Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give powers to local planning authorities to specify the minimum distances permissible between onshore wind turbines of certain dimensions and the nearest habitation; and for connected purposes.
I am proud to be a Back-Bench Member of a Government who truly believe in localism and removing the top-down, centre-knows-best approach to government that grew out of hand in the past 13 years. Nowhere was that malignant approach more visible to the people who elect us than in how the previous Government forced their views on local areas and imposed massive changes on localities, such as large, controversial housing developments, or even more controversial wind farms.
My Bill would simply give local people and communities in areas where there are such wind farm proposals a real say on whether they take such developments. Numerous communities up and down the UK will be happy to take on such development, and I strongly believe that this Government’s approach of much more carrot, compared with the previous Government’s stick, will ensure that more proposals are passed.
I strongly contend that such developments should be allowed only when the local residents in the affected community have actually had a say—not just when they have been consulted—on the development that will change the nature of the place where they live. I also strongly contend that the best way to save so many communities up and down the country an enormous amount of strife, and at the same time save developers a reasonable amount of money, is to allow each local planning authority to set such minimum distances. Thus everyone will know exactly the state of play in each area.
That will hopefully eliminate the huge number of speculative proposals in areas where, under normal circumstances, it would be difficult to get planning permission even for a double garage. Many Members will know of the angst that is caused by proposals for massive turbines that are completely out of keeping with the local environment.
In my constituency, the usual height of a turbine applied for is 126.5 metres. Let me put that into perspective. The tower that supports Big Ben is 96.3 metres or 316 feet to the top of the spire. The London Eye is 135 metres tall. Those two structures dominate the local cityscape. Imagine what a number of structures twice the size of Nelson’s column situated close together do to the landscape in the rolling countryside of Northamptonshire or similar, but not quite as beautiful, parts of the country. If hon. Members consider that alongside the problems associated with flicker and noise from turbines, they will understand why local planning authorities are best placed to judge whether areas within their boundaries are suitable for such large-scale developments. Wind turbine operators say that if there is a minimum distance between turbines and dwellings—a distance of 2 km, say—there would be very few areas in the United Kingdom where turbines could be sited. That might be the case, but my Bill does not state what the minimum distance should be; it simply gives local planning authorities the opportunity to determine such distances—hopefully after consulting the people who live in an area—based on local knowledge and local conditions.
Many hon. Members feel the same way, including my hon. Friends the Members for Hexham (Guy Opperman), for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) and for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans), who have all followed me on this matter with great interest. In an Adjournment debate in October, the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) reflected on the direction of current Government policy, saying:
“We have seen the benefits from offshore wind, but we recognise that communities often feel concerned that proposed wind farms in their areas will destroy the environment or have other negative impacts. We are convinced that, in the policy of localism that we are going to drive forward, local councils should be the driving force in deciding how they want their communities to develop. That is a fundamental part of the planning changes we are making.”—[Official Report, 13 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 137WH.]
I would like to think that the Government will see this ten-minute rule Bill as a helpful nudge in the right direction, and perhaps even try to encompass it in the forthcoming localism Bill, and in doing so put some public confidence back into the planning system.
I agree with the commitment to localism shown by the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), and I suspect that there is barely a wafer between us on issues such as regional spatial strategies. However, I rise to oppose the Bill on the grounds that it is unnecessary, unwise and very unlikely to encourage the shift that we need in this country towards renewable energy. Instead, it runs the risk of feeding the irrational objections of a minority who have decided that wind power is bad and who will use almost any excuse to oppose it.
If hon. Members are in any doubt that this group is a minority, market research is remarkably consistent, with 70 to 80% of the UK population expressing support for wind, partly because wind turbines are probably the most beautiful and graceful form of energy generation, and because they are certainly prettier than the average nuclear power station—something that I understand the hon. Gentleman supports. Interestingly, support for wind power increases with proximity to wind farms. One piece of research showed that among people living near existing wind farms, support rose as high as 94%. That is entirely consistent with the experience in Denmark, which has the highest proportion of onshore wind and wind power in general, at nearly 20%, and the highest public support for wind power, at 93%. Indeed, that figure will probably increase as designs improve and wind turbines become quieter and possibly even more beautiful, as well as probably larger and more efficient.
The Bill is unnecessary because planning policy statement 22, which is already in force, says that local authorities already have the power to set minimum distances on a case-by-case basis. Paragraph 22 of the statement says quite clearly:
“Plans may include criteria that set out the minimum separation distances between different types of renewable energy projects and existing developments.”
Indeed, our hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), whom I am pleased to see in his place, confirmed the position in a reply to the hon. Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley), saying:
“Under current planning policy distances between wind turbines and dwellings are decided on a case by case basis so that local factors can be taken fully into account. Local planning authorities are already able to set out the criteria they apply in assessing applications for renewable energy development in their local plans provided this does not rule out or place constraints on development without sufficient reasoned justification.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 544W.]
That seems to strike exactly the right balance between localism and our commitment to renewable energy. The Government’s localism Bill will, I hope, increase and enhance the freedom of local authorities to look at such matters freely, on a case-by-base basis. Bills such as this run the risk of undermining that by once again trying to get Parliament to hand policies to local authorities that they are better able to decide for themselves.
That is unwise, because blanket bans based on proximity are likely to lead to bad policy. If a ban had been in place in my constituency last year, it would almost certainly have prevented our very first wind turbine, which has been placed in Springfield park. It is much smaller than the ones that the hon. Member for Daventry talked about, but it is much closer to human habitation. A blanket rule might have prevented that wind turbine, which will now generate 9,500 kWh of electricity a year, save 4 tonnes of CO2 a year and shave £1,000 a year off the energy bill of the nearby neighbourhood project. If a borough-wide policy had been in place, it would have complicated the process. Presumably the hon. Gentleman might argue that the local community could have tried to overturn that policy, but if it could be overturned, what would be the point of having it in the first place?
There is also the unintended consequence that might result, which is that the more we restrict wind turbines near to human habitation, the more we encourage them in more rural and more sparsely populated areas. I can see the planning appeals now, in which somebody cites what would be known as the Wind Turbines (Proximity of Habitation) Act 2010 as evidence that a wind farm should go ahead in an area because it falls outside the set distances. The Bill might therefore have precisely the opposite effect from that intended by the hon. Gentleman.
I am sad to say that I suspect that the real purpose behind the Bill is probably to appeal to the anti-renewable lobby, which seems to be growing. I would have hoped that, in the new situation, both coalition parties had moved on from this kind of politics. We are intending to be the greenest Government ever, and the Bill would sit badly with that ambition. Luckily, as a ten-minute rule Bill, it has little chance of success, so I will not trouble the House with a Division. However, I remain opposed to the Bill.
Question put (Standing Order No. 23) and agreed to.
That Chris Heaton-Harris, Andrew Percy, Sarah Newton, Natascha Engel, Matthew Hancock, Nigel Adams, Karen Lumley, Alec Shelbrooke, Andrea Leadsom, Mark Pawsey, Mr Richard Bacon and Andrew Griffiths present the Bill.
Chris Heaton-Harris accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 10 June 2011, and to be printed (Bill 108).