Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): Before my hon. Friend moves from the aesthetic issues that are associated with wind farms and their environmental impact, will he take on board the point that the places that are most attractive for developers of such schemes are often those where the impact is the greatestfor example, the flat fenland landscape of Norfolk, the Cambridgeshire fens and, in my constituency, the Lincolnshire fens? Their effect on the local environment is dramatic because it is disproportionate to the landscape.
Mr. Whittingdale: I agree, but a certain amount can be done to hide wind farms. I visited Wales, where I saw two wind farms. One had turbines on the top of every hill, which could be spotted from about 30 or 40 miles away, whereas the turbines at the other site had been rather more sympathetically positionedit was necessary to get quite close before seeing or hearing them. I accept that in flat countryside they are obvious and that, for many people, they spoil attractive countryside. It is important that we take account of local objections. There is no doubt that to date almost every application has encountered extremely strong local opposition, and that cannot be overlooked.
Mr. Gareth Thomas: We must carefully consider the aesthetics of energy-producing plant. I have not yet seen an attractive nuclear power station or coal mine, never mind the issues about windmills and renewables. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we might need to contemplate a change in our approach to planning policy, and perhaps to designate certain areas of land to be used specifically
Mr. Whittingdale: The attraction or otherwise of power stations is debatable. For many years, I lived opposite Bradwell power station. I looked at it from my bedroom window every morning. I thought that it had a certain charm. I accept that that may not be a universally held view.
Some of the problems of aesthetics can be overcome by placing wind farms offshore, which is perhaps why most applications are concentrated in such areas. That, of course, carries with it alternative problems of additional costs and other considerations. I would be reluctant to start to impose on certain parts of the country a requirement that they should be wind farm-friendly areas. I accept, however, that the planning process needs to be addressed, in respect not only of wind farm applications but of the development of all our future energy needs. Again, that is matter to which I want to return.
I want to continue with the point, which I regard as very important, that the renewables obligation, however desirable it may be, will have to be paid for through higher electricity prices. Estimates differ about how great the impact will be, but it is likely that it will push up the cost of domestic electricity by 4 per cent. or thereabouts, and by even more for businesses. The Minister said that he believed that people would be prepared to pay that price, and he may be right, but the Government must be much more open about the cost of the policy and to make it clear to consumers that they are being asked to pay more to promote renewables development.
We need to have a proper debatethis might be the beginning of itabout whether we are willing to pay that price, because, by deliberately setting ambitious targets for renewables as well as overall targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that go beyond our international obligations, we are choosing to put up prices and to increase the cost of energy to business by more than we are required to do. Yet our relatively small size in relation to the total global gross domestic product means that our good example will have little overall effect.
There are other ways in which we could cut our emissions and meet our environmental targets. One is to give a far higher priority to increased energy efficiency. The PIU report contains ambitious targets in this area, too, and there is undoubtedly huge scope for reduction in energy demand by increased efficiency, particularly among domestic consumers. We have supported the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) and hope that it will reach the statute book despite the obstacles that apparently are being put in its way by Ministers.
Although I have raised questions about the Government's renewables target on grounds of practicality, environmental benefit and cost, let me restate that we support the Government's objective of significantly increasing the amount of renewable energy that we produce. There are, however, serious questions surrounding that issue that have not yet been properly addressed.
Nuclear power is the one proven method of large-scale generation that does not produce greenhouse gas emissions. However, it is also controversial and I fully recognise that it has problems attached to it.
Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford): The hon. Gentleman's claim that nuclear power production does not lead to the production of greenhouse gases is true as far as it goes. Does he not agree, however, that to make a proper assessment we must take into account the CO 2 produced in the manufacture of the component parts of a power station, in its construction and decommissioning, and in handling the waste? If we take all that into account, we see that the situation is not quite as is claimed by the industry.
Mr. Whittingdale: That is undoubtedly true, and I suppose the answer is that, if we did not have any power stations at all, no greenhouse gases would be produced in constructing them. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to make a proper comparison, but, even having done that, it is almost unarguable that nuclear power is responsible for far fewer carbon dioxide emissions than are fossil fuel-burning power stations.
After the 1997 general election, the Government had a policy that no new nuclear power stations should be built. They now appear to have shifted their position to one in which they state that it is a matter for the market to decide. That is a position that I instinctively find attractive, but it is also highly disingenuous, because the factors that will determine the market's decisions are largely within the control of the Government.
In the last few years, there have been considerable advances in nuclear technology. It is now undoubtedly cleaner, safer and more efficient, but the economic viability of future investment is severely influenced by the time taken to get a power station from the design stage to operation. At the moment, it is estimated that it takes about eight years for a new nuclear power station to be built and, as Sizewell B showed, building on an existing nuclear site makes little difference. If the nuclear option is to be genuinely kept open, the planning and regulatory approval process must be reformed so that decision taking can be speeded up.
Equally, we need a clear policy on the disposal and storage of waste. Other countries have successfully dealt with this problem, but the indecision of the UK Government is blighting the future prospects of the industry. A seven-year consultation period is unnecessary and looks very much like a delaying tactic, although I realise that that is not the responsibility of Ministers at the Department of Trade and Industry. It is a pity that the Treasury Minister who was here earlier has now left the Chamber, because another matter that needs to be
I should like the Minister to confirm that the Government will go ahead with the liabilities management authority Bill in the next Session, as it needs to be put in place to allow British Nuclear Fuels plc to operate as a proper commercial business.
Of course, there will always be legitimate concerns about the safety and security of nuclear power, and they have been heightened since the atrocity of 11 September. Only this week, the BBC television programme "Spooks" had a storyline about a terrorist attack on a nuclear power station. The filming of that episode took place in my constituency, and I am as sensitive as anyone to those concerns. Security worries now affect almost every aspect of modern life, but they alone must not be allowed to change our decisions.
We need to be clear about where we are going. In the past, the Minister has shown a supportive attitude towards nuclear power, as he has done to some extent this afternoon. One of the PIU report's principal conclusions was that a range of actions needs to be taken now to keep the nuclear option open, and the Select Committee called on the Government to make a clear statement on the future of nuclear energy as quickly as possible. At the very least, the Government need not just to say that it is a matter for the market to decide but take the action necessary to ensure that the factors within their controlplanning, tax and waste disposaldo not place an insuperable obstacle in the way of a market-driven decision to invest in new nuclear power.
The importance of taking action to tackle global warming is one of the key factors now influencing our future energy policy, so I cannot let this opportunity pass without saying a few words about one of the Government's key instruments for cutting energy demand: the climate change levy. Having only recently put aside his Minister for Industry hat, the hon. Gentleman does not need me to tell him how unpopular that levy is with British industry. By pushing up the cost of energy, it bears most heavily on the manufacturing sector at a time when it already has its back to the wall.
Other countries do not impose a similar burden, so the levy does huge damage to British competitiveness, yet it is almost completely ineffectual in combating climate change. It is a downstream tax, so it makes no distinction between energy generated from fossil fuels and energy derived from non-polluting sources. It is for that reason that my party was committed at the last general election to its abolition.
If the Government wish to use fiscal instruments to combat climate change, there are more effective ways of doing so. In particular, I would gently point out that a carbon tax would represent a true market-driven solution to the problem of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I hope that that, too, will be taken into account in the debate that the publication of the PIU report has begun.
The Government are to be congratulated on the establishment of the energy review. It would have been easy to duck the hard questions that need to be faced, and to leave them to some future Conservative Administration, who would have to deal with the consequences when the lights started to go out. The