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The installation and maintenance of turbines is, to no one’s surprise, much more straight forward on land than at sea. So why, then, is the UK seeing a disproportionate number of offshore turbines being installed compared to onshore?
The UK’s location is among the best in Europe and among the most conducive in the world for harvesting wind energy. But this did not stop the ever-changing political winds from interfering. It only took one footnote in the 2015 National Planning Policy Framework two curb the development plans for any onshore wind. The footnote – allowing construction of wind turbines only on land specifically designated by local councils in their development plans and with the full support of local communities – has effectively amounted to ban. This requirement for community support as a pre-requisite for planning permission is not required in any other form of development in England. In fact, numerous major schemes have been approved despite strong community opposition.
At the time, the political arguments in favour of the “ban” centred around a purported lack of support from voters especially in rural areas, but even at that time the approval rates for onshore wind were at around the two thirds mark. Since then, national support has strengthened further, reaching 79% (and only 4% opposing) in 2022, according to the BEIS Public Attitudes Tracker.
Despite relatively supportive public opinion, it has taken an increasingly urgent need to meet energy security concerns and looming net zero targets demanding cleaner energy to seemingly increase political appetite, but how much appetite is there?
In December 2022, the government, as part of the wider Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill: reforms to National Planning Policy Consultation, launched a consultation regarding proposed changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) as it relates to onshore wind. The aim, according to DLUHC, is to (i) enable the repowering of existing onshore wind turbines; and (ii) introduce more flexibility for local authorities to respond to the views of their local communities.1 The proposed changes suggest removing the requirement for planning impacts identified by the local community to be fully addressed, and instead require these to be satisfactorily addressed. Additionally, proposed wind energy developments will no longer only be considered acceptable if the application is for an area identified as suitable for wind energy development in the development plan.
The substantive effect of this, and whether it will result in any meaningful change facilitating the development of onshore wind farms, remains to be seen. Indeed, if these changes are to make any difference, the government will need to provide further guidance regarding what would amount to “satisfactorily” addressing local planning impacts. Responses to the consultation have highlighted that the government’s proposed changes do not go far enough to break down the barriers to the development of new onshore wind farms.
What, then, stands between the UK and onshore wind?
In order to achieve net zero goals and see a “step change in deploying renewable technologies”, it is vital to increase onshore wind developments, being one of the cheapest forms of renewable power (according to the British Energy Security Strategy (2022)), and being less technically challenging than hydrogen, at least in the short term, and less politically controversial than nuclear energy.
Swift and decisive action is needed from the government for the consultation and resulting action to have any meaningful effect and the effective ban to be lifted. It is not a promising start that the government has not suggested wholesale changes to the current onshore wind planning process. We can only hope that the responses to the consultation will help to push the government towards making more impactful changes than those currently envisaged. Speaking of swift, in the formal meeting (oral evidence session) on reforms to national planning policy on 24 April 2023, it was confirmed that there is currently no timeline for the outcome of the consultation as the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities wades its way through 26,000 responses to the wider consultation. We had hoped that this article would be well-timed pending the imminent outcome of the consultation but unfortunately that does not appear to be the case.
 Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill: reforms to national planning policy - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)