Britain's Quiet Majority

  • Insight
  • 20 April 2023

by Conleth Burns

Discussing renewable energy developments with focus groups in Cornwall and the North East 


When it comes to many housing, energy or infrastructure planning applications, it would seem that Britain is divided in two opposing camps – NIMBY or YIMBY, doomster or booster, anti-growth or pro-growth. And reading any council’s planning portal, scrolling through a local community Facebook group, or rummaging through a Councillor’s or MP’s mailbox - you’d have the impression that planning applications communities apart are up in arms about every proposed development. 

This image of Britain split down the middle is not the one we encounter in our weekly focus groups up and down the country or see in our regular polling with thousands of others. From debates about trans and gender identity to specific local planning issues, we find that far from being up in arms about many debates, most Brits are balancers, tired of the loudest voices dominating debates, and eager for us just to get on with it quietly, less talk, less fuss and more action. 

Last month, More in Common conducted focus groups in the North East and Cornwall which, once again, showed this real disconnect between the vocal minority and the quiet majority. And these areas which have been experiencing lots of apparently contentious planning decisions as part of a broader “green rush” in both Cornwall and the North East. 

Our focus groups centred on Wendron in Cornwall and Darlington in the North East. Recent applications for a geothermal plant in Manhay and a series of solar farms in Darlington had been labelled as controversial in the local press and attracted dozens of opposing comments on planning portals. In our two groups with independently recruited participants who lived in Wendron, Darlington and the surrounding areas, none were aware of either the recently approved or proposed sites. A community up in arms they were not, nor were they bitterly divided. In fact, almost all participants thought the idea of solar farms and geothermal energy in their community was broadly a good thing and something they’d support.    

When we explained these renewable proposals, locals’ support was solid. Most agreed that we’d have to transition towards renewable energy eventually and we might as well get on with it. The Wendron group were excited about the opportunities of becoming a ‘mini-Iceland’ in Cornwall through using geothermal and hydrothermal energy. At the other end of England the Darlington group supported plans for a new solar farm because of  the expectation it would mean lower bills for  local households. 

While this would require a shift in how we calculate energy bills across the country, it seems to be the surest way to consolidate local support. More in Common’s polling has found that monthly discounts on energy bills can reduce the (already small) opposition to local wind farms from 12 per cent to just 3 per cent. From talking to both groups, it was clear that offering clear and tangible benefits to the local community from investing in renewables is the best way to secure community support.

The people we spoke to also described how renewable energy was an investment in their children and grandchildren’s future and some were particularly optimistic about the prospect of more jobs for their local area. In both areas, people talked about the relative benefits of geothermal and solar relative to other forms of renewable energy. That is not to say that they had no concerns - but their concerns were mostly practical and focused on being properly informed and minimising pressures on local infrastructure during the construction process.  

This quiet majority, who are quite happy to support investments in renewables, aren’t the sort of people you find in planning portals or stuffing MPs mailboxes. Listening to the noisy few risks giving a distorted picture of the debate which is shaped by the more vocal opponents to new proposals and developments and ignores those who simply want less fuss and more action. 

This matters politically as well. These participants were from the political swing groups that More in Common has identified - in Cornwall, Established Liberals who are typical Blue Wall voters and in Darlington, Loyal Nationals who are typical Red Wall voters. These groups will ultimately shape the outcome of the next election and yet their quiet (or sometimes silent) support  - whether it’s for housing, energy or infrastructure improvements - is so often simply ignored by our broader political class. 

In both Wendron and Darlington, we found a growing resentment among these voters that the loudest voices were dominating debates and holding their communities back. Whether it was blocking a solar farm development or opposing a new Gregg’s store, there was a real frustration that those who shouted the loudest often got their way. They thought some of the arguments put forward by opponents to the developments - such as the suggestion of a ‘ring of steel’ descending on Darlington - were clearly over the top. Participants felt the only people who had a justifiable complaint  were those for whom the development would  literally be on their doorsteps, but even then they didn’t think their concerns should necessarily stop plans from going ahead. 

While these groups showed solid support for renewable energy developments in Cornwall and the North East, it is a quiet support and it’s likely to stay that way. When asked what they’d be willing to do to show their support, some said they might sign a petition or think about it when they’re voting next time, but no one would attend a demonstration or protest because of it. When thinking about trying to engage the quiet majority, it’s worth remembering that they’re not activists and are unlikely to want to make a noise either way.

In fact, our polling shows that support for climate action in the British public extends across all segments, generations and party affiliations - showing that the UK's consensus on climate action comes from people with a wide variety of political starting points.


What does earn proponents of renewable energy developments a hearing with the quiet majority are: tangible arguments about the personal benefits of these schemes; being upfront about temporary upheaval during construction and what you’ll do to mitigate against it; and talking about how these developments can also benefit the other things communities are concerned about from crime to the cost of living. 

Yesterday, the National Infrastructure Commission called on the government to change the rules on wind farm approvals to remove the effective local vetoes and declare developments ‘nationally significant’ and expect this will speed up Britain’s decarbonisation process. However, it’s not only a change in decision making that’s needed to speed the process up - it’s also a sharper understanding of public opinion that goes beyond the noisy minority and listens to Britain’s quiet majority. 

Conleth Burns is a Senior Associate at More in Common