they go far enough in hastening the pace of development?
Implemented by the Cameron government in 2015, it was previously the case that a single local objection could kill planning permission for an onshore wind project. As such, the rule represented an effective ‘ban on onshore wind’. Due to the policy, development of onshore wind tanked – in the five years after the ban, there was a 96% reduction in the number of wind turbines being built in England. According to climate-science-oriented publication Climate Brief, this fall in onshore wind output cost UK households £5.1bn in the financial year 2022-23 – approximately £182 per household.
Planning rules for onshore wind are a devolved policy area in the UK – both Wales and Scotland have substantially more liberal planning laws for onshore wind development and, as a result, have seen substantially higher increases in onshore wind capacity.
The building of onshore wind farms should go ahead if they have broad support from local communities
The ending of the ban results from agitation on the part of Conservative backbench MPs. Former President of COP26, Alok Sharma, tabled an amendment to the government’s Energy Bill, a piece of legislation detailing regulation and management of energy in the UK. The amendment would have reversed the onshore wind ban – having the support of both over 30 Conservative MPs and the opposition Labour Party, the amendment would have likely passed had it been subject to a vote – a crushing embarrassment for the government. This sparked the government’s policy shift, a decision which led Sharma to withdraw his amendment.
The new planning rules stipulate that local councils will have a greater say over whether planning permission is given to onshore wind projects. They suggest that the building of onshore wind farms should go ahead if they have broad support from local communities – as opposed to the previous system where even minute local objection could kill onshore wind development. However, how local support for a given onshore wind project is supposed to be measured is undefined. In practice, the new rules mean that whether or not onshore wind development goes ahead will be at the complete discretion of local councillors.
There are other rule changes too. Whilst suitable sites for onshore wind development could only previously be identified by the councils’ local development plans, the new regulations broaden the ways in which the sites for development can be determined. Moreover, communities that support local wind development could benefit from cheaper energy bills, amplifying the incentives to do so.
But whilst the new rules represent an easing of planning rules, many […] argue they simply aren’t ambitious enough
The Secretary for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, has argued the reforms will “[help] us on our journey to net zero”. But whilst the new rules represent an easing of planning rules, many, including policymakers, the energy industry, and opposition parties, argue they simply aren’t ambitious enough.
Greenpeace UK’s Policy Director, Doug Parr, suggests the discretionary nature of the planning process, with final decisions being entirely made by local councillors, will hinder development: “Developers will continue to face uncertainty over planning process and be beholden to quixotic decisions by local councils. Who will put their money into developing projects under those circumstances?”
This is especially the case considering that local councillors are likely to come under frequent pressure from residents to deny planning permission to onshore wind. Government polling suggests that the British public overwhelmingly supports onshore wind development in the abstract. However, when it comes to the development of onshore wind in their local area specifically, public approval nosedives. The polling makes clear that a lot of local opposition to onshore wind stems from environmental concerns – particularly surrounding the impact onshore wind turbines supposedly have on bird populations.
Beyond onshore wind specifically, this recent news draws attention to the fact that our planning system is fundamentally broken in a multiplicity of ways
Even despite the government’s reforms, the planning regime for onshore wind is still more restrictive than it is for other major forms of infrastructure. Whilst decisions about onshore wind projects will be left up to local councils, decisions for approving other large infrastructure projects, such as power stations, pipelines, and railways, are instead left to governmental Secretaries of State – in the case of the latter, it is politically easier for projects to receive planning approval, as the decision-making body is more insulated from parochialist, local resident opposition. The Labour Party has pledged that, were it to take power, it would reform planning to ensure parity between planning laws for onshore wind and other large infrastructure.
Whilst the government’s policy changes are a step in the right direction, it seems clear that they are inadequate for unleashing the full potential of Britain’s onshore wind industry. Beyond onshore wind specifically, this recent news draws attention to the fact that our planning system is fundamentally broken in a multiplicity of ways. By driving up costs and uncertainty, it incentivises underinvestment in essential forms of infrastructure, leaving British society more poor, unequal, and vulnerable to climate meltdown. It is imperative that politicians and policymakers redress this policy failure in the years ahead.