Previous SectionIndexHome Page

22 Oct 2002 : Column 211—continued

Malcolm Bruce: Will the Minister explain whether he is in favour of the new electricity trading arrangements that the Government set up? If so, and if that drives electricity down to the extent of making nuclear power stations uneconomic, do the Government believe that they should ignore the market and intervene? If that is the case, what sort of broad energy strategy do they have? Would not it be helpful to tell us when and why they will next intervene in the market?

Mr. Wilson: A detached observer might believe that the hon. Gentleman was trying to change the subject from Liberal Democrats' actions as opposed to their theory.

Let us go to Hereford. At Prime Minister's questions last week, the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) famously called for a public inquiry into a wind farm that has not even been proposed. That is spectacular.

I often take hon. Members north to Lewis in the Western Isles, but tonight I want to take them down south to Lewes in Sussex, home to a one-man Liberal Democrat wind machine, and a Liberal Democrat-controlled council. Again, we look for leadership and, in that instance, we find it, albeit in unexpected form. The Liberal Democrats have banned solar power because it does not look nice. That is extraordinary but true. They have ordered Lady Wedgwood, a public-spirited individual as far as I can tell, to remove her solar panels because they do not suit the ambience of the area. Moreover, they have introduced a blanket ban on other solar panels in that part of Lewes because it is a conservation area. We now face a new Liberal Democrat pressure group: not NIMBYs but NIMCAs—not in my conservation area.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Wilson: No. If the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) were here, I would give way to him. I believe that Lady Wedgwood speaks for the nation when she writes, XI am very concerned about saving the environment. It is something everyone should be interested in, especially considering what has happened in Lewes with the flooding. I think the whole thing is ridiculous." So do I.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): I have very much enjoyed the Minister's tour de force, but I ask him not to omit Wales. The Liberal Democrats often make great play of renewable energy except in the Welsh Assembly, where they consistently oppose applications for wind farms.

Mr. Wilson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Doubtless the tour could be extended ad infinitum. I welcome further contributions. However, I am making a serious point. There is no point in standing up in the Chamber and saying that we should get rid of

22 Oct 2002 : Column 212

nuclear power, oil, coal and so on without being prepared to will the means for an alternative. Time and again, local pressure groups, often with support from the precise people who declare most loudly that they favour renewables in principle, vote against them and block projects so that two thirds are never realised. Then they have the cheek to come here and say that our targets are not sufficiently ambitious.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): The Minister is making a good cut-out-and-keep speech, which will certainly be in my back pocket the next time the Liberals come round in Ceredigion. He knows that the Liberals opposed the Cefn Croes application, which was for the largest wind farm in both England and Wales. He approved it, though not in the democratic way that I would have liked. Nevertheless, the application was approved with my support and against the opposition of Liberal Democrats in Ceredigion.

Will the Minister move on to deal with the serious point at the heart of the debate? He must explain the justification for the #650 million British Energy subsidy, how the money will be returned to the Government and whether further demands from British Energy—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman's intervention is too long.

Mr. Wilson: I am unlikely to forget Cefn Croes because the Bishop of Hereford, no less—I do not know whether he is a Liberal Democrat—

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): Yes, he is.

Mr. Wilson: He compared me with the Taliban destroying the statues.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): The Minister appears to be saying that there should be a fundamental review of the planning system. [Interruption.] We should have a system whereby we can identify suitable places for renewable energy—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

Mr. Williams: We should have such a system rather than speculative applications that are based simply on profit and do not pay due attention to the application's environmental aspects.

Mr. Wilson: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We must work together to find ways in which to overcome Liberal Democrat opportunism.

I dispute the view of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) that I am not making a serious point. It is immensely serious. I am drawing attention to the contrast between words and actions. Liberal Democrats' words on other subjects such as nuclear power are meaningless if they are not matched by actions that give them at least a hypothetical basis of rationality.

Gregory Barker: I want to lead the Minister to the serious point, namely the #650 million bail-out of

22 Oct 2002 : Column 213

British Energy. I presume that the money met the Government's famous best value criteria. At what colossal subsidy will it become uneconomic to bail it out—#800 million, #1 billion, #2 billion? What price will he not pay to keep British Energy afloat?

Mr. Wilson: What we put in place lasts until 29 November. Before then, we must decide how to take matters forward after all the discussions that are taking place with the company. However, to characterise our actions as bailing out British Energy is inaccurate. First, the money is a loan [Laughter.] That is an important point. The bond gives us priority over bondholders or shareholders if the company becomes insolvent. However, we are motivated not by bailing out British Energy as a company, but by the safe operation of nuclear power stations and by maintaining security of supply. In spite of the rubbish that we heard earlier, we need nuclear power. Whether we should do so or not is an historic argument, but the idea that any political party in the House could blithely say XLet British Energy go to the wall" is preposterous.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Wilson: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell).

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Does my hon. Friend agree with the British Energy brief, which states:

Is British Energy right to say that?

Mr. Wilson: I am sorry. I lost the earlier part of my hon. Friend's intervention in the hubbub.

Mr. Dalyell: The British Energy brief makes the important statement that:

I am asking the Minister—I do not know the answer to this question—whether British Energy is right in making that important statement.

Mr. Wilson: I am not going to give my hon. Friend a definitive answer to that. What I will say, however, will put into perspective some of the points that have been made. I have no doubt that it would cost more to close nuclear power stations than it costs to keep them going, and, in keeping them going, we also have that 25 per cent. of the nation's electricity that we need to keep the lights on.

Mr. Chaytor: If we are now moving from the knockabout section of the debate to the serious section, may I ask the Minister about his reference to the 30 per cent. of renewables applications that are turned down? Is it not the case that that figure applies only to onshore wind farm applications, which form only a small part of the whole gamut of renewable energy technologies?

Mr. Wilson: It was not one third, but two thirds of the projects approved under the non-fossil fuel obligation that never came to fruition. By definition, most of them

22 Oct 2002 : Column 214

were for onshore wind farms. Now that offshore wind farms are coming forward, we are, of course, beginning to hear objections to them. I quoted the example of the Solway Firth site. The only reason that people were in favour of them before was that no one was suggesting them. As soon as sites were suggested, all sorts of interest groups came out of the woodwork—some of them perfectly legitimate, such as civil aviation, Ministry of Defence interests and other maritime users. It is not true that the conditions exist along most of the coastline for offshore wind farms. Furthermore, it is not true that the applications will automatically have an easy ride.

I believe that wind farms have a huge contribution to make, but they are still at the developmental stage, and their technology is not yet fully commercial. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) probably noticed, we have approved two grants of #10 million each over the past two weeks, for the North Hoyle development and for Scroby Sands. I hope that those two examples are the first of many. Okay, most of these are wind projects at present, but that is not because of any preference. It is because, although the other kinds of project have been around for a long time, it is very hard to get them up to a level at which they can be commercially viable.

Next Section

IndexHome Page