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An onshore wind begins to blow for England

Encouraged by recent government concessions and upcoming local and national elections, wind developers in England are hoping to move projects forward after many years of delay. As interest grows, there is some appetite for a national plan for onshore wind.

In 2015, strict planning rules effectively banned onshore wind in England. A single objection could be enough to derail a plan and developers to “fully” address any public concerns. Councils could not approve a development unless it was in an already safeguarded area for wind development within their Adopted Local Plan.

The government then relaxed the rules in September 2023. The government handed councils the power to allocate new sites for wind via Supplementary Planning Documents (SPDs), a much quicker process. This meant developers only had to address concerns “appropriately”.

However, it is still an uphill battle.

Now, local and national elections are looming. Both opposition parties in England have said that, should they win elections, they will go much further and approve projects while reforming the planning system.

In February, shadow energy secretary Ed Miliband said changing the policy on onshore wind and allowing projects to move forward was something he would do on his first day in government. The Liberal Democrats have expressed similar views and could play an important local government role in England.

But how do developers feel, and are they ready? Could they move forward based on the latest government concessions, or is more substantial change required?

Ready to go

Alistair Watson, UK head of planning and environment at law firm Taylor Wessing, said the lifting of the single objection rule “was one small change in policy and a very good one”. However, he said it had not been enough to encourage applications.

Others agreed, including Chris Binns, senior planning manager at Queequeg Renewables. The company is submitting planning applications for 750 MW of renewable energy projects, including onshore wind, by the end of June.

Binns said that, in theory at least, onshore wind proposals in England are now “more protected from community objections and technically easier to achieve from a developer’s perspective. But the regulatory changes have so far failed to kick off a new generation of onshore wind projects.”

ACE turbine in Bristol, the only onshore wind project built in England in 2023
ACE turbine in Bristol, the only onshore wind project built in England in 2023

He said there was little chance of progress under the current government and that, despite the autumn easing of restrictions, almost no new applications had been made. Those that had were for replacements or private sites.

“The zero applications figure is a vivid indicator of just how restrictive current planning policy for onshore wind still is in England right now. Compare this with Scotland, where developers submitted 46 planning applications [over the last year] … It is clear that onshore wind in England is lagging behind Scotland and Wales, both of whom have devolved planning regimes and forward-thinking planning frameworks.”

James Robottom, Renewable UK’s head of policy, said some developers were now reconsidering, encouraged by Labour statements and limited Conservative concessions.

“[The policy concessions] made people look at old projects and start to scope out land parcels … But the only full scale plant actually under development is the 300 MW Calderdale wind farm near Halifax.”

Wind and see

He said developers remained cautious following the autumn concessions. “No one knows what [the changes] mean until they are tested – developers don’t know what might knock things back, and costs need to be assessed.”

He added developers could be holding back in anticipation of an even greater improvement in the planning environment under a new government. Given Miliband’s pledge and similar comments from the LibDems, many developers “see a change of government as likely to produce a more conducive environment [for onshore wind]”.

Julio Dal Poz, managing director in the energy transition practice at FTI Consulting, agreed that the onshore wind project pipeline was “almost empty” in England.

“This is no surprise given the current inadequate framework for this renewable technology and the uncertainty over what potential rules might be changed by a new government. So, for the time being potential onshore wind developers in England are just sitting and waiting.”

Onshore wind is certainly competitive. Dal Poz noted 24 projects – of which 23 were in Scotland, one in Wales –had won CfDs in Allocation Round 5, in 2023. These projects cover 1.5 GW of wind capacity, while no offshore wind projects participated in the round.

Binns said “any incoming government will need to be supportive of renewable energy – the question is to what degree of support they’ll provide … What’s also clear is that UK renewable developers are lining up potential wind sites in anticipation of radical planning policy reform.”

He added that any incoming government should look at the less restrictive planning framework approaches in Scotland and Wales for inspiration.

Watson said he thought Miliband’s pledge in February to remove the block on onshore wind “should attract applications”. He added the next step would be to consider planning and consent processes. Other challenges include establishing supply chains and a skilled workforce.

Local versus national

Many felt the current planning system needed far more fundamental change. Binns said that regardless of which political party was in charge – at a local or national level – for onshore wind’s prospects needed to improve in England. “Planning reform needs to go much further than merely tweaking the existing system. It needs wholesale change.”

He said this included changing the way in which companies could secure land for wind farms. “The location of onshore wind developments should be assessed at a national or regional level. Energy markets span towns, cities, regions – even countries. As such, the allocation of land for wind farms should not be the sole responsibility of local councils.”

Instead, land allocation should focus on up-to-date grid connectivity data and models that demonstrate where wind conditions are best, he added. Councils have no access to this information, making recent planning concessions ineffective.

National need policy?

Watson said that he expected any new government to build on the autumn planning rule changes. “Go harder and go faster will be the rule with planning reform – to bring about easier connections across the country. A ‘National need’ policy which can trump objections looks likely.”

Dal Poz said government could go further in the planning review process. He noted that onshore wind projects in England were ineligible to be considered as a “nationally significant infrastructure project” (NSIP). Therefore, Local Planning Authorities had to decide all projects.

“Unless onshore wind is reconsidered as an NSIP, investors won’t feel confident to develop projects that could be challenged by uncertain planning rules. Devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have a more positive approach towards the development of onshore wind projects.”

Watson agreed government could encourage projects by amending legislation to bring proposals into the NSIP system.

However, Robottom cautioned that while NSIP made it easier sometimes, it was not always the case.

“Many solar projects are just under the 50 MW NSIP threshold to avoid the NSIP system so they can go through local planning.” He said this was often easier, with projects sometimes accepted by local councils, but then rejected at national level.

“So, national approval is not always the best route,” at least under the current government, he noted.

Local lack

Robottom said whatever happened, local authorities needed more resources. They will need these to plan the best sites for wind farms and also to carry out community engagement. “There are not enough [planning] resources in local authorities – we need a lot more resources in the planning process if we are to move forward.”

“It’s not a simple case of ‘we unblock the planning system and now it can proceed’. It’s been nine years since anyone has seen an application, and supply chains need to be re-established in England.” One area of changes has been turbine size. Newer turbines are bigger and more efficient – so operators will need fewer for the same power output.

“No one has tried getting planning permission in England with these larger turbines, and it will become harder to get the smaller [turbines] because they are no longer being built as everyone else is going for the cheapest, most efficient big ones.”

He said that if opposition parties won in upcoming elections, it should make onshore wind easier to build and provide a levelling playing field. “But it’s not going to be easy – removing restrictive footnotes was step one, and now the hard work starts here. But we are far more positive now than in 2017 or 2018.”

Grid congestion

Advocates argue that onshore wind in England could also help with growing grid congestion. Dal Poz said grid congestion costs had spiralled. One key challenge was transporting renewable electricity from Scotland to southern and central England, where most consumption takes place. He said onshore wind development in England could alleviate this, although would not be a fix by itself.

He noted that ambition for projects in England would signal to the National Grid ESO that it needed to take this into account when planning scenarios for electricity distribution and transmission system design. This, he noted, “could lead to a better outcome from a value perspective.”

Much of the demand is in the south, while supply is in the north. As a result, Robottom said, the UK would continue to need new grid. “The most important thing for wind projects is that they are in suitable places where they are most commercially viable – not necessarily in the south, just where we want to have viable projects.”

Watson agreed. “Even if planning reforms are enacted in England, it is expected that most onshore wind capacity will remain in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is simply because the wind resource is so much more abundant there.”


There are incentives beyond planning reform. Dal Poz said setting targets for onshore wind would also help in the UK. Solar and offshore wind already have such ambitions.

“Scotland has an ambition to deploy 20 GW of onshore wind by 2030 (up from 9 GW today), but there is no UK-wide ambition (or target) for this technology. A target increases developers’ confidence and creates positive momentum.”

Robottom agreed a UK-wide target would be very useful from an investment perspective. “It would demonstrate to supply chain companies and those looking to invest that the government are serious about wind and there is going to be a big enough pipeline to invest in … Targets and a grid strategy are important.”

Dal Poz also suggested including English onshore wind as part of the annual CfD Allocation Round scheme would reassure investors. Such a move would provide a guaranteed price and market access.

Community engagement

National plans and planning reform are important. But Robottom said higher population density in England meant onshore wind farms needed good quality community engagement, so local concerns could be heard. “Local communities need good quality early engagement – and having a proper shot at planning system is important in order to justify this,” he said.

“There are more people in England so we need a grown up conversation about what land can be used.” He said planners should maximise opportunities for multi-renewables sites with solar and wind, battery and grid connection, and this needed to be discussed with local authorities. “Under pressure from public opinion, 90% of local authorities have declared climate emergencies but they are not acting on it.”  

Dal Poz said that, given the importance of community impact and benefits for onshore wind, any CfD award for onshore wind should consider “Non-Price Factors” that are directly related to community benefits, as well as price.

This is in addition to Sustainable Industry Rewards (SIRs), which the government has proposed for AR7 onwards in order to bolster the supply chain.

Watson said the government could promote the benefits of onshore wind farms to local communities. It could offer incentives such as lower energy prices.

National involvement

Thus far, Labour’s comments on its proposed national energy company, GB Energy, have focused on UK offshore wind. Watson said the party should broaden its scope to allow “GB Energy to invest in onshore too”.

Robottom said GB Energy could look like Welsh onshore renewables developer, Trydan Gwyrdd Cymru. This plans to install over 1 GW of solar and onshore wind across the Welsh public estate by 2040. However, it is unlikely the new government would restrict GB Energy to public land.

Scotland is the likely base for GB Energy, given its existing onshore sector, engineering base and wind resources.

Robottom said direct government involvement in England and Scotland would “help government understand the challenges of developing onshore wind”. He said any public entity would “have to form partnerships, as it would be unlikely to have all the expertise in house”. This should help reduce risk for private companies involved.

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