Rishi Sunak has signaled the end of a moratorium on new onshore wind projects in a bid to avoid a row with Tory MPs, his second U-turn in two days.
The Prime Minister and Business Secretary Grant Shapps reached an agreement on Tuesday afternoon that will pave the way for communities to be able to allow such energy developments without unanimous support.
It came after former Upgrade Secretary Simon Clarke tabled an amendment to the Upgrade Bill that would have ended the ban on new onshore wind farms. It was endorsed by Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, as well as former chief whip Wendy Morton.
The government will now set up a consultation on lifting the moratorium on new wind farms later this month, which will run until March 2023, with the national planning policy framework being updated to reflect the results. by the end of April 2023.
Government sources admitted the compromise was intended as a “fudge” and insisted the bar for new wind projects would still be very high.
On Monday, Sunak was forced to drop mandatory homebuilding targets to avoid another embarrassing rebellion, sparking concerns he was too weak to take on unruly backbench MPs.
The target of building 300,000 homes a year in England will now be ‘advisory’ and councils will be allowed to build fewer homes if they can show that achieving it would significantly change the character of an area.
The senior Tories wanted a deal on wind farms to be reached ahead of Keir Starmer’s clash with Sunak during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, to try to neutralize an expected line of attack from Labor on dithering on the issue for an energy crisis.
Given agreements with backbench MPs, MPs hope the Leveling and Regeneration Bill which has been in limbo for weeks can be brought back for the second day of its report stage as early as next Monday.
Over the summer, Sunak had pledged during his ill-fated Tory leadership campaign to drop plans to ease England’s ban on onshore wind farms.
Shapps has recently spoken out against the construction of wind turbines and has been criticized for claiming some are now “so big” they cannot be built on land. He added that onshore wind was part of the UK’s ‘critical mix’ of energy.
The topic has also proven to be a source of contention among other Cabinet ministers in the past. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has previously spoken about his support for onshore wind. But Chris Heaton-Harris, the Northern Ireland secretary, said in 2012 that he was “fiercely opposed to onshore wind” and led the rebellion of more than 100 Tory MPs against David Cameron, which made pressure on the government to end up banning new ones.
Sunak’s descent on Tuesday came after weeks of rowing between backbenchers, Alok Sharma, the Cop26 chairman, also pressuring ministers to end the moratorium.
Sources said there were enough conditions and consultations attached to Sunak’s descent that opponents weren’t too upset. Tory MP John Hayes had led a counter-offensive against moves to ease the ban on new wind projects, after previously warning it would be “hugely unpopular”.
Labor believes Clarke’s proposals were still too restrictive – more so than for any other infrastructure, including incinerators and landfills.
Lisa Nandy, the shadow leveling secretary, said Sunak was ‘in power but not in power’ and that the Prime Minister and Michael Gove were ‘forced into this position because they are too weak to resist to another backbench rebellion”.
She added: “We’ll have to see the details, but if this is a fudge that leaves in place a very restrictive system for onshore wind – the cheapest and cleanest form of energy – it would continue to prevent Britain from cutting energy bills and improving energy. security during an energy crisis.
Although some Tory MPs – like Hayes – argued in an open letter that farmland would be sacrificed for wind farms, putting Britain’s food security at risk, the National Farmers Union chairman said that installing turbines on farmland could make it more profitable.
“Our aim is that we should have many more individual wind turbines within a company so that we can create much higher levels of self-sufficiency in a local area,” Minette Batters told The Guardian.
Research from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit published this week found the number of wind farms it says would be needed to supply electricity to the UK’s 29million homes would take up less than 20% of the land. currently occupied by landfills.
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