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The Conservatives Should Change Their Tune on Onshore Wind Farms

11/04/2014 13:08 BST | Updated 09/06/2014 10:59 BST

Looking at this week's admission by Conservative Chairman Grant Shapps that a future Conservative Government would turn its back on onshore wind in favour of solar and offshore, it's difficult to believe that it was only October 2013 when Michael Fallon, the Conservative Energy Minister spoke at the Tory Party Conference and confirmed that the UK would be delivering on its low carbon commitments but would seek to do it in the lowest cost manner. Fallon, like many in the Conservative Party, sees the value in being "low cost environmentalists", favouring ways to decarbonise in ways which limit the cost to the consumer.

It seems that onshore wind is being punished for its success: it is now the UK's leading renewable technology, contributing more to UK power needs than any other form of renewables. Some Conservatives are now claiming, misguidedly, that it's time to scale back - but why do this to the cheapest mainstream renewable technologies? It's also cheaper than new nuclear, and is likely to be the first large scale low carbon energy source to be cost competitive with new gas. This has a lot to do with the fact that the UK is one of the windiest countries in the world.

Of course we have to meet our UK target of generating 15% of energy from renewable sources by 2020, and onshore wind has a hugely important role to play in this, but it's worth remembering that the need to build a low carbon economy does not stop at 2020. We will need to continue action across the 2020s and beyond if we are to replace old fossil fuel plants now at the end of their lives with a low carbon alternative. So the political signalling from Government that stop-start policy making is the order of the day takes us back to the worst type of leadership - thinking only across a political term.

These unhelpful suggestions about reining in onshore wind also mean the Tories are ignoring an important Conservative principle - that the market has a big role in deciding what happens. If you agree we should address climate change, it follows you need low carbon generation. If you want to use the market to help you manage costs, then you will have a strong showing for onshore wind - something that the right-of-centre think tank Policy Exchange has been happy to point out to the Party.

Away from the rigours of the market, however, it's clear that there are strong views held in the Tory party for and against onshore wind, and some proposals face local opposition campaigns. Of course onshore wind farms are also usually built in rural areas where the Conservative Party does well. And hey presto some of those campaigners are likely to be card-carrying Conservatives and local Conservative Club regulars.

But an irony of the Tories tying themselves in knots here is that this doesn't chime with what the voters say. Poll after poll shows a clear majority in favour of onshore wind. And the same result happens if you ask people if they would be happy to have turbines built near to them.

In the run up to last year's local elections RenewableUK asked the independent polling organisation ComRes to look at voter attitudes to wind farms. The views of Conservative supporters are most interesting. Asked if they would be more or less likely to vote for a candidate who campaigned for wind farms, Conservative voters were in a 3-way split. One third were more likely, one third less likely, one third had no view. Most judged it a low priority issue compared to meat and drink issues like housing or rubbish collection. This presents a challenge for a Conservative Parliamentary candidates and the Party at large. Come out against wind farms and you risk alienating as many voters as you attract, while making people wonder what the fuss is all about.

How the Conservatives use this voter information depends on where they see their biggest electoral opportunity. The only voter group in which a clear majority said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who openly supported local wind farms were UKIP voters. As Lord Ashcroft and many other commentators have said, a governing majority does not come from chasing the UKIP vote, but in claiming the centre ground. And polls show that these people tend to support wind farms as an increasing part of our energy mix.

So what does the Party do? Strangely enough the answer lies in what it's already doing. First reform planning policy to ensure that decisions are taken at the local level and that communities have a greater say in decision making. Check: that was the Localism Act and new guidance on wind farms. Second, help developers to engage earlier and be more imaginative about how community benefit payments can do more than help refurbish village halls and instead do things like cut energy bills. Check: new onshore guidance was launched by Michael Fallon in June 2014. Third, cut support levels and then implement market-based measures to drive competition in low carbon generation so that the cheapest forms win and consumers are protected. Check: the Energy Act - lifted predominantly from the Conservative Manifesto - has now cleared Parliament.

Over the last three years the Government has been a hard task master to the industry I represent. So having done all of the above it's a mystery to me why the Conservative leadership is not doing more to trumpet these changes, and that it seems remarkably unconcerned about what voter attitudes actually are. Or that the best place to decide on where to build wind farms is at the local level: localism in action you might say.

For a final word let's turn to the Mail On Sunday. Last October it surveyed voters on what forms of generation they would support being built near them. 60% of Conservative voters said they would be happy to have an onshore wind farm built nearby. And when given a choice between onshore wind and fracking, guess which won?