Onshore wind is ready to contribute to local communities and to net zero
Community Benefit could provide over £100,000 a year for local projects
In 2015 the Government excluded onshore wind from the Contracts for Difference support scheme based on concerns from local residents about visual impact. Since then, whilst new nuclear power and fracking have struggled to get off the ground, the cost of onshore wind has continued to fall, Parliament has declared a climate emergency, and the Government has legislated for net zero emissions by 2050. Responding to this increased urgency, the Government has decided to bring back onshore wind. But despite the public remaining supportive of onshore wind, local residents still have concerns. At the heart of the tension is the need to recognise that the benefits of onshore wind are national, whereas the negative impacts are local.
Community Benefit can bridge the gap between local and national priorities
Many onshore wind projects operate “Community Benefit” schemes that make regular payments to local groups, showing tangible benefits for communities that host wind farms. Existing schemes operate under a voluntary framework in which the owners of wind farms make payments to community groups, often via a charity set up to administer the funds. This voluntary approach has allowed flexibility for both developers and communities, but now may be the time to make Community Benefit mandatory.
Based on the Government’s 2014 guidance, annual Community Benefit payments would be in the region of £100,000 per year for a typical wind farm with 6 or 7 turbines. Anyone who has run a local sports club, village hall, or other community group will appreciate the difference that these funds could make. Community Benefit schemes are already being used to fund improvements to village halls, parks, and woodlands as well as to run youth theatres and to revitalise local crafts such as glassmaking. Onshore wind is part of a long line of Community Benefit schemes in the UK, including the Landfill Communities Fund and the oil and gas-funded Shetland Charitable Trust. Onshore wind Community Benefit is a perfect example of the community-enhancing spending that Policy Exchange called for in its recent report on Modernising the United Kingdom.
Mandatory Community Benefit would be the simplest way for the Government to ensure that affected communities are fairly compensated, whilst removing ambiguity for developers and communities alike. We should remember that Community Benefit is not a one-off transfer, it is an ongoing dialogue with the local community over the lifetime of the project that sees payments tailored to changing local priorities.
The Government also wants to ensure that onshore wind developers engage with communities early and throughout the process, as well as taking into account the impact on the local landscape. The planning process already offers substantial protections in these areas, so the challenge for the Government will be to give communities a “definitive say” on onshore wind projects in England without allowing a small number of local residents to block a project that has broad support within the rest of the community.
In recent years, the two sides of the onshore wind debate have found little common ground. For advocates, onshore wind is one of cheapest low carbon technologies to accelerate our fight against climate change; whereas for detractors, onshore wind is a blight on the rural landscape that wind proponents in cities do not understand. Onshore wind will not be appropriate in every landscape, but pairing Government support for onshore wind with mandatory Community Benefit can help to resolve this tension, delivering a fair deal for local communities and a fair deal for the climate.