‘Miliband’s onshore wind risks NIMBY and bureaucratic hurdles – but it’s vital’

Chris Carter
© Lukasz Pajor/Shutterstock.com

Across the UK, regions renowned for natural beauty, from West Wales to West Durham, lies a paradox at the centre of the UK’s green energy transition. These areas, ideal for onshore wind farms—the cheapest form of electricity production—face significant opposition from within communities that, while supporting the green transition in principle, do not want these projects in their backyard.

Their opposition has leveraged the UK’s outdated planning system, prompting the Labour manifesto to push for reforms to address the quasi-ban on onshore wind farms and the infrastructure, including controversial pylons and substations.

The paradox between national support and vehement local opposition poses a significant challenge for Ed Miliband’s ambitious energy strategy, which he has invested significant personal capital in as Shadow Energy Minister. This conflict extends to larger national strategic priorities, potentially empowering NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) activists to hinder new developments armed with the full force of the planning and legal system.

There are Lies, Damned Lies and Viability Studies…

The first issue revolves around the economic viability of the infrastructure to service onshore wind. Onshore wind farms need to be connected to the National Grid, a task that traditionally involves constructing overhead pylons. However, locals, keen to preserve local scenery, are demanding these pylons be built underground.

Underground pylons come at a steep price. According to energy firm, Bute Energy, the costs could escalate by up to ten times compared to above-ground pylons. An independent report by the Infrastructure Planning Commission in 2012 estimated underground pylons to be 4.5-5.7 times more expensive to build and maintain.

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National Grid puts the number at 10-20 times more expensive. A row in the Welsh Parliament took place last October over what these costs might be, with opposition parties coining the term “mass pylonisation” evoking memories of the large-scale electrification projects of the 1950s and 60s.

In England and Scotland also, these inflated costs threaten the financial feasibility of green energy projects. Higher infrastructure expenses inevitably lead to increased energy bills for consumers, something the Energy Minister will be pressing to avoid as well as maintain private sector interest in investing in energy production.

Furthermore, the drawn-out planning and legal battles can easily delay project implementation, causing missed targets and higher costs due to cost-price inflation. Energy infrastructure is made from costly metals, including steel, copper and subject to the same cost price pressures as everything else that powers the economy.

National Energy Security

In the age of energy security, even Miliband’s new job title “Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero” suggests development of onshore wind will win out in an age of energy security achieved through energy independence. A robust and efficient green energy grid is labelled ‘crucial’ for national energy security in Labour’s manifesto.

In fact, much of the Labour and Conservative manifestos centred around the idea of achieving security across most elements of public policy. In the case of energy, ensuring Britain is never again caught so off guard by the supply of fossil fuels as it was when Russia launched its illegal invasion of Ukraine. Let us not forget, this resulted in a costly £100bn subsidy to cover the entire population’s energy bills.

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Reducing reliance on fossil fuels and foreign energy imports, ensuring a stable and sustainable energy supply is just the job. However, the prolonged implementation of green projects due to planning delays jeopardises this. Reforming planning is far cheaper than risking another £100bn payout to the ‘big six’ energy companies.

According to the IPPR, at the current rate, it would take 4,700 years for England alone to build enough wind farms to meet demand, as only 17 onshore wind farms have been approved since 2015. Again, a quasi-ban that proved to be ill conceived.

The key question now is how quickly Miliband can resolve these blockages, given the size of Labours majority and the fast pace the new government clearly plans to set?

Natural Beauty Contest

All this is not to say opposition to overhead pylons is not without merit. Mid and West Wales, with its rolling hills and picturesque landscapes, holds cultural and emotional value for local communities. It is also a sure supply of local tourism.

According to a UK parliament briefing, more than three-quarters of respondents (78%) surveyed in spring 2023 supported the use of onshore wind in the UK. However, less than half (43%) said they would be happy about an onshore wind farm in their local area.

The visual pollution caused by wind turbines and pylons is obviously a concern, threatening the unspoiled natural beauty that defines the region. Places that often make ideal places for wind farms. This sentiment is echoed in the resistance seen at town hall meetings, where residents, despite their support for green energy, vehemently oppose local infrastructure projects.

Shouts from the Village Hall

The intensity of local opposition is palpable, with town hall meetings often turning into shouting matches. Even in one instance, having to allegedly hire plain clothed security.

During my campaign for a parliamentary seat in mid-Wales, I encountered party members expressing high levels of scepticism over overhead pylons. In adjusting the energy grid, as is now required by events, it stands to reason that there is going to be a political cost, the value of which remains unclear in parts of the United Kingdom where infrastructure construction will take place.

NIMBY tactics have also come under scrutiny. In Little Bromley, where the National Grid is connecting offshore wind to the grid, campaigners managed to gather 36,000 ‘local’ signatures opposing a substation and connecting pylons—about 140 times the village’s population, according to journalist Jonn Elledge.

This is in contrast to Ed Miliband’s personal investment in green energy policies, promising in a recent interview to launch government energy investment vehicle, GB Energy “within days” of taking office with the aim of creating 650,000 new jobs.

However, even within his own party, support is tempered by concerns over the impact on local landscapes. Despite a sense of optimism, it is still difficult to envision local Labour MPs ignoring influxes of complaints from residents as the new government gets to work.

The Way Forward

To overcome these challenges, the plan currently is to streamline the planning process for green energy projects. Keir Starmer has committed to implementing planning reform within 100 days of taking office, with energy planning reform likely to be a key component.

Opposition has already sprung up within days of the election as new Green MP, Adrian Ramsey, opposes a 100-mile corridor of wind farm pylons in his Suffolk constituency.

As the UK strives towards a greener future, the planning system and local opposition are among its most significant hurdles. With planning reform, Labours ambitious energy strategies can move forward. It is a delicate balance of preserving natural beauty and advancing towards sustainable energy.

The path to a green future may be fraught with challenges, and political cost, but its attainment is a journey worth undertaking, having been forced by the likes of Vladimir Putin and his stranglehold on global energy supplies.

Ed Miliband’s vision for a greener UK hinges on overcoming these obstacles. Planning reform now being at its centre. It is a battle against time, bureaucracy, and local resistance even from the greenest of places, but it is one that must be won if we are to secure a sustainable future for generations to come.

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