Policy in the UK tends to be determined not by the strength of support for a measure, but by the absence of active opposition to it. More precisely, the amount of forceful and focused opposition by people in the second half of their lives. These are the voters at elections.
This week’s poll of attitudes towards energy sources shows the correlation clearly. Less than 5% of UK respondents aged 16-44 are opposed to onshore wind. 20% of those over 65 are, and their views are increasingly winning the day. Even if approved at local level, wind farms are now routinely turned down by central government even though general electoral support for wind shows no decline. Several dozen developments have been blocked by Eric Pickles in the last year.
But in this latest survey, 68% of people over 16 either ‘supported’ or ‘strongly supported’ onshore wind. Another 22% had no view for or against. Any notion that onshore wind is unpopular with the electorate is simply wrong.
The position is even clearer with solar PV, another form of renewable energy facing rising resistance from planning committees and from central government. Only 2% of those 16-44 oppose this technology, compared to 10% of those over 65. And, as with wind, there is no sign whatsoever of rising general opposition to PV in this survey. 81% of the UK adult population support the use of solar PV as an energy source.
However any glib thesis that the attitudes of stroppy pensioners now dominate the policy-making process turns out to be wrong. More people over 65 oppose fracking for shale gas than onshore wind but their views have made little headway in central government even though support for fracking is tending to fall amongst the population as a whole.
The same is true for nuclear energy. Older fewer people are slightly less likely to dislike this form of electricity generation than younger groups but, even still, more oppose nuclear than oppose onshore wind. It is the 45-54 year olds who most actively reject nuclear power. They were growing up when Chernobyl happened and the sharp difference in their attitudes shows the influence of a single nuclear accident. Perhaps the slight bump in opposition to nuclear among 16-24 year olds also reflects Fukushima, an event that may have occurred at the moment when their attitudes were being set?
A look at the table below does force a question into the front of mind. Why is an elected government so actively fighting technologies that have large-scale popular support but backing those with so much more opposition?