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Eco-island Strategy (Isle of Wight)

Volume 524: debated on Tuesday 8 March 2011

I am glad to be speaking today about eco-island. A group of environmentalists saw the opportunity to make the Isle of Wight the first truly sustainable region in Britain. As this issue clearly transcends departmental responsibilities, I understand that the Minister may not have all the information at his fingertips. In terms of being able to demonstrate sustainability, the island is almost perfect. It is a microcosm of the mainland, with a manageably sized population and a well-defined border. It is the perfect place in which to bring to reality a vision of living in balance with the land.

The Isle of Wight has great natural beauty, but it is not Utopia; it is faced with many challenges. It is dependent on the mainland for much of its food, power, water and fuel. To become truly self-sustaining, fundamental changes, both physical and social, must be made. To attain the eco-island vision, the energy equation must be addressed.

At present, the island is almost entirely dependent on the coal and oil-fired power stations on the mainland. Eco-island would introduce a whole new raft of technologies to change that. The Isle of Wight needs 575 GW-hours of electricity to become self-sufficient. Much of that could be achieved with a mix of solar voltaic panels on the roofs of social and private housing; solar thermal addressing some of the hot water and heating needs; wind, tidal and geothermal power; and energy recovered from waste recycling. The feed-in tariff designed for small installations supports the roll-out of photovoltaic technologies on a domestic scale. Solar farms on agricultural land may not be the best solution, but panels in business parks, and even awnings over car parks, could provide a significant amount of energy.

The feed-in tariff is currently under review. I am sure that the Department of Energy and Climate Change recognises that such schemes can successfully promote renewable energy across a broad range of properties. I hope that that will be taken into account when decisions are made about the future of the feed-in tariff and other schemes that are designed to promote renewable energy.

A number of other positive initiatives are on the horizon. The renewable heat incentive should be implemented as set out in consultation papers. It could make a massive difference to the number of installations of ground and air-source heat pumps, combined heat and power plants fuelled by biomass, and solar thermal systems. Currently, eco-island plans need certainty about the level of the RHI to encourage enough individual householders to take up the scheme. Will the Minister give an indication whether the RHI is likely to be introduced at the planned levels?

The Isle of Wight is blessed with more sunshine than almost anywhere else in the United Kingdom. It has a superb natural environment and could harvest a vast amount of energy direct from the sun. For workable plans to be put in place, the Government must maintain their commitment to renewable energy generation. Eco-island has already gained a good deal of interest and support.

With the support of the local council, the chambers of commerce, tourism and local businesses, the Eco-Island Partnership, a community interest company, has been formed. The partnership is led by David Green, who is personally so committed to sustainable living that he has turned his own home into a show home for renewable technologies.

The new partnership will act as a conduit and funding vehicle for the roll-out of new green technologies. A number of strategic projects and initiatives are already in the pipeline, including the installation of solar panels, free of charge, on social housing. While the panels are generating, the tenant will get a contribution to their energy needs. The feed-in tariff payments will cover the financial investment and generate funds to invest in other green community projects on the island.

A key area for long-term investment is helping people and businesses to reduce energy use. Energy conservation projects, in tandem with renewable energy generation, will make the eco-island goal of carbon neutrality easier to achieve quickly and economically. The focus will be on making existing housing less power-hungry both to improve living standards and to cut energy bills.

Eco-island is not just about solving the energy equation. As part of the vision, other challenges will be addressed. Electric cars and bikes will be introduced, thereby reducing dependence on fossil fuels. Public transport will be promoted. The use of water will be cut, thus reducing the island’s dependence on supplies from the mainland. Local produce will be collected from farmers via a local food hub to supply shops, hotels and restaurants that are keen to “buy local”. The Eco-Island Partnership is also engaged in discussions about acting as a vehicle to manage a whole-island waste solution. It seeks to cut landfill to zero, generate heat and power as by-products and stop waste being transported off the island.

Chale is one of the least populous parishes on the island, but it has 70 social houses and flats. Some of those ideas have already been piloted with the Chale community project, which received welcome support from DECC last year. Solar panels and effective insulation were retro-fitted in 1960s houses. All windows were replaced, and air-source heat-pumps installed with new wet-radiator systems and tanks. That led to carbon savings of about 50% and reduced energy costs to tenants by up to 30%. Some 1,500 further installations are now planned by the housing associations themselves working with the Eco-Island Partnership. That project proves that DECC funding, properly directed, can, as intended, produce a ripple effect, increasing the renewable energy infrastructure.

There are even bigger challenges. As more energy is produced, the balance of the grid will slowly shift. The Eco-Island Partnership will install “smart meters” to assist in managing peak supply and demand. The technology will gather and monitor data and shape demand, fitting it more closely with the availability of renewable energy. Until they are used to the system, people will receive messages telling them when solar panels are active or wind turbines are turning in their area. Put simply, when renewable energy is being generated, they will be reminded to put their washing on. Ultimately, homes may be semi-automated, with smart meters activating appliances when renewable energy is available.

The Eco-Island Partnership has started that work and the Isle of Wight is the perfect place in which to roll out the technology. The benefits will be measurable and quantifiable, but it is undoubtedly a difficult technical challenge. Can help be made available, in the form of knowledge and technical expertise, to ensure that the right technical solution is found for the island? The benefit of that will be that once the right technology is in place and thoroughly trialled, the solution can be promoted throughout the rest of the UK.

Part of the eco-island plan is to launch the greenback card, which will promote the benefits of renewable energy and offer discounts to members of the community. The card is designed to deliver significant savings to the average island family throughout the year. The Eco-Island Partnership will work towards improving the quality of life, increasing the island’s sustainability and reducing the cost of living for eco-islanders, all at the same time.

There are also plans to create an eco-centre visitor attraction on the island, which would be used to demonstrate renewable energy technologies, showcase the science of new builds and engage people in the process of becoming more sustainable. Activities will be related to growing, managing woodland, arable farming and livestock. All the materials used would be local and the technology would be capable of being updated. Approaches have already been made to schools with a view to their using such a resource to support the curriculum. The centre could also provide a valuable focus to support the development of eco-tourism on the island from the British isles and from further afield. Why not provide people with a showcase of how sustainability can work and of what a future sustainable society might look like? I would be grateful if Government officials explored with David Green of the partnership whether any support might be available for this education work.

Representatives of the Eco-Island Partnership are talking to major companies about possible employee volunteering schemes, in the hope of attracting top talent to help it with its work. BT and a number of other companies have agreed to help. A training scheme could be developed with the Isle of Wight college, which would offer all the necessary building industry qualifications and train up to 30 young people a year for jobs in the renewable energy sector. Those young people could work as apprentices as renewable technologies are installed.

Green businesses will be attracted to the island. Eco-technology companies will enjoy a business incubator environment and they will be at the centre of sustainable technology development. In time, the partnership hopes to act as an “eco-dragons den” for new business ideas, offering start-up loans and pump-priming new initiatives and opportunities on the island.

I would be grateful if the Minister indicated his support for these efforts to encourage eco-businesses. The partnership would like to receive help from DECC or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to identify where assistance is available for green business start-ups and employment training. Much of the funding for these plans will come from the private sector. The Eco-Island Partnership can provide a vehicle for individuals and investment companies to invest in ethical green community projects and it can act as a “one-stop shop” for a variety of investment projects. The partnership is also working to establish a dedicated eco-island equity fund, which would allow investors to contribute directly to its work.

When viewed as a whole, eco-island looks like the big society in action. When the big society bank comes into existence, I hope that the Minister will make representations to ensure that such schemes can apply for support from it. The Eco-Island Partnership regards the eco-island vision as being in tune with the big society ideas and localism.

The Eco-Island Partnership is representative of a community that is trying to take some of its destiny back into its own hands, by seeking to address the big issues and the realities that the community will face, as well as working towards a better quality of life for local business people, residents and visitors to the island. The partnership is also trying to convey that message of sustainability to the rest of the UK and to places further afield. The eco-island vision for the Isle of Wight is ambitious but it is grounded in reality. The projects that the partnership is engaged in are large and challenging, but they address the problems that we face as a nation while remaining focused at the level of the island itself.

The people behind eco-island are resourceful, pragmatic and highly motivated. They care passionately about the island. They view the various energy and environmental challenges as opportunities to find solutions that will benefit the eco-island community and ultimately—hopefully—the nation as a whole. The eco-island team would welcome the opportunity to have discussions with Ministers and officials to explain the eco-island strategy in more detail and to explore ways to develop the concept in line with Government aims.

It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Osborne.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) on securing this debate and I also congratulate his constituents on what is really a remarkable project. It is great to hear about this ambitious plan, which has the potential to be an exemplar for sustainable development in action.

Just last week, my Department announced our plans for mainstreaming sustainable development across Government. The plans aim to ensure that sustainable development is at the heart of everything that we do, from the way that we make our policies to how we operate our estates and procure our services. Our “greening Government” commitments were announced at the same time and they set out challenging goals for Departments to achieve in reducing waste and greenhouse gas emissions and in the steps that must be taken to address adaptation to climate change and sustainable construction. The Government need to show that we can get our house in order, to inspire others to do the same. The eco-island strategy is a good example of a community recognising the need to do more to secure a sustainable future.

I realise that many of the issues that my hon. Friend has raised are perhaps more relevant to my colleagues in the Department of Energy and Climate Change. However, I am here today and I can assure him that DEFRA and DECC are two Departments that are joined at the hip, and we are working closely together on our sustainable policies and on our greening of Government. There is a considerable overlap between the two Departments and I will try to address the points that he has raised.

My colleagues in DECC recently announced their carbon plan, which is a cross-Government action plan on climate change backed by the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister. It sets out strict deadlines and actions for Whitehall. The new carbon plan sets out what must happen and by what date if the Government are to live up to our green ambitions, by meeting our tough domestic carbon targets and encouraging greater action internationally. The plan is focused on the jobs and economic opportunities of the low-carbon economy, and on policies that will help to insulate Britain from future energy price shocks. It precisely addresses the points that my hon. Friend has outlined about the impressive eco-island scheme.

The carbon plan is published in draft today, with the Government inviting the public and organisations to give their views on its contents. A final version will be published in the autumn. I hope that the people involved in the eco-island project on the Isle of Wight will have a chance to see the plan. We can learn from what they are already doing.

My hon. Friend talked about green jobs. We must recognise the importance of that issue. We know that it has been a huge issue on the Isle of Wight and received considerable publicity not long ago. It is great to see that there is a determination among those who are in business or in local government on the island to try to ensure that the island becomes a hub of green-growth jobs, and they are being led by my hon. Friend.

At least 1,000 green deal apprentices could receive Government funding towards their training, which might be an opportunity for the Isle of Wight. The apprentice scheme is part of our plans to reduce carbon emissions and to insulate the UK’s homes and businesses against rising energy prices. That is an important announcement that might be of interest to people on the Isle of Wight.

Regarding green skills, my colleagues in DECC continue to work with the sector skills councils and the National Apprenticeship Service to ensure that the provision of skills matches demand. NAS and the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board are working together to increase the number of apprentices within the engineering-construction sector, to meet the future demand that will be created by major energy projects. There is great potential for synergy between the eco-island strategy and what we are doing in Government.

The opportunities offered by a move to a low-carbon economy are huge. In 2008-09, the global market for low-carbon goods and services was worth £3.2 trillion and it is forecast to grow by about 4% in the next five years. There are major opportunities for businesses to use energy more efficiently. They could save £3.3 billion per annum on energy bills through cost-effective measures. It has been interesting to hear how businesses on the Isle of Wight are embracing some of the technologies that promote energy efficiency. The market size of the UK low-carbon environmental goods and services sector rose to £112 billion in 2008-09, which represented an increase of 4.3% on revised figures for the previous year. The sector is the largest in the world.

My hon. Friend asked about the renewable heat incentive. The Government are committed to a massive expansion in renewable energy, of which supporting renewable heat is an integral part. We remain committed to the ambition to move from 1% to 12% of all heat generated being from a renewable source by 2020. The renewable heat incentive represents an investment of more than £860 million over the spending review period, and it will drive a more than tenfold increase in renewable heat over the coming decade, shifting the industry from the fringes to the mainstream. In the next day or two, we hope to publish measures to support renewable heat, within the budget agreed at the spending review.

Finally, on my hon. Friend’s points, I was particularly interested to hear him talk about Chale. The scheme there is remarkable and, with the support of organisations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, it appears to be bringing an entire off-grid rural community out of fuel poverty with an integrated approach to reducing carbon. That is really impressive. Additional funding is provided by the social landlord, to ensure that the properties are upgraded to the decent homes standard, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation supports the project management and behaviour change elements of the scheme. The entire village will benefit from the social improvements, and a number of photovoltaic installations throughout the estate will feed a community-managed funding initiative to ensure that the project continues to support improvements in the village for years to come. I commend the people involved on their enlightened approach, from which we can all learn for our constituencies elsewhere around the country.

The cross-Government adapting to climate change programme, based in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, supports local authorities in preparing adaptation strategies, including through the nine English climate change partnerships, the UK climate impacts programme and work undertaken with the Local Government Group. The adapting to climate change programme is also undertaking the UK’s first climate change risk assessment, which is due to report in January 2012, and which will inform the development of the Government’s first statutory national programme of action to prepare the country for climate change. Local authorities will need to play a key role in delivering on that important agenda, and it seems that the Isle of Wight is way ahead of the curve.

The Localism Bill will radically reform the planning system to give local people new rights to shape the development of the communities in which they live, including through neighbourhood plans. During this year, the Government will consult on a national planning policy framework, which will set out in a single, concise document our broad economic, environmental and social priorities, and how those priorities relate to each other. We are seeking, therefore, to do at a national level much of what the Isle of Wight is doing locally. The reforms will ensure that the majority of planning decisions are made at the local level, with the minimum of interference from Whitehall, empowering local authorities to achieve sustainable growth alongside environmental improvements and an improved quality of life for communities. The vision that my hon. Friend has described is precisely that which we seek to encourage, and I hope that the people involved will feel appreciated and valued for what they have done thus far, and for what they will do in the future.

We are also taking sustainable travel seriously. In January, the Department for Transport announced the introduction of a new local sustainable transport fund, providing £560 million for sustainable travel schemes. The January 2011 White Paper “Creating Growth, Cutting Carbon: Making Sustainable Local Transport Happen” sets out the importance of sustainable transport systems such as those in the eco-island strategy. The benefits from improved public transport and from encouraging modal shift away from car use to walking and cycling are clear, and these types of scheme often offer the best value for money. The Government understand the problems that councils have in maintaining their road network, and in February the Department for Transport announced, following the recent severe weather, that extra funding of more than £100 million would be given to councils for the repair of potholes.

The coalition also believes in work towards a zero-waste economy, and my hon. Friend touched on that. To ensure that we have the right policies to achieve that aim, the Government are conducting a thorough review of all aspects of waste policy and delivery in England, and the preliminary findings will be published in May 2011.

We recognise the benefits that the marketing of regional and local food can bring to producers and consumers alike. Shoppers increasingly want to know how the food they buy has been produced, and what its provenance is, and the established tourism industry in the Isle of Wight is ideally suited—I cannot think of anywhere better—to benefit from this Government’s determination to expand local food networks and identify key brands. Despite the evidence not being conclusive, we all know that local food is better for the environment. When production, processing and distribution systems are similar, choosing produce that has travelled a shorter distance can result in lower transport emissions. That must be one of the most obvious comments ever made in the House, but the opportunity for communities such as the Isle of Wight to benefit from such a strategy is enormous.

Finally, I shall mention the natural environment White Paper, which is a major piece of work being carried out by DEFRA, offering both large and small communities a vision of how we want to manage our natural environment, and how we value it and will continue to value it. I commend that important work, which will be published in a few weeks’ time.

I have spoken about several issues, which are linked by the fact that they all highlight the importance of sustainable development. Sustainable development covers everything we do, and is reflected in our recognition that decisions should not be taken in isolation. I look forward to hearing more about the progress on the eco-island strategy. I commend the people involved in it, and I commend my hon. Friend both for raising the topic in the House and for his leadership in the area.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.