Onshore Wind Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:52 am on 19 November 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Crossbench 11:52, 19 November 2021

My Lords, I declare my interest as co-chair of Peers for the Planet and thank everyone who has put down their name to speak in today’s debate. I also express my gratitude to RenewableUK for its excellent briefing session for me and colleagues on the Bill.

In their net-zero strategy, the Government confirmed that a mix of renewables would be needed to achieve their 2035 goal of decarbonisation of the power sector through

“40GW of offshore wind by 2030, with more onshore, solar, and other renewables”.

The strategy also stated that it would:

“Ensure the planning system can support the deployment of low carbon energy infrastructure”.

The Bill before the House today is simple and straightforward—it is basically one clause—and it aims to support the Government’s policies as set out in those quotations by requiring the Government to amend planning guidance to enable local authorities to grant more onshore wind applications for the purpose of meeting the UK’s carbon targets.

We need renewable energy of all types. The Government have set ambitious targets for offshore wind and have plans for nuclear, but they have not yet set a target for onshore wind and there are real obstacles to this in the planning system.

The Climate Change Committee’s progress report to Parliament highlighted this policy gap, stating:

“While onshore wind and solar are now eligible for CfDs”— contracts for difference—

“there is no clear medium- to long-term ambition.”

It went on to highlight as a priority recommendation for 2022 to:

“Address potential barriers to deploying and using low-carbon generation at scale (e.g. the planning and consenting regime for renewables and networks, exposure to climate risks) and, with Ofgem, develop a framework under which sufficient supply resilience can be ensured.”

Onshore wind is part of the renewable mix we depend on at the moment. Between April and June 2020, renewables generated nearly 45% of the UK’s electricity, with onshore wind generating 20% of that, but that will need to increase if the Government are to meet their targets.

Previously, contracts for difference did not include onshore wind, a problem addressed in the previous Bill I brought before your Lordships’ House. That issue has now been resolved—albeit in the short term, because there is still more work to be done regarding frequency of auctions—with the Government including onshore wind in the next contracts for difference allocation round.

Given the practicalities of geography of our country, most of the most suitable sites for future onshore wind may well be in Scotland, where the windiest sites are, but England and Wales will still have a contribution to make in providing onshore wind in the right places. However, barriers in our planning system mean that we are not playing our part at the moment, with planning authorities consenting to less than half the annual onshore wind capacity needed for us to remain on track to meet net zero by 2050.

I absolutely understand that there are those who have anxieties about onshore wind in the wrong places. I want to make it clear that this is not a Bill that aims to dictate to local authorities that they must approve onshore wind, but it is an attempt to provide a more balanced approach to allow them to approve projects in a way much more in line with the normal planning approval process for other renewables and infrastructure more generally.

Current guidance is based on the 2015 ministerial Statement and requires that local planning authorities should grant planning permission for onshore wind developments only if the development site is an area identified as suitable for wind energy development—as is absolutely right—in a local or neighbourhood plan and, crucially, if it can be demonstrated that the concerns of the local community have been fully addressed and the proposal has its full backing. This means that a wind farm cannot receive planning permission unless it has the unanimous support of the local community, so that one recalcitrant person in a community can stand in the way of a development that everyone else wants.

The change in guidance in 2015 has led to a dramatic decline in onshore wind applications. According to government figures, there were eight applications for onshore wind projects in the period 2016-20, compared with 237 between 2011 and 2015—a 96% decrease.

Clause 1 of my Bill seeks to move us from the current situation and take us back to a framework that balances suitability and ensures that decisions can be made at a local level in a way that industry understands. It is neither fair nor sensible to have a system that makes it much harder to develop onshore wind compared with other renewables.

The ministerial Statement which gave rise to the current regime was based on a perception of wide-scale public opposition to wind farms, but times have changed since 2015 and there is now far greater public awareness of the need for our energy sector to be decarbonised. With that awareness of the climate crisis we face, public support for onshore wind has grown. A July 2021 Survation poll found that 70% of the public support the development of onshore wind and 83% support a less punitive planning system.

In October, a European Climate Foundation poll found that 67% of people would support the construction of a wind farm onshore near where they actually live—and from an environmental perspective, things have moved on, too. A lot has been learned about how developments can fit in with nature and the local environment. Environmental NGOs such as the RSPB and Friends of the Earth support planning reform, as they recognise the essential role of renewable energy in addressing climate change, with the RSPB saying that

“we believe this growth can be achieved in harmony with, rather than at the expense of, the natural environment”.

With thorough environmental impact assessment, locating sites away from sensitive sites or important migration routes, and developers working closely with local communities, as I believe happens in Scotland, it is possible to find a balance and ensure that developments are compatible with the landscape and have community support. Renewable UK, in its Onshore Wind Prospectus, highlights the potential benefits of wind farms, such as peatland restoration, wildflower meadow creation, community benefit funds and improvement to outdoor access and recreation facilities. This is not just theory. Cornwall Council’s climate emergency development plan demonstrates how this balance can be achieved by allocating suitable areas for onshore wind, in consultation with the local community. This Bill would ensure guidance that encourages this line of approach.

The Bill is not concerned only with changing the guidance in relation to new sites. Clause 1(2)(c) covers the important issue of repowering existing wind farms. We urgently need a policy environment that supports this. If we cannot repower existing wind farms, we risk losing 8 gigawatts of existing onshore wind capacity when they come to the end of their lives. So we also need a planning system that supports the replacement of existing turbines with modern, more powerful and more cost-efficient ones. Can the Minister comment on that point when he replies? I know that he is acutely aware that this is the critical decade for climate, and I hope he will agree that we need a different approach to planning for onshore wind.

My Bill concentrates on the net-zero imperative for a more balanced planning regime, but there are also economic benefits of onshore wind, which is significantly cheaper than offshore wind and could help support the Government’s levelling-up agenda, as many of the windiest places are located in rural or less affluent parts of the UK. Renewable UK has published an Onshore Wind Prospectus, urging the Government to set a target for onshore wind of 30 gigawatts by 2030, to run annual contracts for difference auctions and to reform Ofgem—particularly to include net zero in its remit. Renewable UK estimates that this additional onshore wind capacity would boost a green recovery by providing £45 billion of gross value added to the UK economy; 57,000 full-time jobs, which would help support a just transition; 60 million tonnes of CO2 removal, equivalent to 1 million cars off the road; and £16.3 billion paid back to consumers through £25 per year given back to each household on their energy bills.

To conclude, we need a clear policy from government to help achieve our net-zero targets, give long-term certainty and clarity to investors and reduce bills for consumers through the cheapest form of renewable energy, onshore wind. I hope that my Bill is a first step to setting out a clear medium to long-term ambition for onshore wind and addressing the barriers to deployment of low-carbon generation at scale, as recommended by the Climate Change Committee. I look forward very much to the contributions of noble Lords and hope very much for a positive response from the Minister. I beg to move.