UK Onshore Wind: are the winds of change on horizon?
Market Insight 24 May 2023 24 May 2023
Projects & Construction
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?
- The ban itself. Although political consensus seems to have been reached and the government acknowledges in the consultation that the goal of a fully decarbonised power system by 2035 requires a step change in deploying renewable technologies, the “flexibility” introduced by the proposals is potentially extremely limited – depending on the meaning of satisfactorily - and has been heavily criticised. The passive proposals in the consultation seem to address the semantics of the ban and do not propose actively addressing the most significant underlying issue of restrictive onshore wind planning policy and legislation. It has been suggested that the only way to fully end the ban would be to scrap the relevant planning regulations or reform them more clearly.
- Planning policy and legislation. The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has stressed in its report on ‘Delivering Net Zero, Climate Resilience and Growth’ that the planning system is currently too slow - consenting for major projects currently takes more than 4 years on average. The NIC has made some recommendations that it says could shorten consenting to 2.5 years, including that onshore wind be brought back into the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) system as soon as possible, not least because since allowing local authorities to make planning decisions on onshore wind, there has been an 80% decrease in the number of installations but also to allow their development to benefit from any of the proposed NSIP planning reforms that are ultimately implemented. However, when this was debated in parliament in December 2022, it was stated that onshore wind applications will continue to be considered by local councils rather than through the NSIP regime. Equally though, it was also stated that government intend to make changes to the NPPF by the end of April 2023 …
- Local communities. National approval rates are promising, but there is no guarantee that a particular community will embrace having a large infrastructure project on its doorstep and the prospect of a drawn out and costly planning and development process is only going to add to any reluctance of local decision-makers. The NIC has advised that developers offer local communities more tangible social, economic, or environmental benefits for hosting infrastructure that supports national objectives. By requiring developers to engage with local communities to understand their needs at an early stage, the NIC contends that community trust in the system will improve, as will the quality of the system itself.
- Supply chain availability. Demand across Europe has spiked in recent years, in tandem with surging energy security concerns, resulting in supply and contractor shortages. In its response to the consultation, RenewableUK, states that the uncertainty in the planning laws will continue to act as a significant hindrance to investment in the onshore wind industry and its supply chain due to the high-level of risk involved with obtaining planning permission. If the government was to make meaningful changes to the NPPF as it relates to onshore wind, facilitating consenting to these projects, perhaps the stretched supply chain would be enticed to turn its attention to the UK, which would go some way towards alleviating this particular barrier.
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)