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Standing Committee Debates

Draft Electricity Consents (Planning) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Hywel Williams
Baldry, Tony (Banbury) (Con)
Betts, Mr. Clive (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab)
Binley, Mr. Brian (Northampton, South) (Con)
Burrowes, Mr. David (Enfield, Southgate) (Con)
Byers, Mr. Stephen (North Tyneside) (Lab)
Drew, Mr. David (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)
Eagle, Maria (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Fraser, Mr. Christopher (South-West Norfolk) (Con)
Hall, Mr. Mike (Weaver Vale) (Lab)
Hermon, Lady (North Down) (UUP)
Lazarowicz, Mark (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op)
McDonnell, Dr. Alasdair (Belfast, South) (SDLP)
MacShane, Mr. Denis (Rotherham) (Lab)
Norris, Dan (Wansdyke) (Lab)
Purchase, Mr. Ken (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op)
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Rosindell, Andrew (Romford) (Con)
Salter, Martin (Reading, West) (Lab)
Wareing, Mr. Robert N. (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab)
Wilson, Sammy (East Antrim) (DUP)
Frank Cranmer, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Tuesday 31 October 2006

[Hywel Williams in the Chair]

Draft Electricity Consents (Planning) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006

4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Maria Eagle): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Electricity Consents (Planning) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006.
It is a pleasure to be under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Williams. I hope that the order might be described as technical though necessary, rather than hugely controversial, although needless to say I am happy to deal with any issues that arise out of my introducing it.
The draft order was laid before the House on9 October and it introduces provisions to amend the Electricity (Northern Ireland) Order 1992 so as to bring consents for electricity projects in Northern Ireland broadly in line with those in Great Britain.
In Northern Ireland, as elsewhere in the UK, the Government have taken up the challenge of climate change, which has been in the news a lot in the past few days. It is one of the priority areas in the Northern Ireland sustainable development strategy, and the order is designed to make a it a little simpler for developers and those wishing to implement new ways of generating electricity to deal with the Government and the consents procedure.
Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): I am delighted to sit under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Williams, and I am grateful to the Minister for taking an intervention so early. Although she has alluded to the fact that the order will facilitate and help developers, will she be kind enough to reflect on the impact on environmentalists and whether they will be as enthusiastic about the order as developers?
Maria Eagle: I shall be happy to deal with that point when I come to it, a little later in my remarks. I want to begin by stressing that the Government in Northern Ireland are committed to taking the lead in terms of facilitating new ways of generating electricity. For example, we have recently seen the introduction of the £59 million environment and renewable energy fund, which is to support sustainable energy projects in the public and private sectors, including innovative demonstration projects that are at the cutting edge of sustainable technologies.
We also provide some support for a pilot project for a marine current turbine in Strangford lough. The opening of a renewable energy installers academy, which I had the pleasure to visit up at the Maydown campus of the North West institute, has provided a state-of-the-art training infrastructure for designers and installers of renewable energy technologies. There is also a commitment to change building regulations so that all new build has microgeneration capability included.
We have also commenced work with the Government of the Irish Republic to produce a joint vision for renewable energy on the island of Ireland, on which I hope the changes we are proposing in the order will provide some assistance.
Northern Ireland is uniquely placed in Europe to address the challenges of climate change by using renewable energy sources such as onshore and offshore wind farms and marine turbine developments. The Secretary of State aims to establish Northern Ireland as a world leader in the development of renewable energy, and I hope that the order will assist us in meeting that aim.
The drive to increase the use of renewable sources of energy means that we expect the vast majority of new applications for energy generation consent in Northern Ireland to be from renewable sources, including onshore and offshore wind farms, energy from waste and marine turbine projects. We are committed to doing all that we can to meet our targets on reducing carbon emissions. Therefore, it is vital that there is a prioritised, efficient and managed consent procedure and a process for new electricity generation projects.
The process must be sufficient to give confidence to developers that their applications will not be subject to any unnecessary delays while ensuring that the necessary planning and environmental safeguards remain in place. That is the point that the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) referred to. The order is intended to do just that.
While the order will streamline the electricity consent processes for developers, it will not make any changes to the environmental protection that is there and will simply provide a one-stop shop for developers to use. Instead of having to go to two different Departments to obtain the necessary consents so as to go ahead with their new generation capacity, developers will be able to come to just one Department. We are not changing any of the content of the requirements of those consents; we are simply making it easier for developers, who will have to deal with one Department rather than more than one.
Under the order, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment will assume responsibility for managing a combined consent process for electricity-generating projects, in line with the consent process that operates in the rest of the UK. As I said, it will be a one-stop shop.
Lady Hermon rose—
Maria Eagle: I will give way in a moment, if the hon. Lady will let me finish this point. I realise that she is very enthusiastic.
The order will enable DETI to grant deemed planning permission and deemed hazardous substances consent on applications for consent to construct, extend or operate an electricity-generating station under article 39 of the Electricity (Northern Ireland) Order 1992, or for consent to construct overhead electric lines under article 40.
Lady Hermon: The Minister said that the lead Department will be the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment—DETI for short—and alluded to the possibility of offshore wind farms. Of course, as an island, Ireland is ideally suited to offshore wind farms. Can the Minister explain what will happen if there is a clash between DETI and the Department of the Environment, which plays second fiddle to DETI? Which will prevail, and have we prepared for failure between the two Departments?
Maria Eagle: I assure the hon. Lady that the combined system proposed by the order will not change the content of the protections that are in place. The environmental protection under the new system will be exactly the same as at present. The environmental planning safeguards, which will be maintained, will still include environmental impact assessments and the consents and licences associated with current regulations. There will still have to be planning safeguards.
All the protections that currently apply are protected by the new order, which simply creates a one-stop shop so that developers can go to DETI instead of various Departments to ask for consent and to get planning permission and the other permissions that they require to go ahead. DETI will administer the joint system, but it will not overrule. The existing environmental safeguards will remain in place.
I hope that that provides the hon. Lady with some reassurance. The order does not provide a way of enabling developers to circumvent controls in the planning system. If she is not happy with that, I shall attempt to explain further precisely what the arrangements will be, but she might want to make some other remarks after I sit down.
The measures in the order provide for DETI, which will be the Department with responsibility for the strategic development of an efficient, economic and environmentally sustainable electricity industry in Northern Ireland, to manage a combined electricity consent process. That means that developers will have a single point of contact for their generating applications and will not have to go through separate processes.
As further measures aimed at fast-tracking certain sustainable energy projects that are signposted in the Government’s energy review are brought forward in Great Britain, we will, of course, consider whether they are appropriate for Northern Ireland, but that is not affected by the order. On that basis, I commend the order to the Committee.
4.39 pm
Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams. I believe that this is the first time I have done so. I am standing in today for my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), who is away on parliamentary business in Ethiopia. I would like to thank the Minister for her comments and, in the absence of my hon. Friend and on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, make it clear that we support the order, as it will speed up what has been a lengthy and costly process.
Our only surprise is that it has taken so long for Northern Ireland to be brought into line with the rest of the United Kingdom on this issue. There are, however, a few other concerns that I hope the Minister can clarify for me. If DETI will have a lead role in managing applications, will it give final consent? If so, can she give an absolute guarantee that applications will still be as stringently tested in terms of their impact on the environment? Applications for renewable energy sources can be highly controversial in that respect, and it is important that there should be no circumvention. Also, in giving consent, will it be possible for DETI to overrule or ignore any environmental concerns that are raised by the Department of the Environment?
It is in everybody’s interests to have the most efficient planning consent system in Northern Ireland. The order is a step in the right direction of ensuring that the key energy challenges that Northern Ireland faces are fully addressed, but I would appreciate a response to the concerns that I have raised.
4.41 pm
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams.
I support the principles behind the order, which combines the application process so that developers will have to apply to only one Department, instead of two. I am all in favour of streamlining the planning process as, in so many respects and under any Government, planning applications seem to take a long time. However, safeguards must obviously still be in place. People have the right to be notified, the right to object and the right to have their objections considered. So long as those rights were still in place, I would be fully in favour of streamlining the process.
Lady Hermon: I am enormously grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, as I did not have an opportunity to intervene on the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell).
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) should perhaps hesitate before giving such warm and enthusiastic support to the order and reflect on what he has just pinpointed—the consultation with and consents from the public. Does he not think it extraordinary that there was no formal consultation with the public before the order was introduced? Is that not slightly unusual, if the order is to be welcomed across the Committee?
Mr. Reid: The hon. Lady makes a good point on which I hope the Minister will reassure us.
Although I am in favour of the order in principle and in favour of streamlining the planning process, I still have concerns and some questions for the Minister. Proposed new paragraph 1A(6) of schedule 8 to the Electricity (Northern Ireland) Order 1992 says:
“Before determining whether to grant any consent...the Department shall consider...any objections”,
“where an inquiry has been held...the report of the inquiry.”
Can the Minister assure us that there will be rules and regulations in place and that the Department cannot simply take dictatorial decisions? Will she confirm that the Department must take into account planning policy and planning rules before taking the decision, and that it does not simply have to listen to the objections and then make a decision?
Another concern is to do with proposed new paragraph 1A(4) of schedule 8 to the 1992 order, which says:
“If the Department thinks it appropriate to do so, the Department shall...cause an inquiry to be held.”
Again, there is no guidance to the Department on whether to call an inquiry. For example, will a certain number of objections trigger an inquiry, or will a power station with a generating capacity that is over a certain level do so? It simply seems that an inquiry will be allowed when the Department thinks it appropriate to do so. Will the Minister assure us that guidance and rules will be in place for the Department?
I also want to draw a distinction between the notification processes for a public inquiry and for the application. Under proposed new paragraph 1B(3) of schedule 8 to the 1992 order, I see that when an inquiry is to be held the notice must be
“published in at least two newspapers circulating among persons likely to be affected”.
With the application, there is no such rule and the order merely says
“in such manner as may be prescribed”.
Will the Minister assure us that rules will be in place that mean that the Department has to publicise the application so that people likely to be affected by it know about it and have the opportunity to object?
Assuming that the Minister can give satisfactory answers to those questions, I shall support the order.
4.46 pm
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