1012: Onshore wind ban relaxed, or is it?
This week’s blog looks at the latest developments in the sorry tale of onshore wind consenting.
Back in 2015, the Conservative manifesto pledged to ‘halt the spread of onshore windfarms’ by promising to ‘change the law so that local people have the final say on windfarm applications’, implying that the ‘final say’ was expected to be negative. This seemed to be motivated by rural Conservative MPs getting lobbied about the spread of onshore wind.
Following the election, this was then effected by:
- taking onshore wind out of the Development Consent Order (DCO) regime;
- requiring compulsory pre-application consultation for onshore wind planning applications (uniquely among planning applications); and
- amending planning policy so that the windfarm site had to be in the local plan, planning impacts had been fully addressed and the proposal had the backing of the affected local community.
That last one (specifically footnote 54 in the National Planning Policy Framework) is the most difficult to overcome and was being interpreted as if a single person objected then the windfarm couldn’t go ahead. This meant an effective ban on onshore wind in England – according to RenewableUK, just 22 new turbines have been consented since 2016 in England.
There have been various rumbles since then about a more favourable treatment of onshore wind, but little action. The short-lived Truss premiership pledged to restore onshore wind in its Growth Plan (see paragraph 2.10), but this was not implemented.
In December 2022 the criteria for Contracts for Difference bids were announced and included onshore wind of over 5MW.
A consultation was held on ‘developing local partnerships for onshore wind in England‘ earlier this summer, but was probably going to make things worse (see blog post here). What was interesting about the consultation document was the purported justification for continuing the effective ban – just 12% of people would be unhappy to have onshore wind in their area, ie hardly anyone.
Although we helped draft an amendment to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill (amendment 282K here – yet to be considered) that would fully restore onshore wind, for some reason Chair of COP26 Sir Alok Sharma has more clout and his amendment to the Energy Bill has prompted some movement.
The amendment itself (NC43 here) was actually a bit two-steps-forward-one-step-back. It required footnote 54 to be removed and guidance to be published on how developers can achieve consent, but it also banned appeals against refusals of consent, which would make onshore wind unique in the Town and Country Planning regime in a second way.
The amendment was debated on 5 September 2023 but Sir Alok did not press it to a vote (see column 291 here). That is because earlier that day the levelling-up Secretary of State Michael Gove (rather than the new energy one, Claire Coutinho), issued a Written Ministerial Statement, amended the NPPF with a new footnote 53a and a revised footnote 54 (see below), and promised some guidance aimed at clarifying that a single person can’t prevent a project.
These moves are still entirely feeble. Footnote 53a widens where onshore wind policies can be located to various types of order, but footnote 54 is still there which more or less overrides it.
Here is the new footnote shown as a tracked change version of the old one, showing how little it has changed:
It may have generated positive headlines (‘Rishi Sunak eases onshore wind farm rules as Tory MPs threaten revolt‘ – BBC; ‘Boost for onshore wind with government to relax planning rules‘ – Sky; ‘Ministers to announce moves aiming to allow building of onshore wind turbines‘ – Guardian) but I don’t think these winds of change will be troubling the Beaufort Scale. With the other impediments mentioned above and this very small (literally small print) change in wording, the ban effectively remains in place.
In other news, the A1 Morpeth to Ellingham DCO application decision has been deferred for a fourth time, from 5 September 2023 to 5 June 2024, amounting to a decision period of 32 months rather than the usual three. If it is decided on the new date, it will be the longest time from application to decision for any DCO that hasn’t been quashed in the courts, and is even longer than one that was quashed (Norfolk Vanguard). The ministerial statement that is required is the most anodyne yet:
‘The extension will allow further time to consider any matters relevant to the application’.
The need for onshore wind to be properly placed on a level playing field has only increased with the news that no companies bid for offshore wind Contracts for Difference in the latest round of awards.