Rishi Sunak has announced a consultation on relaxing rules that effectively ban new onshore wind turbines in England after pressure from within his own party.
The UK prime minister had angered dozens of Conservative backbenchers after he vowed to block new wind farms in the English countryside within days of taking office, reversing a decision by his predecessor Liz Truss to liberalise the system.
On Tuesday evening, Sunak said the government would consult on changes to the national planning policy to head off a potential rebellion by his own MPs, including Truss.
Under the proposals, onshore wind farms would go ahead if they could demonstrate “local support” and address any negative impacts identified by the local community. Councils would no longer have to predesignate the location of wind turbines in their so-called “local plans”, which they are required to draw up to set out their economic priorities.
“Decisions on onshore wind sites will continue to be made at a local level as these are best made by local representatives who know their areas beset and are democratically accountable to the local community,” the government said.
Backers of onshore wind point out that it is one of the cheapest forms of electricity generation and would also strengthen Britain’s energy security at a time of high oil and gas prices triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But some Tory MPs are opposed to the technology, arguing that wind turbines are unsightly and only provide intermittent power.
The government said it would ensure that local councils remained responsible for onshore wind applications rather than have them fall under the centralised “nationally significant infrastructure project” regime. It would also maintain environmental protections to stop wind turbines in national parks, the greenbelt and areas of outstanding natural beauty.
The government will also seek views on ways to ensure that communities which host wind farms can benefit from lower energy bills. The consultation will begin later this month and conclude by next April.
Under existing rules, an onshore wind farm can be blocked if there is a single local objection to the scheme. Former prime minister David Cameron brought in the de facto onshore wind ban in 2015 after coming under pressure from more than 100 Tory MPs led by current cabinet minister Chris Heaton-Harris.
As a result just 16 new turbines were granted planning permission in England between 2016 and 2020 — a 96 per cent drop on the previous five years.
Rebels who forced Sunak’s change of heart include Alok Sharma, former president of COP26, and former prime minister Boris Johnson. Simon Clarke, the former cabinet minister who led the rebellion, said he welcomed the “really sensible package” which would return wind power decisions to local communities.
“What I and fellow Conservative MPs have said is simply that communities ought to be able to make this decision for themselves, rather than have Whitehall to rule it out,” he said. “Onshore wind is the cheapest form of energy bar none.”
Sir John Hayes, the former energy minister and prominent opponent of wind farms, said he welcomed the compromise. “It leaves local authorities in power to reject wind turbines,” he said. “For those people who want them, their local authorities can go ahead, and those who don’t want them will be entirely entitled to stop them.”