Just as the government appeared to be nearing a final resolution on the controversial Energy Bill, members of the cabinet are once again at loggerheads over the issue of renewable energy.
The subject this time is wind farms – a perennially contentious topic but one which takes on extra significance considering the recent rumblings among the coalition.
Last month, key members of the Lib Dems and Tories met for crisis talks over the implementation of the Energy Bill, while prime minister David Cameron was criticised by members of the coalition for prematurely announcing legislation to force energy suppliers to offer customers their lowest possible tariffs.
Now, two senior figures in the cabinet have added further fuel to the Tory-Lib Dem divide by clashing over the issue of wind farms.
“Enough is enough”
The situation arose when Conservative energy minister John Hayes, who was recently appointed by Mr Cameron in the cabinet re-shuffle, claimed that the UK was already “peppered” with wind farms and did not need any more.
Earlier this week, he indicated that only a minority of the thousands of wind turbines currently put forward for planning permission across the UK are likely to be given the green light – claiming that “enough is enough”.
According to Mr Hayes – an outspoken critic of wind farms – the current development pipeline will be enough to fulfil 2020 green targets set by the government and ensure that the landscape is not subject to any more changes.
“We can no longer have wind turbines imposed on communities. I can’t single-handedly build a new Jerusalem but I can protect our green and pleasant land,” he told the Daily Telegraph.
“We have issued a call for evidence on wind. That is about cost but also about community buy-in. We need to understand communities’ genuine desires. We will form our policy in the future on the basis of that, not on a bourgeois Left article of faith based on some academic perspective.”
Mr Hayes also noted that he has asked the planning minister to “look again” at the relationship between turbines and the landscape and assess their impact on house prices and other factors.
“It seems extraordinary to have allowed them to be peppered around the country without due regard for the interests of the local community or their wishes,” he added.
Mr Hayes’ comments were met with criticism, not only from the opposition, but within his own party, with the Conservative MP and green campaigner Zac Goldsmith describing the Tory retreat on climate change as “senseless”.
However, the key criticism came from energy secretary Ed Davey, who faced anxious calls from current and prospective wind farm developers eager for the coalition to clarify the mixed messages.
Mr Davey said there has been “no change” to government policy on renewable energy, as collectively agreed by the coalition cabinet.
“There are no targets – or caps – for individual renewable technologies such as onshore wind. Nor are there reviews being done of onshore wind on the basis of landscape or property values,” he explained.
The energy secretary added that the cabinet is currently consulting on ways of making sure local communities “feel the benefit” of hosting wind farms, and whether the understanding of future costs is accurate.
The contrasting messages emanating from the government have caused consternation among many groups, including Renewable UK, which only this week published a report estimating that renewable energy is set to overtake nuclear in the UK by 2018.
Maf Smith, the group’s deputy chief executive, said it “came as a surprise” that the new minister has said one thing to his organisation and another to the media.
“We are on the eve of the publication of the Energy Bill, a crucial time for energy policy, with huge investment decisions to be made that will lead to tens of thousands of jobs over the next decade,” he added.
“If we are to see these jobs and investment realised confidence must be retained and that means consistency.”
Greenpeace energy campaigner Leila Deen took things a step further, describing Mr Hayes’ comments as a “petulant outburst” that adds to the Coalition’s “growing energy shambles”.
“It also adds to a deepening divide within government between those who care about green growth and the economy and those who just want more oil and gas,” she added.
Ms Deen said the new minister has “veered off brief” and “publicly contradicted his bosses” and noted that his comments may not only threaten jobs, but also drive up energy bills.
“Mr Cameron needs to take charge, decide who’s side he’s on and reassure industry and investors that John Hayes won’t go over their heads,” she urged.
One thing is clear – the government will need to agree on a single strategy and unifying message if it is to guarantee the support of wind farm developers, the public and industry in the months and years ahead.
Anything else may be viewed as a load of hot air.