For UK onshore wind, Tories should let the market decide

The UK’s Conservative Party is meant to be the ‘party of business’. Don’t you believe it! Where onshore wind is concerned, the Conservatives have shown they’re only the ‘party of business’ when they like the industry in question – and onshore wind isn’t it.

There have been some notable UK successes on wind. Support for offshore wind in the Contracts for Difference (CfD) regime has kept the UK at the forefront of a global industry. We’ve also seen developers and utilities building more onshore wind farms in recent years, powered by the now-expired Renewables Obligation Certificates.

And we should celebrate the success of the UK on reducing carbon emissions in the last ten years, since the Climate Change Act was passed in 2008.

But we also need to remember that these policies were put in place under either the last Labour government, or while the Conservatives were ruling in coalition with the Liberal Democrats from 2010 to 2015. It doesn’t mean more good times are coming for UK onshore wind, as a report on investment has said this week.

Last Wednesday, MPs in the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee warned there had been a “dramatic and worrying collapse” in low-carbon energy investment since 2015, which will threaten the UK’s ability to meet its low-carbon commitments. This report said annual investment in clean energy in the UK dropped 10% in 2016 and then 56% in 2017, and is now at its lowest level for a decade.

Labour’s Mary Creagh, the committee’s chair, warned that “billions of pounds” were needed for the UK to meet its binding climate change targets, but “a dramatic fall in investment is threatening the Government’s ability” to meet them.

In the accompanying report, the committee identified two main problems. The first is the drop in state-backed investment as a result of the privatisation of the UK Green Investment Bank and the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.

And the second is the drop in confidence among private investors following policies introduced by the Conservatives, under then-prime minister David Cameron, in 2015 including the end of ROCs and the moratorium on onshore wind.

That explains the lack of investment – and we see two main ways to fix it.

First, the government could get serious about supporting onshore wind with CfDs. Energy minister Claire Perry has been doing the rounds and giving hope to those in the onshore wind industry, but we haven’t seen much to back this up. Its cynical policy is to only support onshore wind in remote parts of Scotland and Wales.

If that doesn’t happen, there is a second option: reform the planning system. This would make it easier for firms to win consent and communities to attract investment.

The planning system is endlessly complex, and it is understandable why government is reluctant to tackle it for the benefit of a sector that it doesn’t really like. But it could be an effective way to encourage local councils to approve onshore wind farms when they are in the ‘right’ locations, and were local communities are broadly supportive.

A draft of the revised National Planning Policy Framework shows the problems that onshore wind companies are up against. The draft, where consultation closed on 10th May, says that local planning authorities should approve renewable energy projects – including wind farms – as long as their impacts are ‘acceptable’ for both the area and the local community. The problem is that the word ‘acceptable’ is open to interpretation, and it is often easier for planners to refuse projects for an easy life.

Planners will also be mindful that the onshore wind industry didn’t get a look in when the government published its Clean Growth Strategy. When national government has shown it doesn’t want onshore wind investment, why should local communities?

Some planners are aware of the problem. The Town & Country Planning Association and Royal Town Planning Institute this week released a report saying that planners needed new powers if the UK is to hit its climate change goals. That could help to unleash investment in UK onshore wind, without the need for national subsidies.

Or, let the market decide. That’s what the Conservatives are meant to be about.

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