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12 July 2006 : Column 437WH—continued

9.52 am

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): Again, I congratulate the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) on securing this debate, which is extremely timely. He may be surprised to hear that I agree with a great deal of what he said. Clearly, the thrust of his argument is that communities should be empowered, in the sense of coming to wind as a source of energy that they wish to embrace, rather than as one imposed on them.

Wind energy certainly has a large part to play in addressing this country’s energy needs. Once in operation, it is a relatively non-polluting source of generation. However, it has serious drawbacks. First, it is self-evidently inefficient because when the wind does not blow, or when it blows too hard, no energy is generated. That means that conventional fossil fuel power stations must operate in the background, ready to kick in when the wind drops.

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Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the installation of a number of community-owned or non-community-owned wind farms throughout the country would substantially reduce and probably remove the element of variability that he talks about? The wind always blows somewhere in the country, and if the wind energy produced fed into the grid, the variability, aggregated out, would hardly be different from that provided by the base load of conventional power.

Mr. Jones: That argument is correct, but it presupposes that we are willing to have wind farms on an industrial scale throughout the country; I imagine that most people would be extremely reluctant to see that.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): The hon. Gentleman suggests that fossil fuels are more efficient than wind power. The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) talked about microgeneration and community-based generation and power, which are inherently enormously more efficient because they avoid the more than 50 per cent. conversion losses inherent in large-scale fossil fuel power stations.

Mr. Jones: My point was that wind power is inefficient to the extent of being unreliable. Clearly, the wind does not always blow; sometimes, it blows too strongly. Certain Members would be happy to see the country littered with wind farms, but many people would not.

Alun Michael: I ask the hon. Gentleman not to join the knee-jerk brigade and talk down wind farms and wind energy as he has done. What he says is inaccurate. He needs to take a more balanced approach.

Mr. Jones: With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, I listened carefully to what he said in almost complete silence. I agreed with much of it. If he let me develop my argument, he might agree with something that I have to say. I want to talk about empowering people, and I understand that the right hon. Gentleman is also interested in doing that.

The fact is that exaggerated, sometimes—dare I say it—overblown claims are made about the effectiveness of wind farms. Cefn Croes, for example, is the largest onshore wind farm in Wales; until recently, it was the largest wind farm in the country. We were constantly told that it had an installed capacity of 58.5 MW, which in itself is true. However, its operational load factor is about 32 to 35 per cent.—about one third—of its capacity.

Wind is also an extraordinarily environmentally intrusive source of generation. Although it cannot be pretended that conventional or nuclear power stations are attractive structures, they are usually confined to small geographical areas, frequently in already industrialised parts of the country. By contrast, wind farms are far more visually intrusive, often covering tens of square miles located in areas of attractive countryside.

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Wind turbines are becoming progressively larger. Modern turbines, such as that proposed for the Gwynt y Môr wind farm off the coast of north Wales, are more than 500 ft high, taller than the Blackpool tower. Turbine blades now have a span greater than the wing span of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. Wind farms have a significant and often adverse effect on open seascapes and landscapes and often attract a large degree of local opposition. That should not be dismissed as mere nimbyism, as the right hon. Gentleman (Alun Michael) suggests. Seascapes and landscapes are valuable national resources and ought not to be spoiled unless there is a compelling reason for doing so.

Martin Horwood: The hon. Gentleman uses the pejorative term “spoiled” and says that such things should not be done without compelling reason. Does he not think that the threat of global climate change is compelling?

Mr. Jones: My point is that there is a balance to be struck. The wind farm lobby seems to think that wind farms should be stuck on any available stretch of countryside, but clearly they should not. This country has unique and beautiful visual resources, and we must be careful about where we site wind farms.

I wish to concentrate on two matters, which the Government should consider seriously. First, they should consider the operation of the renewables obligation, which I have taken up with the Minister on previous occasions. He has acknowledged to me that the obligation is a blunt instrument. Its problem is that it makes no distinction between the intrinsic merits of various renewable technologies. Consequently, it rewards the least capital-intensive source of generation, which at the moment is wind. That means that wind farms are virtually certain to continue to proliferate for as long as the obligation remains unreformed.

That is a pity, because other sources of renewable power such as tidal, wave and biomass power, are far less visually intrusive and potentially much more beneficial. For example, tidal power is infinitely more reliable than wind power; it is difficult to think of anything more predictable than the ebb and flow of the tide. Yet because tidal power is less developed, there is little incentive under the renewables obligation to pursue tidal schemes. That is a huge pity, and I hope that, in the wake of the energy review, the Government will consider refining the obligation to consider other, less intrusive forms of renewable energy.

Secondly, I should like the Minister to address the question of the planning and consent process. At present, the principal consent route for wind farms of more than 50 MW is section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989. Infrastructure development is governed by the normal town and country planning processes, as are wind farms of less than 50 MW. The difficulty with the two processes is that they have been constructed so as to reduce considerably the right of local objectors to make meaningful representations. There is no appeals procedure under section 36 of the 1989 Act, and through technical advice note 8 in Wales and planning policy statement 22 in England, the town and country planning process imposes a presumption in favour of the development of wind farms.

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An extreme example of the consequences was the Scarweather sands development in south Wales. An inspector decided that the objectors were right, that the farm should not proceed and that the application should be refused. The decision was overruled by the Welsh Assembly Committee that considered the inspector’s report. It decided that the scheme should proceed, notwithstanding the fact that the inspector had recommended that it should not, as it accorded with the principles set out in the Assembly’s planning policy.

It cannot be right that a swathe of local residents supported by technical and scientific advice and, most importantly, by the planning inspector who considered the application, were rendered virtually voiceless. Such decisions give rise to huge resentment on the part of local communities.

Alun Michael: First, I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman seems to have such disregard for the democratic processes that put elected representatives in the Assembly. He would rather have an appointed inspector as the final arbiter on an appeal of that sort. Secondly, does he realise that he is making my case very well by demonstrating that if the structures are left to the antagonism between a local community and a proposal, rather than starting off with the full engagement of the local community, the events that he is describing are almost inevitable?

Mr. Jones: Of course I am making that case. That was the whole point of giving the example.

The fact is that local people were disempowered by the planning procedure. My point is that it is necessary for the Government to be far more sensitive to the concerns of local people, and to that extent I agree entirely with what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. If local communities want small-scale wind farms that are appropriate to their needs, they should have them.

The problem is that the thrust of Government policy at present is to impose schemes on local communities in complete disregard of often quite proper objections. If more and more wind farms are to be developed, it is necessary for the Government to be more and more sensitive to the concerns of local people. I hope that in the wake of the energy review, the Government will develop procedures that will allow them to be far more responsive to the concerns of local people.

The notice process has caused extreme concern in my constituency. An application was made some years ago by Celtic Offshore Wind for the development of a wind farm at a location that was described as being on the Rhyl flats. The Rhyl flats is an area that is identified on Admiralty charts. As one might imagine, it is off the coast at the town of Rhyl. [Interruption.] Yes, the right hon. Gentleman for Cardiff, South and Penarth may laugh, but the point of the story is that consent was granted, and when local residents carried out further investigations it turned out that the wind farm was not cited on the Rhyl flats at all but on another area of sea called the Constable bank, which is about 10 miles to the west of the town of Rhos-on-Sea. One wonders why the developers applied the description of Rhyl flats to the wind farm when it was not on the Rhyl flats but on a totally different maritime feature. Those of a less
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charitable disposition might suggest that they did that because they anticipated far less opposition from the townspeople of Rhyl than from the extremely articulate people of Rhos-on-Sea.

The Government should take steps to ensure that the planning and consent process is as transparent as possible, that a clear indication is given in statutory notices of the proposed location of wind farms and that pain is not caused to people such as those in Rhos-on-Sea in my constituency, who woke up one morning to be told that a wind farm was to be placed there and not, as they thought, on the area of seabed known as the Rhyl flats. One can imagine their concern. I invite the Minister to address that matter. I have raised it with him previously, but it is important to raise it again.

To summarise, I support the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth and believe that communities should be empowered and should have a voice. I believe that they should have a wind farm if they want one, but the Government have a positive duty to ensure that their voices are heard and not ignored when large-scale industrial wind farms are to be imposed on communities.

10.5 am

Mr. Elliot Morley (Scunthorpe) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael). We have been co-operating on a range of issues for 19 years in this House, both in and out of Government. He has always been a great campaigner for the co-operative movement, and he made a powerful and articulate case for how co-operative principles can be used to empower communities and give them real involvement in sustainable development, recognising the three key strands of social, economic and environmental development.

This is an urgent issue. We hear of opposition to wind farms and, as discussed in the contribution of the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones), the need for more support for tidal energy. Indeed, there ought to be more support for all forms of renewables. That was made clear in the very good statement that we heard yesterday on the energy review in which my hon. Friend the Minister was involved.

However, the fact remains that wind is one of this country’s most important resources. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth stated, we have the best wind resources in the whole of Europe, and it would not make any sense not to utilise and benefit from them. That means that it is inevitable that there will be many applications for wind farms and wind turbines.

We must harness that resource. Of course, it needs to be done appropriately, and we must take into account the legitimate concerns of communities, but the hon. Member for Clwyd, West was wrong when he said that wind farms are inefficient. This debate is not particularly about advocating the benefits or otherwise of wind farms but about co-operative ownership and how we take issues forward.

The Sustainable Development Commission produced an excellent report on renewables. It exploded some of the myths and made it clear that wind generation is, in
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fact, one of the cheapest and most efficient forms of energy in this country. The hon. Gentleman said that wind farms are about 35 per cent. efficient. The fact is that a coal-burning station is only 30 per cent. efficient—there is a lack of efficiency in these things—and wind comes out very well when one takes into account that it is part of the national grid, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) rightly pointed out.

Mr. Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman concede that nuclear power stations are approximately 95 per cent. efficient?

Mr. Morley: No, I would not concede that. I would ask the hon. Gentleman to review the record of output of nuclear power stations, which is nothing like 90 per cent. They spend a lot of time down for maintenance, repair and sometimes because of breakdown. It is not the case that they achieve 90 per cent. efficiency—the figure does not exist. I strongly recommend that the hon. Gentleman reads the SDC report, as it evaluates all forms of energy and considers efficiency ratings and such issues.

Onshore and offshore wind energy can make a substantial contribution to this country’s energy needs. In fact, the proposed London Array in itself—just one offshore wind farm—will account for about 1 per cent. of the electricity supply in this country and will meet the whole of London’s needs. Such significant investments can make a significant contribution.

The hon. Gentleman also missed what was said in the energy review and the comments yesterday, in that the Government have already said that they are willing to review the concept of banding for renewables obligation certificates. I very much welcome that, and there might well be an argument for a higher rate for offshore wind, as opposed to onshore wind, because it is more expensive to develop offshore. There might well also be an argument for a higher rate for tidal energy, which, like wind and other forms of energy, is on the threshold of commercialisation. I very much welcome the Government’s announcement in that regard, because that is absolutely the right way forward.

There has been a lot of debate recently about political consensus, and that is particularly true of climate change, which is the overriding environmental threat that we face this century. There is a real urgency about the need to combat climate change, because the latest science that we have available—much of it has come from UK scientific institutions—suggests that the effects of climate change are worse, and are being seen faster, than was originally envisaged. Several eminent scientists argue that we are in danger of reaching a tipping point and that if the concentration of greenhouse gases goes beyond a certain level, the problem may take a century to rectify. The longer that process goes on, the higher the concentrations will be and the more difficult and expensive it will be to rectify the problem. The consensus is that it will take about a decade to make a real difference to global warming and climate change globally. I certainly accept that and very much worry about it.

There are also planning issues, as my right hon. Friend mentioned. As all Members of Parliament and elected councillors know, planning issues and
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arguments are complex. The nimby syndrome is well understood, but we have moved on from it and towards the banana syndrome, with people saying that we should build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything. That has become an established principle, which applies whether we are talking about a bus stop or a nuclear power station. That is a problem, and we cannot ignore people’s concerns, but there is an argument for looking at the planning system and making it more streamlined, responsive and relevant to today’s needs. I welcome the Government’s announcement that they will do that. It is not only that there is an issue about nuclear power stations, which are a completely separate matter; it is that the planning system and the planning process need examining.

I am not saying that people do not occasionally have valid reasons for objecting to wind farms, for example. Indeed, several high-profile applications have been turned down at the planning stage, because the case that local people have made has been accepted. I do not know the details of the case in Wales, although I do know that the Welsh Assembly Committee, to which the hon. Member for Clwyd, West referred, is an all-party committee. It is part of the democratic process, and I assume that, on balance, it thought that the arguments, including the inspector’s input, showed that there was still a case for the wind farm in question. That is the nature of democracy and the planning system. To be blunt, many people object to any sort of change because they worry about the impact that it might have on the price of their houses—that is the big motivator for many of the objections. However, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors found that although wind farms might have a short-term impact, they have no impact in the longer term, and people should understand that.

The hon. Gentleman is wrong about public opinion. When people are asked whether they support wind farms, the polling evidence shows that there is about 70 to 80 per cent. approval for them, so support is actually quite high. That brings me back to the idea of political consensus. Whenever there is an application, it is very depressing to see pressure being put on Members of Parliament of all parties, who feel an obligation to campaign on behalf of local residents, although that is, of course, part of the democratic process. During the general election, however, I noticed that the Conservative candidate in a neighbouring constituency, where there are quite a number of applications, spent nearly his whole time campaigning against wind farms—not that it did him much good. That suggests that although people close to the sites of proposed wind farms might be concerned, people overall have a much more mature and balanced outlook on the role of wind in our energy mix.

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