Energy and Utilities

'Wind of change': Labour government lifts de facto ban on onshore wind in the UK

Published on 10th Jul 2024

The swift move indicates a strong early commitment to the green economy and to reform of the UK's planning system

Wind and solar power farm

The Labour government has made a significant initial step in its policy for renewable energy following its election victory last week by "blowing away" a nine-year moratorium on new onshore windfarms.

The lifting of a de facto ban on onshore wind development announced on 8 July marks a pivotal shift in the UK's planning energy policy and is part of a broader suite of planning reforms that aim to facilitate the critical infrastructure needs of the UK.

With a commitment to doubling onshore wind energy by 2030 to 35GW, the new government has given a strong signal of its increased focus on renewable energy.

De facto ban

Since 2015, the requirements in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) have effectively blocked the rollout of onshore wind infrastructure. The requirement for onshore wind projects to be in areas allocated in a development plan or through local development, neighbourhood development and community right-to-build orders – as well as receive full community backing – has meant that the bar for implementation has been higher than for any other energy infrastructure development. The implication was a de facto ban on onshore wind projects, which were usually thwarted if they faced even a single objection.

In the autumn of 2023, a shimmer of hope emerged for onshore wind with the Conservative government amending chapter 14 of the NPPF at footnote 53a and 54 (now footnote 56 and 57) to allow consent if impacts were "appropriately addressed". The minimal softening of the wording led to the amendments being branded as a regurgitation of previous political compromises and, unsurprisingly, did not change the risk profile for onshore wind developers.

Policy change

A wind of change is now blowing through UK planning energy policy following Rachel Reeves' announcement on 8 July. In her first speech as the UK chancellor a suite of planning reforms took centre-stage, most notably the lifting of the de facto ban on onshore wind.

The announcement removes additional restrictive tests, which mean that onshore wind applications will now be treated the same as other proposals for energy development. The change in policy aligns with previous criticism of the omission of onshore wind from the former government's policy as being at odds with the targets set out in the British Energy Security Strategy and failing to conceptualise this renewable energy option as a mature, efficient and low-cost technology.

A renewed future

Alongside the proposed changes to the NPPF, the Labour government has announced that it also intends to consult on bringing large onshore wind proposals into the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) regime to support quicker determinations.

The outcome of a consultation could bring a reversal of section 15(2)(aa) Planning Act 2008, which removes the exclusion of onshore wind projects from the NSIP regime.

Amendments to the National Policy Statement (NPS) for energy, or EN1, could also include onshore wind within the definition of "low carbon infrastructure" to give it "critical national priority" status.   

Consultation could also lead to an additional section within the NPS for renewable energy, EN3, that is dedicated to onshore wind, which would provide the primary policy considerations for applicants and decision-makers.

However, the proposed threshold capacity for an onshore wind NSIP could put off some developers due to the length of the process; perhaps an "opt in" approach could be considered for projects between 50-100MW, similar to the new Infrastructure (Wales) Act 2024.

The reforms are expected to be received with enthusiasm by environmentalists and energy experts and as recognising the overdue requirement and appreciating the priority given to renewable energy, especially wind to achieve net zero by 2050.

Progress, but with the same constraints?

Nonetheless, developers (and by extension local planning authorities) will now be considering onshore wind applications and weighing up the pros and cons of these developments.

These include the cost-effectiveness of the application and the lower installation and maintenance costs compared to offshore wind; the renewable energy source and the low carbon footprint; energy security and  the reduction in dependence on fossil fuels; and technological advances, such as improvements in turbine efficiency and design that make for an efficient use of land.

The policy shift is significant, but it is unlikely to result in an immediate surge in development due to existing delays in grid connections and the planning system. The new government's announcement did allude to planning reform "to deliver the infrastructure our country needs' and set out 'new policy intentions for critical infrastructure", but it will remain to be seen what impact these promises will have on infrastructure projects.

Sites will still need to be viable before onshore wind farms are built and no de facto ban has existed in the more feasible locations, such as in Scotland. There is also a call for clearer targets to encourage development rather than a vague suggestion of doubling onshore wind by 2030 to only 35GW. With the target for solar-generated energy set at 70GW by 2035, onshore wind that aims for only half of this capacity have been criticised for a lack of aspiration.

Osborne Clarke comment

The Labour government's swift action to lift the ban on onshore wind within 72 hours of taking office points to a strong commitment to and priority for "green" policy. With updates to the NPPF and NPS expected in the coming weeks and by autumn respectively, there is a renewed emphasis on the benefits of the green economy.

The stage is being set for significant advancements in the UK's planning system, especially for renewable energy. We expect the changes to add further support to other renewable technologies, including batteries and hydrogen storage, with data centres co-located with renewable generation likely to be another significant economic driver.

Osborne Clarke has significant expertise in advising clients on consenting strategies for renewable and low carbon technologies. While there have only been a few new onshore wind projects in England, the team have been advising on a number of re-powering projects and community wind farms in England and several projects in Scotland and Wales where the moratorium has not been in place

Lauren Gardner, a Trainee Solicitor with Osborne Clarke, assisted in writing this Insight.


* This article is current as of the date of its publication and does not necessarily reflect the present state of the law or relevant regulation.

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