Anti-wind farm rhetoric from the government harms the industry and the economy, but it will not stop well-sited developments
The small but influential anti-wind farm cabal in Westminster and the media will have been patting themselves on the back yesterday over a job well done. Their months of lobbying had apparently paid off. Ministers were mobilised and planning guidance was tweaked, all in the name of blocking the development of a cost-effective clean technology that is broadly supported by around two- thirds of the public. A compliant media completed the job, with correspondents swallowing the line that the Prime Minister thinks that "if people don't want to have wind farms they don't have to have them". Reports were duly filed about newly empowered citizens being given the right to "veto" unwanted wind farms.
And yet closer inspection revealed a rather more complex story, because not only is this supposed planning crackdown accompanied by a raft of measures designed to make wind farms more attractive to local communities, it also fails to include any significant changes to the current planning regime. If the latest reforms represent success for the opponents of wind farms it could prove to be a pretty hollow victory.
The reality is far less dramatic than the headlines suggest. There is no veto on offer to opponents of planned wind farms and no plans for the kind of local referendums that would be required to enable such vetoes in the first place. There are no prescriptive planning rules that would force wind farm developers to comply with buffer zones or categorically rule out certain areas. In fact, the only substantive change is a new legal requirement for developers of larger wind farms to consult with local communities before they lodge a planning application - an approach that is already best practice across the industry and is regarded by many developers as an effective means of working with communities and reducing the likelihood of objections.
Instead, what we have is an attempt by Conservative ministers to spruce up planning guidance that has been in place for some time. Local authorities already consider visual impacts, environmental impacts, and so-called amenity impacts when weighing wind farm planning applications, just as they consider the impact on heritage sites and the feedback they receive from the local community. It is hard to see how yesterday's apparent changes to planning guidance actually change any of these considerations. Wind farm developers will continue to operate in a largely unchanged planning environment, while the introduction of more generous community benefit payments and the government's long overdue effort to encourage greater levels of community ownership may in fact make it easier for them to secure even higher levels of public support.
The fact this supposed crackdown lacks any sort of legislative backbone helps explain why the wind energy industry remains fairly relaxed about what its opponents regard as an all-out assault on its future prospects. Obviously the risk remains that the guidance may prove more draconian than it currently appears, while the bizarre hold anti-green Conservatives retain over the government means further changes could be imposed down the line. But at the moment it appears to be a case of as you were for the industry. As with the negotiations around the Energy Bill and the UK's carbon budgets it looks as if Lib Dem Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey has lost the media battle, but won the far more important fight over policy.
That said, it would be wrong to be too cavalier about the real world impact of the new planning policy guidance. Technically, there may be only limited changes, but the assertion by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles that "any adverse impact from a wind farm development [should be] addressed satisfactorily" gives anti-wind farm campaigners and councils the encouragement and political cover they need to step up attacks on new projects, regardless of the fact polls show only 11 per cent of people nationally are opposed to wind farms. Moreover, the continued lack of clarity in the planning guidance and the vocal opposition of some politicians makes appeals against planning decisions ever more likely, further pushing up the cost of development and delaying the rollout of clean energy capacity.
It is this rhetoric that gave anti-green politicos and editors a reason to celebrate, and it is this rhetoric that again betrays the disgracefully short term, inconsistent, ideological, and politically-motivated thinking at the heart of government. Thinking that serves to damage both the green economy and the wider economy, taking jobs and investment with it. In orchestrating such an explicit attack on wind farms just a day after MPs overwhelmingly approved an Energy Bill designed to drive investment in clean energy the Conservative wing of the government has again sent investors ridiculously mixed signals.
Meanwhile, ministers have risked opening a Pandora's Box in picking out one energy technology for special treatment through the planning system. Green groups have already pointedly asked whether people will be given "vetoes" and offered similar levels of community benefit payments when they are asked to host fracking wells, nuclear power plants, or new runways. In fact, pretty much every kind of development begs the same question: where is my community benefit payment to compensate for the loss of amenity caused by new housing, new roads, new pylons, and, of course, new power stations?
Number 10's assertion that the Prime Minister thinks that "if people don't want to have wind farms they don't have to have them" might make a good sound bite, but it is truly woeful policy and staggeringly weak leadership. Taken to its logical conclusion it is a recipe for a planning policy defined by that amusing acronym BANANA - Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything. Planning policy is notoriously difficult and temperatures will always run high as governments try to balance local sensitivities with national priorities. But suggesting people can unilaterally block projects of national importance is not a good precedent to be setting at a time when new infrastructure is desperately needed to drive the economic recovery, enhance British competitiveness, and deliver decarbonisation.
No one wants poorly sited wind farms marring the landscape, least of all the wind energy industry, but we have to get clean energy from somewhere and we need a consistent planning system for managing its development.
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