Frictions within prime minister Rishi Sunak’s increasingly internal fragile coalition of in-office Conservatives have brought new comfort this week to developers of land-based green energy. In the case of wind entrepreneurs, the comfort is seven years late in arriving.
Parliamentary manoeuvres at Westminster saw right-wingers allying with the party’s minority of ecologically-exercised MPs, resulting Sunak offering public consultations ending in April to lift David Cameron’ ban, now seven years old, on constructing land-based windfarms.
On Tuesday evening Sunak said he would permit stakeholders’ representations on Britain’s national planning policy, opening the door to a restoration of on-shore erection of turbines. Approval of land-based schemes will be confined to local councils, rather than having them passed to Whitehall’s inspectors as items of national infrastructure.
A single objection to any application for onshore turbines currently spells failure now at the planning stage. In the five years to 2020, only 16 new turbines were approved in England, a 96% drop on pre-ban erections.
Development in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty will remain prohibited, under Sunak’s proposals.
The premier eased Cameron’s curb to head off a group of rebels led by former minister Simon Clarke. It included his two immediate predecessors at No 10, plus Alok Sharma, chair of last year’s CoP26 climate talks.
Clarke, who had tabled a motion opposing the ban, welcomed the premier’s concession. “Onshore wind is the cheapest form of energy bar none”, he said. “What I and fellow Conservative MPs have said is simply that communities ought to be able to make this decision for themselves, rather than have Whitehall to rule it out,” he said.
So did developers. Octopus Energy have since early 2021 run their Fan Club, which offers 50% tariff cuts to homeowners happy to welcome a new turbine into their postcode.
“We’re huge fans of onshore wind and so is the overwhelming majority of the British public, Zoisa North-Bond, boss of the firm’s generation arm, said. She cited a recent YouGov survey commissioned by the generator, indicating that 87% of people would support in a turbine in their community, in return for cheaper bills.
“Onshore wind is one of the cheapest and quickest forms of energy we can generate right here on our soil – and by removing the red tape, we can build it fast for communities that want it.
Just as green, still as pleasant
Chris Heaton-Harris, now Sunak’s Northern Ireland secretary, in 2015 led Tory nimbys who strong-armed Cameron into erecting near-insuperable barriers to new English turbines.
Solar developers took heart too this week, as Sunak’s environment secretary Thérèse Coffey explicitly reversed a threat from her predecessor to stop solar farms being built on moderate-quality Grade 3B farmland, home to most of Britain’s existing 14GWp of solar.
Ranil Jayawardena, environment secretary in Liz Truss’s 44-day administration, had mooted a ban, in deference to his doomed boss’ prejudice that ‘solar paraphenalia’ allegedly threatened Britain’s food security.
Speaking to the Commons’ environment, food and rural affairs committee on Tuesday, Coffey backed “a lot more” solar generation on farms, including on 3b-quality land.
Farming minister Mark Spencer later echoed Coffey in a newspaper interview.
“We shouldn’t be stopping farmers who want to diversify their income from doing that as that would be harmful, so I’d have no problem with them putting some solar panels down on 3b land,” said Spencer.
“Tuesday was a turning point for the entire renewables sector”, said Chris Hewett, chief executive of trade body Solar Energy UK.
“It will be a great relief to the solar industry to hear Thérèse Coffey supports existing planning rules. These have successfully encouraged development away from the best-quality agricultural land while recognising the critical need to expand solar farms in response to the climate and energy price crisis. This looks like a significant shift from the anti-solar rhetoric of her predecessor,” said Hewett