Shapps hints at onshore wind ban U-turn as Tory rebellion grows

A Cabinet minister has hinted that Rishi Sunak could back down amid a growing Tory rebellion trying to force him to drop a ban on new onshore wind farms.

However, Downing Street appeared to reject suggestions of a U-turn, stressing there is no “imminent change” to the Prime Minister’s opposition to relaxing planning rules around onshore wind.

Business Secretary Grant Shapps denied the challenge constitutes a “row” or that there is a “massive gulf” between the rebels and the Government.

Former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss are among 30 Conservatives backing former levelling-up secretary Simon Clarke’s pro-wind amendment to the Levelling Up Bill.

Playing down the significance of the revolt, Mr Shapps said he was “completely mystified” by the headlines.

He told Times Radio: “It’s the most extraordinarily overwritten story I’ve read.

“The fact that a backbencher has an amendment in is literally something that happens every single day in Parliament.

“And his amendment, which is saying something like local people should have final say, is actually exactly what Rishi said when he last spoke on it, and indeed what I’ve said on it in the past.

“It just strikes me it’s not really a row.

“We’re all basically saying the same thing. You need local consent if you’re going to have wind power onshore, because it can be quite a big imposition on the local environment.”

Grant Shapps
Grant Shapps (Victoria Jones/PA

Mr Shapps told Sky News that “to present it as some sort of massive gulf is completely untrue”.

However, No 10 later suggested Mr Shapps was pointing to existing rules, although the requirements around community consent put place in 2015 are so tough to meet that they amount to an effective moratorium on new onshore wind projects.

Mr Sunak vowed to maintain the ban during his unsuccessful Tory leadership bid in the summer, when he expressed a preference for building more turbines offshore.

Asked if the business secretary was signalling an imminent U-turn, Mr Sunak’s official spokesman said: “You’ve got our position – I’m sure he’s (Mr Shapps) pointing to the rules that are already in place, to allow for consultation.”

Elaborating on the Prime Minister’s position, the spokesman said: “The worst thing we can do is alienate communities.

“We want to deliver on our commitments and we have a very affordable form of energy in offshore wind.”

Opinion poll graphic
(PA Graphics)

Asked if the Prime Minister is open to relaxing planning restrictions, the official said: “I’m not aware of any imminent change on that front.”

He said the Government considers amendments to Bills “as they’re put forward” and that Mr Sunak is seeking “views from both sides” of the issue.

The spokesman said he did not believe the Commons leader had come forward with a timetable for the Bill, but “they will do so, I’m sure, in the normal way”.

Mr Sunak could face a damaging defeat by Tory rebels, made more likely by Labour’s backing for the amendment.

Former Conservative Party chairman Sir Jake Berry and Alok Sharma, who was president of the Cop26 climate summit, were some of the latest senior MPs to add their names to the legislation.

The Prime Minister is also facing a split in opinion within his own Cabinet, with Levelling-Up Secretary Michael Gove understood to be backing an end to the moratorium.

Security minister Tom Tugendhat said the public should have a “right to choose” over onshore wind.

He told ITV’s Peston programme: “I’ve always been of the opinion that people should have the right to choose what is built near them, and so I’m looking forward to what the Government comes up with but I hope very much that we’ll stick to our commitment to make sure that we have the capability to build those energy production units that people want to have near them.

“If a community wants onshore wind it’s up to the community to decide, it’s not up to me to decide.”

NHS missions
Rishi Sunak (Jacob King/PA)

Calls for a end to the ban have grown amid efforts to secure the UK’s energy independence as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine squeezes supplies.

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas tweeted: “Yet another screeching u-turn from a PM who has failed time after time to show the climate leadership our country needs and is having to be dragged in the right direction.

“Renewables like onshore wind are 9 times cheaper than gas – about time he realised it.”

The Prime Minister is also facing a challenge over building targets.

He was forced to pull a vote on the legislation that would set a target of building 300,000 homes per year when around 50 Tory MPs threatened to rebel.