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The Levelling Up Bill – blowing in the wind?

By Douglas Johnson
29 November 2022

By Doug Johnson

Another day, another rebellion by Conservative backbenchers – this time, an amendment by former Levelling Up Secretary, Simon Clarke, to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which would require the government to revise planning rules to allow local authorities to consent onshore wind farms. Media reports suggest around 30 Conservative MPs support the amendment.

The government appears inclined to meet the rebels part way. Despite a pledge from Rishi Sunak to maintain the moratorium on onshore wind during the Conservative leadership contest in the summer, the Business Secretary, Grant Shapps, has said that the government can see a place for onshore wind, ‘where communities are in favour of it,’ and where it benefits communities.

This is language we’ve seen from the Conservatives before, but instead in relation to fracking. The pressure that the government faces is similar – one group of its MPs supports the technology, the other faces pressure from its constituents about local impacts and campaigns against it.

Making development consent conditional on community support is a clear attempt to keep both groups onside. It’s interesting to see this logic adopted even by the amendment’s advocates: Mr Clarke is reported as emphasising to Conservative colleagues that his amendment places a higher bar on developers in terms of local consent than legislation under Labour would.

There are two risks in the government’s approach. The first is that the requirement for local enthusiasm creates real challenges for delivery. Onshore wind is in a better position than fracking was – the economic investment generated by offshore wind provides a clear case study for benefit. The task of finding and mobilising supportive communities to show that they actually want wind in their area will still add time and complexity to consenting any project.

The second is that the compromise doesn’t actually work. Opponents of onshore wind such as Sir John Hayes have made it clear they feel any wind onshore is too much wind. The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill has already been delayed by Theresa Villiers’ amendment to scrap housebuilding targets. Debate over onshore wind may further stymie progress.