Downing Street fuelled expectations of a U-turn by saying the PM wants to “engage” with 30 Conservatives backing proposed changes to the law to lift the effective ban on turbines on land.
And business secretary Grant Shapps, who is understood to have argued the case for compromise in cabinet, made clear he expects a shift in policy by declaring that “there will be more onshore power in the future”.
Onshore wind farms are viewed by environmentalists as among the cheapest and least polluting means of generating the electricity needed by the UK, with Friends of the Earth saying that ditching the ban is a “no-brainer”.
And momentum towards a government climbdown was increased by a new poll finding that 67 per cent of adults – including 59 per cent of Conservative voters – would support a new wind farm within a mile of their home, in return for a 50 per cent discount on electricity bills.
Insiders believe Mr Sunak is considering changes to make it easier to obtain local consent for a proposed farm, rather than dropping the requirement for consultation with residents altogether. The PM’s official spokesperson said he regarded it as important not to “alienate communities” as the UK makes the transition to zero-carbon energy generation.
Changes introduced in 2015 mean that a handful of complaints can block the award of planning consent for onshore turbines. As a result, just eight applications for new developments were submitted in England between 2016 and 2020, compared to 237 in the previous five years.
With Labour thought likely to back an amendment tabled by former levelling up secretary Simon Clarke, which would smooth the process of gaining consent for new or updated wind farms, Mr Sunak faces the real risk of his first Commons defeat on the issue.
The changes are backed not only by Mr Johnson and Ms Truss but also by former climate change tsar Alok Sharma and ex-Tory party chair Jake Berry, the leader of the Northern Research Group of Conservative MPs.
Mr Clarke said onshore wind was “an idea which unites opinion across the party”, adding: “I really hope the government will get behind this and I appeal to colleagues to lend their united support so we can get this done and end up with a truly rational, fair and successful energy policy for the future.”
Votes on the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, initially expected this week, have been delayed as the PM fights to resolve separate rebellions on wind farms and housing targets.
No date has been fixed for the crunch votes, though it is understood ministers want the legislation through the House before Christmas.
Mr Sunak has already significantly toned down his opposition to onshore wind.
During the Tory leadership contest in July, as he struggled to win the votes of party members largely opposed to measures to tackle climate change, he made a public vow never to “relax the ban on onshore wind in England”.
But his official spokesperson on Monday refused to characterise the current situation as a “ban”, insisting that existing law permits new wind farms so long as developers have consulted with local communities and obtained their consent.
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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 Shapps played 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 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 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 consensus,” 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.”
Friends of the Earth’s head of policy, Mike Childs, said: “Lifting the ban on onshore wind in England is a no-brainer. It’s cheap, clean, plentiful and popular with the public – and has a key role to play in tackling the cost of living and climate crises.
“Earlier this month Rishi Sunak pledged to make the UK a clean energy superpower. It’s time to start delivering.”
Greenpeace UK policy director Doug Parr said that onshore wind “could have been designed as the perfect solution to the multiple crises we face”.
“ We’ve got sky-high energy prices driven by fossil gas, and onshore wind is the cheapest form of power,” he said.
“We have a security issue over gas supplies, and onshore wind needs no fuel but the air moving. And we have a raging climate crisis where onshore wind can cut planet-heating emissions and buy us precious time.”
Cameron Smith, a spokesperson for the Conservative Environment Network, said the group expected more Conservative backbenchers to formally come forward and back Mr Clarke’s amendment.
He said the forum – which counts 119 Conservative backbench MPs in its caucus – hoped the government adopts the amendment or puts forward its own one so that planning rules allow wind farms to be built where communities agree.
Industry body Renewable UK wants to make it easier for onshore wind developments to get planning approval, by removing barriers such as the obligation on local authorities to draw up costly and time-consuming neighbourhood plans.
The group’s Nathan Bennett described Mr Clarke’s proposals as a “step forward”.
Meanwhile, a YouGov poll for Diffusion PR found 67 per cent of adults ready to support wind farm developments near their homes in return for discounts on energy bills.
Support in rural areas, where developments are most likely, stood at 65 per cent.
By comparison, 73 per cent said they would back solar farms near their homes in return for a 50 per cent reduction in electricity bills, but just 17 per cent – including 29 per cent of Tory voters – would support a fracking well on the same terms.
YouGov surveyed 1,765 adults in July 2022