Rishi Sunak has fuelled expectations of a government U-turn on onshore wind by declaring he is ready to “engage” with Tory backbenchers pushing for a relaxation of rules blocking development.
It came after cabinet minister Grant Shapps signalled a possible compromise by saying that he expects more power-generating turbines to be erected on land in the future.
At least 30 Conservative MPs – including former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss and ex-climate change tsar Alok Sharma – are backing a change to planning policy to smooth the way for more onshore wind farms.
A vote on the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, initially expected today, has been delayed for behind-the-scenes talks to stave off separate Tory rebellions on wind power and housing targets, both of which threaten Mr Sunak’s majority in the Commons.
No date has been fixed for the crunch votes, though it is understood ministers want the legislation through the House before Christmas.
Mr Shapps today tried to play down the significance of the revolt over onshore wind, claiming it is “not really a row” because both sides have the same aim.
“We’re all basically saying the same thing – you need local consent if you’re going to have wind power onshore,” said the business secretary.
And he appeared to accept that the rebels would eventually achieve their goal, telling LBC radio: “There is onshore power, there will be more onshore power in the future, but it needs to be done with consent of communities who perhaps benefit from some of that power, rather than imposed.”
Mr Sunak has already significantly toned down his opposition to onshore wind.
During the Tory leadership race in July, he vowed never to “relax the ban on onshore wind in England, instead focusing on building more turbines offshore”.
But his official spokesperson today refused to characterise the current situation as a “ban”, insisting that the law permits new wind farms so long as developers have consulted with local communities and obtained their consent.
The spokesperson said: “The prime minister thinks that, when it comes to any government business, as a matter of course you should speak to MPs, you should engage with them and seek views from both sides of any issue. That’s what’s taking place.”
Mr Sunak has previously spoken of his focus on offshore wind, which has delivered more than half the UK’s electricity on some days recently, and had stressed the importance of “bringing communities with you” in seeking to meet net-zero carbon commitments.
“He said the worst thing we can do is alienate communities,” said the spokesperson. “We want to deliver on our commitments, and we have a very affordable from of energy in offshore wind.”
Allowing onshore wind farms with local consent appears increasingly viable, as public support for the technology grows during the current energy crisis. But the issue was viewed as toxic during the Tory leadership debate because of many member’s opposition to the erection of turbines in the countryside.
Mr Sunak’s tough stance came in July, as he tried to win over a right-wing Tory membership hostile to measures to tackle the climate emergency and leaning towards Ms Truss.
At the time, in the dying days of his premiership, Mr Johnson had announced plans to allow local communities in England to host new turbines in return for cheaper electricity bills.
One government insider today said the PM was keenly aware that there are strongly-held views on both sides of the argument within the Conservative Party.
“It’s not an issue where there is compromise,” said the insider. “It’s quite common that you would hear quite loudly from people in favour of something but not quite have the full sense of the opposition to that.”
Jake Berry, the former Conservative Party chair and founder of the Northern Research Group of MPs, is the latest to fall in behind the proposed changes tabled by former levelling up secretary Simon Clarke.
Mr Berry pointed out Mr Johnson – who once called wind turbines “white satanic mills” – had shifted his view.
“He’s changed his mind on them. I, to a large extent have changed my mind, and I’m going to be supporting Simon Clarke,” he told the BBC on Sunday.
Mr Shapps also rowed back on his previous criticism that wind turbines are “an eyesore” – arguing that is not the case if they are “done properly”.
“One thing you can do is, you know, remove them often from people’s eyelines. That’s a question of placement,” he told LBC Radio.
“There is onshore power, there will be more onshore power in the future, but it needs to be done with consent of communities who perhaps benefit from some of that power, rather than imposed.”