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Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): One of the curious things about my parliamentary career and that of my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) is that people continually get us mixed up. Over the years, each of us has frequently received letters addressed to the other. So when I recently got a letter congratulating me on introducing the Green Energy
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(Definition and Promotion) Bill, I felt that I ought to come along here today to set the record straight by saying that it was nothing to do with me. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this extremely important Bill, which I thoroughly support and which will be of enormous benefit to many of my constituents.

My constituency is a rural area, much of which is off the gas networks. The future for microgeneration is therefore extremely important there. At the moment, most rural households rely on oil, liquefied petroleum gas and, of course, coal. In Northumberland, we still burn a great deal of coal. Curiously, at certain times of the winter in still weather, the pollution levels in some of the country villages approach levels that are not permitted under European or domestic air purity regulations. If those regulations were tightened further, some villages would fail the test. Moving away from burning fossil fuels to heat our homes is therefore extremely important.

We are making considerable progress in the north. We have a lot of timber, and wood energy is becoming increasingly popular. In fact, the new swimming pool that has recently opened in Hexham is heated exclusively by wood energy. However, the use of such energy is really available only to the larger institutions that can handle the storage and transportation of the wood. One or two other larger institutions in my constituency are introducing it, including a local hotel which makes a great issue of the fact that it is heated using sustainable wood products. This is part of the idea of promoting green tourism in Northumberland.

In agriculture, farmers are extremely interested in developing anaerobic digester systems. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) that an impediment to the success of this process is the linking of the digesters to the grid. In areas where there is no gas network, the digesters produce gas to work turbines that generate electricity. That is a sensible idea for farmers, but the cost of linking the system to the grid is a considerable disincentive. I have no specialist knowledge of this matter, but it seems to me that the amount that the electricity supply companies are charging for upgrading the grid or for connecting to an anaerobic digester are prohibitively high. Those costs need to be looked at more carefully.

I agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) about ownership of individual turbines and other generators of decentralised energy. My constituency has been defined as an area suitable for large-scale wind turbine development, and there are now applications in place for 80 turbines in a relatively small area. As hon. Members can imagine, that has caused considerable annoyance and irritation to the locals, who believe that the landscape of Northumberland, which is one of our big selling points, will be damaged by the overdevelopment of the turbines. They will also get no benefit from them, apart from the small amount of money—the bawbees—that the companies give back, perhaps to renovate a village hall or something like that. There is no real payback for the community for having these things on their doorstep. Microgeneration involving turbines within a community would provide a direct benefit, however, and the whole idea would become very much more popular.

I do not want to detain the House, because I believe that the Bill should go through. It is an extremely worthwhile Bill and I thoroughly support it. What
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microgeneration needs is that gentle push to make it economic, and once it passes through that barrier, there will be an explosion of decentralised energy across the country, which will make a huge contribution to the cleaning up of our planet.

11.15 am

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) for his historically long campaign for the green energy that this country so desperately needs, and also to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), who represents one of the most beautiful parts of the country. As a soldier, I dug many a hole in his constituency. I was told that this was to protect me—I think from the sergeant major, rather than from the elements. It is a beautiful part of the world, and I fully understand his constituents’ concerns about the number of wind turbines that might go up. My constituency is on the edge of the Chilterns, also one of the most beautiful parts of the country, and there is real concern there because the Chilterns generate wind. There is always a breeze coming through the valley, and people are very worried about the possible blight of the area.

I also want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson); it is not often that we say of Members across the Chamber that we are friends, but he and I are friends, and I am sad that he is leaving the House at the next election and not fighting his seat. He still has a lot of work to do, he is very young, and I do not really understand his decision, although I know that he has a commitment to his family. We have had this debate before, but he is an expert in this area—perhaps not an expert like the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), who has a doctorate in this field, but an expert on the ground in his community, arguing the points that he referred to earlier. Perhaps, as we get closer to the election, he will think again—but he is a stubborn man, so perhaps he will not.

Unlike many hon. Members, I do not have a long history of talking about green issues. I have been converted, not least by the work of my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey, but also by having two teenage daughters. Young people understand this whole area much better than we do. They really understand that they are going to inherit this Earth that we live on, and they have real concerns. As I go around the schools in my constituency, whether in the more affluent areas or on the more deprived estates, I hear the young people saying time and again that the environment and the future of this world that we live in is the most important thing to them. I always imagine that they think about whether the nightclubs are going to be open late, or what the fashion of the day might be, but when I sit and talk to them, they ask me, “Why aren’t you doing something about this? Why aren’t you protecting the environment that we live in? What’s the delay?” They say that there seems to be consensus in politics in this country and around there world that a catastrophe is coming down the railway lines, and ask “Why aren’t Governments of any description doing something about it?” I am very proud of those on my Front Bench—I pay tribute to the Liberal Democrats as well—because we have all come together on this issue and we are now moving forward. I am one of the converts who needed to come on board to bring this through.

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Some would argue that I have been a convert for a long time, because I am passionate about part of the environment—namely, the rivers and lakes of this country. That is because I am an angler. The fishermen of this country have protected more of the environment—certainly more of the rivers—than nigh on anyone else. The amount of money we pay for our licence fees and our bait, for example, makes it obvious that we are driving that economy forward. We are passionate about the rivers, canals and lakes of this country, but they are desperately under threat. I went fishing last weekend, and I have noticed a clear change in the river environment due to increased acidity. Invertebrates have a real problem with acidity, in the oceans as well as in our rivers.

I should also like to pay tribute to the Select Committee, which I have not heard mentioned this morning. It used to be the Trade and Industry Committee, and it is now the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee. The reports that it has produced over the years have been very helpful in driving these arguments forward. The Trade and Industry Committee’s report of 30 January 2007, “Turning Consumers into Producers” started the discussion, by pointing out that this is not an “us and them” situation, and that people can take part in the generation of energy in their own towns, villages, businesses and homes, so that this country can go forward.

I also declare an interest in that RES, one of this country’s great research establishments dealing with green and sustainable energy, is right on the edge of my constituency. The wind turbine that one sees when coming round the northern part of the M25 is about 50 ft outside it; it is actually in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), even though it is part of the Langleys, which are in mine. I have visited RES many times and I understand that the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, together with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, visited two weeks ago and looked at the fantastic research being done at this great establishment. Interestingly enough, the Business Secretary kindly called me to let me know that he would be in my constituency—but as the site is not located there, my office told him which MP he should call. That may seem a trivial point, but it is crucial when one thinks how important this place is. It is a leading world-renowned company in the drive for renewable energy, yet the Government did not know exactly where it was based, which was slightly worrying.

One huge benefit from the visit of those two Secretaries of the State was that it sent out message to the renewable energy industry. The attendance of those Secretaries of State two weeks before this Bill was presented to the House today sent out a signal that the Government were going to do something and remove some of the roadblocks. This Bill will remove some, although not all, of the roadblocks in the Government and the business community that have prevented us from going forward.

Whenever I visit RES, I am always made aware that we have some of the greatest research skills in the world and have developed some of the greatest products in the world, yet they are being used elsewhere rather than in this country, where they were developed. In many cases, taxpayers’ money has been used—quite rightly—on research and development, but we have not taken sufficient
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advantage of the energy efficient products that have been driven forward by those research skills. When I visited Sweden, I saw these products in use, and when I visited Canada 20 years ago, that country was using our technology, which is still not being used to drive forward energy efficiency here today.

When I speak to representatives of such companies, I hear that the real block is capacity. If these products could be sold with the knowledge that they would be allowed to go forward within communities, the whole thing would swing into action. At the moment, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) said, it is very expensive and difficult to get the equipment installed because the manufacturers do not have the capacity. I hope that the Bill will help to remove that block. It should be allowed to go forward into Committee; I hope that the Government will support it today.

11.23 am

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I will try not to detain the House, having heard the call to keep our comments brief, but I would like to touch on one or two issues.

I add my thanks and congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) not just for this Bill but for all his work on green issues. It is a long while since I last came to the House on a Friday to participate in debates on private Members’ Bills, which I hope demonstrates my commitment to this cause and my appreciation of my hon. Friend’s work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) referred to his being wrongly informed about a ministerial visit, which turned out not to be in his constituency. We often wonder where the Government are going, and I can inform my hon. Friend that I regularly receive letters from Ministers telling me that they are visiting my constituency, only to find that they are visiting another one. I sometimes fail to receive letters, on the other hand, when Ministers are visiting my constituency. That is by the by.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead also referred to RES—based close to his constituency—which is appealing against a refusal for a wind farm in my constituency, so perhaps I should not say any more about that. My hon. Friend will understand that the company is not always appreciated in the way he appreciates it.

I strongly endorse the argument that we need to make the planning rules easier, and I should like to pick up on the Minister’s intervention on the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) in which he mentioned permitted development orders on agricultural land. I do not want to introduce an element of dissent into today’s proceedings, but anyone hearing the Minister’s intervention would probably assume that he was saying that farmers had complete freedom to build where they want, but that is not the case.

Mr. Mike O'Brien rose—

Mr. Paice: Perhaps I may finish the point, after which I will, of course, allow the Minister to intervene.

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There are already considerable restrictions on what farmers are allowed to do. First, the permitted development order allows development only within the curtilage of the farm buildings or premises, not in open countryside; and, secondly, there are serious limits on how much extra building space is allowed. In some cases, farmers have to notify the local authority of their intent to build, so the opportunity for the community to intervene is effectively provided automatically.

Mr. O'Brien: I think that the hon. Gentleman has inadvertently misinterpreted what I said. I said that if the consultation resulted in permitted development being granted to landowners more generally, it would change the current situation as the hon. Gentleman described it. I mentioned a local community’s opportunity to intervene; the Bill asks for consultation if landowners are allowed greater permitted development than they currently have.

Mr. Paice: I happily accept the Minister’s comments, but that is the purpose of the consultation, and if the conclusion of that consultation is that landowners should have more freedom, it would seem that all the objectives had been met. I strongly suspect that the Minister is right that there would not be huge support for a completely free and open approach. The point reiterated in the clauses on domestic and non-domestic premises is that if we are to encourage microgeneration, we may have to accept some relaxation of the planning rules. We can all debate the extent of the relaxation, but the schedule, although applying only to wind turbines, is extremely relevant. I hope that the Minister and the Government will understand it and leave it in the Bill.

Let us consider the technology of the mobile phone industry as an example. When I first entered the House, those with mobile phones had to carry a car battery around with them. The advance in technology resulted partly from the fact that the then Conservative Government—I was glad to be a member—allowed some relaxation in the planning legislation governing the construction of masts.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth: I reiterate that it is not my or the Bill’s intention to enable landowners to do all sorts of things without reference to the local community. It is essential that proper safeguards are in place. The purpose of the review will be to see what can be done to enable the more rapid roll-out of new technologies in rural areas.

Mr. Paice: I am grateful for that clarification and I trust that the Minister has taken it into account; I look forward to hearing his response in a few moments.

My second main point is to emphasise the need for a swift introduction of the feed-in tariff. This morning’s debate is largely a matter of consensus, so now is not the time for huge criticisms, but I regret that it has taken so long to introduce the tariffs. It is several years since my colleagues and I advocated them; the sooner they come into force, the better. As the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) rightly said, it is not only about electricity. I shall come on in a few moments to anaerobic digestion, which, as I shall venture to say, has huge scope—but it will happen only if we have a feed-in tariff for gas as well as for electricity. We need that or some equivalent mechanism.

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Before moving on to that issue in more detail, let me pick up the point about the importance of decentralisation of the system and thus of local ownership, which interests many hon. Members. You and I, Mr. Deputy Speaker, share a current application, which straddles our constituency boundary. One reason it is opposed—there are many—is the fact that local people see nothing in it for them. The electricity disappears into the national grid and is gone; there is no local ownership. I am not suggesting that we break down the grid, but there needs to be a mechanism whereby local communities feel some benefit. Whether the development is private or the community owns it is secondary to whether communities see a direct benefit.

There is an argument that locally generated electricity reduces transmission loss. The more we can reduce transmission loss, the better. Even if electricity could be individually identified, which of course it cannot, the electricity generated by any wind farm would not necessarily go within 100 or 500 miles to be used. We cannot undertake such measurement, but if we could have not only a more properly decentralised system, but a decentralised way of accounting, so that people understood that they were buying equivalent to the energy generated by their local power source, there would be much less resistance to such projects.

The great importance of the feed-in tariff lies in microgeneration. Over the years, the Government have been rather wedded to ROCs—renewables obligation certificates. I do not pretend to know a huge amount about them, but they are not suitable for small-scale activity. They may be fine for large-scale renewable power sources—I reserve judgment, as I do not know enough to say—but they are certainly not adaptable for small scale, and it is so important that we move quickly to find a mechanism that is.

It is quite odd that we have got through nearly two hours of debate without anybody referring to the vexed issue of money and cost, but it is terribly important and needs to be included in this analysis. One reason investment in microgeneration is being held back is that microgeneration, for the person installing it for their own use, is often not viable, or the payback period may be very long. The kit they install, whatever the source of the renewable, will go on generating power even when everything is switched off at night. The feed-in tariff would give people an income from the power they generate but do not use.

Alan Simpson: That is a terribly important point and it is worth hanging a point of reference on it, which is the experience in Germany. Last year, the German Government evaluated the cost of introducing feed-in tariffs and how they need to be incorporated in domestic bills, set alongside the savings that Germany has made by transferring other, much less efficient subsidy systems. Feed-in tariffs have reduced household energy costs, rather than pushed them up. Would the hon. Gentleman like such an initiative to be replicated in the UK as part of the measures proposed in the Bill?

Mr. Paice: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. In a moment, I shall come to my own experience of the German perspective, having also been to look carefully at what the Germans are doing.

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