6 Nov 2012 : Column 213WH

Onshore Wind Turbines (Lincolnshire)

4.29 pm

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford .and North Hykeham) (Con): Thank you very much, Mr Chope, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure and a privilege to serve, for I think the first time, under your chairmanship. It is also a huge pleasure and privilege to be joined today by so many colleagues from throughout Lincolnshire.

In opening, I venture to suggest that this is perhaps a timely debate. I want to make it clear to the House that I applied for it well before the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), made comments on this subject last week with which so many of us agreed. Perhaps the strength of this coalition—not its weakness—has been its ability to allow those of us with different views to come together at a time when the country required strong Government to deal with the appalling legacy that we were bequeathed by our predecessors. That appalling legacy may not be the subject of today’s debate, but it is of course a fact.

The full truth about climate change, which is inescapably taking place, and the role played by mankind in our changing weather patterns, which is less clear, has yet to emerge. What is clear is that the risks are sufficient that, for the sake of future generations, we ought not to ignore them. How we tackle our over-dependence on fossil fuels is another question, however.

Whether one is a believer or a sceptic when it comes to man’s responsibility for climate change, we all ought to be able to agree that moving towards renewable sources of energy is beneficial, not only in reducing emissions but in ensuring our future energy security, particularly when we have passed peak oil and when fossil fuel supplies will inevitably become scarcer in the future. I do not doubt that by diversifying the nation’s energy mix we will move towards a cleaner and more sustainable energy portfolio in the future, with greater security of supply. If correctly placed—I repeat, if correctly placed—onshore wind can perhaps play a part in that process.

However, as hon. Members from all parties will know, many parts of rural Lincolnshire are affected by hugely unpopular decisions and proposals for onshore wind turbines—an issue that all of us here today have been contacted about by constituents on numerous occasions. Lincolnshire MPs are very lucky to live in and represent an area with beautiful countryside, but it also seems, regrettably, to be an area ripe for the construction of turbines, perhaps because of our large open spaces.

Currently, 10 wind projects are in operation in Lincolnshire, comprising 93 turbines in total, with a further three turbines being constructed. Thirteen projects are in the planning stage, with proposals for another 94 turbines.

Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): All Lincolnshire MPs are very supportive of my hon. and learned Friend in his endeavours. Does he think it a cruel paradox and irony that while thousands of Lincolnshire folk are being forced into fuel poverty because they have to pay extra on their fuel bills—and we are not a high-wage area—a few very rich farmers are being awarded sums of up to £250,000 by the

6 Nov 2012 : Column 214WH

taxpayer for doing nothing other than irritating their neighbours, and are also making no contribution to the economy?

Stephen Phillips: I have considerable sympathy with the point my hon. Friend makes; indeed, I will come on to the subsidies provided by the Government to those who go forward with these proposals. However, I think we can all agree that it is certainly right that those subsidies have to be kept under constant review.

Karl McCartney (Lincoln) (Con): I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend, and neighbour, on securing this debate. Does he agree that the point he was making, which has just gone out of my mind, regarding our area of Lincolnshire—I have completely forgotten what I was going to say.

Mr Leigh: My hon. Friend should just say he is against wind farms.

Karl McCartney: Well, many of us in Lincolnshire are against wind farms, and obviously the urban area that I represent—Lincoln—will be affected by any turbines that are put up in the rural areas around Lincoln.

Stephen Phillips: My hon. Friend’s opposition to wind farms that are not supported by local communities is extremely well known, not only in Lincolnshire but in this House. I also oppose such wind farms, and I know that many Conservative colleagues who represent other constituencies in Lincolnshire also oppose them.

The nature of our county inevitably means that turbines have a larger impact on residents in Lincolnshire than they perhaps do in other areas. Quite apart from anything else, these huge structures—some of them greatly overtop the height of Lincoln cathedral, which, I might add, is the most beautiful cathedral in England—can be seen for great distances on all sides around the county. Constituents who live near and far from proposed sites are thus properly concerned that even a small number of turbines have an overwhelming, disproportionate and oppressive visual impact, and they are often understandably worried about the effect of turbines on the value of their properties. That is to leave aside the health concerns about wind farms, which are too often brushed under the carpet. Many people within and outside Lincolnshire are concerned about the possibility of sleep disturbance at night, due to the noise of the blades, and the effects of shadow flicker and strobing during the day. The “whoosh whoosh” noise causes some people even to move home—when, of course, they can find buyers.

Many colleagues in the House representing rural communities will have encountered similar concerns, and there is a lingering doubt in my mind, as there surely is in the minds of others: that onshore wind is yet another example of an urban majority ignoring the concerns of those of us who have chosen to make our lives in rural Britain.

However, like all Members in this House, I have no direct responsibility for planning, and while I am perfectly prepared to support onshore wind where it has the backing of the communities it will most affect, too often I feel unable to protect and represent properly constituents who feel differently. As an MP, and like so

6 Nov 2012 : Column 215WH

many of my constituents, I therefore remain concerned about the planning process for applications for onshore wind developments, and it is on that issue that I primarily wish to focus my remarks today.

As I have already said, although we in this House have no direct influence on the planning process, which is of course perfectly proper, we have a responsibility for the framework within which decisions are taken. It seems to me that that framework is either broken or, at the very least, lacking in transparency. Too often, local concerns are overridden, even when local people are supported by their councils and councillors. Unpopular planning decisions are taken by inspectors with no knowledge of those local concerns, and over the heads of the councillors that local people elected to represent them and, indeed, to take planning decisions.

Like all of us, I always do my best to ensure that constituents’ views are taken into account, but often that is simply not enough. The steady flow of correspondence about these applications is matched only by complaints about feeling powerless to affect decisions that too often simply ignore what local people want.

The crux of the problem, which the Minister needs to engage with, is that I and seemingly most of my constituents are simply unsure where the balance lies between this Government’s laudable commitment to local power over planning, and the commitment to renewable energy targets to which we are bound. Although I join my colleagues from all parties in praising the Government’s efforts to bring the planning process down to a local level to give people more of a voice in development that affects them, it remains entirely unclear to me how this admirable aim fits with the goal of increasing the proportion of electricity we generate by renewable means. Consequently, I would like to hear from the Minister a commitment on behalf of his Department to publish full and accurate guidance on how those competing aims will be reconciled within a much simplified and localised planning system. That guidance cannot come too soon.

It is not just those who oppose development who are confused; even developers are unsure how the balance works in this area. RenewableUK, a representative body for many developers, says there is

“a lack of guidance on how national policies should be applied at the local and neighbourhood level.”

It is in everyone’s interest that such guidance be forthcoming—and soon.

However that may be, the problem remains that many of our constituents who object to wind turbine proposals will continue to feel out-gunned and out-argued by the developers, who have their teams of expensive consultants. I venture to suggest that, so far, the balance has swung in favour of what most of us consider an uneconomic technology—at least, uneconomic without the huge subsidies that are paid—and there is a general suspicion that if energy companies and developers push hard enough and spend enough on appeals, they will always be able to override the objections of local residents.

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): My hon. and learned friend is making a powerful argument. East Lindsey district council is considering an application

6 Nov 2012 : Column 216WH

for an extension to a wind farm at Newton Marsh, near Tetney, which is just over the border from my constituency. Residents in Humberston and members of the Cleethorpes tourist trade oppose that application. Does he agree that we have a great opportunity in north-east Lincolnshire to attract business to investing in offshore wind, and that all subsidies should be directed to offshore rather than onshore wind?

Stephen Phillips: I agree with my hon. Friend. Far fewer people are opposed to offshore wind, although we need to grapple with the problem of transmission. Offshore wind does not cause the problems for our constituents that onshore wind does. If we are to go down the route of having more wind technology, we need to have most of it offshore.

I appreciate that none of us in this House can do anything about the relative wealth of energy companies compared with that of local residents’ groups. The short and simple point for the Minister is that my constituents too often feel that they are not being listened to, and I share their view. I make it clear that that is not nimbyism, nor should that be suggested. In this debate and previously in the House, I have made clear, as have most of those with whom I correspond on the issue, the importance of diversifying our energy mix both to reduce our impact on the environment and to bolster our energy security. If we are to do that successfully, it is vital to take people with us and not to ride roughshod over the feelings and concerns of those who live near proposed turbine sites.

We run the risk, if the issue is not dealt with, or not dealt with well, of being seen to revert to the kind of centralised planning decisions that the Localism Act 2011, which we all supported, was designed to consign to history. For that reason, if no other, the Minister needs to know that we all want greater clarity than presently exists on how such tensions are to be addressed. Since the problem cannot be ignored, our generation and this Government must ask whether the focus on onshore wind is the right way forward.

Even in a county such as Lincolnshire, the very nature of wind makes it an unpredictable source of power. Technologies to cope with the problems of intermittent supply are under development and are being improved. However, there is no question but that existing turbines have to be supported by other power sources to ensure constancy of supply. Notwithstanding the views of many Liberal Democrat colleagues, to whom I am perfectly prepared to listen, it remains of grave concern to many that there is no short-term solution other than the nuclear one, and that we are failing to devote either resources or political support to making what I regard as an unanswerable case.

The Government must—there are no two ways about it—address properly the subsidies that, in reality, are the only thing making onshore wind sustainable or, for that matter, attractive. Certainly, those subsidies are leading to all the applications for turbines across Lincolnshire. The cut in the relevant subsidy earlier this year was welcome, but I know that many remain concerned that it is too large and the cost too great. From April 2002 to February 2012, the total renewables obligation subsidy amounted to more than £8.2 billion, of which onshore wind received about £2.4 billion.

6 Nov 2012 : Column 217WH

Yet providing those incentives—paid for through the higher energy bills that are of such concern to many wage earners in Lincolnshire, who do not have the sort of wages that others have—has encouraged developments that are not properly sited and which would plainly be unviable on purely commercial terms. Distorting markets, however laudable the aims, has never been a route to sustainable policy development or policy application. The Minister and his colleagues plainly need to grapple with that, and I urge him to do so.

No one would suggest that wind is the whole solution to our energy needs, but as I hope I have made clear, however much we are concerned, many of us are prepared to see it as part of a sustainable energy mix, provided that we can take with us those most affected by its generation. Future projects need to be in the right location and supported by local residents. If that does not happen, we will have got the approach completely wrong.

Let me clearly tell the Minister what the planning system must ensure. First, it needs to encourage projects in the right locations, which are likely to be where there is minimal impact on people’s lives or on the natural environment. In that regard, surely minimum separation distances are appropriate, and perhaps the Minister can say whether that is the case. Secondly, the planning system needs to ensure sustainability, which it cannot do while huge and uneconomic subsidies remain. Thirdly, it needs to engage with and respect the views of the constituents we are here to represent. Although they all need continuity of power supply, that should not be at the expense of their health and peace of mind.

The Minister may or may not be prepared to accept all of that from me today. Even if he is not, I tell him that the debate is moving in one direction only: the one in which the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings, has begun to steer it—a task in which I am, as ever, only too happy to assist.

4.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Don Foster): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I am particularly delighted that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) has secured this debate and that my other hon. Friends have come to show their support for the concerns that he has raised on behalf of, collectively, their constituents in Lincolnshire. He has raised several important issues, including subsidies and the clarity of the current planning system, and he has offered some thoughts about the improvements we need to make. He has also discussed how his constituents and those of my other hon. Friends might benefit more from any wind farms that achieve planning permission and go ahead.

I will address all those points, but first I want to thank my hon. and learned Friend for setting the context of the debate. Not only now but, as I know from having studied the record, in previous discussions, he had made absolutely clear the importance of having a more effective mix of energy sources in this country, of increasing our reliance on renewables and of developing renewable supplies such as onshore wind. It is not necessary for me to detail all the arguments, because he has done that

6 Nov 2012 : Column 218WH

very eloquently. He recognises that to have energy security in this country—to ensure that we can keep the lights on—we must have such developments.

My hon. and learned Friend has raised planning issues, particularly in relation to Lincolnshire. As hon. Members will be aware, the geography of Lincolnshire is such that there is a particular interest in wind farms. People in his and neighbouring constituencies therefore have many concerns about the impact of wind farms on the area in relation to the tourist trade and house prices. Some people even question the effectiveness of wind turbines.

My hon. and learned Friend’s comments about subsidies are crucial. He recognises that action has already been taken to reduce subsidies, and I give him an absolute assurance that as the cost of technologies gradually falls and we become more efficient at developing them, as we expect, the level of subsidy will be kept permanently under review and that I expect to see further reductions over time.

Mr Leigh: Is there not another reason to reduce subsidies? I understand that, with the applications that are in the pipeline, we are en route to fulfilling our commitments. If it is the case that we have already met our obligations, surely it would be ridiculous to load extra money on to people’s fuel bills? Now is the time to plan ahead for reducing subsidies, is it not?

Mr Foster: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I have to tell him that I am not the Minister with expertise in that area, but I will draw his point to the attention of the Energy and Climate Change Ministers, who will perhaps write to him about it. We acknowledge, as I hope my hon. Friend does, that onshore wind is one of the more cost-effective and established renewable technologies. As we move to new and cleaner energy sources, it is important that electricity consumers do not, as he said, have to pay more than is necessary to decarbonise UK electricity supplies, which is why we are reducing the subsidy. We have to ensure energy security so that consumers are not subject to the vagaries of spot market prices or international tensions.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham raised the issue of the present planning system, so it might be helpful if I set out not only where we are, but where we will be able to go. The energy national policy statements, which were approved by the House on 18 July 2011, set out the national policy against which proposals for major energy projects will be assessed by the national infrastructure directorate in the Planning Inspectorate—PINS—including those for onshore wind farms of more than 50MW in England and Wales.

The crucial point is that PINS must also have regard to any local impact report submitted by the relevant local authority. During the examination period, interested parties, including members of the public, will have an opportunity to comment on the application. Following an application, PINS will report its recommendation to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, who will take the final decision. The energy national policy statements are also likely to be a material consideration in decision making on relevant smaller renewable energy applications that fall under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.

6 Nov 2012 : Column 219WH

None of that, however, gives anyone an excuse for building wind farms in the wrong places, where there are unacceptable impacts on communities. I cannot say it more clearly than that. That is why our national planning policy framework makes it clear that local authorities should design their policies to ensure that adverse impacts from wind farm developments, including cumulative landscape and visual impacts—another point that my hon. and learned Friend made—are addressed satisfactorily, and it is why the framework states that applications for renewable energy developments, such as wind turbines, should be approved only if the impacts are, or can be made, acceptable.

We are committed to safeguarding the natural and local environment, and we have made that clear in the national planning policy framework, which protects valued landscapes. To ensure that the views of local people count, our planning reforms reinforce the importance of local plans. The Government’s aim is for every area to have a clear local plan, consistent with the national planning policy framework, which sets out local people’s views on how they wish their community to develop, against which planning applications and planning appeals will be judged.

Because we are clear in national planning policy that the cumulative impacts of renewable energy development should be considered, planning decisions on wind turbines are not taken in isolation from the local context. Decisions on planning applications for wind farms should take into account the combined impacts of developments and be underpinned by the environmental safeguards set out in the national planning policy framework. My hon. and learned Friend will be well aware that the development of local plans is therefore critical, and the most useful thing we can do is ensure that right across Lincolnshire local plans are put in place, because when they are, the level of protection that he and his colleagues seek is provided. Our approach as set out in the national planning policy framework, which allows local councils to identify suitable areas for renewable energy within those plans, is the one that we think preferable.

Regarding site-by-site decisions, the current approach of considering each proposal on its individual merits within the context of the local council’s development plan is already well established. It enables a flexible and tailored approach to be taken to each proposal. Decisions are made on a site-by-site basis, which means that the impacts of each proposal can be considered in the individual context. That enables impacts such as noise and shadow flicker to have tailor-made assessments using recognised methodologies, rather than being judged against some arbitrary separation distance, for which some people in Lincolnshire have been arguing. We think that a site-by-site approach is preferable because it enables the impact on the surrounding landscape to be considered and topography to be taken into account. It also means that it is possible to take into account such things as ambient noise levels and any future technological advances that further reduce the impact of turbines.

My hon. and learned Friend referred to planning inspectors’ decisions. If applications are refused locally and taken to appeal, they will be judged by an independent planning inspector. Although it is inappropriate for me

6 Nov 2012 : Column 220WH

to comment specifically on any individual development proposal, I appreciate the strength of feeling that wind farm developments can give rise to, and how local residents must feel when a planning inspector’s appeal decision gives the go-ahead to a proposal they have opposed.

As I have said, onshore wind, along with other renewable sources, plays a role in contributing to our energy security and our low-carbon goals, but the Government are clear that meeting our energy goals is no excuse for building wind turbines in the wrong places. I remind my hon. and learned Friend that planning inspectors determine planning appeals in accordance with the development plan for the area, unless material considerations indicate otherwise. In reaching a decision, the inspector will take into account all the relevant material and planning considerations, including local community views and the national planning policy framework. That is why I stress to him and his colleagues that getting local plans in place for the whole of Lincolnshire is crucial, in conjunction, obviously, with local communities.

I want to pick up two other points that my hon. and learned Friend made, first on localism in relation to our renewable energy targets. It is important to remember that through the Localism Act 2011, the Government are placing decision making back in the hands of local communities and their councils. It is the Government’s policy, as set out in the coalition agreement, to revoke the existing regional spatial strategies outside London, and we are making good progress in that respect.

Stephen Phillips: This Government have rightly abolished those disastrous spatial strategies, which were set up by the previous Government. My right hon. Friend represents the constituency of Bath, but does he agree that utter contempt is being demonstrated here for the people of Lincolnshire? Not a single Labour Member is present, nor has the party put up an Opposition spokesman to deal with the concerns of the people of Lincolnshire. Does the Minister agree that that demonstrates that Labour, along with its ridiculous spatial strategies, does not give a brass farthing about the people of Lincolnshire?

Mr Foster: Not only is my hon. and learned Friend here and eloquently representing the concerns of his Lincolnshire constituents, but he is flanked by my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) and for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), who are doing exactly the same thing, which demonstrates that on this issue, and no doubt on many others, his party is standing up for constituents, and all power to their elbow—with the exception of places where members of my party are standing against them, when I might look for a somewhat different outcome.

I want to pick up one other crucial point that my hon. and learned Friend raised, and that is community benefit. We are as a Government keen to explore how our approach to onshore wind can be more localist. There are many examples, such as Baywind in Cumbria and Westmill farm in Oxfordshire, where local people receive financial returns from wind farms, but in many cases local communities have not so far enjoyed the benefits of the developments. That is why the Government are pursuing proposals for local authorities to be able to benefit by, for example, retaining all the business rates paid by new renewable energy projects such as wind

6 Nov 2012 : Column 221WH

farms. I think that that would bring some comfort to my hon. and learned Friend. Such measures are being taken forward in the Local Government Finance Bill, which is currently before Parliament, and which, subject to Royal Assent, will come into effect in April next year.

My hon. and learned Friend should also be aware that the Department of Energy and Climate Change has recently launched a call for evidence on onshore wind, which will seek, among other things, evidence on how communities can have even more say over hosting onshore wind farms and how wind farms could deliver greater economic benefits to communities. It will consider, for example, how wind farm developers consult with local communities about their plans, how the local economy can gain, and whether there are innovative ways of benefiting local energy consumers, for example, by offsetting electricity bills. Those are all measures on which we are keen to hear the views of the public, and in particular the views of people in Lincolnshire and of

6 Nov 2012 : Column 222WH

my hon. and learned Friend as the representative of his constituents. I urge him to submit his ideas as quickly as possible, because the deadline is 15 November—some nine days away. I hope that he will get his thinking cap on, and get into discussions with his colleagues and the community he represents.

There is an appetite for onshore wind in this country. Two thirds of the public believe that it is a way forward, as part of our energy mix. The Government believe that if we are going to have wind farms they have to be sited correctly, and my hon. and learned Friend is right to raise concerns about cases in which he believes that is not happening. We hope that with increased consultation with the community and increased powers for local people, such cases will not arise in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.