Navitus Bay offshore wind refusal - UK energy and climate policy unravels

Navitus Bay as it would be seen from a nearby beach. Unacceptable visual impact? Or a low carbon working landscape of the kind we will all grow to love? Image: LDA Design.
Navitus Bay as it would be seen from a nearby beach. Unacceptable visual impact? Or a low carbon working landscape of the kind we will all grow to love? Image: LDA Design.
The government's decision to turn down the 1GW Navitus Bay offshore wind farm near the Isle of Wight sends a chilling message to developers: 'don't waste your time and money here!' The refusal of planning permission based on visual impact to a geological world heritage area is capricious and threatens to kill off an industry in which the UK has been - until now - the world leader.
If all that can now be developed offshore is a few projects far out in the shallow waters of the North Sea, with their higher construction, operating and grid costs, then there is no way the government can meet its own carbon reduction targets.

In its first four months, the new Government has fast-tracked a supposed national priority for shale gas development, and removed support for the most cost effective renewable energies, onshore wind and solar farms.

So where does this leave its claims to be committed to the 2008 Climate Change Act, and to wanting an ambitious global deal to mitigate climate change in Paris this December?

Amber Rudd, the new Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, made it clear, in the Commons debate on removal of the onshore wind subsidy, that she was relying on offshore wind to fill the gap created by cutbacks inland.

She implied that the offshore subsidy, reflecting higher construction and maintenance costs, was a price worth paying for the reduced visual impacts out at sea. Rudd set out an even more positive message in her June speech to RenewableUK's Global Offshore Wind Conference:

"In the last 5 years alone, the amount of electricity being produced from offshore wind has more than quadrupled. In the same period we have seen around £10bn of private sector investment. And the industry now supports around 14,000 jobs.

"So you represent one of the 21st century industrial success stories. You - we - are world leaders. Pioneers. Innovators. The best business minds working with the best engineers, within one of the world's strongest policy and financial frameworks.

"And working together we now have the most operational offshore wind here in UK waters than anywhere else in the world. And that is where 21st century industrial Britain should be - leading the world. As our friends over at the Department for Business would say - Britain is Great!"

So this month's decision to scrap Navitus Bay, the proposed offshore wind farm to the south west of the Isle of Wight, able to generate almost 1GW of power, came as (forgive the pun) a bolt from the blue.

This decision, which prioritised the preservation of sea views over the decarbonisation of power supply, set a precedent which will deter developers, whose confidence has already been shaken by the recent changes in the supposedly long-term framework of financial support for low carbon energy, from considering further projects that are within sight of the shore.

If all that can now be developed offshore is a few projects far out in the shallow waters of the North Sea, with their higher construction, operating and grid costs, then there is no way the government can meet its own carbon reduction targets.

Sea views versus grid balancing and climate change mitigation

Navitus Bay would have played an important role in both expanding offshore capacity and in encouraging further development of the domestic supply chain (essential to bring down the costs of offshore wind, and therefore to reduce the need for subsidy).

Importantly, there would have been additional advantages specific to its South Coast location. It would have widened the geographical spread of offshore wind, lessening output variabilty and improving predictability for the system as a whole.

This would have lessened the balancing challenge that the wind energy sector poses for the National Grid, as the efficiency of gas turbine backup, needed to meet demand when wind speeds are low, varies with the predictability of the change in demand. A wider distribution of offshore wind is no substitute for the innovation in energy storage and demand management that are needed in the long term, but it would be a useful stop gap.

Supplying electricity direct to a National Grid zone that is currently a net importer of electricity would also have been beneficial, as this would have reduced transmission losses and the need for new transmission infrastructure.

No account was taken of these location-specific benefits of Navitus Bay, either by the Planning Inspectors in their Recommendation Report or by the Secretary of State in her response. What was focussed on instead was the "important and special qualities" of the coastline.

Vehement opposition on the mainland

Navitus Bay generated massive controversy locally. Public opposition on the Isle of Wight was muted, tempered by a realisation that the project's supply chain requirements would create job opportunities for the fragile island economy. Indeed, MHI Vestas, who manufacture turbine blades on the island, were chosen as the preferred turbine supplier back in May.

Opposition on the mainland, however, was vehement, particularly in Dorset. Here support for Navitus Bay was hampered by the occasionally inept approach to community engagement taken by the developer (a joint venture of EDF and Eneco), and opposition was fanned by incessant distortion by two protest groups (Challenge Navitus and the Poole and Christchurch Bays Association) of its likely impact on residents and tourists.

Many of the Representations to the Planning Inspectorate's Examination of the project focussed on the 'special' nature of the sea views that would be affected, and how the wellbeing of residents and the tourist industry might be harmed.

To counter accusations of 'nimbyism', more sophisticated objectors emphasised the proximity of Navitus Bay to England's only natural World Heritage Site, the Dorset and East Devon Jurassic Coast.

Conor Burns, MP for Bournemouth West, speaking at a public meeting organised by Bournemouth Council in May 2014 to galvanise public opposition to Navitus Bay, put the case in a nutshell: "To those who say it's about Not In My Back Yard", he countered, "my back yard's a World Heritage Site."

It's about the geology, stupid! At least, it ought to be

Yet the Jurassic Coast was designated as a World Heritage Site for its geology, not its sea views. Being able to see a wind farm on the horizon, from just a third of the 95 mile long Coast, would not have harmed the Site's unique geological features, and it is hard to see how it would have interfered with visitors' appreciation of them.

For most of the objectors, however, the sea views were all important. And they won an influential ally in the then Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, who took the highly irregular step in February of writing to the Planning Inspectors to request that "full consideration" be given to his concerns about the possible impact of the wind farm on visitors' experience, and how this might affect tourism revenues.

"I've been lucky enough to visit the Jurassic Coast and take in its staggering beauty", he explained in a letter to Conor Burns. "It would be a tragedy if future generations were denied this experience."

"Significant adverse impact on the perception of viewers standing on the coastlines" was the key issue for the Secretary of State, accepting the Planning Inspectors' recommendation that the Navitus Bay project be turned down. Particular attention was given to views from the Dorset and Isle of Wight Areas of Natural Beauty, and from the World Heritage Site.

The Inspectors had accepted that the Jurassic Coast was given World Heritage status because of its distinctive geology, which would not be affected by the wind farm. Their recommendation rested on an arcane planning debate about the extent to which the wind farm would affect its 'setting' - basically, would the appearance of a wind farm on the horizon affect visitors' ability to appreciate the geology?

Ironically, the Mesozoic era was one of dramatic climate changes, which helped shape the Coast's distinctive features. An argument made in the Examination, that Navitus Bay's visibility could enhance the Site's educational objectives by linking climate change in the distant past to what threatens us in the near future if we don't curb our addiction to fossil fuels, was recognised in the Inspectors' Recommendation Report as being based on "measured understanding and reflection".

But it was rejected. Instead, visibility of the turbines was seen not as an opportunity, but as as a threat to "the way that the Site would be experienced or enjoyed in its surroundings."

Implications for UK energy and climate policy

If wishful thinking about how quickly new nuclear can begin generating is discounted, it is clear that the Government places considerable reliance on accelerating offshore wind development to meet its challenging power sector carbon reduction targets for the 2020s.

And those targets must be met if the wider decarbonisation of transport and heating required by the Climate Change Act target of an 80% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is to be a realistic possibility.

No doubt the Government will claim that progress with offshore wind, and adherence to its carbon budgets, is not affected by the Navitus Bay decision - that this was a one off, reflecting the exceptional sea views, the proximity of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, and the strength of local opposition.

Yet a precedent has been set, which will bolster opposition to any offshore proposal that is within site of land to which a heritage label can be attached - not just a World Heritage Site, but a National Park, Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Heritage Coast, or National Trust property.

It will also send a chilling message to prospective developers of UK offshore wind farms: "don't bother spending millions of pounds advancing your project here, as we will probably bang it on the head on same arbitrary and capricious basis. Invest your money somwhere else, like Demark or Germany!"

If all that can now be developed offshore is a few remaining projects far out in the shallow waters of the North Sea, with their higher construction, operating and grid connection costs, then there is no way the government, given the LCF constraint, can meet its own carbon reduction targets.

This would pave the way for repeal of the Climate Change Act to become an issue in the 2020 general election, as it could then be argued that the targets were no longer feasible. Many suspect that this is the long-term aim of the Chancellor of the Exchequer (and possible successor to David Cameron), George Osborne.

But do they even care?

As the Paris climate meeting draws near, the UK government's attacks on renewable energy are not only undermining its claims to be providing leadership on reaching a deal, they are illustrating how targets have no meaning if they do not result in effective action.

There's a stark lesson here for climate campaigners. Mobilizations to encourage governments to push for international agreements to limit greenhouse gas emissions are important, as are actions against the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

But if we are to retain any chance of our being able to continue to benefit from a stable climate as well as from electric power, our energy system will have to be rapidly and totally transformed. Achieving this transformation will not be possible without active support for decarbonisation projects.

This will require a raising of the cap on the 'Levy Control Framework' (LCF), which limits the total amount of subsidy that can be paid by consumers in any year.

It will also need renewable energy supporters to engage with the intricacies of the planning system, to question the national mindset which so often makes climate protection take second place to preserving picturesque views, and to challenge the financial short-termism of the Treasury which stifles any innovative infrastructure investment.



Alan Neale is a former Senior Research Fellow in Environmental Policy at the University of East London, and was one of a small number of locals to actively support the Navitus Bay Offshore wind farm application at the Planning Inspectorate Examination in 2014-2015, where he was a registered as  an independent 'Interested Party'.

More information: Alan's written submissions to the Navitus Bay Examination can be accessed via the Filter at the UKG Planning Portal.