Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate, following the valuable and informed contributions made by other hon. Members from all parties. I do not necessarily agree with all the points that have been made, but I think that they have been made with passion and wisdom.

Today's debate covers several topics—environment, transport and local government and devolved government affairs. I intend to cover all three, starting with the environment.

The question of climate change has been mentioned by a number of previous speakers, notably my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo). My hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) referred to the Kyoto protocol and said that Britain had committed itself to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 12.5 per cent. below
25 Nov 2004 : Column 297
1990 levels. He said that the latest figures show that we are already 14 per cent. below 1990 levels. In the subsequent exchanges, it transpired that the progress to that level had been made under the previous Conservative Government, and that there has been some slippage under this Government. Perhaps we should be worried about that.However, we are also conscious that the Government have gone slightly further by setting themselves a target of achieving a 20 per cent. cut by 2010. I admit that I have a degree of scepticism about that.

I want to speak specifically about the role of renewable energy in achieving those targets. The renewables obligation demands that 10 per cent. of our electricity must be generated by renewables by 2010. The Government's energy White Paper contains an aspiration to achieve 20 per cent. electricity generation by renewables by 2020, with an interim target of 15 per cent. by 2015.

I have spoken in the House before about wind energy, which is a burning topic in my constituency. The Government are very keen on wind power as a source of the biggest growth in the use of renewables in the relevant period. The present Financial Secretary to the   Treasury said, when he was a Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry, that it was clear that perhaps as much as 80 per cent. of the 10 per cent. renewables target would come from wind farms. He also stated that we would need 6,000 to 7,000 two-MW turbines to meet the 10 per cent. target by 2010. At present, there are about 1,125 such turbines in operation in this country.

I believe that wind has a role in achieving that target, but we will be deluding ourselves if we get fixated on wind as the only solution. Onshore wind turbines achieve only some 24 per cent. to 28 per cent. efficiency: in other words, they are not producing electricity for more than 80 per cent. of the time. Offshore wind turbines are about twice as efficient. However, on cold, frosty mornings—or cold and foggy ones like this morning—people want to put their kettles on, warm their houses up and cook their breakfasts. How can they do so if the wind turbines not going round because there is no wind?

Dr. Whitehead: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that for the House to be clear about the debate it is necessary to talk about efficiency not in terms of traditional power efficiency—a measure of what goes in and what comes out—but the amount of time the wind turbine is actually going round? With distributed generation and the presence of a large number of wind farms, both onshore and offshore, around the UK, the ability to develop a stable source of supply most of the time could be achieved. Putting the debate in that context advances the argument further than his measure of efficiency.

Mr. Walter: The hon. Gentleman tries to point me in that direction, but my real concern is that the turbines simply do not produce electricity at times of peak demand. The electricity generated may be distributed around the country and efficiencies may be thus achieved, but there are some consequent inefficiencies,
25 Nov 2004 : Column 298
such as the grid network that would need to be developed to support turbines that produce only limited amounts of electricity.

I spoke in the debate on this subject on 25 October, and expressed my real concern about the environmental damage done by wind turbines in areas of great natural beauty. In the past couple of years, my constituency has seen no fewer than four significant schemes proposed for the generation of wind energy to meet spurious regional targets. Some of those schemes were relatively small, but none the less environmentally damaging. The first was on the border of—literally feet away from—my constituency, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). I am glad that even though he is a Liberal Democrat—I shall mention Liberal Democrat policy shortly—he opposed the scheme. The local authority, which had previously been enthusiastic about wind energy, felt the weight of public opinion and, despite being Liberal Democrat-controlled, rejected the scheme.

The Winterbourne valley in the southern part of my constituency is a beautiful part of Dorset. It is sandwiched between two areas of outstanding natural beauty, but is not itself designated as such. Two schemes were proposed for the area that would have created 35 wind turbines more than 100 m high. The first scheme was withdrawn after the landowner decided that he could no longer put up with all the aggro that he was getting from his neighbours about allowing the turbines to be erected on his land. The second scheme, which was for nine turbines, by a company called Your Energy Ltd, eventually went before the development control committee of my local authority on 26 October, coincidentally only one day after our debate.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) is no longer in his place, because I intervened on him in the debate in October. He was very enthusiastic about onshore wind energy—I accept the merit of his argument—but I do not know whether he was expressing his personal view or the official view of the Liberal Democrats. As he is the party's spokesman, I suspect that he was expressing the official view of the Liberal Democrats in favour of the significant development of onshore wind energy. I asked the hon. Gentleman whether he could name constituencies represented by Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament where the MP had supported wind energy development. He did not reply immediately, but later in his speech, at column 1230, he told the House about not a wind farm development, but a wind turbine—a community scheme—in a remote part of Scotland in the Argyll and Bute constituency, of which the local Member had been in favour. That was the only scheme the hon. Gentleman could come up with.

That was significant, because on the following day, at the development control committee of the North Dorset district council, the leader of the Liberal Democrats on that council, who is a member of the committee, and three of his fellow Liberal Democrat councillors were mysteriously absent. It was the most important planning application in the district for many a year; 500 people were in the hall to observe the committee's proceedings, but the four Liberal Democrats were absent. I can but surmise that the Liberal Democrats' prospective parliamentary candidate had suggested to them that her share of the vote might fall even further
25 Nov 2004 : Column 299
than it had at the last election if they were seen to be supporting that particularly unpopular scheme, although I would not want to suggest that they would operate in that way.

Sue Doughty (Guildford) (LD): I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be continuing in that vein for quite a while, but as MPs from every party, on both sides of the House, have disagreed with local councillors about wind farms, it seems rather cheap to make such comments. Apart from anything else, wind farms are subject to planning laws and we must recognise the great difficulties involved when people want to put wind farms in places that planning committees would clearly not accept.

Mr. Walter: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, but I hope that I was not making a specific point about disagreement between Members of Parliament and local councils. When I referred to the hon. Member for Lewes, I was making the point that only one Liberal Democrat Member had actually supported an onshore wind farm scheme in his constituency. I then drew a contrast with the experience in my constituency in respect of the Liberal Democrat councillors.

Luckily for the local residents, the development control committee voted to reject the application and we are left with only one possible wind farm, again in the constituency of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, although it is so close to my constituency that I almost needed to point out the site to him. I hope that he will join me in opposing the scheme, as it is for nine turbines in the middle of the Blackmoor vale on the Henstridge airfield.

I now move on to transport, the second subject on our agenda. The Railways Bill contains nothing of any benefit to my constituents. My constituency has only one railway station, but it is well served by a direct link to London, Waterloo, operated by South West Trains on the Waterloo to Exeter line. Unfortunately, the line reduces to a single track at Salisbury, despite the fact that it provides a service between some quite important cities, so there is a capacity problem. It is not that people do not use the trains or that the trains are not consistently full. I give South West Trains its due; the company operates as many trains as possible on the track and the largest trains possible, but it simply cannot put any more trains on the track at times when people want to travel.

There are proposals, which have been in existence for some time, to increase the service to a dual-track operation, particularly on the busier stretches between Salisbury and Yeovil and between Yeovil and Honiton, just to the east of Exeter. When I last raised the subject in the House with a Minister, the then Minister of State, Department for Transport, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), suggested that perhaps we should be looking at longer trains, but unfortunately that is not the answer. We already have trains that are as long as possible, and passengers who want to alight at Tisbury, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), which can only take a three-car train on its platform, have to be told to sit in the correct coaches of the train; otherwise, they will fail to get off the train or fall on the track.
25 Nov 2004 : Column 300

Longer trains are not the answer; the real answer is dual track. When the current franchise round started, the assumption was that dual-track operation in the foreseeable future would be built into the plan, and that was very much the basis of South West Trains' bid to get its franchise renewed. Unfortunately, that has now slipped out of the Government's—or the Strategic Rail Authority's—programme, and it looks unlikely that we shall get that dual-track operation. I find that sad and I wish that the Government would again look at the situation and try to see whether we can address it.

I shall end by looking at local and devolved Government affairs, particularly devolved affairs. As a number of hon. Members know, for a couple of years I spoke from the Conservative Front Bench on the subject of Wales, and although the devolution to Wales was not exactly popular at the time, with the Government only just winning the referendum by a bare 6,000 votes, there was a basic raison d'être for having a devolved Assembly in Wales, and it is now accepted that that Assembly is working.

Over the past couple of days, there have been extensive negotiations and talks on the Northern Ireland Assembly. I hope that we shall find a resolution to the problems. It is interesting and intriguing that the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and the gentleman elected to represent the electors of Belfast, West are in discussion. I think it was yesterday on the BBC that I heard a commentator say, after the hon. Member for North Antrim appeared on the steps of the Irish embassy having just had breakfast with the Irish Prime Minister, that maybe at the age of 78 the hon. Gentleman had mellowed a little. We need to make progress, not only because of the raison d'être for a Northern Ireland Assembly but because of the urgent necessity to close the democratic deficit in the Province.

There was however clearly no democratic deficit in the north-east of England and certainly no raison d'être for a north east regional assembly, because in the recent referendum 78 per cent. of the people voting decided that they did not want that unnecessary and bureaucratic waste of taxpayers' money; and in the Queen's Speech we had no mention of referendums elsewhere.

I would like to go a little further and look at the South West regional assembly, which covers my constituency; it is a very expensive talking shop which serves no useful purpose. Some people in the south-west ask, "Where is the south-west?" Because, as my constituents are always asking, what community of interest is there between them, in north and east Dorset, and the people who live in Tewkesbury and in Truro? In fact the people who live in Tewkesbury and Truro probably ask what community of interest they have themselves, let alone with the people of Dorset. One has to scratch around to find some common interest that these people have. The people in Tewkesbury and Truro do have one thing in common, which I am sure is very important in Whitehall, which is that it is necessary to go to Paddington station to get to both places. Other than that, civil servants have drawn those lines on the map and people cannot take a train from Paddington station to Dorset, so even that does not work.

I should like to go further: the Leader of the House announced today that, next week, we will get a statement on the local government finance settlement
25 Nov 2004 : Column 301
for next year, so there will be yet further pressure on council tax and the finances of our local authorities. If our local councils are looking for savings—some of the local authorities in my area will be looking for some savings to limit the rise in council tax next year—they might now consider, given the result of the referendum in the north-east, pulling out of their funding for and participation in the South West regional assembly. If there is one agenda that the Government ought to address if they really believe in devolution, it is that of devolving decision-taking and financing powers directly to local government, not to those unnecessary regional quangos, which look at the affairs of arbitrarily drawn areas of the country.

The Queen's Speech does nothing to address my constituents' concerns. If it is, as I suspect, a pre-election agenda, I suggest that it will be again rewarded with a pretty derisory Labour vote in the North Dorset constituency at that election.

4.1 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page