Rishi Sunak is struggling to broker a compromise on allowing onshore wind power amid a growing Tory backbench rebellion, though No 10 continues to fear a backlash from opposing MPs to wind farms.
The U-turn on support for onshore wind projects would directly contradict a pledge Sunak made during his leadership campaign, but Downing Street has sought to make it government policy.
The government all but confirmed on Monday that restrictions on onshore wind would be changed in the face of the rebellion, but the row has left Sunak caught between two wings of the party – with a growing number of MPs also using the leveling bill to try put a brake on development.
Labor is also tabling a tough new onshore wind amendment, highlighting the limitations of the Tory rebels’ amendment, which was drafted by former cabinet minister Simon Clarke and backed by at least 30 MPs, including Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.
The full Labor amendment, tabled on Monday evening and seen by the Guardian, would remove onerous planning restrictions which effectively ban new onshore wind in England, but also require local authorities to proactively identify opportunities for renewables, including including onshore wind generation.
Labor will support Clarke’s amendment – putting Sunak at risk of defeat in the Commons – but said it was not enough to ensure real growth in onshore wind.
Matthew Pennycook, the Shadow Housing Minister, said: “Rishi Sunak is now being dragged into an inevitable U-turn by his backbenchers and, while it’s better than nothing, the Clarke Amendment still leaves Great Britain behind. Brittany hampered in the race for renewable energies.
“Because, while ending the ban, it imposes a particularly restrictive planning regime for onshore wind that risks stalling sensible projects, keeping bills high and missing out on the next generation of high-skilled jobs.Under this government, we are forced to move forward only at the pace of the slowest Conservative backbencher.
Clarke reportedly told Tory backbenchers his amendment was also a guarantee of “community consent” against a future Labor government, which would likely make it easier for local authorities to build wind farms.
“His argument is that either we do it or Labor do it in the future, without this lockdown,” said a supportive MP.
On Monday, Business and Energy Secretary Grant Shapps said there would be more onshore wind projects “where communities support them”, which would mean the end of a de facto blockage on such projects. since 2014 under planning rules.
Shapps told Sky News: “We already have quite a bit of onshore wind. There will be more over time, especially where the communities are in favor of it. This is, I think, the key test of the onshore wind: is it beneficial for local communities?This has always been the principle for us, for quite some time now.
Pushed again on whether this was a forced position change, Shapps said: “No, that’s exactly what we’ve been saying all along. Rishi Sunak said the other week that where onshore happens, there has to be local agreement.
Shapps erroneously stated that Sunak had “always” maintained that the onshore wind could occur with local consent, adding: “Presenting it as some sort of massive gulf is completely wrong.”
No 10 has staged a scheduled vote on the bill this week in the face of rebellion over housing targets – which is separately putting the government under pressure. The added problem of Clarke’s amendment means the bill will likely be delayed further.
The Labor amendment, which Tory rebels are unlikely to support, was drafted with the Green Alliance and the Town and Country Planning Association, who also made suggestions to Clarke about the shortcomings of his amendment.
Chris Venables, the head of policy at Green Alliance, said of Clarke’s amendment: “It’s not perfect because it’s a campaign amendment. The second part is to put measures in place that ensure that the planning system actually drives it forward.
A new poll by think tank Compassion in Politics on Monday found that 72% of Conservative voters supported building more wind farms. Overall, when asked which power source they would prefer to see strengthened in the UK, three-quarters said they would support onshore wind.