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Wind Farms (Northamptonshire)

Volume 495: debated on Tuesday 30 June 2009

May I place on record my thanks to Mr. Speaker for permitting me to introduce this debate on planning applications for wind farms in Northamptonshire and in particular in my constituency? I welcome the Minister to his place and I hope that he will take my points on board.

I should first say that the debate is not about opposition to wind farms, although a lot of my constituents do oppose them—they do not regard them as the best way to secure power generation in future, and regard them as unsightly and unwelcome, particularly in areas of attractive, open countryside. There are also huge doubts about the energy efficiency of wind farms, given that many operate at only a quarter of their potential capacity. The debate is also not about nimbyism. A lot of my constituents are in favour of alternative sources of power generation and renewable energy. Many like wind farms and want to see more of them. Rather, the debate is about coming up with a sensible planning policy for the borough of Kettering so that the people of Kettering can play their part in promoting renewable energy without seeing their local countryside covered in a plethora of wind turbines.

We have in the borough of Kettering a wind farm at Burton Wold. There are 10 turbines, which generate 20 MW of electricity. That is enough to power 10,000 homes in the borough, which is somewhere between a quarter and third of the local population. Not everyone is in favour of the Burton Wold wind farm, but many are—it is fair to say, on balance, that it enjoys popular support from my constituents, in particular from the residents of Burton Latimer, which is the nearest town. Local schoolchildren have given each of the turbines a name and the Burton Wold Wind Farm company makes a valuable contribution each year to town council funds to help local projects in the community. On balance, it is a very popular wind farm. It is so popular that planning permission has been granted for it to be extended from 10 to 17 turbines. It is one of the closest large-scale wind farms to the capital.

Under the Government’s current guidelines, much of the promotion of wind energy is done through regional spatial strategies. RSS8, for the east midlands, gives the county of Northamptonshire a target for large-scale wind farm generating capacity of 12 MW. At one point, the draft RSS contained a target to double the 2010 target by 2026, but that did not survive into the final version, as I understand it. The county’s target for wind generating capacity is 12 MW by next year, but the existing Burton Wold wind farm already generates 20 MW, and if the proposed extension goes ahead—it already has permission—it would increase to 34 MW. Northamptonshire already generates way above the target set in the RSS but there were, at the last count, 16 new applications for wind farms in Northamptonshire, most of which would be along the A14 corridor between the A1 and the M1. Not all would be in my constituency, but a considerable proportion would be there.

There is a proposal for four wind turbines between Hanging Houghton and Brixworth. Originally, the application was for six, but two have been withdrawn owing to their proximity to the Sywell aerodrome and the potential danger to aircraft. There was also an application for two turbines at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Brixworth, but that was withdrawn because of safety concerns. There is a proposal for seven wind turbines at the old RAF Harrington base near Harrington and Draughton—the application is due to be considered soon—and there could be an application for four wind turbines at Great Cransley near Mawsley, although there is question mark over that because of its proximity to the Sywell aerodrome. There is a proposal for seven wind turbines that would be a staggering 126.5 m tall at Kelmarsh. For the uninitiated, Nelson’s column is 52 m tall and the Northampton lift tower, which is a well known local landmark, is 127 m. The Kelmarsh wind farm is for seven structures of almost the same height as the lift tower. There is also a proposal for seven turbines between the villages of Rushton and Pipewell, which would be very close to Kettering.

The applications are causing widespread unease and consternation among my constituents, many of whom are not against renewable energy and are very supportive of the existing wind farm at Burton Wold. However, they do not want lots of wind turbines and wind farms spread all over their local countryside. At the moment, an effective planning policy from the Government to enable a sensible way forward is absent.

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman, but he should consider himself lucky. In Montgomeryshire, we have applications for more than 700 enormous 450 ft turbines. Leaving aside the questionable benefit of such a variable power source, does he agree that the Government seem to enjoy the fashionableness of being seen to act on the environment, even though that can cause other forms of environmental damage and disruption, not least that associated with the tremendous efforts needed for the construction of the turbines?

I have a lot of sympathy for the hon. Gentleman and his constituents, and the plight and blight that they face from large-scale wind farms. It seems that the location of wind farms comes down to very site-specific proposals. Sometimes, in areas such as Burton Wold, it works; it is popular and it makes sense. Such facilities can enjoy support not only from the planning system, but from local people. In other areas, such as Montgomeryshire, they might not attract such support and would be very unwelcome. I think the Government are being over-prescriptive in forcing through such a rapid expansion of a technology that, as he rightly said, has questionable efficiencies and benefits.

The sensible way forward for the north of Northamptonshire and particularly the area around Kettering is to enable Kettering borough council, of which I am pleased to be a member, to draw up a policy that says, “Yes, we are supportive of renewable energy, and we want to see all the local wind farms and turbines in Burton Wold.” Ten turbines are there at the moment, permission has been given for 17 and plans exist with the potential to increase that to 24, which I support. That would meet the Government’s targets for expanding wind energy in the borough of Kettering, local people would support it, we would be doing their bit to green our country, and it would remove the blight faced by residents of villages in the borough and across Northamptonshire who face the applications that I have mentioned.

As usual, my hon. Friend makes a powerful argument on behalf of the people of his constituency and of north Northamptonshire. Is he aware that exactly the same feelings are expressed by the people in Wellingborough, as we are attached to the same planning applications and Sywell airport is in my constituency? It is the fear of being forced to have a wind farm in an area where one is not wanted or suitable that worries my constituents.

That is absolutely right. People are facing an uncomfortable dilemma. They support wind energy, but in the right places and where it makes sense. People are not being nimbys for the sake of it. There are clearly some places that any common-sense approach would say are not suited to wind energy, because that blight on the countryside will be there for the next 25 or 30 years. How can it make sense to build seven turbines 127 m tall in the grounds of Kelmarsh hall, one of the most famous stately homes in Northamptonshire? They will be there for the next 30 years and will be visible from Northampton, and probably the moon, despoiling some of the best countryside in the middle of England, when just a few miles down the road at Burton Wold is a site where, for a number of peculiar reasons, a big wind farm makes sense and enjoys popular support.

I anticipate that the Minister will say that there is room for local authorities to designate places as suitable sites for wind farms in their local development frameworks. That is great if the option actually exists. East Northamptonshire council is next door to my constituency. I understand that the council included in its area action plan for rural north, part of the council area, a site-specific policy on wind farms that the Government office for the east midlands and the East Midlands regional assembly asked it to remove. I understand that the officers of the local council have kept the policy, but they expect that when it goes to review, the inspector will find it unduly restrictive.

I would like the Minister to say that he will consider planning policy statement 22, the Government planning guidance on renewable energy, and come back to the House with a written statement confirming that local authorities will be able to designate areas such as Burton Wold in their local development frameworks as sites suitable for wind farm development that will meet regional and Government wind farm targets and, at the same time, enable them to turn down speculative wind farm applications in all sorts of other locations. That seems a sensible policy that would enjoy popular support, get people behind renewable energy and save many thousands of acres of some of the UK’s best countryside from the despoiling development that gives renewable energy a bad name.

I do not think that that is too difficult a commitment for the Minister to make. If he did so, he would be carried shoulder-high through the streets of Kettering, and I would be one of the people carrying him. Such a policy would be very welcome locally and would, I am sure, be taken up by local authorities in other parts of the country.

It is a double pleasure today, Mr. Jones. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing this debate on an interesting and important subject that I know is significant to him and a number of his constituents, as well as to the constituents of other hon. Members here. I am sure that the whole House appreciates the need to address climate change even more given the heat wave that we are enjoying. I visited the hon. Gentleman’s constituency last week, although not on anybody’s shoulders, and was impressed by the work of David Cook, the chief executive, and the leader of the council, Councillor Jim Hakewill.

As part of our overall approach to climate change and renewable energy, the Government attach great importance to building a low-carbon UK. On 18 June 2009, the Environment Secretary announced the launch of UK climate projections 2009, a groundbreaking tool funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that will help us understand how the UK’s climate is likely to alter during the 21st century.

The Government recognise the need to adjust energy provision to meet challenges. The Climate Change Act 2008 made Britain the first country in the world to set legally binding carbon budgets, with the aim of cutting UK emissions by 34 per cent. by 2020 and at least 80 per cent. by 2050 through investment in energy efficiency and clean energy technologies such as renewable, nuclear and carbon capture and storage.

Power stations generating around 25 per cent. of our electricity are expected to close by 2018, as they do not comply with European legislation on sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions. The gap in generation will be filled by an increase in renewables over the coming years, including greater generation from both offshore and onshore wind. The UK is one of the windiest countries in Europe, and we need to harness that clean and renewable energy-generating technology.

Wind has been the world’s fastest growing renewable energy source for the last seven years, and the trend is expected to continue due to the falling costs of wind energy, energy security threats and the need to address climate change. A modern 2.5 MW turbine at a site with suitable conditions generates 6.5 million units of electricity each year, enough to meet the annual needs of more than 1,400 households, make 230 million cups of tea or run a computer for 2,250 years. Every unit of electricity from a wind turbine displaces one from conventional power stations. In January 2009, wind turbines operating in the UK had the capacity to prevent the emission of over 3.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

Energy from wind generation will be a key component of the changes necessary to create low-carbon energy. The hon. Gentleman referred to planning considerations for wind farms. All proposals for wind farm development need to be considered under the planning system at a national, regional and local level, and I will now address that framework.

At the national level, planning policy is set out, as the hon. Gentleman said, in planning policy statement 22 on renewable energy, published in 2004. Along with its more detailed companion guide, it sets out the Government’s guidance on planning and renewable energy. It makes specific reference to regional spatial strategies and local development documents, stating that they must contain policies designed to promote and encourage rather than restrict the development of renewable energy resources.

PPS 22 also states that, at the local level, planning authorities should set out the criteria that will be applied in assessing applications for planning permission for renewable energy projects. Planning policies that rule out or place constraints on the development of all or specific types of renewable energy technologies should not be included in regional spatial strategies or local development documents.

I am listening closely to the Minister’s remarks. I understand that he is following the brief that was prepared for him and that is quite proper. However, I am trying to draw to his attention the specific case of Kettering borough council, which has done far more than its fair share by giving planning permission for 34 MW of wind energy when the regional target for the whole of Northamptonshire is 10 MW. From the statement that he is reading out word for word, one can understand why there is a bar on Kettering borough council doing what it wants. However, would it not make sense to allow the local authority to say, “We are doing more than our fair share on this site. We want to expand it further. Give us the tools to enable us to do that, but to restrict development elsewhere.”?

I will come to the local level shortly.

The general principle and rule is that the Government have no power to prevent applications from coming forward. That is critical. Furthermore, the Government may intervene in the plan-making process if they consider that the constraints being proposed by local authorities are too great or are poorly justified. The policy also states that local planning authorities should not identify generalised locations for development based, for example, on mean wind speeds because technological developments might mean that additional sites become suitable.

The regional spatial strategy for the east midlands was adopted in March 2009. It sets out the long-term spatial vision and provides the broad development strategy for the east midlands until 2026. It sets the policy framework within which local authority planning documents are prepared. Policy 40 on regional priorities for low-carbon energy generation sets out the criteria that local planning authorities should consider for onshore wind energy development. The regional spatial strategy also states:

“Planning authorities should not, however, adopt policies that would in effect impose a blanket ban on on-shore wind energy projects.”

The east midlands currently lags behind other English regions with only 2 per cent. of its energy coming from renewable sources. The regional target is for 20 per cent. of energy to come from renewable sources by 2020. The regional spatial strategy therefore recognises that there must be a complete change in attitude in planning practices. Local planning authorities must accept that far more energy generation schemes using innovative renewable technologies must be accepted if renewable energy targets are to be achieved.

I am not sure whether the Minister follows my hon. Friend’s argument. The wind farm that crosses our constituencies creates more power than the requirement for the whole of Northamptonshire. The rest of the east midlands may well not be doing its fair share, but Northamptonshire is doing more than its fair share. That is the point we are trying to make.

I think that Northamptonshire should be applauded for the amount that it does. It stands to reason that we cannot expect each part of each locality to contribute the same amount to this fight. As the hon. Member for Kettering said, some areas are better suited to this kind of technology. Some people will always feel that they are doing more than their fair share. That is why I am looking at the matter from a regional perspective.

The spatial strategy for Northamptonshire is delivered by two joint planning units. There is one for north Northamptonshire, which covers Kettering, Wellingborough, east Northamptonshire and Corby, and one for west Northamptonshire, which covers Northampton, Daventry and south Northamptonshire. I turn first to north Northamptonshire. The core spatial strategy was adopted in June 2008. It was the first in England to be adopted, which was an excellent achievement. The plan covers the period up to 2021 and sets out the vision and objectives for existing and new communities. It tackles environmental concerns, particularly to do with climate change, and identifies the potential to promote environmental technologies. Policy 14 states that developments should meet the highest viable standards of resource, energy efficiency and reductions in carbon emissions. The core spatial strategy for west Northamptonshire is currently being developed and it is anticipated that publication for consultation will be in November 2009.

All the policies I have described provide the context against which all proposals for wind farms should be assessed. Local planning authorities should take into account the individual and cumulative effect of wind generation developments and make an assessment at the planning application stage. However, local planning authorities should not set arbitrary limits in local development documents on the numbers of turbines that will be acceptable in particular locations. It is a fundamental principle of the planning system that each application must be decided on its individual planning merits.

The hon. Member for Kettering mentioned that at Burton Latimer, just south of Kettering, there are 10 operational wind turbines and there is consent for a further seven turbines on the same site. About 25 per cent. of the homes in Kettering benefit from the energy produced at that site. It will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 40,000 tonnes per year, which is equivalent to taking 25,000 cars off the road. That is a phenomenal achievement. I understand that there are other proposals both in and adjacent to Kettering. However, I am unable to comment on specific planning applications that are currently in the planning system given the Secretary of State’s potential role.

The Government have made it clear that wind farms should be located in appropriate places and that local concerns should be given appropriate consideration. As I said, the local planning authority considers each proposal on its merits and within the policy context. As with other proposals, all commercial renewable energy developments are subject to formal planning procedures that allow all relevant stakeholders, including members of the public, to put forward their views on the likely impact of any proposals on the environment and the local community.

There are still a few minutes left. Why can local councils zone areas for residential and industrial development through planning documents and local development frameworks, but not for wind farm development?

It is clear that those examples are like apples and pears; the two cannot be compared. Having said that, I do not suppose that that could not happen, but we do not do it currently. There are good reasons for that.

Like most other planning applications, wind farm proposals are a matter for local determination. However, renewable energy and the development of wind farms are important to the Government and the nation in their overall aims of reducing carbon emissions and energy security. I assure hon. Members that, as with any proposed development, individual schemes will have to submit planning applications. That process allows for full public consultation and robust testing for each application, and they will be decided on according to their merits.

Finally, I thank the hon. Members for Kettering and for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) for contributing to this debate on an issue that is important at a national, regional and local level. It has given me the opportunity to set out the importance of wind farms within the wider challenge of increasing our ability to produce energy from renewable sources.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.