Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr. O'Brien: The intention is to deal with the bids that have come in. We are not reopening the scheme, but we have the additional funding of £45 million and we want to identify the best way of taking that forward. There was a problem about whether funding would be available for some of the applications. We have resolved that by bringing forward the £5 million. We now want to look at how the remaining part of that money would be best spent. That will be considered during the next few months. We hope that we will be in a position within a relatively short period—we are talking of only a small number of months—to publish the renewable energy strategy, and we hope then to be able to set out
8 May 2009 : Column 484
how we will deal with some of these issues. We need then to consult with the industry to ensure that it is satisfied that that is the right way to make progress.

Simon Hughes: The renewable energy strategy was originally to be announced in the spring. Will it be announced at least before the summer recess, or will it be in the spring as originally promised?

Mr. O'Brien: We intend to announce it by the summer break. We are working through some quite complex issues and I hope that we will be able not only to revitalise the broader renewables agenda and ensure that that is taken forward, but to revitalise the microgeneration agenda and ensure that that is taken forward. There is quite a bit more work still to do, and if we are to take this forward with the accelerating speed that I referred to, we need to ensure that some of these ideas are thought through. It will be before the summer, but I will not give a specific date at the moment.

Clause 1 is an interpretation clause, which I am fairly relaxed about, but it may require amendment to take account of subsequent changes. We can accommodate the clause, but minor amendments may be required.

Clause 2 frames the Bill, setting out its principal purpose, which is to promote green energy. In the Bill, green energy means energy generated from renewable or sustainable small-scale local sources, and energy efficiency measures. The Government are fully committed to promoting green energy and will continue to do so. During the past 12 months a considerable amount of work has been done on consultations to bring forward later this year the strategies to which I referred to help the UK to meet its share of the EU 2020 renewable targets, to ensure our energy security, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to play our part in tackling climate change.

As I said, this work will require a radical shift in reducing the consumption of energy and in the take-up of renewable and low-carbon energy technologies. Promotion of green energy and providing householders, communities and business with incentives and the information to play their part will be an integral part of the strategies that we will bring forward.

The Energy Act 2008 provides for the introduction of the feed-in tariff and a renewable heat incentive, so we now have the powers to bring forward effective incentives to encourage the take-up of microgeneration technologies. We still intend to consult this year and we hope to do so in the run-up to the summer on the detail of feed-in tariffs, and later in the year, perhaps at the turn of the year, we will consider the renewable heat incentive, so that we have a package of policies to revitalise take-up.

We will seek to retain clause 2, but it will be made clear that the definition of green energy relates only to this Bill, and we may need to tighten it slightly. As we have said, green energy is a term that is often used more widely, so we do not want to give it a legal definition that restricts it to microgeneration or more narrow aspects. However, we are happy in principle to retain the clause and to ensure that we have a definition with which the hon. Member for East Surrey agrees.

Clause 3 involves the revision of microgeneration strategy and requires the Secretary of State, within 12 months of the commencement of the section, to

8 May 2009 : Column 485

and, before doing so, to

from stakeholders.

According to the clause, the strategy should include measures to increase the number of microgeneration installations in existing buildings, financial and fiscal measures that will ensure the cost-effective of green energy and measures to promote the effective implementation of feed-in tariffs for small-scale generation of electricity established under part 2 of the Energy Act 2008.

The Government have already addressed most of issues detailed in the clause. For instance, work on “Heat Call for Evidence” and the heat and energy saving strategy shows that microgeneration heat technologies have a role to play in de-carbonising domestic heating; and we have said that the consultations on the renewable energy strategy and the heat and energy saving strategy will help to inform our decisions on how we support microgeneration. Given the parliamentary timetable, if the Bill is passed it will probably be enacted in about October, although that is very difficult to predict, and by then much of what it calls for will probably be well under way. The question is, can we include in the clause what we plan to do in any event? With a bit of redrafting, I think that we can. There is no massive difference between what we and the hon. Gentleman want, so, with a bit of redrafting, I think that we can get the clause into a mutually acceptable shape that has the broad support of this House and the other place. As part of our work over the summer, we believe that bringing forward a statement on our actions and policies will provide a lot of reassurance to the microgeneration industry.

The Bill also seeks to increase the number of installations on existing buildings by means of financial and fiscal incentives and measures to promote the effective implementation of feed-in tariffs. I have already indicated our position on feed-in tariffs, and we hope to consult on that in due course. However, we are reluctant to have a vague commitment to financial measures, so we want to be much more specific about what we will do. That is one matter on which we need discussions, because, as we know, once we put a measure into statute, all sorts of things can happen with people running off to the courts, saying, “Does it mean this or does it mean that?” We need to be very clear about what we mean by the provision, and, although I am not sure that there will be a great deal of difficulty with it, let us just ensure that we reach a position with which the Government and the hon. Gentleman are content. The feed-in tariffs provide a basis for moving forward on much of that work, and I hope that the renewable heat incentive does, too.

I must mention devolution, because, as the hon. Gentleman said, I need to clarify the Bill’s scope. He is quite right that the Bill applies to England and, therefore, does not have broader applicability, because, in relation to this clause, microgeneration encompasses the generation of not only electricity, which is a reserved matter, but renewable heat, which is a devolved matter. We believe that what the clause seeks to achieve could happen in the context of the renewable energy and the heat and energy saving strategies, and that a suitable amendment could be found to ensure that the strategy in the clause
8 May 2009 : Column 486
works alongside and within the context of the broader strategies. We are therefore prepared to support an amended clause to signal our commitment to microgeneration.

Clause 4 would commit the Government to carrying out a review of development orders with a view to extending permitted development to a range of renewable energy equipment installed on non-domestic premises, including agricultural land. I gather that the clause has the support of the National Farmers Union and the CLA, the Country Land and Business Association. Permitted development rights allow certain types of minor development to be carried out without specific planning consent from local planning authorities. Secondary legislation relating to the Town and Country Planning Act 1990—namely, the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995, as amended—sets out these rights. In May 2007, the Government set out in their White Paper “Planning for a Sustainable Future” their intention to extend those permitted development rights wherever possible, with the right safeguards in place—that is an important caveat.

The objective has been to unclog the planning system and encourage the generation of renewable energy by home owners and non-householders alike. The Killian Pretty review of the planning application system in November 2008 endorsed those ideas. One of its key recommendations for reforming the system to make it more efficient and proportionate was to reduce the number of minor applications that require full planning permission.

Following publication of the White Paper, the Government undertook four major reviews of permitted development. One considered the potential for extending permitted development rights to domestic microgeneration and to other non-domestic renewables. On the basis of the conclusions of the domestic review, we extended permitted development rights to a range of domestic equipment in April 2008. Subject to certain restrictions, home owners can now install solar panels, for example, without having to incur the cost and work involved in submitting a planning application. We want to do the same for businesses and institutions such as schools, hospitals and community groups. That is why we are considering the recommendations from the non-domestic review and we intend to conclude a set of proposals for consultation in the summer.

The clause makes special mention of agricultural land. I can confirm that special rights for agricultural installations of microgeneration equipment will be included in the Government’s proposals. The clause requires the Government to carry on with their intended programme of work and to report as soon as reasonably practical. We accept that. However, it may be possible to improve the clause. As I mentioned earlier, in April we introduced permitted development rights for a range of domestic equipment.

What we have not been able to do to date is include, within the fold of permitted development, the issue of micro wind turbines and air source heat pumps. The difficulty is that those technologies make a noise and have the potential for negative impact on others. In a moment, I will come to clause 5, which commits the Government to moving forward on those types of renewables. However, as a general point, pure permitted
8 May 2009 : Column 487
development may not always be the answer; there may be other options. There is a possible alternative to having to seek full planning permission by completing a planning application and to being able to proceed, by way of permitted development, without recourse to a planning authority. It is called prior approval.

Prior approval works on the basis that consent from a local authority is deemed to have been given if nothing is heard from that authority after a certain period. It is particularly of benefit to farmers, who can carry on their business with minimal recourse to their local authorities. We have been looking at the use of prior approval as well as other mechanisms that would match the level of control required to the type of development in question. I propose that, rather than simply considering the potential for permitted development, the clause should allow the Government to consider a range of planning options that will assist renewable energy equipment, including seeing whether we can find ways in which prior approval can help take the issues forward.

I return to the point that I raised with the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey. Local people should be able to object to a planning process if they feel concerns about a development of significance to their local community. I acknowledge the point made by the hon. Member for East Surrey when he said that he had no wish to prevent local communities from ensuring that they can raise genuine concerns. I entirely accept that point and hope that we can find a way of changing the clause so that those points can be taken on board.

Mr. Paice: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and for what he has just been saying. As he said, the prior approval process already exists in a number of areas. I suggest that the local planning authority, as the representative of the local community, already has the opportunity under prior approval to object if it feels that a full planning application is necessary.

Several of us have raised the issue of anaerobic digestion, which the Minister has not really mentioned, either in respect of the feed-in tariff for gas or of the planning issues for anaerobic digestion, especially in the context of agricultural farms. Will those considerations be included in the studies and reviews that he described?

Mr. O’Brien: On prior approval, one would hope that local authorities are representative and reflect the views of local communities but, at the same time, the local community should know that something is going on so that it can tell its local council that it has concerns. It is important to find the right way of doing this and I therefore support the suggestion in the Bill that it should be properly consulted on. I will be clear with the hon. Gentleman. I do not want merely a blanket development permit so that farmers and large landowners can decide that they are going to plonk something—perhaps including an anaerobic digestion plant, a biomass facility, or a range of other things—close to a local community that has objections to it. The planning process would not be able to take account of that. I do not think that that is what he wants, I know that it is not what the hon. Member for East Surrey wants, and it is certainly not what I want.

Mike Penning: Local residents are already concerned about the delegated powers that officers often use unless a development is called in by a local councillor. When
8 May 2009 : Column 488
this is discussed further, can we look carefully at the delegated powers that an officer already has and often uses? The information does not get out into the community and it does not know what is going on. We should let the councillors, not the officers, represent the people whom they are elected to represent.

Mr. O’Brien: That is a good point, but we need to be careful. Officers tend to inherit these delegated powers and councillors assume that there is not much that they can do about it, whereas they can do quite a lot about what they delegate to their officers and what they do not. It is the councillors’ responsibility to ensure that the officers are doing only what the council wants them to do, and if they think that there is an area where they should not have delegated powers, then they should not have them. However, the hon. Gentleman is right that we need to ensure that local communities are not subjected to something being put in by a landowner, the officers using their delegated powers, and the thing getting through before the local community even knows it is happening. That is not satisfactory, particularly if it is something that the local community would be concerned about.

I can tell the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) that anaerobic digestion would be included in the consultation.

Noise is an area of concern as regards ground source heat pumps and wind turbines, and we want to ensure that we consider how that is dealt with. We hope that we will be able to get a consultation out very shortly in the coming months. In all probability, that should be well under way before the Bill is taken through. The consultation that we undertook last year related to 37 dB, but we need to be much more ambitious in this case. I have spoken to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), and we are content to consult, among other things, on 45 dB, which is what the industry has been asking for. There are concerns about this; let there be no mistake about that. We also have to take account of the fact that the World Health Organisation is looking into noise levels, and that needs to be factored into how we would achieve this.

In a sense, this issue has been hanging around for too long. It needs to be resolved, and my hon. Friend and I want it resolved as soon as it reasonably can be. We should therefore be looking to oblige the Government not so much to consult as to legislate, perhaps within six months of the Bill going through. It would be more realistic if clause 5 were to refer to granting permitted development rights within six months, not three months, of the Act being passed.

The clause refers to the schedule, which sets various conditions relating to microgeneration. The Government consider that the schedule contains inappropriate details, and we cannot agree to it as it is, but some parts of it have merit. Those parts, or at least the issues raised in the schedule, can be included in the consultation. However, we will ask that the schedule as it currently stands be removed.

Clause 6 requires any increase

a green energy measure

8 May 2009 : Column 489

to be

on that property. I shall explain what is already being done. Council tax is a property tax, based primarily on the value of a person’s home. There are no plans to link the level of council tax that a person has to pay to how energy efficient their property is. I am told that making changes or improvements to a property that increase its value cannot result in a higher council tax band until the property is sold or any general revaluation of properties takes place. An increase in the band will take place only if the alterations add sufficient value to the property to move it into a higher band.

The value of a dwelling depends on a number of factors, including its size, lay-out, character and locality. Generally, any improvements made to a property will not be taken into account for banding purposes unless, as I said, the property is sold. Even then, the alterations will not necessarily mean an increase in the council tax band. That will happen only if the alterations have added sufficient value—reflecting 1991 values—to push the property into a higher band. Some local authorities, with assistance from British Gas, have provided a one-off rebate on council tax bills to council tax payers who have taken certain measures to improve energy efficiency in their homes.

Microgeneration equipment is already ignored in the assessment of rateable value for non-domestic rates until the next revaluation. The exemption was introduced on 1 October 2008 and will also apply to any 2010 rating list, so that equipment fitted between 1 April 2010 and 31 March 2015 will not be assessed for rates until 1 April 2015. I am told that it is unlikely that fitting microgeneration equipment at business premises would lead to a reassessment of their rateable value. Nevertheless, the exemption was introduced to remove uncertainty and provide clarity and reassurance to businesses working to reduce their carbon footprint.

The Government therefore do not believe that clause 6 would make much difference in practice. The council tax system already disregards improvements until a property is sold, and then they only matter if they add sufficient value to push the property into a higher council tax band. Such an impact would rarely result from the presence of microgeneration equipment. The legislative framework for council tax is complex and lengthy, and it is dealt with separately in different legislation. We see no merit in adding to that complexity, so the Government will not support the clause being in the Bill. I hope that to get the rest of the Bill through we can reach agreement that the clause be deleted, given
8 May 2009 : Column 490
the background information that I have just provided that there are some safeguards already in place that will hopefully help the microgeneration industry.

I am conscious of the time, and I want to give the hon. Member for East Surrey the opportunity to respond. I thank him very much for bringing the Bill to the House and hope that it will have a successful passage based upon my comments about the Government’s position. We would like to get a Bill like this through. I know that the hon. Gentleman would, and we know from the debate that most Members who have spoken would. I believe that that broadly reflects the views of the House as a whole, so I hope that with a good deal of collaborative work in the coming month or so, we will be able to take the Bill through Committee, amend it and bring it out the other side successfully.

Next Section Index Home Page