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22 Apr 2008 : Column 407WH—continued

Mr. Simpson: I know that expert opinion is divided, but what my hon. Friend told us is also the opinion in my constituency, where similar developments are proposed. Indeed, in the case of the proposed development at Guestwick, the leaders of the local community told me that if the amount of power to be produced provided electricity for the neighbouring towns of Dereham,
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Fakenham and Aylsham, they would find it rather difficult to oppose it. However, research shows that it would produce only a limited amount.

I represent today a specific group of constituents who have been opposing the siting of six large wind turbines since 2004. They are convinced that an unintended consequence of what is effectively a Government subsidy is that, despite the development having been turned down by local planners, the developers have twice gone to appeal. They lost both times but now, four years later, they are seeking a judicial review—and if that is successful yet another planning inquiry. What is the cost to local democracy?

I shall briefly explain what has happened with that application. I suspect that similar examples can be found elsewhere in Norfolk and in other parts of the United Kingdom. Government subsidies are effectively being used by developers to achieve what is known locally as the Tesco factor: if one has enough money and one keeps coming back, one will eventually overwhelm the planning inspectorate—and even persuade local people, who have to use their own money to appeal, that it is not worth the fight.

In 2004, the developers Enertrag sought to gain planning permission to erect six wind turbines 120 m high in the open countryside at Guestwick in my constituency, about four miles north of where I live in the market town of Reepham. I do not have a vested interest, as I would not be able to see or hear the turbines, but I know the area only too well. It is within sight of the large village of Foulsham. The plan was opposed by an overwhelming majority of residents, and the application was turned down in 2005 on the recommendation of local planning officers and Norfolk county council, supported by Broadland district council’s planning committee.

The Minister will be aware that local planning authorities think very hard indeed before rejecting planning applications because they risk not only having the decision overturned on appeal but having costs awarded against them if their decision is considered to be unreasonable. In my experience, they tend to go over such applications in great detail. They are only too well aware that there may be strong local opinion, but if they feel that their decision is likely to be challenged legally, they will normally allow the development to go ahead.

That was not so at Guestwick. The decision was appealed by the developers, and a public inquiry was held in 2006. Having heard detailed evidence from the developers and the district and parish councils, the planning inspectorate inspector ruled that the appeal should be dismissed because of the impact that the turbines would have on the landscape and the listed buildings in the area. The inspector’s ruling was rejected by the developers, who appealed to the High Court to have the decision overturned. To the surprise of the local community, the Treasury solicitor decided not to contest the application. The decision of the inspector was set aside, and a second public inquiry was scheduled.

That inquiry was held in June 2007, under the auspices of yet another senior inspector. The developer’s arguments were again rejected, and the appeal was dismissed for a second time. The grounds for that decision were virtually the same as those cited in 2006. The developers are now seeking a judicial review. If they win, they will seek a
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third planning inquiry. If it is unsuccessful, they are prepared to resubmit their scheme.

In today’s Eastern Daily Press, Mr. David Linley, the project manager for Enertrag, said:

So logic has to rule, but not the spirit of the law or the views of the local community. That logic is based on the Government’s renewable energy targets, the proposed changes to planning and the fact that, under a subsidy system, developers can keep returning until they have worn down the inspectors and the local community.

I do not suggest that the Minister or his predecessors had that in mind when drawing up the present system, but that is the consequence and it is affecting my constituents and those of my parliamentary neighbours in Norfolk and elsewhere. My constituents are disillusioned, angry and out of pocket. Local residents have had to fund their own legal representation.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): I was interested to hear what my hon. Friend had to say about Enertrag. It is trying to do something similar in my constituency, and when I criticised it at a public meeting for failing to turn up, it threatened to sue me for representing the views of local residents. Does not my hon. Friend agree that one of the most offensive aspects of this, apart from the arrogance of saying , “We are going ahead”, is not simply that local residents have to fund their campaigns but that, through taxes and subsidies, they are funding the potential despoliation of their landscape?

Mr. Simpson: Not only does my hon. Friend have constituency experience of this; he is also a senior member of that most powerful of parliamentary Committees, the Public Accounts Committee, and he knows only too well the financial and regulatory aspects. The point that he raises fits in nicely with the thrust of my argument. He is right. I am talking about one village and a small hamlet, but the people themselves raised £15,000 for the first inquiry, and the second inquiry cost them £20,000. If it goes to a third inquiry, it will probably cost them £25,000. As he pointed out, it is costing them twice over—first, through the money that they had to raise and secondly through the indirect costs. Through taxation and through their electricity bills, they are effectively funding the developers, as well as having to fund their legal representation. That is wrong and unfair.

I bring this issue to Parliament to ask whether the Government recognise that, through their renewable strategy and what I believe are subsidies for developers, they are allowing the developers to bulldoze through applications for wind turbines against the wishes of local planners and local communities. That is undemocratic and unfair. If local communities faced the prospect of those sites producing a massive amount of power locally, they would find their arguments undercut. How are the Government going to address that imbalance, which is down to the law of unintended consequences? Will they consider establishing a legal fund to enable local communities to gain access to legal representation? Taxpayers already fund the developers, so they could
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also fund local communities. Let us have a level legal playing field. People in Norfolk recognise that something is unfair and undemocratic about the matter.

The Minister can expect more widespread opposition to centrally imposed targets. We want a proper renewables strategy and to bring local communities along with us on that, but the way in which developers currently go about it—perfectly legally—is producing widespread resistance and cynicism. I do not want my constituents to face one, two or three more appeals by a developer, which will cost them tens of thousands of pounds, for what they suspect will be a renewables wind farm that will not produce a significant contribution to the national grid.

Mr. David Wilshire (in the Chair): I understand that both the Minister and Mr. Simpson are willing for me to call Mr. Fraser, which I shall on the basis that he wrote to me to indicate that he would speak for only one minute.

1.11 pm

Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I have spoken to the Minister about my concerns. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on introducing this debate. The issue is extremely important to people throughout Norfolk and, I dare say, the country as a whole. It needs to be addressed with great sensitivity to local communities.

Many of my constituents feel that they get a raw deal from the Government’s green agenda simply because they live in rural areas. More often than not, large-scale onshore wind turbines are built in rural areas. There are 10 in South-West Norfolk, and proposals for at least 27 more are in the pipeline, which would affect my constituents considerably. It is not surprising that local people are anxious that a precedent has been set and that western Norfolk could be forced to take more than its fair share. People there put up with the noise, shadow flickers and other visual impacts of wind turbines, but they do not benefit from lower energy bills, as my hon. Friend articulated.

Mains gas is not universally supplied in the area, and people who pay massively more for using oil and electricity believe that they are being penalised. Does the Minister agree that the Government need to make the benefits of renewable energy alternatives such as wind turbines more tangible directly to those who are forced to live with their effects, particularly because huge Government subsidies already make them very profitable? Currently, there is little or no local benefit of having wind turbines virtually in one’s back garden, as in Norfolk. Will the Minister address that issue?

1.13 pm

The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing the debate. I should explain to hon. Members that my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy is out of the country today on ministerial business, but I shall endeavour to answer the points that have been raised.

I welcome the debate because the issue is crucial and important not only in Norfolk but, as hon. Members have said, more widely throughout the country. I suspect
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that it will become more important as time goes on. Today’s debate gives us the opportunity to discuss subsidies, planning and support, and to set the record straight on some common misunderstandings of how the system operates.

The Government are committed to meeting targets for renewable energy. They probably have broad support among the population and the importance of the issue is widely recognised. Meeting those aims means getting good quality applications through the planning system and looking at how to improve the system in the longer term. The proposals in the Planning Bill, to which the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk referred, will play an absolutely vital role.

I should like to set out in more detail how the planning system deals with such applications. Currently, applications for onshore projects that generate fewer than 50 MW of electricity are decided by the local planning authority using its powers under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. Any proposed onshore development for the generation of more than 50 MW is decided on by the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Whoever makes the decision must take account of a series of considerations including landscape, visual impact, habitation and so on. Projects that do not meet the planning requirements are refused consent. There is not an automatic presumption that projects will go forward; in fact, around a third of such planning applications are turned down. Even when development has been agreed, local opinion is often reflected in conditions or mitigating factors that must be taken into account.

Local authorities have improved the speed at which they handle applications, and three quarters now meet the performance objectives. However, the Government wish to tackle parts of the planning process without removing the important voice of the local community, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The Planning Bill, which the House is considering, will make changes. As part of that package, the Government envisage a national policy statement on renewables. We are used to statements that give guidance to planning authorities in planning policy as a whole. The Government will introduce statements that establish the case for infrastructure development and integrate environmental, social and economic objectives. The Bill will also establish an independent infrastructure planning commission to take decisions on nationally significant infrastructure projects for energy, including proposals for large-scale renewable projects that will produce more than 50 MW. The commission will take that role from the Secretary of State.

The national planning statements will provide the policy framework for the infrastructure planning commission’s decisions, and smaller-scale renewables will benefit from planning reforms. The clarity on national need and impacts will be set out in the proposed national policy statements, but it will also be helpful for decisions that are taken under the 1990 Act. We recognise that change is necessary to ensure that we get the system right as we go forward.

There is new guidance in the climate change policy planning statement, which contains a requirement on local authorities to consider renewables applications favourably, and not simply to use an argument that states that a project could be located elsewhere.

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Mr. Bellingham: I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation, but is he aware that the 50 MW ceiling or threshold encourages a lot of applicants to go for that capacity automatically so as to take it away from the local authority planning process? Does he agree that that is a flaw in the current system?

Mr. McFadden: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s last point, but I shall address the matter. I should stress that proposals for projects that will produce more than 50 MW does not remove the local authority role entirely from the process at all. The planning system is about ensuring not only that appropriate and acceptable development comes about, but that the public’s voice can be heard. We need to ensure that applications are properly decided and controlled.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk raised the issue of the subsidy and support that is available to people who participate in the process. In fact, extra funds are being directed to individuals and communities so that they can use the planning system and have a voice in their local area, but not to developers. On 25 March, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced that planning aid funding will be doubled to £3.2 million this year. That will enable more people to benefit from free independent advice so that they can comment on proposals and make representations at inquiries. Planning aid funding can help people to understand and use the planning system, participate in preparing plans, prepare comments on planning applications and represent themselves at public inquiries. The hon. Gentleman is therefore right that subsidy is available, but it is actually available to members of the public to help them take part in the process.

To continue on the theme of the incentives in the system, I want to deal now with the renewables obligation, which is a major part of the Government’s policy platform on this issue.

Mr. Simpson: I am interested in the Minister’s comment that the Department for Communities and Local Government has established a fund, which is to be welcomed, but what happens in cases such as that of my constituents, who have already had to go to law twice? First, I suspect that there will be a problem about whether they meet the criteria laid down by the Secretary of State. Secondly, I suspect that if they get a financial contribution once, they will not get one a second time. I am not nit-picking, because this is a hard case in which such issues have already arisen. What advice can he give my constituents?

Mr. McFadden: The hon. Gentleman will understand it if I do not get drawn into a discussion about a specific application in his constituency, and there are good planning and legal reasons why I should not do so. On the general point, however, developers must also bear the costs and incentives in mind. If they appeal, that is not a costless exercise, and they might incur significant costs. In fact, if the case goes to judicial review, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned in his speech, the court will decide whether there are arguments to be heard. If the developer loses, the defendant can, in some circumstances, claim costs from them. That must be borne in mind.

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I want, however, to deal with the renewables obligation, because it is important to explain it. The Government do not pay a subsidy to onshore wind farm developers at any stage in the delivery of the project, but all eligible generators of renewable electricity can benefit from the renewables obligation. The renewables obligation is administered by the regulator, Ofgem, and places an obligation on licensed electricity suppliers to source a specific and increasing proportion of their sales from renewable sources. Ofgem issues renewables obligation certificates—ROCs—to generators for every megawatt-hour of eligible renewable generation. That means that developers receive support only once the project is up and running.

It might help to illustrate what has happened so far if I give some of the facts and figures from last year. Up to that point, approximately 750 MW of renewable energy capacity were operating in the country and about 375 MW had been rejected by local planning authorities, which translates into about 50 plans being approved and roughly 25 not going forward. The reasons for their not going forward often included environmental considerations, as well as visual impact, aviation issues and noise concerns.

The renewables obligation therefore operates on the same level playing field as any other proposed development and does not negate the need for proper planning decisions. For example, it took more than 500 days on average for applications for onshore wind farms to be decided, although in some cases, it can take considerably less time. I quote those figures to stress to hon. Members that although the Government have a serious and deep commitment to their renewables targets, we are not setting aside planning considerations or the proper voice of their constituents and others around the country in judging applications. The planning framework facilitates renewable energy, but also safeguards landscape and nature conservation.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) said that offshore wind might be a preferable option, and there is subsidy and support for it. The truth, however, is that we need both offshore and onshore development, and we should not be forced into a choice between them. Offshore developments will tend to be more expensive to establish, although they will benefit from higher wind speeds and fewer obstacles, which will make up for some of the cost. However, we will need both onshore and offshore applications going forward.

Mr. Bellingham: I am grateful to the Minister for referring to the point that I made. In Norfolk, we have
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about 500 offshore turbines under construction or subject to planning permission, which will create serious critical mass, with Centrica building the biggest offshore wind farm in Europe. My point was very simple: putting small clusters of eight, nine or 10 turbines onshore does untold environmental damage, for very little gain, whereas offshore turbines can allow us to achieve critical mass and make a gain.

Mr. McFadden: I suspect that the hon. Gentleman’s point about the comparative value of such projects is somewhat subjective. As I said, there are advantages to offshore projects, but we will need both offshore and onshore projects going forward.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the question of whether the local authority voice was removed when it came to applications for wind farms of more than 50 MW. In fact, local authorities can trigger an independent public inquiry into applications for wind farms over that size if they object to the proposed development.

Christopher Fraser: Could the Minister address the important point I raised about local communities enjoying a local benefit as a result of wind turbines being sited near where they live? Despite everything that he has said, he has not addressed that.

Mr. McFadden: The whole country will benefit from our meeting our renewables obligations and the whole country is committed to our getting the right energy mix going forward.

To return to the subject raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk, local communities look to the system to provide reassurance that the use of their space is being properly considered. Confidence in the system is essential to pave the way for future, high-quality development. That is what the planning changes that we are making to the current regime are designed to achieve. It is important to get the balance right. As a country, we have a major commitment on this issue and we have a major obligation to ensure that the voices of our constituents are heard. That will be our aim going forward.

Mr. David Wilshire (in the Chair): The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government are here for the next debate. I trust, Minister, that you had a good, but brief lunch after you escaped. Welcome back.

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