The growth of renewable energy in the UK has been a great success story over the past ten years. During that period both Governmental and public views have matured and the need to take action to combat global warming - and the place of renewable energy within that – has become ingrained in the nation.
However, arguably the cheapest renewable technology onshore wind has been held back artificially for some years now, principally on political grounds. In 2015, then-Prime Minister David Cameron’s stated that onshore wind was unpopular with the general public, calling “enough is enough” and triggering a movement against the technology within the Conservative Party.
It is time for this situation to be resolved and the first shoots of action being taken are becoming clear. This was nicely illustrated by the recent consultation on changes to the Contracts for Difference (CfD) regime.
There can be no doubt that the UK needs more renewable energy. COP26 has now been delayed till 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but anticipation is still high for what is likely to be a watershed moment. The last international meeting to achieve such a status was arguably COP21 in Paris in 2015, which saw the introduction of the 1.5 decrees climate target. Known generally as the Paris Climate Agreement, this was ratified by the UK Government on 18 November 2016 and now have legal effect.
However, it is generally understood that if the UK is to have any chance of meeting its international obligations, it needs to ramp up its performance. As such, it is deeply unfortunate that onshore wind energy has effectively gone into forced hibernation.
Planning Development and forced hibernation
The difficulties stem from the traditional dislike of backbench Tory MPs, particularly in the home counties, to wind farms. A few high profile cases demonstrated a vehement opposition to such developments some years back and seems to be seared into the collective memory of the Party.
As a result of that opposition, the Government effectively closed the door on such developments by raising the bar so high that few projects were able to comply. The National Planning Policy Framework in this regard, is not the problem. It contains provisions whereby planning should support renewable and low carbon energy and associated infrastructure. Local Development Plans should provide strategies and identify sites. Community led schemes should be supported and for decision making purposes, there is no longer any need to demonstrate the overall need for renewable or low carbon energy.
The problem arises in the provision known as ‘Footnote 49’. This states that:
“ a proposed wind energy development…. should not be considered acceptable unless it is in an area identified as suitable for wind energy development in the Development Plan; and, following consultation, it can be demonstrated that the planning impacts identified by the affected local community have been fully addressed and the proposal has their backing.”
This is indeed a high bar and one not faced by other renewable energy technologies. Firstly, there has to be a Development Plan in operation that has specifically identified onshore wind as suitable in a particular area. Secondly, the planning impacts have to be fully addressed; and finally, the community is in support.
This provision was introduced for political purposes, to dampen down the growing number of wind farm applications and to give objectors considerable power to stop such developments.
A shift in public support
The first problem is the Local Development Plan. In many areas, this is out of date and a new plan has not yet been brought forwards. If this is the case, there is no hope of an older plan designating areas as suitable for wind energy development and a project would fall at the very first hurdle. Linked to this is the ability of an applicant to show that planning impacts have been addressed in that authority.
The Government’s target is for all Local Development Plans to be renewed by local authorities by 2023, and so this should be addressed in the next couple of years.
The latter element is the public support issue, where there have undoubtedly been significant changes. Firstly, with the public themselves.
2019 saw a range of activism in support of climate change and the need to combat global warming. From Thunberg to Extinction Rebellion to MORI polls showing that a considerable majority of people in the UK now want urgent action by both the Government and local authorities to combat climate change. People are committing to live their lives differently now – confirmed by news that after the Covid-19 pandemic most people do not want to return to ‘the way it was before.’
There have also been political changes. When Boris Johnson was swept to power with a large majority in the last General Election it was with many new, younger MPs who had taken over from older, retiring colleagues. Notwithstanding their political allegiances, these MPs are better tuned into the younger views and the genuine desire for people to see change in this area. As such, it is less likely that there would be political opposition based on principle, rather than any proper analysis of the suitability of a particular site.
The latest consultation paper on the changes to the CfD Regime illuminates this moving of views. The Government excluded both solar and wind farms from this only remaining source of financial incentive in 2016. Just another nail in the coffin of onshore wind farms.
But lately, Ministers have changed their minds and have agreed to reinstate both, allowing them to bid for Government subsidy. This is particularly significant and recognises that most wind farms can now be constructed and commissioned on a commercial basis with little Government help.
Notwithstanding this, the other barriers mentioned above that need to be removed and local authorities have a clear role to play in bringing forward new Development Plans which designate areas suitable for wind energy development. Planning lawyers representing applicants also see an opportunity to test the law in this area and push from the other direction.
It can only be a good thing if wind energy is re-energised, not least because it remains the cheapest form of renewable energy in the UK. It was a travesty that wind energy was treated as it has, by a Government obsessed by the need for political support, and forced to move offshore to develop sites at greater expense.
If those artificial barriers can now be removed, the UK will be in a much better position to achieve its international obligations and the Government will have taken a big positive step towards achieving a position of net zero carbon by 2050.