A decade ago, during a particularly fiery episode of Andrew Neil’s BBC Two Daily Politics show, the climate sceptic blogger James Delingpole claimed he would like to see Britain’s onshore wind farms destroyed with “a bit of semtex” (a plastic explosive). Building on the concerns of over 100 MPs who wanted to see wind farm subsidies scrapped and planning permission restricted, Delingpole (entirely erroneously) argued that wind power would push up energy prices, increase greenhouse gas emissions and require “100 per cent backup” power from fossil fuels.
The Green MP Caroline Lucas, also on the show, shot back with a warning that now seems prophetic: “My worry is that James Delingpole’s semtex is actually going to be aimed at cheaper fuel bills, it’s going to be aimed at jobs, it’s going to be aimed at a booming green economy that we could have – if people like James didn’t keep running down the green economy, and coming out with frankly completely unscientific statements.”
Lucas’s caution went unheeded. A few years later, in 2015, David Cameron’s government clamped down on the burgeoning clean energy industry – scrapping subsidies and introducing new planning conditions for onshore wind farms so onerous that they amounted to a de-facto ban. The strategy of Cameron’s university friend Delingpole had paid off; his anti-wind vision was now law.
The resulting hit to the nation has been disastrous. Only 270 megawatts of English onshore wind capacity was added in the six years following the ban, according to Jess Ralston of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, compared with 330 MW a year in the five years prior. Despite the continued growth of onshore capacity in Scotland, total UK onshore wind capacity now stands at just 14.3 gigawatts.
The Climate Change Committee, which advises the government, has said that capacity needs to double by 2035 if official decarbonisation targets are to be met. Meanwhile, onshore wind’s uptake around the rest of the world has soared. New global installations are expected to reach 80GW by the end of the year, largely thanks to the plummeting cost of the technology.
Rishi Sunak said during his Conservative leadership campaign that he would keep the effective onshore ban in place – but the winds of change are now blowing in the technology’s favour. On Wednesday 23 November the former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss joined a 20-strong rebellion of Tory MPs in favour of an amendment to the government’s Levelling Up Bill. Tabled by Simon Clarke, the amendment would revise the planning regulations and help to ease through onshore wind farm applications. At the time of writing, the amendment had the support of at least 32 Tory MPs.
Labour has said it would support Clarke’s amendment but has also tabled its own. “It is absurd that during an energy crisis Britain is being denied lower energy bills and improved energy security because the Tories have consistently opposed the cheapest, cleanest form of power we have,” Matthew Pennycook, shadow housing and planning minister, told Spotlight. “Rishi Sunak is so weak he is being dragged into an inevitable U-turn by his backbenchers, but the Clarke amendment would still leave Britain hobbled in the race for renewables.” In place of continuing restrictions proposed by Clarke, Labour’s offering would instead “bring consenting for onshore wind in line with other infrastructure with the chance for communities to have their say that that entails”, as well as encouraging councils to “proactively” identify opportunities for renewable power generation, including onshore wind.
So why the sudden shift within the Tory party? Earlier this year Johnson too gave up an attempt to enable onshore wind expansion because his cabinet was split over the “eyesore” technology. But with energy bills rising rapidly in the wake of war in Ukraine, the case for fast-tracking renewable energy developments is now clear, and analysts at Carbon Brief have estimated that this summer’s record low-price for wind power made it nine times cheaper than gas. The revelation is so “inescapable”, said Chris Venables, from the Green Alliance, a think tank, that it has “tipped the balance” for many MPs, helping to reverse years of scaremongering and misinformation.
It also seems that politicians are now catching up with the general public on the issue. Polling commissioned by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit think tank has shown that 62 per cent of the public would “think less” of an MP who opposed nearby onshore wind developments and 77 per cent would support a wind farm being built in their area.
Whether Sunak U-turns voluntarily or not remains to be seen. Yet if he listens to conservative voices arguing that Britain still “isn’t ready” for onshore wind he will fall into the same trap that Cameron did a decade ago. Because while more onshore wind cannot be the entire answer to Britain’s energy future (more energy storage, interconnection and other green technologies are also needed), it is an essential part.