The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has come out in support of onshore wind farms, and promised that reform of the planning process will give more power to local communities over developments in their area, and more financial benefits to them should they agree to a windfarm being cited in their midst.
His views are expressed in a letter to Daventry MP Chris Heaton-Harris, who earlier this month coordinated an open letter to the Prime Minister, signed by up to 106 Conservative MPs, opposing onshore windfarms.
Mr Heaton-Harris boasts on his website about working with local communities "to fight both wind-farm proposals and unwanted development being foisted upon them by central government".
In his response to this letter, Mr Cameron says that he appreciates concerns from local residents about large planning applications, and “that is why we want to make the planning process more accessible to local residents, because planning works best when communities themselves have the opportunity to influence the decisions that make a difference in their lives.
"That must include local communities having their full say on onshore wind farm planning decisions."
He says that the planning reforms currently being finalised by the Coalition Government will “put local communities in the driving seat by giving new powers to neighbourhoods to write their own plans," which “will mean that the top-down regional targets will not trump local concerns in planning decisions," as it does at present.
It's significant that his wording is "regional targets" and not "national targets", for it is national targets which determine the number of onshore wind farms.
Business rates benefits
Mr Cameron goes on to say that this process should also allow local communities to “receive more local benefits as a result of development that does go ahead".
This means ensuring they “capture the full economic benefit from hosting renewable energy projects, including retention of all of the business rates they pay".
At present, only landowners and developers see a profit, which is a function of the way the Renewables Obligation was designed, unlike in several other countries where communities have long received financial benefits from wind farms sited in their locations.
Mr Heaton-Harris will take comfort from the fact that Mr Cameron says that he shares the views of the Tory MPs who signed the letter about “the need to review support for onshore wind under the Renewables Obligation".
He notes that initially the subsidy for onshore wind is being reduced by 10% because the costs of onshore wind of falling, "which will affect projects that are being built this year". This hints that the subsidy may fall further in future.
Support for low carbon sector
David Cameron then goes on to mount a defence of the role of onshore wind energy in “a balanced UK energy mix alongside gas, nuclear, cleaner coal and other forms of renewable energy".
He says that having a portfolio of different supplies “enhances energy security and prevents the UK from becoming over-reliant on gas imports".
In words that will please the low carbon sector he adds that he is “determined" to “seize the economic opportunities in renewable energy supply chains as the global race for capital in low carbon sectors intensifies", acknowledging the benefit to British companies in forging alliances with others abroad in order successfully to play their part in what is a global market.
“Around ￡4 billion of new investments in UK renewable energy projects have been announced with the potential to support up to 14,000 new jobs in this country" since April 2011, the Prime Minister writes.
He concludes by saying, in response to accusations that British renewable energy policy is a dog being wagged by the tail of policymakers in Brussels, that, “in other words, there are perfectly hardheaded reasons for allowing some onshore wind energy to be part of our mix irrespective of the EU's 2020 renewable energy target signed up to by the previous government..."
However, he adds to this sentence “...but if, and only if, local people have a proper say in planning decisions".
Heaton-Harris' responseIn response, Mr Heaton-Harris says that he is “actually slightly encouraged by the letter and the noises off I am hearing", implying that he knows something we don't.
He told the Daily Mail: "I’m hopeful given what he says about planning and how that is being addressed. This is the opening of a conversation."
Nevertheless, Greenpeace spokesman Joss Garman also found reassurance in the letter: “The Prime Minister is right to make a strong intervention to cut through the myths and remind a vocal minority on his back benches that wind farms are good for the economy and good for the environment.
“Wind energy can play a crucial role in reducing our dependence upon the expensive gas imports that are driving up everybody’s energy bills, whilst also cutting pollution and creating new jobs.”
Wind industry hopefulA spokesman for Renewable UK, the trade body for onshore wind, said that they welcomed the recognition by the Prime Minister of the contribution that the wind industry makes to the economy, employing thousands and, in the future, tens of thousands of people.
He said that wind developers had just responded to the Localism Bill and were not too worried that its effects would impact to an uncomfortable degree on plans for more onshore wind farms.
He said it would depend very much on the nature of a Local Plan and Neighbourhood Plan, and the degree of incentives that were offered to communities in the form of business rates etc. "It would be a question of balancing these local incentives with the national priorities."
This in turn hinges on the wording in the final draft of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which will determine how national targets are to be achieved at the local level, and which is still being written.
The latest thinking on resolving the tension that clearly exists between the NPPF and Neighbourhood and Local Plans, comes from the government's Communities and Local Government Committee.
It says on this matter: “Cllr Porter told us that once Local Plans were written, taking into account the NPPF, 'Neighbourhood Plans should be able to fit into a Local Plan so communities will be able to determine for themselves where development that is needed goes. What they will not be able to determine is the fact that they do not need any'".
The CLGC concludes by telling the government to sort out "the relationship between the NPPF, Local Plans and Neighbourhood Plans, especially when these priorities conflict. The NPPF must clarify whether the Local Plan or the Neighbourhood Plan takes precedence. It should also define what constitutes 'strategic issues'."
Planning Minister Greg Clark told the committee he hopes the words used in the final document would be unambiguous enough to not be open to misinterpretation.
The feeling is that, for wind farms, in the same way as for new housing developments (where the Government believes that the New Homes Bonus will incentivise communities to be more receptive to development), the carrot of receiving local business rates will be a sufficiently powerful persuader.
There will still be centrally set targets for onshore renewable energy. And at least 4,500 more turbines currently in the planning process will have to go somewhere.