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Level Up – let communities in England benefit from onshore wind

A row of onshore wind turbines in a field, a bright blue sunny sky behind
14 December 2021

While the economic and climate benefits of onshore wind are clear, new research from CSE also draws attention to gains that these projects can create for local communities.

As storm Arwen was lashing the UK, we saw the nation’s annual winter energy demands pick-up, soaring energy prices and thousands of people in northern England and Scotland cut off from the electricity grid altogether.

Here at CSE, one of the many things we happened to be doing during this time was finalising an update to good practice guidance for community engagement and benefits from onshore wind developments in England.

On the back of COP26, it was impossible not to feel a deep sense of irony: despite being a windy island, most of the UK’s vast potential to produce cheaper local electricity from onshore windfarms remains untapped.

Planning rules, introduced in 2015, make it challenging for onshore wind projects to gain planning consent. Despite public support for onshore wind increasing from 65% to 77% and opposition falling from 12% to 6%, there were only eight applications for new onshore wind sites in England between 2016 and 2020 compared to 237 applications submitted between 2011 and 2015 – a 96% decrease.

Our research shows these barriers to onshore wind not only pose a challenge to meeting the UK’s climate commitments and establishing a more resilient and reliable de-centralised energy system; they also mean that communities across England are missing out.

Community benefits of onshore wind

From investment into the local economy to improved community infrastructure and the strengthening of biodiversity, there are many ways in which onshore windfarms can contribute to creating more resilient, inclusive, and prosperous local communities.

As one community representative in Scotland told us: “The windfarm has brought benefits. We have broadband internet to every house in the community, funding to support winter fuel payments, and a play park which we haven’t had for years. So it has brought things for the youngsters as well as the older ones”

Other examples we came across included:

Community engagement is key

Communities and local authorities in England keen to bring similar benefits to their local areas can take heart from the Ambition Community Energy (ACE) project in Bristol where permission has recently been granted for the largest wind turbine in England.

Led by Ambition Lawrence Weston (ALW) a community organisation and due to be built on council-owned land, the ACE project came about neither from a passion for renewable energy or concerns about climate change. Local residents wanted to tackle fuel poverty and jump-start economic regeneration in their neighbourhood, an area with many low-income households next to the Bristol Channel.

The key to ACE’s success has been their approach to community engagement. ACE worked closely with residents to secure support for their windfarm. They approached people in person at community events, neighbourhood forums and business breakfasts. They ran stalls to learn about public opinion about the windfarm idea via surveys, where they also offered advice about energy efficiency and managing fuel bills. At these events, community members could ask questions, discuss their concerns and express views about the project. ALW also distributed surveys via a door-knocking campaign and as an insert to a local magazine delivered to 3,500 households. The community expressed support for renewable energy and for wind turbines in their area, with 96% support in face to face surveys (183 respondents) and 68% in responses from door knocking (530 responses).

We must increase renewable energy to meet net zero

Notwithstanding the need to remove barriers caused by current rules, while most people understand the need to scale up renewable energy to phase out fossil fuels, they also have legitimate expectations that they will be able to meaningfully influence how, where and what renewable energy projects will happen within their communities and landscapes.

At CSE, we believe more nuanced public engagement processes are vital if we’re to roll out renewables at the scale needed to reach net zero targets. What’s more, better processes will yield community benefits funding tailored to local needs.

If we increase renewable energy generation solely through top-down imposition, we could easily see a further backlash against renewable energy, like that which led to the halt on onshore wind development in 2015.

The future for onshore wind

The Government has committed to a policy of “sustained growth” of onshore wind to 2030. The Prime Minister’s announcement on 3 March 2020 of a ‘U-turn on onshore wind energy policy’ will allow wind energy to compete in Contracts for Difference auctions this week (providing important price security for long-term energy investments) and a significant and welcome shift in policy. But new projects without planning permission will still need to have a site allocation in their Local Plan and demonstrable community support.

In 2016, CSE worked with the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), to develop a new approach to helping communities create their own renewable energy strategies. The project was called Future Energy Landscapes (FEL) and we developed, trialled and refined a methodology allowing a community to devise a ‘community energy plan’ for their local area. This catalysed insightful, detailed and mature discussion on low carbon energy infrastructure, without the threat of an imminent planning application.

One crucial finding of the work was that local authorities who make the Local Plan were not always considered ‘local’ enough to make energy policy at community or neighbourhood level. People want to work at the scale of the parish, or a small number of parishes together, to develop their vision for a local energy strategy.

Taking this work further, with funding from the MCS Foundation, we’re now actively working with two local authorities to link this methodology to the revision of their local plans following local climate emergency declarations.

In January 2022, workshops will begin to formulate a series of community-led local energy strategies that will lead to detailed, implementable planning policies at the hyper-local level. These strategies will reflect what communities want to see, set boundaries for how renewable energy developers can act, and how benefits must be distributed locally, for example, through share-ownership schemes with the local community. The project is aiming to develop best-practice around community consultation for renewable energy development, creating exemplary Local Plans.

While it’s clear that transforming the way we generate and use energy so we produce less carbon is key to tackling the climate emergency, what’s not entirely clear is how we’ll get there without the right support at every level for communities to take action. The transition is ambitious and challenging – but entirely achievable if we act now.

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