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Alan Simpson: That is important, but it is also important that the House consider other possibilities that may arise in how we can approach the decentralisation of energy generation. One lesson that struck me in my work on examining arrangements in Germany was that, across continental Europe, there is a much stronger tradition of decentralising not only energy generation
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but ownership and accountability. In the UK, we have found ourselves consumed by all sorts of arguments about planning blight. There are local objections to the installation of wind turbines, and I expect that there would be similar objections to the development of biodigesters.

In Denmark, there is a far greater distribution of localised biodigestive plants, which feed back into either local communities or the gas grid. One reason why there is less controversy in other parts of Europe is that there is a far greater degree of local and popular ownership, and people are stakeholders in their own system. I discovered the importance of that in a community in Nottingham that I am working in, the Meadows. There was an application for a wind turbine, not exactly in the centre of Nottingham but on the banks of the River Trent as it sweeps around that inner-city, poor community. Wind surveys were done by the university and identified three possible sites, one inside the Meadows on the embankment and two across the river in wealthier parts of Nottingham.

We had to have inquiries and consultations and everyone anticipated that there would be massive objections. We got it completely wrong. At the very first meeting, a guy stood up and said, “Just let me understand this. This wind turbine, it’ll be generating electricity that will be coming into my house, and it’ll be coming off my bills. Is that right?” We said, “Well, sort of right. It will be shared between all of us, but technically that is true.” We said that we had to decide where it would be located. He said, “There’s no question about that; it’s got to be located here.” People murmured, “Why?” He turned to everyone else in the audience and said, “Listen, if this is a money spinner and we put it in areas outside our own, where the rich people live, that money’s never going to come here. If it’s going to work for us, we’ll have it here.” The murmuring became a rumble of enthusiasm and the planning application went through without a single objection from the community where the turbine was to be located. Why? Because it would own the turbine.

We need to learn from other parts of Europe that it is not only a matter of renewal of local contracts, but of building in local stakeholding. If people see themselves as the drivers of change, we will discover in the UK what we find throughout Europe: schools that hand over their roofs to solar arrays because that generates income for them; whole towns and cities where local authorities give over their municipal roofs to generating decentralised energy. All that provides a social, economic and ecological momentum, which is incredibly empowering. The Bill represents that for me.

For years, many other hon. Members and I have longed for the dynamism that the Minister and the Secretary of State have brought to the debate on green energy. Now we have it. The Bill allows us to dovetail many initiatives that are on the table and make them a coherent whole.

I remember a wonderful tale about how a village dealt with a problem. A child fell down a well and was shouting to be rescued. Various villagers lowered their ropes into the well to try to reach the child. The first rope was 20 ft short, the next was 15 ft short, the next was 10 ft and the last was, tantalisingly, only 5 ft away
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from the child. The villagers could not work out what to do, but a voice from the bottom of the well called out, “Tie your ropes together.”

The Bill invites us to tie the ropes—many of which the Government, the Minister and Secretary of State have provided—together to harness the enthusiasm and urgency of our times. I hope that Hansard records today that we have an hon. Member, a measure and cross-party momentum that had the sense to tie our ropes together.

10.53 am

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The top of a music score often includes in brackets a composer’s instruction such as “With enthusiasm”, “With fury” and so on. I want to join in expressing enthusiasm for the Bill.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) for promoting the Bill and for his work on environmental and green issues over many years. He is not a late arrival on the scene. Colleagues from all parties pay tribute to him for his work: he has understood for many years, as some of us have tried to do, the importance of such issues. The measure is another manifestation of that understanding.

I have always been a great fan of the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson). He has been fantastic in his advocacy of green issues. In his core contribution, he made the central point that the Bill is about returning energy and environmental policies to people, individuals and communities, which is where they used to be. We sometimes forget that the great 19th century successes happened not because the Government in Westminster and Whitehall organised the energy industry, but because the villages, towns and cities had municipal initiatives. They were driven by the pride in Manchester, Nottingham, Guildford—if it was big enough then—and in my part of London, in the old boroughs of Bermondsey, Camberwell and Southwark. People wanted to do their own thing and they were proud that the water or electricity company they used was theirs. It meant that people were in it together.

Such a policy had two other benefits. First, it made everybody responsible—people had to think through the implications. Secondly, it educated everybody. People understood what farmers, environmentalists and many in the rural community understand: lights do not go on because one presses a switch; it is a process that depends on our planet and our harnessing energy wisely. The Bill will return us to understanding what we need to do to ensure that the planet is safe and to avert the risk which we all know exists. That is the context for the measure.

On a day when we all woke up to unhelpful news about politics and Parliament, we are discussing far more important issues than those that led this morning’s news. There is significant agreement between all the main parties about those issues, and I note that the list of private Members’ Bills on the Order Paper includes four that deal with the environment and energy. Apart from the measure that we are considering, there is the Land Use (Garden Protection etc) Bill, the Climate Change (Sectoral Targets) Bill and the Renewable Content Obligation Bill.

It is no accident that, when Back Benchers introduce Bills, they are often what could be described as “get on with it” measures. The science urges us to go further
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and faster than Governments have gone, and colleagues from all parties are saying, “Please get on with it.” I therefore hope that the Minister, whom we respect greatly and who is hugely committed to his work—I have worked with him in his many guises in many Departments over the years—will be positive and enthusiastic when he responds. Let us get on with it.

There are two coincidences today apart from that of the four measures on similar subjects. Today is the deadline for responses to the Government’s heat and energy-saving strategy consultation. For those who thought that they might respond, today is the day. I hope that the debate will be perceived partly as a response to the consultation, because the contributions relate specifically to what the Government asked people to respond to. The consultation document states:

There is a need to remove barriers, take away disincentives and give incentives. The Bill would do all that.

The other coincidence today is that Which? has produced a report about how confusing energy tariffs are. We all know that they are a nightmare for most people. Seven in 10 people find the number of gas and electricity tariffs available confusing. Conversely, if people have their own wind turbine, heat pump and so on, and supply energy for not only their home, school, industrial estate, village or town, but sell something to the system—thereby contributing—that is not confusing. People have no difficulty in understanding that. It is exactly what people want and need.

My colleagues and I support the Bill. My predecessor in the job, my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) sends his apologies; he cannot be here today. He is a sponsor of the measure, which is therefore supported by our Front Benchers and has been since its inception. I have a micro concern, about which I would like an amendment in Committee, but I shall outline that shortly.

Clause 2 states:

It makes clear what constitutes green energy and that the Bill is about energy from renewables or small-scale low-carbon sources. It also includes energy efficiency provisions—another important part of the equation. The Bill says clearly that the Government should get on with the microgeneration strategy that was included in the Energy Act 2008—it was a bit late in the day, but we got there eventually—but which has not yet been implemented. In effect, the Bill says, “Please, Parliament decided that it wanted this to happen. Let’s move quickly now, rather than slowly.”

The Bill makes clear the sort of things that everybody can do. They are easy to understand, as the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) said, although sometimes they are a bit harder to deliver, because of the technology, the supply chain or whatever. The Bill is about increasing the number of microgeneration systems in existing buildings, having a fiscal regime that effectively promotes microgeneration, ensuring that feed-in tariffs work easily and are not difficult and ensuring an incentive for renewable heat. All those things produce the benefits that we all know about. They produce sustainable
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communities and enhance community cohesion, whether in big cities, such as Nottingham or London, or in small villages in Cornwall, Surrey, Cambridgeshire, where the constituency that my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) represents is situated, Cheshire or wherever. Those things also create and sustain green jobs—indeed, thousands or even hundreds of thousands of jobs are involved; one needs only to look at Germany or other countries that have led the way—and they help to reduce the burdens that create energy poverty, which adds to the poverty that we know about.

The hon. Member for East Surrey made it clear that we have to do something about the planning barriers that get in the way. The Government have understood that we need to lift the burdens—not to allow abuse of the planning system, but to ensure that things that the farmer, smallholder or householder would naturally do do not involve having to jump through lots of planning hoops. That is important, whether we are talking about domestic premises or a farm, or whatever.

Also, the hon. Gentleman made it clear that people who do those things, thereby contributing to their good health and wealth, and to the health of the community and the planet, will not be financially disincentivised. He also made it clear that their doing those things will not add to their burdens, and that they will not end up paying a bigger council tax bill or whatever. We have to encourage people, not discourage them, and the tighter their budgets, the more important it is that we do not discourage them.

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Mr. Mike O’Brien): I have been listening with care to the points that the hon. Gentleman is making. I wonder whether he would care to comment on permitted developments on agricultural land of the sort that he has described. A farmer might decide to put a significant anaerobic digestion or other renewable plant on his land, but the local community might say, “That’s not the right place to put it. We don’t want it in that site. We wouldn’t object to it somewhere else, but not there.” Permitted development is, of course, permitted development. It would not enable local engagement to that extent. What role does the hon. Gentleman feel the community should be able to have in that situation?

Simon Hughes: That is a valid point. I was brought up in villages until I was 18, and controversial issues always arise when the big farmer puts in place a big new plant or whatever. As I understand it, the Bill calls for a review of the system, in order to prevent matters that need not be part of the planning process from having to go through it, so that more things will be allowed automatically. However, large developments that are controversial and intrusive would still have to go through the planning process, so I do not think that there is a disagreement between the Minister and me.

I absolutely believe that what the hon. Member for Nottingham, South said is true: when people understand the benefit to them personally and to their communities, the objections to the wind farm or whatever suddenly disappear almost completely. People say, “Look, it’s ours—it’s harnessing our environment and it’s part of our community.” Often such projects also have some beauty, character and style and they add something. I therefore hope that there is no disagreement between the Minister and me.

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I shall be very brief with my other points, because I do not want to delay either this Bill or those that follow it. Let me make clear my one objection and ask the hon. Member for East Surrey to think about it in Committee. My one concern is about the definition of “green jobs”, which are described in clause 1 as

I do not have a problem with that, in the sense that those jobs are clearly green jobs, but I want us to be clear that defining “green jobs” is not uncomplicated. I have here—the Minister may know what I am about to say—a parliamentary answer from his hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to my question to the Secretary of State about what the Government’s definition of a green job is. It states:

That is probably a wiser position. We sort of know what we understand by “green jobs”, but let us not limit it. In fact, the UN has a much better definition, which I can offer the hon. Member for East Surrey:

If we are going to have a definition, let us have a broad one, not a narrow one.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments and for his interesting speech. I will certainly take a look at the issue, but the definition contained in the Bill is for the purposes of the Bill. It is not for wider purposes.

Simon Hughes: I completely understand. My concern is that we might end up with lots of different definitions of “green jobs” in different bits of legislation; such issues are the blight of legislation. We ought to try to use a common definition. I understand exactly the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I hope that there will be a way of reconciling it with mine.

I want quickly to check what role the Government think microgeneration and renewables should play, so that the Minister has an opportunity to put it on the record. According to the latest Government figures, 5 per cent. of electricity in the UK in 2007 was produced by renewables. I understand that the target is 10 per cent. by 2010, which is pretty soon, so the question is: what are we going to get to by 2010? Is 10 per cent. still the Government’s target? What do they believe we will achieve? The expectation or aspiration—they have said that it is not a target—is that 20 per cent. of electricity will be produced by renewables by 2020. I want to know whether that is still the Government’s position. They have also said that 15 per cent. of all energy, as opposed to just electricity, will be renewable by 2020.

There is a strong argument, which my colleagues and I believe, that if we are to meet the European Union target for the whole of our energy mix, we may need 35 per cent. of our electricity to come from renewables by 2020. Our party’s position is clear—my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge played a large part in formulating it—and we believe that that can be achieved.
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We believe, bluntly, that we ought to have much more ambitious targets. We believe that it is possible to have a target of 30 per cent. of electricity coming from renewables by 2020 and that 25 per cent. of energy could come from renewables. As a party we reject the nuclear option, which we do not think is necessary, so we do not include it.

I am keen for us to see the Bill as an opportunity to build a consensus on making a more ambitious contribution on renewables. I asked the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, who is not in his place now, what the Conservatives’ position was and he said that they had not finalised their view. That is fine, but they will need to do so before an election, so that everybody knows what they will be voting for if they vote for a Conservative candidate.

I have a second question for the Minister. With regard to whether we are going to achieve what the hon. Member for East Surrey wants us to achieve, I am troubled that the solar photovoltaic and low-carbon buildings programme should be ending this summer. The programme has been so over-subscribed that the Government are closing the doors and have not allowed anybody to put their name on the list since the end of February. I am concerned that that is not the right response to a Bill such as this. We need something that says that the Government understand the importance of giving in to the public demand, which the Bill reflects, for people to get on with things. When a school says, “We want solar PV,” and is told by the Government, “I’m sorry, you can’t have it anymore; the system is not available,” the practice does not reflect the Government’s view.

I will end with this point. I am proud that 80 per cent. of colleagues in my party have signed the early-day motion supporting the Bill. I hope that that stands as a testament to the commitment of our party. I hope that we can encourage many more colleagues in other parties to support the Bill as it makes its way through the House. I checked this morning on the early-day motion list and saw that 34 per cent. of Conservative colleagues and 23 per cent. of Labour colleagues support it. I hope that colleagues the Front Benchers will go away and tell their colleagues that the Bill deserves support. The time has come for this issue to be at the top of the agenda. I had the privilege of introducing a showing of “The Age of Stupid” at a cinema in London a few weeks ago. If anyone, inside or outside the House, is still not persuaded, that film is a must-see.

I hope that the Bill will be supported by Parliament, and that, by the end of this parliamentary Session, whatever the noises outside might be on other issues, we will have made significant progress on advancing the contribution of renewables and microgeneration and, in so doing, advancing the empowerment of individuals to run their own lives and deliver their own energy. In that way, in the foreseeable future, we could have an energy-independent Britain in an energy-independent Europe.

11.10 am

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