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Claire Stafford: Building genuine partnerships between developers and local communities could unleash the power of onshore wind

Claire recently joined the RTPI as a Planning and Policy Advisor, tasked with contributing to the Institute’s policy and practice for England and managing the Independent Consultants Network. Claire is a chartered member of the RTPI with a background in private consultancy in central London and holds a MSc distinction in Urban Planning from Newcastle University.


On joining the RTPI on 12 June, I quickly became involved in responding to the ongoing ‘Developing Local Partnerships for Onshore Wind in England’ consultation. The consultation covers two broad themes: embedding principles of best practice for community engagement into planning practice guidance and exploring new community benefits, including discounted electricity for communities that support windfarms. Given the crucial role that onshore wind can play in the transition to a low carbon economy and recent calls from environmental lobbying groups and Labour to remove England’s effective ban on new onshore wind farms, this topic is particularly timely.

Although onshore wind offers a cheap, efficient, and practical form of renewable energy, recent IPPR research indicates that, at the current rate of development, England would take 4,700 years to reach the onshore wind capacity called for by government advisors. Industry experts have linked this depressing trend to NPPF Footnote 54, which stipulates that new wind development should not be considered acceptable unless it is both within an area already identified as suitable and, following consultation, the proposals have the full backing of the local community.

Although onshore wind should be put on the same planning basis as other renewable energy projects, deregulating delivery or weakening engagement will put communities in a defensive position towards new projects even though widespread support for onshore wind exists among the general public. Instead, research shows that investing time in the early stages of development and offering communities a stake in projects prevents the uncertainty, delays and additional costs associated with local opposition – ultimately increasing their chances of gaining approval.

Given this consensus, and the risk of poorly implemented projects weakening public support, the discussion around improving community engagement is necessary and long-awaited. Indeed, this consultation provides a key opportunity to examine the hierarchy of community engagement, which are not only applicable to onshore wind project but to all development types.


At the absolute minimum, developers should ensure traditional consultation is conducted effectively. Embedding the principles for good engagement the government has proposed is therefore welcomed. Engaging with communities at the onset of projects is particularly crucial to ensure consultation is beneficial to all stakeholders.

As the Institute has previously highlighted, consultation should also incorporate multiple modes of communication to reach the diverse spectrum of society. Although the pandemic has accelerated the transition to online methods, these should not replace face-to-face engagement, which is proven to strengthen trust. Maintaining communication channels to respond to feedback following consultation is also vital.

Nevertheless, as noted within the Institute’s response, there is a risk of consultation becoming a ‘box-ticking-exercise,’ especially in the absence of specific standards for engagement. The RTPI therefore recommends that policymakers set outcomes-based standards for community engagement which require developers to engage with a minimum number of people who comprise a representative sample of the community affected by their proposals.


Where commercial developers are present in projects, participatory approaches at the ‘options’ stage of development offer an improvement on standard consultation. Research has confirmed the importance of communities being involved from the project development stage, as opposed to being presented with a finalised concept. In a genuine partnership, those impacted must be able to shape the options for projects coming forward before proposals are set in stone.

For example, the developer of an extension of the Berry Burn Wind Farm in Moray, Scotland liaised with the community in the options stage of the development and revised proposals in response to feedback around improving biodiversity within the site to repair damage caused by wildfires and to mitigate the risk of future ones.

Promising approaches has been trialled by the Centre for Sustainable Energy and the Campaign to Protect Rural England which involved conducting workshops that enabled communities to collectively determine where to appropriately integrate renewable energy into their local landscapes.

Planning guidance should make clear that developers should demonstrate that they have provided opportunities for participatory engagement at the ‘options’ stage of development.


Shared ownership, which enables communities to become a financial and/or development partner in renewable energy projects and receive a share of future profits, provides a deeper level of community involvement that complements participatory approaches to engagement. This model empowers communities to directly shape projects and have a stake in their future, which fundamentally changes the power relations between developers and communities.

Indeed, the Government itself recognised the value of shared ownership in 2015, acknowledging that “a community stake in a renewable scheme can also help to create a sense of ownership that can lead to increased acceptance and support at a local level, which is critical for the future growth of the renewables industry”. Similarly, research has indicated that the most effective community benefit from onshore wind is shared ownership, not a larger package of benefits.

It’s therefore doubly disappointing that the Government has not taken this wisdom further and that the current consultation largely focuses on energy bill discounts as a new type of community benefit. In contrast, Scotland has encouraged shared ownership projects in national policy, with successful examples including Crossdykes Wind Farm in which the community have a share in a subsidy-free wind farm and provides lasting benefits to the local area.

Notwithstanding the above, community-led renewable energy projects represent the most meaningful form of community partnership. The recently completed Lawrence Weston wind turbine, initiated, co-designed, and co-owned by residents of a deprived housing estate, will supply power to 3,000 homes and is expected to generate upwards of £100,000 a year for Lawrence Weston.

Policymakers should publish a policy statement for onshore wind that sets out the ambition for shared ownership to be offered as standard on all new onshore wind projects, including repowering projects. The government should publish corresponding guidance on good practice principles for developers, communities, and local authorities that wish to pursue shared ownership projects.

This consultation offers a chance to think critically about engagement as a key part of reinvigorating onshore wind power and achieving a transition to net zero. If we only consider ways of improving traditional methods of engagement, we will miss real opportunities to empower communities to play a vital role in that transition.

The title of this consultation suggests that the government wants onshore wind to be developed through partnerships between developers and communities. But this is not what its proposals, which on community benefits and better consultation, would achieve.

Real partnerships, built around shared ownership and giving communities a genuine stake in new projects, could unleash the power of onshore wind.


The Institute’s response is available here.




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