Why England’s onshore wind planning rules need reform

Onshore wind is a low-cost and efficient technology that is well-suited to the UK, given it is one of the windiest countries in Europe.

The cost of installing turbines is estimated to have fallen by about 50% since 2015.

Yet, in England, planning permission has been granted for only 15 new turbines in the past five years, according to figures from energy trade association Renewable UK.

See also: Renewable energy investment on farm: What to expect and what to avoid

In contrast, in just the past six months, Scotland has brought 46 wind turbines online (amounting to capacity of 179MW) with another 518MW under construction.

Why are the numbers in England so low?

In 2015, in response to public opposition to wind farms, the government made changes to the planning regime to strengthen local decision-making on onshore wind.

It introduced a footnote to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) so that all decisions on onshore wind turbines of any size would be determined by the local planning authority, rather than by national bodies.

Planning policy was also amended so that projects have to be located in areas identified as suitable for onshore wind in the local authority’s development plan and so that communities have to back each individual proposal.

What impact did this have?

The changes have proved to be a de facto ban on new projects, even for single turbines.

Renewable UK says if just one person objects to an onshore wind farm planning application in England, it can be rejected by the local authority because the wording of the footnote says that any planning impacts highlighted by the community must be “fully addressed” for plans to go ahead.

A lack of resource also means that just 11% of all planning authorities have officially identified suitable areas for wind projects.

The combined result has been a dramatic decline in applications.

According to the UK100 group – a network of local government leaders pressing for action on climate change – between 2015 and 2020 there was a 96% drop in planning applications for new onshore wind projects compared to the years from 2011 to 2015.

What is the government doing to address this?

The British Energy Security Strategy (2022), published on 7 April 2022, proposes to accelerate the UK towards a low-carbon, energy dependent future. It said that onshore wind was one of the cheapest forms of renewable power, and the government was serious about “delivering cheaper, cleaner, more secure power, so we need to consider all options”.

However, it chose not to set a target for the development of onshore wind in England, highlighting instead that there was a “range of views” on wind turbines.

It acknowledged that the changes to the NPPF made in 2015 have resulted in an “overly rigid system”, but it maintained that a local approach was the best way forward.

In a consultation on the future of the NPPF which closed in March 2023, the government has suggested local authorities should have a “range of routes” to demonstrate their support for certain areas in their boundaries to be suitable for onshore wind, outside the requirement for sites to be designated in the development plan.

It has also suggested that planning permission should be predicated on “satisfactorily addressing”, rather than “fully addressing” planning impacts identified by local communities.

One of the other proposals was to make changes to the NPPF to support repowering.

This is the term used when ageing wind turbines are replaced with more efficient models when they reach the end of their life.

The government has also issued a separate consultation on how to develop local partnerships with communities when an onshore wind project is proposed.

Ideas include widening the community benefits that could be offered to local people, such as offering discounts on their energy bills. The consultation closed in early July.

Will this make a difference?

There is a strong view in the industry that the answer to this question is “no”.

For example, Renewable UK says the wording of the proposed amendment to the NPPF is still too ambiguous.

Given that it costs thousands of pounds to develop a project to the point where it can be submitted for planning approval, it is highly unlikely to give developers or landowners the confidence to put proposals forward.

One of the challenges highlighted by campaigners and legal experts would be defining what is meant in the planning guidance by “satisfactorily addressing” impacts raised by local communities.

What changes might help support farm-based schemes?

NFU’s Jonathan Scurlock, chief adviser on renewable energy and climate change, says although theoretically there are permitted development rights covering the erection of a single turbine, current guidelines need substantial reforms.

At present, they only apply to very small turbines (lower than 11.1m), which have limited value in a farm setting.

However, the NFU believes there is a strong case to allow for more moderately sized single wind turbines to supplement on-site power generation.

The rising costs of electricity, coupled with increased electrification, mean that many farms already have solar rooftop arrays, but they have no winter source of renewable electricity.

“Having a wind turbine to generate electricity during the winter months would give them more energy security,” says Jonathan.

“We already know what the turbines look like as there are already about 2,000 of them across the country that were put in prior to 2015.”

There is a campaign, which the NFU supports, being led by the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) to push for changes to permitted development rights.

One of the arguments being used is that since 2022, mobile phone masts can be built using permitted development rights if they are less than 25m high in a designated landscape or less than 30m high in a non-protected area.

“Mobile phone masts are clearly seen as essential infrastructure and we think the same argument could be applied to on-site electricity generation,” he says.

What would the onshore wind sector like to see happen?

There are widespread calls for the government to remove the additional hurdles to onshore wind planning in England by removing the footnote in the NPPF completely.

This would mean that planning applications for turbines could be treated in the same way as other development types.

Renewable UK head of onshore wind James Rowbottom says: “It cannot continue to be treated more restrictively than other infrastructure, including incinerators and landfill sites.” 

Regen, an organisation which offers independent advice on sustainable energy, has also called for a presumption in favour of approval for wind turbines where local authorities haven’t included specific policies in their local plan, alongside the setting of ambitious targets for onshore wind development.

Meanwhile, the National Infrastructure Commission has also urged the government to amend legislation to bring major onshore wind projects back within the nationally significant infrastructure project (NSIP) system as soon as possible.

Planning applications under the NSIP regime are dealt with by the Planning Inspectorate rather than local authorities.

What is the outlook?

The consensus is that the planning reforms that the government has put forward are not enough to make any difference.

Planning reforms of any kind are always contentious and polling shows that while people are very supportive of wind turbines and wind farms in theory, many don’t want to live near one.

The most recent Public Attitudes Tracker published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, showed that 79% of people support the use of onshore wind to generate power.

This drops to 43% when people are asked if they would be happy for an onshore wind farm to be built in their local area.

However, opposition leader Kier Starmer has pledged that if the Labour Party wins the next general election, then one of its earliest priorities will be to reverse the planning rules with a goal of doubling output from onshore wind by 2030.

What about the position elsewhere in the UK?

The Scottish government published an Onshore Wind Policy Statement in December 2022, setting an overall ambition to have a minimum of 20GW of installed by 2030.

As of June 2022, it had just under 9GW of installed onshore wind, with an additional 11.3GW of capacity in the pipeline, spread over 217 potential projects.

The planning regime in Wales is also regarded as more favourable to onshore wind farms than it is in England, although there are significant challenges in terms of securing grid capacity.