Planning Bill

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Clause 14

Generating stations
Jim Fitzpatrick: I beg to move amendment No. 109, in clause 14, page 7, line 38, leave out ‘will’ and insert ‘is expected to’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 111 to 113, 122, 130, 133 and 137 to 139.
Jim Fitzpatrick: The amendments are minor changes, mainly to ensure that a project will be considered nationally significant if it “is expected to” exceed a particular threshold, rather than “will”, as stated in the Bill. The changes are being made because it will not always be possible to say with certainty what the capacity will be at the point of making an application for development consent. For instance, if the capacity of an overhead electric line is expected to carry 20 kV, it is right that it falls to the IPC for consideration, even if, on completion of the project, the average operating capacity falls below that. We must operate on the principle of the level at which a facility is expected to operate to service the national need. The amendments will ensure that there is no unnecessary legal challenge over a decision when the capacity of a facility does not always meet the required threshold.
Mrs. Lait: I understand what the Government are trying to do here, although perhaps they should have thought about it before they drafted the Bill. That is what we would have done, but then we are not the Government—yet.
Will the changes have any implications for the number of national infrastructure planning applications? I suspect that the answer will be no. Furthermore, on generating stations, why is there a difference between onshore and offshore generating capacity, particularly given the technological developments that we have just spoken about? Turbines are becoming more efficient and are generating more electricity, which means that we will need fewer of them. Clarification would be useful.
Jim Fitzpatrick: The answer to the first question is no. In answer to the second question, the thresholds were written into the Bill in light of recent applications. Offshore generators tend to have much larger generating capacities than onshore generators. As I understand it, the onshore provision is a transposition from the previous Bill. We have made the offshore capacity larger than the onshore capacity in light of what is currently planned.
Amendment agreed to.
The Chairman: We now come to amendment No. 366 with which it will be convenient to debate amendment No. 369.
Dan Rogerson: On a point of order, Mr. Illsley, the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy is involved in the consideration of a report by the Standards and Privileges Committee, and has asked that amendments Nos. 366 and 369 not be moved. Is that in order, Mr. Illsley? I would also be grateful if the Committee could consider amendment No. 367, and the amendments grouped with it, in order that I may address those in my name.
The Chairman: Given that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy is not present, amendments Nos. 366 and 369 are not moved.
Dan Rogerson: I beg to move amendment No. 367, in clause 14, page 8, line 3, leave out ‘50’ and insert ‘100’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 368, in clause 14, page 8, line 3, at end insert ‘installed capacity’.
No. 76, in clause 14, page 8, line 11, at end add—
‘(5) The Secretary of State shall annually undertake a review of the threshold specified in subsection (2)(c) and publish a report.’.
Dan Rogerson: Amendment No. 76, which stands in my name, deals with the thresholds. I understand why the Bill requires thresholds, but I am concerned that they might distort the applications. If a developer feels that it would be beneficial to be covered by the IPC, it might artificially inflate the capacity of its generator. I have focused on electricity generators, but the point could apply to any of the other areas covered by thresholds. A developer might draw up its scheme in such a way that it is over the threshold set out in the Bill. For example, I would prefer applications for wind farms in my constituency, of which there are a number, to be considered thoroughly by the local council. I have made it clear to the Committee that I am not opposed to wind farms generally, but that they should be considered thoroughly.
I understand that one scheme in particular is very close to the 50 MW limit, which might provide an incentive to the developer to increase the capacity of the scheme slightly to bring it under the provisions in the Bill. That would take away the decision from the local authority and move it to the IPC. My amendment would require the Government to review annually that threshold and to consider whether it has had unintended effects on applications. Arguably, such a threshold could depress the number of applications for smaller schemes and more devolved energy networks. I am focusing my remarks on energy, but there might be other thresholds included in other categories that might have a similar effect. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response on that.
Tom Brake: Given that the Minister has highlighted that there is some uncertainty about how much energy is generated, does my hon. Friend agree that it is now even more important that the review is carried out?
12.30 pm
Dan Rogerson: That is an excellent point. With the amendment, we seek to ensure that the Government are considering the operation of the Bill in this context so that no unintended consequences are allowed.
Mr. Jones: On amendment No. 367, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, we have heard a lot about the Government’s anxiety not to disturb the devolution settlement. That highlights an attempt by the Welsh Assembly Government to disturb the devolution settlement: for some considerable time, they have been pressing for an extension of competence in respect of generating stations with capacity beyond the 50 MW to which they are currently confined. I remind the Committee that in the Welsh Assembly, Plaid Cymru and the Labour party are in coalition. Of course, they are not in coalition here, but I am interested to know why the Government have maintained their adamant opposition to the extension of competence for Welsh generating stations with capacity above 50 MW.
Jim Fitzpatrick: I shall start with amendment No. 76. The hon. Member for North Cornwall made a good case for keeping the thresholds in the Bill under review. He flagged specifically the threshold for onshore generating stations, given the importance that renewable energy projects of all kinds will have in helping us to meet our climate change targets.
As I set out earlier, we have set the thresholds for electricity generating stations to be consistent with existing legislation for the most part. The changes we are introducing are not primarily about shifting boundaries on what is considered nationally significant, but about where and how decisions on such projects are made. The obvious example in the energy sector is offshore renewable projects, where we have raised the threshold for nationally significant projects to reflect the fact that offshore wind farm developments have significantly increased in size in recent years. The adjusted threshold means, in this case, that only genuinely larger projects will be handled by the IPC. We therefore believe that the thresholds in the existing legislation on the whole accurately capture the range of projects that are nationally significant.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that projects that will help us to meet our climate change objectives are important, but that is an argument to which local authorities should pay due attention in relation to the national policy statement covering this infrastructure. They must take account of the planning policy statement on climate change rather than directing projects of below 50 MW to the IPC, which would risk overloading the regime, making it less efficient and effective. We are very aware of the need to ensure that we do not remove decisions from local authorities except where there is a clear case for doing so. However, I appreciate the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s arguments and I assure the Committee that if evidence were put before Ministers that circumstances have changed, we would certainly consider it. However, we do not expect circumstances to change that frequently. A statutory requirement to review them annually would therefore be a trifle excessive and a burden on Government.
Amendment No. 367 would increase the threshold for onshore generating stations to 100 MW. Offshore turbines generally have about twice the generating capacity of onshore turbines, so 20 offshore turbines will produce 100 MW, whereas 20 onshore turbines will produce 50 MW. I understand the concerns of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, but I have set out the threshold that the Government believe to be appropriate, which reflects the long-established threshold for large onshore generating projects that is contained in the Electricity Act 1989, and we believe that it will capture the type of project that will impact on a wider area. The overall response to the planning White Paper consultation did not contradict that view.
Finally, amendment No. 368 seeks to insert a reference to “installed capacity”. The amendment is not necessary because consents are already granted on “installed capacity”, which is the maximum amount that a generating station can produce when it is operating at 100 per cent. of capacity, as opposed to the amount that it would produce on a day-to-day basis. The Bill does not alter that. The amendment is therefore superfluous, so I hope that it is not pressed to a Division. I hope that I have provided the necessary assurance to the hon. Member for North Cornwall in respect of amendment No. 76.
Mr. Jones: With respect, the Minister has not dealt with my point on devolution.
Jim Fitzpatrick: On devolution, I said earlier in our deliberations that we wish to maintain our position on the settlement. However, I am well aware that Welsh Ministers have argued for the devolution of energy consents of more than 50 MW, and that there have been tripartite discussions on the matter between the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the Wales Office and the Welsh Assembly Government. However, the Government’s view is that reserving powers on nationally significant energy infrastructure is the best way to develop the UK’s long-term energy strategy. The planning White Paper made it clear that the current devolution settlement works well and the Government propose that it should continue. Given that position, it is clear that such projects must be included within the IPC’s remit. If they were not, major energy projects in Wales would continue to be determined by Ministers in Westminster under the old regime.
I should add that our reform proposals include a number of measures to ensure that when such decisions are taken away from Whitehall Ministers and passed to the IPC, the Welsh Assembly Government will have appropriate input to the process. For example, two or three commissioners will be appointed on the advice of the Welsh Assembly Government, and when a project relates to land in Wales, at least one of them will be on the panel of commissioners who consider it, whenever that is reasonably practicable. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s point and I apologise for not responding when I concluded my earlier remarks.
Dan Rogerson: I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that the Government are aware of the issues and that they intend to keep a watching eye on the thresholds and any effect that they have on applications. The Minister gave a commitment that any evidence of unintended consequences would be dealt with by secondary legislation. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment made: No. 110, in clause 14, page 8, line 8, leave out ‘between the mean low water mark and’ and insert ‘up to’.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]
Clause 14, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 15

Electric lines
Amendments made: No. 111, in clause 15, page 8, line 23, leave out ‘not exceeding’ and insert ‘that is not expected to exceed’.
No. 112, in clause 15, page 8, line 23, leave out ‘used or’.
No. 113, in clause 15, page 8, line 25, leave out ‘the line is or (when installed)’ and insert ‘(when installed) the line’.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]
Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.
Mrs. Lait: We are not going to object to the clause, but this is a useful opportunity to get some clarification on one of my favourite or pet subjects—Scotland. Will the Minister clarify how paragraph 15(1)(d), which reads
“partly in England and partly in Scotland”
relates to clause 187, which is on the extent of the Bill, and which says that the Bill extends
“to England and Wales only”?
While he is thinking about that, perhaps I could ask him to allay my concern about the consultation with Scotland on difficult decisions. What consideration have the Government given to situations in which Scotland, under its devolved structure, has a reverse impact on England and does not provide, thereby putting extra demand on England? Hazardous waste is a particularly controversial example. How will the Government and the IPC deal with applications within England to deal with areas in which Scotland is not providing sufficient capacity?
Scotland has historically provided much of the UK’s nuclear electricity. Hunterston, Torness and Chapelcross have been key in that. Chapelcross is being decommissioned. Hunterston and Torness have planning permission or presumption of planning for more sites, as does Chapelcross. But the previous Labour-Liberal Administration set their face against building any new nuclear power stations, as has the new Scottish National party Administration. Therefore the pressure is on England to provide for the UK in a way that historically it did not have to do. This is going slightly wide of the matter under discussion, but it gives the Minister the chance to answer my question about clause 187 and to tell us how the Government are approaching the issue of England having to provide because Scotland is not doing its fair share.
Jim Fitzpatrick: I will study Hansard to examine some of the nuances that the hon. Lady is getting at because a more considered response than I might be able to give is required. However, I shall give that which I have in respect of power lines going across borders.
Clause 15 sets out when the installation of an electric line above ground will be a nationally significant infrastructure project. That will include projects in England and Wales, projects that are partly in England and partly in Wales, and projects that are partly in England and partly in Scotland. To respect the devolution settlement, where projects are partly in England and partly in Scotland, the commission will only be responsible for approving the part of the line that is in England. All projects will be within the IPC’s remit except for the following two types of project: installing a line that is intended to be used for a single consumer and that does not exceed a nominal voltage of 20 kV; and installing a line within premises in the occupation or control of the person responsible for its installation.
These thresholds are consistent with existing thresholds under the Electricity Act 1989 and include all the projects currently consented by the Secretary of State which are deemed to be nationally significant. Overhead lines may cut across a number of local authority boundaries and have significant national as well as local benefits. As such, the Government believe that they merit treatment as nationally significant. In addition, each link of the electricity transmission and distribution network is critical to the effectiveness and resilience of the network as a whole. The network is of strategic national significance and it is important that the overall integrity of the network is maintained through consistent national-level decision making.
The development control system must also be able to take into account the anticipated greater role of renewable energy, with the changes to the network structures that implies, and the likelihood of a more localised pattern of generation and distribution in future. Responses to the planning White Paper consultation showed a large majority of those responding on this issue in favour of including electric lines in the commission’s remit. The clause makes an electric line a nationally significant infrastructure project only in relation to the English part of the line.
If the hon. Lady will allow me, I will study her remarks and come back to her in due course with a more comprehensive response once I have determined exactly where she wants to get a response from.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 15, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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