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The UK government has partially eased rules that in effect ban new onshore wind farms in England but industry and political opponents have warned the move did not go far enough.
Michael Gove, the communities secretary, on Tuesday introduced “new measures to allow local communities to back onshore wind power projects,” although he stressed this would “only apply in areas where developments have community support”.
But Paul Maile, head of planning and infrastructure consenting at law firm Eversheds Sutherland, said the tweaks to the planning rules meant “proposals [for new wind farms] seemingly will not be considered solely upon their planning merits.” He added: “I am therefore sceptical if this will be enough to encourage developers to invest.”
Under the old rules, an onshore wind farm could be blocked if there was a single local objection to the scheme. Then-Conservative prime minister David Cameron brought in the de facto ban soon after winning the 2015 general election, amid fears from Tory MPs and the party membership about a potential backlash from local communities concerned about the impact of turbines on rural landscapes.
Only two new turbines were built in England last year, according to trade body RenewableUK, with development now concentrated in Scotland, where the rules are different.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak initially signalled he would keep the ban in place when he entered Downing Street last year. But he subsequently softened his position in December and launched a consultation on relaxing the rules to head off a potential rebellion by some of his own MPs, who back the technology.
Proponents of the onshore wind argue it is among the cheapest forms of renewable energy and that more is needed to help the UK meet its legally binding target of net zero emissions by 2050.
The changes announced by Gove soften the wording of the National Planning Policy Framework, requiring community concerns to be “appropriately addressed” rather than “fully addressed”. They also expand the ways in which an area can be designated as suitable for wind development.
However, critics said the new rules did not go far enough to encourage developers to bring forward new onshore wind projects as they would still be subject to tougher planning rules than other forms of infrastructure.
“We will still face a planning system stacked against onshore wind that treats it differently to every other energy source or infrastructure project,” said James Robottom, head of onshore wind for RenewableUK, the trade group.
“A lot will be open to interpretation and there are still hurdles to navigate which remain in place.”
Ron Wood, managing director of Community Windpower, one of the UK’s largest onshore wind developers, cautioned that, regardless of planning rules, windfall taxes imposed on electricity generators last year were still holding back investment.
“While we absolutely welcome any developments that remove barriers to building new onshore wind farms . . . it’s important not to get too excited by the decision,” he said.
Ed Miliband, the shadow climate secretary, said the government had “bottled it again” on onshore wind. Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK’s policy director, described the changes as “feeble tweaks” and “just more hot air”.
But Claire Coutinho, the energy secretary, said onshore wind had a “key role” in the shift towards cleaner energy, and that the changes would “help speed up the delivery of projects where local communities want them”.
In an effort to bolster local support, the government is separately exploring ways to make sure people living near wind turbines benefit more directly from them, such as through payments for community facilities or electricity bill discounts.
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