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6.53 pm

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab): We have heard a lot about respect for local democracy and communities’ input into planning decisions. That is to be devoutly welcomed, because we have probably all been involved in that process at some point in our careers. However, we must ask ourselves whether a planning system that is built on that premise is fit for purpose in the modern age. Unfortunately, given that addressing climate change is probably the most compelling political driver of national policy, and that one of the most powerful ways of addressing climate change is to decarbonise our energy economy by deploying renewable electricity generation as rapidly as possible, we are not doing terribly well.

If we pursue a position of “business as usual” in all circumstances that either help or make life difficult for renewable energy developers, the renewable energy generation target of 10 per cent. by 2010 will be quite unattainable, while the target of 20 per cent. by 2020 also looks more than a little sick. We have a country with some of the richest raw renewable energy sources in the world, yet we are failing to make progress. That is a bizarre and unacceptable fact, and we cannot go on that way, which is one compelling reason why we must address the planning system.

Martin Horwood: The hon. Gentleman is quite right that we have enormous renewable energy resources. We certainly have more wind resources than Germany, a country that has developed much more renewable energy than us, but which has achieved that mostly through feed-in tariffs that give a guaranteed price for renewable energy. Would not such a measure make a more significant difference than anything in the Bill?

Dr. Turner: I am aware of the point that the hon. Gentleman raises. He is quite right about the fiscal measures, but we have a multi-factorial situation. Fiscal measures are one factor, while the planning system is an equally important factor in determining progress on renewables in the UK. We need to get all the factors right, and we are addressing the planning system today.

At present, we face the problem that planning and environmental consenting procedures incur enormous
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delays, both on land and at sea. While onshore wind farms attract most controversy, it is a sad fact that the environmental consenting procedure for a major offshore wind farm in this country takes twice as long—more than three years—as in Denmark or Germany. That lead time creates a deterrent to investors and means that we do not get carbon-free energy as quickly as we might.

A further problem is that even when such projects receive consent, nothing can be done, because they cannot access the national grid due to its inadequacy. The strengthening of the grid is affected by the planning system because, under the present system, it can take 10 years to agree a grid line. In part, that is because such a line would inevitably pass through several planning authorities, all of which must give consent at every stage. There is clearly a lot of logic behind the infrastructure planning commission, which, in the context of climate change, will be essential.

The UK is breaking new ground with the Climate Change Bill. As far as I understand, the principle behind that Bill is universally accepted throughout the House. No one will stand up in the Chamber to say, “We shouldn’t be cutting our carbon emissions.” However, whether that Bill is ambitious enough or not, it will be quite useless unless we put in place the nuts and bolts in other legislation that will actually deliver carbon savings. The planning system happens to be one of those nuts and bolts.

There are 200 wind farm applications stuck in the planning system. That represents 8,000 GW of capacity that is desperately needed if we are to meet our renewables targets. Streamlining the process is therefore vital. I will not argue about whether the IPC is the right mechanism. Tonight, I have heard interesting arguments for and against it, but I do not know how different, in practice, it will be from the existing system of planning inquiries. However, it is important to note that infrastructure projects will be referred to it. An infrastructure project is not necessarily local. A grid line cannot be regarded as local; it can run for hundreds of miles. The sources of renewable energy are not located conveniently in the areas where we want to use electricity, or where we live. They may be off the north-west coast of Scotland or elsewhere, so the issue is very much national, and it is increasingly supranational. We must have a mechanism that can transcend the essentially local nature of our planning system. The IPC will at least do that.

Of course, we have another problem: the process stops at the border with Scotland. I shall be interested to hear from Ministers on how they envisage our future relationship with the Scottish Parliament on planning, when it comes to dealing with infrastructure issues that affect both countries. Those issues probably affect us more than Scotland, because Scotland has more of the renewable resources that we want to access, but it has the legislative power to enable the exploitation of those resources. I have not heard that issue mentioned so far in this debate; it needs to be seriously addressed if we are to succeed. Not all of devolution was easy, and the issue that we are discussing is one of its more difficult aspects.

There is another interesting point about the commission. I have spent the last two hours of the debate reading the clauses on the operation of hearings. To take once again the example of a grid line, if it goes through four or five
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counties, will they all be represented at the hearing? What mechanism is there for trying to select the people who will present their case at the hearings? If, for example, a six-month timetable was set, and a great many people wanted and demanded to be heard in the public hearings, it could become impossible to work the system. That is a practical issue on the conduct of hearings that the Government will need to think about carefully.

The Government need to think a little more about the definitions on renewable energy projects that have been set for the reference of the commission. The 50 MW limit for onshore projects is probably reasonable. That leaves a lot of the probably more controversial local projects to be decided on under the current local planning system, and I do not argue with that. However, the 100 MW offshore limit will create, or rather will fail to resolve, problems for marine technologies.

It is one thing for a 100 MW-plus wind farm to carry the significant costs of the environmental impact assessment that has to be done, and that will presumably continue to have to be done. Such assessments are among the things that take up the most time. The same exacting requirements are placed on much smaller projects involving new marine technologies, such as wave and tidal stream power. Those projects are inevitably smaller, because the technologies are only just emerging into the commercial world, but such projects still have to undertake an environmental impact assessment of the same rigorousness. It takes just the same time, and costs just as much, whatever the size of the project. Let us say that a person who is putting in place the first 1.2 MW commercial demonstrator machine has to pay £2 million for an environmental impact assessment. It would cost the same amount if they were developing a 100 MW wind farm, but if we think of the amount as a percentage of the project costs, it starts to become very burdensome for smaller projects.

I agree with the British Wind Energy Association’s suggestion that, for marine projects, we should amend the Secretary of State’s reference limits to a level much lower than 100 MW. In practice, although newer technologies are developing, initially they will produce only 10 or 20 MW at a time. Inevitably, it will take them years to get up to the 100 MW level. One cannot entirely eliminate the development phase; it is crucial if we are later to get the very large yields of power that such technologies can deliver, and if they are to contribute to our carbon-saving ambitions. I strongly suggest that Ministers consider reducing that 100 MW level for all offshore marine projects, possibly to 10 MW or even lower. Perhaps they should do so specifically for non-wind projects. Certainly, non-wind projects need that help.

There is potential for considerable improvement to the IPC. However, irrespective of its form and the details of its operation, the single most important thing about it is the strict time scales in which it will operate, which mean that we can potentially save years in the planning part of the development cycle. We will reap the dividends in the form of millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide that will not be emitted and vital new green industries that will be set up in this country.

That does not alter the problem of all those projects that are still stuck in the planning system, because the new system will not be operational until 2009. My plea
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on behalf of the developers of such projects is for Ministers to do all that they can to take a stick to local authorities to make them produce quicker decisions. They should also take a stick to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, because it takes an enormous amount of time to deliver consents under section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989. Interestingly, most of those consents are for Scotland. We have a curate’s egg of a situation: in some respects, we have all sorts of powers over things that happen in Scotland, yet in other respects we do not.

The existing great mix of responsibilities with respect to planning and consents needs to be resolved. The Bill represents an important step on the road towards achieving that, but there are a few important details that need to be considered carefully.

7.9 pm

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): I shall concentrate my remarks on clause 5, on national policy statements, and clause 9, on sustainable development. I rise to speak because I am interested in the subject, but my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) would be here in my stead had he not been called to another engagement. I am not seeking a place on the Committee, but I am sure that he would pleased to be invited to serve on it.

I speak as a Welsh MP, and I should first refer to the use of the word “national” by the Secretary of State, throughout her remarks, and by other hon. Members. There are concerns about the accountability of the infrastructure planning commission. In Wales, we have the National Assembly, which is democratic and accountable and takes decisions on planning matters in Wales. I would like the Minister at least to give the House an assurance that the Bill will not in any way limit or curtail the National Assembly Government’s current planning responsibilities.

I want to deal with three main matters of specifically Welsh importance. The first of those is the infrastructure planning commission—yet another body that will operate on an “England and Wales” basis despite our having the National Assembly for Wales. Some aspects of its work will be concerned with England only, but the national context is unclear and can be contested in some respects. In clause 15(1), it is sometimes “wholly in England”, sometimes “wholly in Wales”, sometimes

and sometimes

When the definition of “national” is so unclear, what can be the basis of decisions in national policy statements? Clause 13(1) lists nationally significant projects—that is, “national” as defined by those projects that are national. This is a self-referring source of definition—an operational definition, perhaps, which is sometimes useful. In effect, however, “national” is defined in the context of what are nationally significant projects. Under clause 13(3), the Secretary of State may amend the list of nationally significant projects by order for England,
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but not for Wales. In some ways, “national”, as far as England is concerned, is what the Secretary of State says it is. It is very confusing.

In terms of the national Welsh interest, I could cite examples such as the gas pipeline running from west Wales to the Welsh border with England. If one defines “national” as relating to Britain or to England and Wales, that is certainly a project of national importance with great benefits for end-users, but one would question its benefits for Wales. The route of the pipeline has caused huge controversy, with sit-ins and demonstrations throughout south Wales, and the environmental degradation that has occurred in many constituencies has been a matter of hot dispute. We have had bitter experience in the past of projects that are apparently of national importance but have a deleterious effect in Wales. In 1936, a school was established in my constituency, for national reasons, to teach aerial bombardment. I will not go into that piece of history, but there was a great deal of opposition locally. In the neighbouring constituency of Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, in the valley near Bala, the Tryweryn river was dammed, and people were ejected from their homes. There were huge national demonstrations, and every MP from Wales bar one voted against it in this place. The idea of the national interest is not clear in the Bill, and I hope that the Minister will be able to address that in Committee.

The question for me, as a Welsh MP, is: why not devolve these planning matters, including building regulations, to the National Assembly Government—the democratically elected and accountable body that covers Wales and already considers such matters? The Assembly Government could establish a body similar to the IPC, which would want to work closely with the IPC in England. A prime example of the issues that it might consider, and a matter of immediate concern for us in Wales, would be the Severn barrage. We consume more electricity than we produce, despite the fact that we sit on huge reserves of coal and have huge potential alternative sources of energy. The Severn barrage could power a regeneration in manufacturing industry in south Wales. That is a national Welsh question that could be addressed by a similar body in Wales. Throughout Wales, we have the potential for all kinds of power generation from wind, wave current, hydroelectric and even pump storage schemes, many of them over 50 MW. Hon. Members might want to refer to the report on energy by the Welsh Affairs Committee, which explored those matters in great detail; it is not as if I am springing a surprise on anyone. The difficulty that the Government might face, or want to point to, is the nuclear question. I am prepared to say that reserving that to the UK Parliament might be one potential solution, although I would not happy with it. Will the Minister at least assure me that there will be no diminution of or interference in the powers of the National Assembly?

My second point is the appointment of commissioners. Will they be appointed on the basis of expertise in their subject or, as the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) suggested, expertise in judging matters and coming to decisions irrespective of technical expertise? Will they reflect particular sectors of the economy or regional interests? Under the Bill, the National Assembly
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will be able to nominate a commissioner for Wales. At some point, that commissioner might sit as a single decision maker instead of decisions being made by 60 directly elected and accountable Members of the National Assembly. That is the second-best option, to say the least. Clause 62 says that when there are exclusively Welsh matters to be considered, the Welsh commissioner will be appointed to the panel “if reasonably practicable”. That means that the commissioners might be deciding on land use in Wales with a Welsh commissioner only if it is reasonably practicable; presumably, it might not be, and the other commissioners will have no connection with Wales. As an aside, I refer hon. Members to the Welsh Language Act 1993, which says that English and Welsh are to be treated on the basis of equality when it is

That little phrase has been the subject of a huge amount of controversy in Wales, and rightly so. We are about to have a commissioner appointed to consider matters in Wales “if reasonably practicable”. In what sense, therefore, will the commission be accountable to the people of Wales or to the National Assembly for Wales?

Schedule 1 deals with the infrastructure planning commission. When appointing commissioners, it is reasonable to expect them to have some knowledge or ability to perform functions in accordance with the pursuit of sustainable development. That is another imperative we might bear in mind when appointing commissioners.

Will there be an IPC office in Wales? Will the IPC act in accordance with the Welsh Language Act 1993? Compliance among similar bodies has been something of an afterthought—usually when someone such as me complains. In contrast, when the office of the Children’s Commissioner for Wales was established, it was bilingual from day one. It has a bilingual site, and people are able to present information in Welsh and English. These are not minor matters as far as Wales is concerned, and I would like the Minister to assure us that the Government will take a proactive stance in discussing them with the Welsh Language Board, which has the statutory responsibility in this field, rather than wait until someone such as me gets up to complain.

I turn to broader issues relating to sustainable development. Clause 9 is weak because it applies only to the drawing up and reviewing of national policy statements, not to the work of the infrastructure planning commission, and it provides no definition of sustainable development. I compare that to the Government of Wales Act 2006, in which the National Assembly for Wales is charged with the duty of acting in a manner consistent with sustainable development. Clause 9 contains two short sentences, but section 79 of the 2006 Act says that Welsh Ministers must

“make a promote sustainable development”.

Clause 9, on the other hand, says

We are talking about two different things—promoting and contributing. From time to time, the Welsh Assembly Government have had to revise their scheme. Before doing so, they must consult and publish the
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revisions, and at the end of every financial year, Welsh Ministers must publish a report on how the proposals set out in the sustainable development scheme were implemented in that financial year. Such sustainable development provisions would be very welcome and would strengthen the Bill immeasurably; I commend them to the Government. They were passed by this Government, after all, in the 2006 Act.

Under clause 9 there are several matters that the Secretary of State should consider in carrying out the duty of contributing to sustainable development. They include international obligations, for example, under the habitats directive. One thinks of the Severn barrage and the intertidal zone that might be lost there. There are several international implications.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, and I am particularly interested in his comments on sustainable development. The Government have laid out their criteria for sustainable development, but they do not underpin this policy and there will not be a duty on the commission. Does he think that the Government would be open to judicial review on the grounds that their policy could easily be contradicted directly by the commission in practice?

Hywel Williams: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. That might very well be the case, and other hon. Members have remarked on the lack of joined-up thinking, or joined-down thinking in the case of this Bill, with respect to the Government’s other policies.

The other matters that should be considered under clause 9 are the carbon implications—targets set up for carbon emissions established under the Climate Change Bill—and the biodiversity duty in section 40 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, which deals with constraints on various resources such as water and land. We may also need to consider possible alternative policies to respond to increases in demand, such as taxation or expenditure on rail as an alternative to runways. A huge number of points could be considered.

Expanding the range of national policy statements referred to in clause 5(1) could include nature conservation or different options to manage demand and to manage the pressure for infrastructure development. There are several ways to go about that. We could add to clause 5 requirements to include in national policy statements an account of the conclusions arrived at under the sustainable development provisions in clause 9, so that one would inform the other. In clause 94, we could include a requirement for the IPC to consider sustainable development when dealing with applications for infrastructure development, rather than just having the Secretary of State consider such matters when drawing up policy statements. The IPC could consider them as well.

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