Most Britons like wind power, but the minority who don’t exert a painful electoral grip on the Conservative party. The only solution is to ensure those who live with the turbines also profit from them
Politicians are slaves to opinion polls, goes the conventional wisdom: not in the case of wind farms. Two-thirds of us think more wind turbines are a good idea, even when sited close to our homes and even if we live in the countryside.
Yet, as I revealed on Sunday, George Osborne’s Treasury is fighting hard to slash the subsidies to onshore wind farms, while Lincolnshire county council wants to all but ban them.
There are two simple reasons for this. First, the polling Osborne and David Cameron really worry about is not that showing what the British people want, but the vote at the next general election. Second, the argument for renewable energy, with all its benefits for climate change, air pollution, jobs and energy security, has been disastrously undermined by the abject failure to ensure that those who have to live with the turbines share the financial benefits.
The Conservative party failed to get a majority in 2010 and, with the economy tanking, the prospects of reversing that in 2015 look shaky. So when 100 backbench Tory MPs wrote to the prime minister in February, demanding “drastic cuts” to support for onshore wind, they got noticed. They clearly feel opposition in the shires is damaging their chances of re-election, meaning Osborne’s attack on the subsidies makes political sense. The fact it does not make economic sense seems to matter less to our finance minister.
There is undoubtedly deep and growing unhappiness about local wind farms in some places: strong opposition has trebled to 21% since 2010. The sense of invasion by outsiders is legitimate and a very powerful force, but has also led to unfortunate gales of nonsense being peddled about the supposed uselessness or expensiveness of wind power. But elsewhere, the winds of change have been altogether gentler.
In Germany, 20% of all electricity comes from renewable energy and over 65% of the turbines and solar panels are owned by individuals, farmers and communities. Bringing power to the people, at the expense of unpopular utility companies, has delivered overwhelming public acceptance. In the UK, less than 10% of renewable energy is owned locally. Over 90% is owned by the big energy firms, seen as untrusted giants dumping turbines into the countryside and taking the proceeds out.
Community ownership is transformative, according to Lord Adair Turner, chair of the government’s official advisers, the Committee on Climate Change. “Rather than looking at a wind farm and saying ‘that big company dumped it here to make profit’, people look at it and say ‘that’s ours and I get some profit from it’,” he told me in March. “As a result it turns out aesthetic perceptions are deeply subjective and you say ‘I rather like it’ rather than ‘I rather dislike it.’”
There are two paths forward. Either Cameron and Osborne, pressed hard by their Liberal Democrat coalition partners, can meet the nation’s wishes and – to some extent – those of their backbenchers by fully backing wind power, while ensuring far more communities see the benefit and that the planning system continues to reject bad developments.
Or they can continue their retreat from the promise of being “the greenest government ever” and hope that secures them just enough support from the minority opposed to wind power to squeeze them into government in 2015. Which path will they take? The answer is still blowing in the wind.
All-party group accuses government of failing to grasp opportunity to invest in green economy in haste to cut ‘red tape’
Environmental protections must not be slashed in an “irresponsible” and “desperate dash for growth”, an all-party group of MPs has warned. Green investment should play a key role in the UK’s economic recovery, the group reports, but accuses prime minister David Cameron of a lack of leadership and George Osborne’s Treasury as regarding environmental measures as hampering economic development despite the green economy growing at 4% a year.
The debate over the value of investing in clean power, energy efficiency, recycling and reducing environmental damage has reached the top of government in recent weeks, with foreign secretary William Hague, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and environment secretary Caroline Spelman all stating its high importance in a world challenged by climate change, growing population and greater competition for resources.
Monday’s report, from the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), said the government had broken its promise to deliver a roadmap to a green economy, with the current approach merely listing existing policies, relying on voluntary action and having no deadlines. This was “unlikely” to deliver the billions of pounds of green investment needed, the report added.
“The prime minister should show leadership and put the green economy at the heart of the government’s plans to revive the economy,” said Joan Walley, chair of the EAC. “The Treasury seems to see environmental regulations as nothing more than costly red tape, but what we are talking about here are vital laws to give us clean air, safe food, and a thriving countryside. It would be irresponsible to get rid of sensible regulations in a desperate dash for growth.”
The Guardian revealed in January the ambition of the cabinet office minister, Oliver Letwin, to cut 10,000 pages of regulatory guidance to 50 pages. Spelman said the cutting or changing of three-quarters of all green regulations would “be good for the environment and good for business”, while saving business £1bn over five years.
The MPs stated: “There appears to be little priority in government attached to moving to a green economy.” They said March’s budget, the first since the publication of the government’s green economy plan, “lacked any indication that the Treasury has embedded the green economy into its economic plans, but rather plans for new roads and increased oil and gas extraction.”
“Rising global demand for commodities and fossil fuels means that prices will continue to rise, so it is incredibly short-sighted of the Treasury not to give businesses clear incentives to use resources in a smarter way,” said Walley.
In a leaked letter to the prime minister, Hague emphasised the economic opportunities offered by green innovation, now being seized by China and Germany. “The low carbon economy is at the leading edge of a structural shift now taking place globally … and is outperforming the economy as a whole.” The letter, sent earlier this year, urged Cameron to give a speech on the issue, but the Guardian revealed in April that a speech by the prime minister planned to be a “major policy intervention” had been downgraded to seven minutes of introductory remarks.
“The call is now coming from across the Conservative party, from inside government and from business to stop the Treasury blocking green growth and get on with policies that our economic competitors have been doing for years,” said Luke Wreford, economic policy officer at WWF-UK. “Far from putting British companies out of business, environmental policies may well be the saving of them.”