Wind farm nimbyism means 10,000 jobs just went to Ireland

We're saving money, but Ireland is getting the work.

Yesterday the UK and Irish governments signed an agreement that could see British businesses and consumers funding wind farm developments in Ireland that will export electricity to the UK. As a way of mollifying wind farm critics and keeping costs down, the UK government’s approach is understandable. But the majority of Brits who favour wind power may question why they are paying for jobs in Ireland when unemployment is still at 7.7 per cent at home.

The scale of wind farm development in Ireland that may result from yesterday’s agreement is huge. One project alone, called Greenwire, could see 700 wind turbines with 3GW of generating capacity being built. The UK has a target to generate 30 per cent of its electricity from renewables by 2020 so this project could contribute a tenth towards that goal.

To enable projects like Greenwire to go ahead the UK Government will need to provide financial incentives to developers. If they use the same approach as has been proposed for developments within the UK, the government will guarantee developers a set price for the energy they produce. The money required to meet this guarantee will come from increases to the energy bills of consumers and businesses.

In one sense this is a sensible move. Despite onshore wind power being the cheapest renewable technology, there is a vigorous campaign against expanding its use in the UK. If the growth of onshore wind is restricted and options for producing renewable electricity are limited to the UK’s borders, more expensive technologies, particularly offshore wind, will be needed as an alternative. The Greenwire developers claim their project will actually save consumers and businesses £7 billion compared with a scenario in which an equivalent amount of offshore wind was built.

So far, so good. But there is a catch: by outsourcing the generation of cheap onshore wind power to Ireland, Britain will miss the opportunity to create good quality jobs, develop skills and secure a comparative advantage in a burgeoning sector with huge global potential. Greenwire alone will create 10,000 new jobs in Ireland during its construction phase and 3,000 jobs in the longer term, so the developers claim. These are jobs that could be going to Brits.

Greenwire is a concrete example of how anti-wind farm campaigns could cost the UK jobs and growth.

Campaigners tend to be concerned about the aesthetic impact of wind turbines on the countryside and this must be taken into account. Less valid, however, are claims often made about the effectiveness of wind power technology. The Institute for Public Policy Research has shown that wind power is an effective way to reduce carbon emissions. Furthermore, challenges posed by the variable nature of how much electricity wind farms produce, because the wind doesn’t always blow, are often overstated. This variability can be easily accommodated by the grid, posing no threat of power interruptions, at the levels of deployment expected for the technology by 2020.

The scale of opposition to onshore wind often seems larger than it is. This is because campaigners concerns have been amplified by certain segments of the press and championed by several government ministers including the Energy Minister, John Hayes. In fact most of the UK public consistently supports expanding the use of the technology.

These supporters should get angry if their money is used to support wind farms in Ireland instead of the UK, because major job and economic opportunities will be lost.

Editor's note: The headline of this piece was changed on 25 January at 15:45

Wind farms. Photograph: Getty Images

Reg Platt is a Research Fellow at IPPR. He tweets as @regplatt.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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