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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Technology (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin) : I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick), for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson) and for Keighley (Mr. Waller). The four of us share some of the most outstanding countryside in the nation, which just happens to fall within the curtilages of our constituencies. Mine abuts those of my hon. Friends, and I well understand the vigour with which they have expressed their views : people feel strongly about these issues. The development of renewable energy forms a central part of the Government's commitment to the principle of sustainable development. Our policy is to stimulate the development of new and renewable energy technologies, but only where they have prospects of making an economic
Column 1046contribution to our energy supplies, and where they do not make an unacceptable impact on the environment. In the case of wind, this means that wind farms must not be allowed to make an unacceptable intrusion on to sensitive and treasured landscapes.
I think few would disagree with the principle behind the Government's energy policy--that the promotion of diverse, secure and sustainable energy supplies at competitive prices is absolutely necessary for a strong and viable economy. A key part of the Government's policy seeks to reduce the emission of harmful pollutants, and wind obviously has a role to play in this. Renewable energy is currently supplying about 2 per cent. of United Kingdom energy, mainly from hydro-electricity in Scotland. In its report to the President of the Board of Trade, the Renewable Energy Advisory Group concluded that, by 2025, that figure could rise to between 5 and 20 per cent. The actual contribution will depend upon the extent to which the different renewable technologies can be made competitive and gain public acceptance. As some of the points made by my hon. Friends demonstrate, public acceptance is very important, especially in relation to the environmental impact on wind farms. My hon. Friends raised a number of points that I consider more relevant to the duties of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley rightly pointed out, our hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins) has some comments to make ; I will ensure that those comments are brought to the attention of both my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, whose judicial planning role is relevant.
We have repeatedly stated and reaffirmed our intention to work towards a figure of 1,500 MW of renewable electricity generating capacity in the United Kingdom by the year 2000. The principal instrument for implementing this intention is the making of orders under the non-fossil fuel obligation, and the parallel arrangements in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The so-called "NFFO" is proving to be a considerable success and one of which we are rightly proud. Already, over 250 MW of declared net capacity are operational, of which nearly 60 MW are wind. In most cases, the planning permission for these projects has been granted locally.
I am very encouraged by what has been achieved so far. It does credit to both the foresight of the Government in giving this opportunity to the industry, and the skill and enterprise of the many pioneering companies and organisations behind the projects. In July last year my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy announced a third order, which is expected to be for between 300 and 400 MW, depending on the quality and cost of the proposals received.
There has been a very encouraging response to the invitation to register interest in the current "NFFO round", with a large number of applicants in all the technologies, including wind. But the interest of developers and the keenness of their planning consent for them. The holding of an NFFO contract does not confer any special presumption in favour of gaining this consent.
I should say a few words in reply to some points concerning the planning system. Renewable energies differ
Column 1047from the more established forms of generation in terms of land use and other material planning considerations. Recognising this, we have issued specific planning guidance on renewable energy-- PPG 22'. This reiterates the fundamental principles of planning and deals with particular issues raised by the renewables.
It states that planning decisions have to reconcile the interests of development with the importance of conserving the environment--the issue at the heart of sustainable development. In relation to energy, it states that the Government's general aim is to ensure that society's needs for energy are met in a way that is compatible with the need to protect the environment, both global and local. We have said that planning authorities must weigh carefully the Government's policies for developing renewable energy sources with those for protecting the environment. The guidance states that planning applications should be determined in accordance with the structure plans of the county council or the strategic planning authority and the local plans of the district council--plans that are required to include policies for conserving wildlife and the natural beauty and amenity of the land. PPG requires that they also now take account of the Government's policy on renewable energy.
Sir Donald Thompson : My hon. Friend has just catalogued the matters of which the local authorities must take note. Were I to cross-examine him now, he would tell me that these were matters for the Department of the Environment rather than for his Department. The Department of the Environment would tell me that they were in a quasi-judicial category. My hon. Friend's Department and the Department of the Environment should meet urgently--and certainly before the submission of any plans in the next round--so that the guidance may be brought up to date.
Mr. McLoughlin : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comment. On these matters, I am always willing to take note of his advice. If he feels that there is a need for contact between the relevant Ministers in the two Departments there will certainly be such contact. We know that, otherwise, my hon. Friend will find many ways of bringing up the subject again.
I genuinely believe that planning is done best at local level. In particular, it would be quite wrong for central
Column 1048Government to decide precisely where wind farms should or should not be built or to direct developers to, or away from, particular areas, such as the Pennines. My hon. Friend would hardly want us to do that. All proposals must be treated on their merits.
Nor would it be right for me to comment on particular proposals or decisions made at local level. Where there are issues of wider than local importance they will, of course, be referred to the Secretary of State, but this will be the exception rather than the rule. We all know how controversial all kinds of planning applications can be, and we are aware of the judicial role of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.
On the environmental impact of wind energy, the first thing to note is that wind farms produce none of the greenhouse gases or waste products that threaten sustainable development. This is probably the main justification for promoting their development. However, all forms of energy generation have their impacts, and wind is no exception. Most concern is expressed about noise and--a matter to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention-- visual impact.
Well designed wind turbines are generally quiet in operation and, with careful siting, should not be a nuisance. However, rural background noise can be extremely low and, in some sheltered locations, may remain low, even as the wind picks up. So the siting of wind farms requires careful consideration. PPG gives specific guidance on the technical issues involved, and my Department has set up a working group with developers and planners to consider what lessons might be learned from the actual operating experience now being accumulated.
Of course, wind farms have to be in exposed locations to catch the wind, so it is inevitable that they will be seen. They therefore need to be sited sensitively and in sympathy with local features. Whilst objective measures of visual intrusion exist, this remains a subjective issue with which the planning authorities have to deal. Strong feelings can be expressed for or against any particular development.
The motion having been made at Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Madam Deputy Speaker-- adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order. Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.
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