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Nuclear Power (Dungeness)

Volume 518: debated on Tuesday 16 November 2010

I want to pay tribute at the start of this debate to Councillor Willie Richardson, who represented Romney Marsh and Dungeness at Kent county council and Shepway district council. He was a great advocate of Dungeness and a supporter of nuclear power there. Sadly, Willie died last week, and his funeral will be held tomorrow in Lydd. He would have taken a great interest in today’s debate.

Dungeness nuclear power station has been an important part of the economy of my constituency for a number of years. The A station was given the go-ahead by the Minister for Power in 1959. In the deliberations before that decision, careful consideration was given to not only the need for new sources of energy to supply the national grid, but the unique environment of Dungeness.

Dungeness is a peninsula made largely of flint shingle that has built up over the centuries. It is one of the largest peninsulas of its kind in the world and the largest in Europe. It is right that it receives protection and special designation, as it has for many years, but it is also a working community, and people rely on the jobs that come from that community and, increasingly, from the nuclear power station.

The story of the success of Dungeness as a community involves the management and effective support of a brittle habitat and environment, with nature and man working successfully in partnership. Many would say that the arrival of nuclear power at Dungeness in the 1960s and 1970s has done a lot to underpin the important environmental work that has been done there. Indeed, some of the habitats, plants and wildlife that now exist at Dungeness would probably not be there were it not for the human intervention required to support and sustain the nuclear industry at Dungeness.

During the Government’s consultation on new nuclear sites, as part of the national policy statement on energy, there were considerable representations from my constituents, Shepway council and Kent county council about the economic importance of nuclear power at Dungeness. Approximately one in 10 jobs in Romney Marsh is linked, directly or indirectly, to the power station. It is estimated that Dungeness B station, the one that is currently in operation producing energy, puts about £20 million a year into the local economy. Without that continued investment and the continued presence of nuclear power it is hard to see how we could make up the shortfall. It is primarily for that reason that there has continued to be considerable support from the community for nuclear power at Dungeness, and for a C station—a new generation of nuclear power to replace Dungeness B when it stops production in the late 20-teens or in the 2020s. It is an important part of the local economy and we do not think we could live without it.

I believe that Dungeness could also play an important part in meeting the country’s energy needs. The Minister and his colleagues have spoken before about the need to keep the lights on and said that to do that we need new sources of energy production. The national policy statement on energy and the search for new nuclear sites is at the heart of that decision-making process. If we are not to be reliant on imported energy, whether gas from Russia or—particularly pertinent in my constituency—nuclear power from just across the sea in France, we need new sources of energy production. We believe that Dungeness is potentially an important new site for nuclear power and new energy.

These opening remarks set the context of the issue and its importance for my constituency. The matter has so far been considered by the Government through their consultations on the national policy statement. I do not want to go over old ground, but shall focus instead on some of the results in the recent report and update on the consultation, which the Government published last month. I was very disappointed, as were my constituents, that Dungeness was not included in the list of preferred sites in the national policy statement. It was on the previous Government’s original longlist of 11 sites, but last year that was reduced to 10, with Dungeness being removed. The list has now been reduced to eight approved sites, with three sites not approved within the national policy statement for the building of new nuclear sites to be completed by 2025.

I acknowledge that the Government’s report says many positive things about Dungeness. In particular it highlights the fact that Dungeness remains in many ways a credible site for deployment by 2025, and my constituents take considerable heart from that. However, the issue with the power station has been the objections, primarily from Natural England, that allowing a new power station to be built at Dungeness would be in contravention of the designations of the site, particularly those that were brought in through the EU habitats directive. There is legal protection for the site. I want to examine some of the issues relating to that protection, in response to the Government’s consultation.

First, the Government said in their consultation—I am quoting the site report for Dungeness:

“Given the nature of the issues at Dungeness, it may be easier to ascertain that there will not be adverse effects on the integrity of the SAC at the detailed project level of an application for development consent.”

The Government talk at some length in the site report for Dungeness about the fact that, even if the site is not included in the national policy statement, a developer and energy company could come forward with proposals that could go to the planning commission and ultimately to the Secretary of State for approval. Unfortunately there is a barrier to that process even being started, or to reaching the Government’s recommendation that perhaps, at that more detailed planning stage, it is possible to ascertain whether there can be mitigation of the loss of habitats and sites at Dungeness that will come from building a new power station. However, unless the site is included in the national policy statement, no energy company will be prepared to take such a risk, given the uncertainty about the detailed cost and the great expense involved in taking a nuclear power station proposal into the planning system, if it is not even clear in the Government’s national policy statement that they consider it to be a site that could be delivered.

Following the Government’s guidance in their own site report for Dungeness, could some consideration be given to including Dungeness in the national policy statement, while continuing to cite the Government’s reservations about loss of habitats, and stating that those would need to be considered and resolved at the planning stage, before the Secretary of State could give approval? If the Government were prepared to make that concession, an energy company might consider the site seriously and think about how a proposal could be taken forward, and the objections overcome.

Many people in my constituency would like Natural England’s objections to be examined more thoroughly. They relate primarily to designations protecting the rare vegetation on the shingle at Dungeness. It is a particularly important site and areas of the land would be lost. However, a new nuclear power station would directly affect only about 1% of the land of the entire special protection area and special area of conservation at Dungeness, so some of us would question whether it is true that a new power station would damage the integrity of the whole site. In relation to the European regulation, that is what should be considered—not necessarily the direct loss of one piece of land, but whether the integrity of the whole site there would be compromised.

Anyone who visits Dungeness A and B stations and looks carefully at the site can see the area of land that was laid out and prepared in advance, in the belief that a C station would come at some future point. It is very clear where the station would go. That land was, largely, disturbed when Dungeness B station was built. It has been protected and fenced in for 30 years or so since that time, and in that time the shingle has reverted to the appearance and the kind of habitat that was there before the station was built. It is believed that some of the plant life and vegetation has returned to the shingle, and that some of the insect life that existed at Dungeness before the B station was built has also returned.

I think that the return of the habitat should be carefully studied, to see whether the vegetated shingle at Dungeness is somewhat more robust than has been believed. Residents of Dungeness and Willie Richardson, when I saw him two weeks ago, have made the point that those who have lived in the community all their lives know that new vegetation springs up. Perhaps it is not such a delicate flower, but a slightly more robust species, albeit that the environment is one where many would find it hard to imagine plant life could grow. It grows and it returns, and that should be considered. The vegetated shingle at Dungeness may seem like a small point, but the jobs of thousands of people in my constituency and in East Sussex hang in the balance because of the interpretation of the regulations affecting the site. That creates a restriction on our ability to build a new station there.

The Government can also set aside consideration of the European regulations on habitats if they believe that there is an overriding national interest that allows them to do so. Indeed, for a number of the eight sites with which the Government are proceeding, they have made exactly that case and said that the national interest is such that development should be allowed. We would like that to happen at Dungeness as well.

The argument has been made that eight other sites can be developed first and that therefore Dungeness should wait. That seems incredible to us. If there is a good case for building the station, why should we wait for other sites to be built before we carry on and build it? Why not say that to proceed with nine sites would be entirely consistent with our view of our energy need? The Dungeness site could be developed before some of the other eight that the Government are considering. If they are prepared to say that there are national interest grounds for allowing the other sites to be developed, why not do the same with Dungeness?

Other countries have been in the same position and allowed national interest to take precedence over the environmental provisions, because they have thought it was the right thing for them. One example in a report submitted to the Government was Baden-Baden airport, where the German Government said that the site needed to be developed. The Government, in considering that, have said that there were not necessarily alternative sites, and that was only one airport site in one location; but no one would pretend that Baden-Baden airport is the lynchpin of the German aviation system or its primary hub airport. The German Government made a discretionary decision to allow that airport to go ahead, and we are asking the British Government to consider a similar case for Dungeness power station.

I have also investigated whether there is a good case for the national grid to have a feed-in point from a new nuclear power station at Dungeness. It is unique among all the nuclear sites that the Government have been considering in being south-east of London and in an area of high energy demand. The new power station would easily supply enough electricity to power the entirety of Kent, and more. There is an imbalance in the energy system. We need more energy coming in from the south. I contacted National Grid to ask its opinion and was told that the charges for connections to the grid are substantially lower in the south-east and on the south coast than in other energy-generating areas such as Scotland—particularly the north of Scotland. In a letter to me, the company said:

“It is more favourable for prospective new generation connecting to our network to locate in the lower cost charging zones, including the South and South East, thereby minimising transmission investment requirements.”

Do the Government not consider it part of the national interest that, in these difficult times, a good economic case can be made for locating a new power station closer to the area of greatest energy demand, particularly one that can be delivered relatively quickly?

The debate on whether Dungeness power station goes forward is based not on whether the local people are for it or against it. They are overwhelmingly in favour. Indeed, in general remarks made earlier in the year about where new stations should go, the Secretary of State said that consideration should be given to whether they can be built alongside existing nuclear sites and whether there is strong local support. Dungeness meets both criteria. It is not that Dungeness should not go forward simply because the Government believe that it is not a credible site or that it could not be delivered before 2025. It is and could be, and that was clearly stated in the Government’s site report. It is not that Dungeness should not go forward because the country does not need new energy capacity. We do, and the Government noted in the site report that the question is whether environmental decisions mean that Dungeness could not be delivered now, not that it could never be delivered.

We return to the environmental and habitat regulations. For many of my constituents, that brings up important questions of how our laws work and the way in which those laws control how we are governed. The regulations were brought into British law as an EU directive. When they were introduced, there was no debate and no local consultation on what they might mean. No one realised that it would effectively result in a block veto on a new power station at Dungeness. It is now years since we went through the process, however, and that is where we are.

I cannot believe that the Government truly knew of the extent of the regulations. Why would Dungeness have been included in the consultation longlist of the original 11 sites if the Government believed that it could never be deployed? That poses considerable questions about the way in which we are governed. The regulations, interpreted by the Government’s advisers, can ignore the views of local people, local councils, Members of Parliament, and perhaps even the private views of Ministers and others in the House. Instead, the regulations take precedence even when no one wants them.

We are left having to fight for something that I believe should be relatively straightforward. However, it is a fight that I am determined to pursue on behalf of my constituents, as many of their livelihoods depend on a new nuclear power station at Dungeness.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing this debate. He is a great champion of Dungeness and, indeed, of the whole Romney Marsh area, which is in his constituency. I know that this debate is only the latest of his efforts to fight for his constituents, and I have no doubt that he will continue. My constituency of Bexhill and Battle is adjacent to Romney Marsh, so I know a little of the area. Indeed, I have ridden over it a number of times. It is a spectacular and wonderful part of the country. It is very special.

The debate is important, and my hon. Friend has raised some serious questions. I shall endeavour to respond to them. The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), who usually deals with nuclear energy matters, is unable to be here, so I speak for him today.

Speaking of our hon. Friend, I should make it clear that he has offered to meet me separately. I shall be happy to take him up on that offer.

There are a number of points of detail that could probably be best advanced in a meeting rather than in debate, and I know that my colleague will be keen to pursue them.

I start by setting out the context for the coalition’s energy policy. The United Kingdom needs a robust mix of all types of clean energy assets—including, as my hon. Friend made clear, new nuclear power stations. We need such a policy in order to achieve the twin goals of energy security and dramatically reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, we wish to decarbonise the whole energy sector by the mid-2030s. As a result, we will need nuclear power.

Nuclear power is a proven low-carbon technology, and it is anticipated that it will play an increasingly important role as we diversify and decarbonise our sources of electricity. Failure to decarbonise and diversify could result in the UK becoming locked into a system of high-carbon generation, which would make it difficult and expensive to meet our 2050 emissions targets.

The nuclear power station at Dungeness has been generating low-carbon electricity for decades, for which we are extremely grateful. We have seen decades of service from the communities at Dungeness, Romney Marsh and the wider area, sometimes from the same families. I understand their concern about the loss of active generating capacity there and their strong interest in seeing a new build. That is perfectly understandable.

My hon. Friend suggests that we should think of the impact on the local economy. As he knows, we assessed sites against criteria that were consulted upon publicly. However, the criteria themselves do not directly cover the economic impact. That does not mean that economic factors are not important, and the accompanying appraisal of sustainability considered the impact of new nuclear power stations on surrounding areas. It noted that employment in the Shepway district council area is lower than the national average, and that a new nuclear power station at Dungeness would bring economic benefits to the area. Unfortunately, Dungeness failed one of the discretionary criteria, and we believe that there are better alternative sites.

The key is obviously planning. In the coming decades, we will need a substantial amount of new, local carbon-energy infrastructure, but it must be built in the right places. To help in this, the Government want a planning system for major infrastructure that is rapid and predictable, but still accountable. We announced our intention to abolish the Infrastructure Planning Commission and to move its expertise into a new major infrastructure planning unit, which will be part of the Planning Inspectorate. Consents for major infrastructure projects will be decided by Ministers, who are accountable to Parliament, and based on recommendations from MIPU. That will ensure that decisions are made by those who are democratically elected.

Planning decisions should be taken within a clear policy framework to make them as transparent as possible. The energy national policy statements, ratified by Parliament, will be a blueprint for decision making on applications for development consent for the relevant types of infrastructure. National policy statements will set out Government policy, so that the matter does not need to be reopened for each application, which is what led to delays in the past. National policy statements should also help applicants by giving greater clarity about matters that will be taken into account in making a decision. Our energy national policy statements are currently being consulted on, with the consultation ending on 24 January 2011. The national policy statements will also be scrutinised by Parliament: as set out in the coalition agreement, they will be put before Parliament for ratification.

The nuclear national policy statement identifies sites that the Government consider potentially suitable for the deployment of a new nuclear power station by the end of 2025. That will reduce speculation about where new nuclear power stations may go, and it will allow public engagement and national debate at an early stage in the process. Eight sites are listed. They have been assessed using a process and criteria that were consulted upon in 2008. The assessment was informed through an appraisal of sustainability and a habitats regulations assessment. It was also informed through the input of specialists, such as the regulators and the public and energy companies. After careful consideration, the nominated site at Dungeness, along with sites at Braystones and Kirksanton in Cumbria, were found not to be suitable.

I really do understand the concerns that have been raised by my hon. Friend about our not listing Dungeness. Responses to the consultation on the draft nuclear NPS illustrated the strength of feeling about the importance of Dungeness to local people and, in particular, to the local economy. However, after careful consideration of all the responses, including those from the local authority and EDF Energy, the conclusion has not changed.

None the less, I will preface my explanation with a reminder that we are currently consulting on a revised draft of the nuclear NPS and we will, of course, consider any new evidence that we receive. If my hon. Friend is able to bring forward new compelling evidence and can marshal that evidence, we would be receptive to it and he should certainly discuss that point when he meets my ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden. However, the bottom line is that, to date, we have not seen any evidence that is sufficient to take us in a different direction.

Let me say why we have decided, on balance, that Dungeness should be excluded. Dungeness actually passed all but one of the assessment criteria, so I understand that the local community will have a heightened sense of disappointment, given that Dungeness came quite close to being listed. However, Dungeness did not pass the criterion on internationally designated sites of ecological importance. I also have to say that we have concerns about whether the site could be protected from flooding and coastal erosion.

The Minister makes an important point about flood risk. However, it is true to say that the nuclear site at Dungeness will have to be protected to support the decommissioning of the A and B stations, and the life and decommissioning of the C station will probably take place within that period.

That is a perfectly valid point. Nevertheless, there are concerns about the potential defence of the site, particularly given the advent of climate change and the sea-level rises that are due along that whole stretch of coastline.

However, the criterion on which the site failed really centred on the effects on ecological sites that are designated at the highest European level for their ecological importance. As my hon. Friend said, the assessment was carried out in line with the requirements of the habitats directive, which protects such sites.

Dungeness failed because we do not believe that a new nuclear power station could be built there without causing adverse impacts on the integrity of the Dungeness special area of conservation or that adverse impacts could be avoided or even substantially mitigated. Dungeness is the only nominated site that overlaps with a European designated site to such an extent that the avoidance of adverse effects is not possible. Furthermore, it is not considered that mitigation of the effects of direct land take is possible.

My hon. Friend raised the entirely legitimate point that there would actually be a very small amount of encroachment by any new site at Dungeness, and he asked if a smaller site would be acceptable. However, the fact of the matter is that changes on a small amount of land take do not necessarily have an equally small environmental impact. There are other important factors to consider, such as the sensitivity of the receiving environment. The assessment of Dungeness identifies the SAC as a most sensitive area. Natural England’s advice is that even a small area of land take may be deemed to have an adverse effect and that there are no minimum extents defined for whether an adverse effect would occur.

Our conclusion is that, even if a small “footprint” were taken, an adverse effect could not be ruled out, mitigation of any such effect would not be possible, and it would be very difficult to compensate for any such effect, due to the lack of a proven or accepted methodology for providing compensation, a lack of areas that are suitable or sufficient in size for habitat creation, the active role that coastal processes play in maintaining the shingle habitats and the time that it takes shingle vegetation communities to establish themselves successfully.

In the site report that the Government produced for Dungeness, there is a helpful page of summary of the concerns regarding the D6 criteria. The report notes that some concerns exist:

“due to lack of alternative shingle habitat in the area”.

As my hon. Friend the Minister will probably know, because he knows this particular part of the country, there is an awful lot of shingle there and I think that that is an argument that people have difficulty with.

My hon. Friend makes his point very clearly.

The Dungeness SAC is considered to be the most important shingle site in Europe and in fact it is one of the largest shingle expanses in the world. England has a significant proportion of the European total of vegetated shingle and the largest example of a shingle beach in England is at Dungeness, which is approximately 1,600 hectares in size and made up of ice age flint deposits. The pattern of shingle ridges at this site has built up over 5,000 years.

The buried and exposed shingle ridges at Dungeness are exceptional for the succession of unique shingle habitats that they support, as they demonstrate the evolution of such habitats. There are small depression features in the shingle structure at Dungeness, known as open pits, which are thought to be unique in the UK. The shingle also supports fen and open water communities and a large and viable population of great crested newts, which form part of the SAC designation. The site is considered to be one of the best areas in the UK and one of the most diverse and extensive examples of stable vegetated shingle in Europe.

Under the regulations that protect such sites, plans for development that are likely to have significant effects, such as the nuclear NPS, can be adopted only where the relevant authority, which in this case is the Secretary of State, is satisfied that there will be no adverse effects on the integrity of the protected site. As I have said, following consideration of responses received during the consultation, to date we remain of the view that a new nuclear power station cannot be built at Dungeness without having an adverse effect on the integrity of the Dungeness SAC.

Where such adverse effects cannot be ruled out, a site can be included in the NPS only if there are no alternative solutions; if there are imperative reasons of overriding public interest, which is a test that must be made under the habitats directive, and if effective compensation can be made. Our assessment has found that at the eight sites on the revised draft nuclear NPS there is potential for adverse effects on the integrity of Natura 2000 sites to be avoided or mitigated. Therefore, those eight sites are alternatives to Dungeness that meet the requirements of the habitats directive, as they better respect the integrity of Natura 2000 sites. I therefore have to say that, given the particular adverse effects in relation to Dungeness and the availability of the other eight sites to contribute towards meeting the need for nuclear-generating stations, the Government do not consider that listing Dungeness is justified. The assessment has also found that it would be difficult to compensate for adverse effects, such as direct habitat loss.

I know that that will come as a disappointment to my hon. Friend, but I also know that he will continue with his campaign. I assure him that, although I have given him our clear and stated view today, we remain open to new evidence.