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Wind Farm Development (Sedgefield)

Volume 532: debated on Wednesday 7 September 2011

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea.

Whenever we have a debate about wind farm development and the instigator of the debate opposes a planned wind farm, there are cries of nimbyism or of the Member being at the climate-change-denial end of the spectrum. I am the instigator of this debate, but I am not a nimbyist or a climate-change denier. Nevertheless, I am opposed to E.ON’s proposal to build a wind farm in my constituency of up to 45 wind turbines, each four times the height of the Angel of the North. It will cover 7½ square miles of my constituency, or 5% of its geographic area—equivalent to the size of Newton Aycliffe just to the west of the proposed site, which has a population of about 30,000.

If E.ON’s proposal was for the only wind farm in County Durham, I could stand accused of nimbyism, but it is not. There are already 16 in the county, and another has received planning consent but has yet to be built. The site in the Sedgefield county ward where E.ON proposes to build has a cluster of 17 wind turbines, 10 of which are run by E.ON and seven by Wind Prospect. If the E.ON proposal goes ahead, there could be as many as 62 turbines in one ward, and that does not include a further application for three turbines at Foxton lane, which is south of Sedgefield village and in the same ward. However, those are not the only developments that are being proposed or granted. It seems as if there is a steady stream of developers coming to my door proclaiming the merits of their schemes. In isolation, one scheme may have a lot going for it, but as one of many they have a cumulative impact, and the landscape’s capacity to take more turbines is questionable.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. I wish to express sympathy with his cause. We have exactly the same problem in my constituency, with a huge number of wind farms coming along that will completely destroy the area. The hon. Gentleman should know that he is not alone; others feel the same. Virtually every resident of Montgomeryshire will sympathise with him.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. There is a lot of discontent in certain parts of the country, because the matter is pertinent to parts of Wales and Scotland, as well as to County Durham and to one or two other parts of the country. A case can be made for wind farms, but when there are dozens in one area it has an impact on the local landscape.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. His is a neighbouring constituency.

County Durham was the first county to reach its 2010 target, and it is well on its way to reaching its 2020 target for renewable energy. Like my hon. Friend, I have many wind farms in my constituency, which is largely rural and has two areas of outstanding natural beauty. Energy providers now acknowledge that the cumulative effect of ever more developers rushing to build wind farms is reaching saturation point in the county.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. In a moment, I shall be pointing out how much of a role County Durham and Sedgefield residents are playing in combating climate change.

It is the job of each developer to promote their schemes, but because the planning system is run on a first-come, first-served basis there is a rush to the planning authorities, and local people are left feeling under siege and helpless. I shall give an example by detailing the level of interest in and around my constituency by developers. I say “in and around the constituency”, because when my constituents look out of the windows they do not see the boundaries between constituencies; they see pleasant countryside. Indeed, from certain parts of the constituency they can see magnificent views of the North Yorkshire moors and Cleveland hills.

This is the state of play. As I said, 16 wind farms are up and running in County Durham, and another has been permitted but has not yet been built; 67 turbines are generating 126 MW. A further five wind farms are in planning, with a further 10 turbines; and three are in pre-planning with 18 turbines. That is a total of 95 turbines. Then there is the mother of all wind farms, the Isles wind farm proposed by E.ON, which will raise the number of turbines, operational and proposed, to as many as 140.

Within hundreds of metres of the Durham county council border at Sedgefield, three turbines are operational near Elwick. Just to the south, along the A1, a further six have been granted at Red Gap farm. Three turbines have received planning consent at Lambs hill near Stockton, and they directly affect my constituency because of their proximity. In the borough of Darlington, an area that I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman), three are proposed at East and West Newbiggin. Banks Renewables has gone to appeal on a wind farm of 10 turbines at Moor House farm, just to the south of E.ON’s large proposal. The list goes on.

Local people feel inundated and helpless. I am sorry to say that they are resentful of a planning regime that does not seem to listen to them. I accept that not all the proposed wind farms will go ahead. However, the Minister cannot deny that they will have a cumulative impact in County Durham and the Tees valley plain. When I say no to the Isles wind farm, I do so because I know that my constituents in County Durham are doing their bit. Even the developers are starting to concede that point. A representative of Banks Renewables, wind farm developers that have sites in the county, was interviewed by the Teesdale Mercury on 24 August 2011. He said:

“An unfortunate repercussion of County Durham being forward thinking in its approach to renewable energy development is the potential for cumulative impact to occur...The pursuit of several wind farms within the county by competing developers has potential to cause an unacceptable impact upon the landscape.”

He is absolutely right; in my view we are already at that stage.

County Durham’s record on renewable energy is another reason why I believe that we are not being nimbyist in our approach. The county council was the first local authority in England to have a renewable energy strategy; it dates back to 1994. The renewable electricity target for County Durham in the regional spatial strategy—I realise that it does not apply any more—was 82 MW installed capacity by 2010. Since then, about 165 MW of installed capacity of renewable energy development has been permitted in the county. Only 11 MW of that was permitted on appeal—the majority, 154MW, was granted by the council.

A capacity of 165 MW will meet about 55% of County Durham’s household electricity consumption, or 22% of the county’s overall electricity consumption. That is a fantastic record, and one of the best in England. I am sure that the Minister will agree that County Durham is doing its bit, and I hope that he will pay tribute to the county’s record.

County Durham’s 2010 target has been met and exceeded by a substantial margin. The aspiration to double that target by 2020 has already been achieved, and progress is being made towards the more recent national target of 30% by 2020. That has been achieved through a planned approach based on the north-east region’s renewable energy strategy and development capacity studies commissioned and endorsed by local authorities in the region.

The Tees plain was identified as a broad area of least constraint for wind energy development. Its capacity was identified as being between 20 and 25 turbines. It is covered by four local planning authorities—Durham county council, and Stockton, Hartlepool and Darlington borough councils. A development capacity study was carried out by consultants Arup in 2008, when there were a total of 20 operational or permitted turbines in three wind farms. It concluded that there was potential to exceed the level of development anticipated, and that two additional wind farms totalling between nine and 15 turbines might be acceptable.

Since then, two additional wind farms totalling nine turbines have been permitted. The area is therefore at or approaching the capacity identified in the Arup report. Currently, there are planning applications for three additional wind farms and a single turbine development in the area, totalling 13 turbines; and one planning application for 10 turbines is in abeyance. Those applications will be determined against the development plans of the relevant planning authorities, having regard to both the Arup capacity study and the evolving cumulative impact picture as they progress through the system. According to impact assessment studies, the area chosen by E.ON at the Isles—the company has built many wind farms in the area—can cope with only four to six turbines, but E.ON plans between 25 and 45. Durham can meet its targets because we have proved willing to embrace other renewable technologies in the same area. In Chilton, which is in my constituency and north of the Isles, Dalkia has just opened a biomass facility, producing 15 to 17 MW of electricity. Some 24.4 MW of electricity is generated from biomass in the county, 12.7 MW from landfill and 2.1 MW from hydro. County Durham is playing its part. Everyone wants to share the benefits of renewable energy, but we also need to share the burden.

I hope my hon. Friend and my neighbouring MP will forgive me if I go off on a slight tangent. Does he agree that while our constituents are getting the pain of wind farms, they are not getting the benefits? That was perhaps best illustrated this week when EDF awarded all its contracts for a massive wind farm off the Teesside coast to companies abroad, instead of creating jobs in our constituencies for our people who have the skills and facilities with which to build that farm.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Although the landscape in the area has begun to be reindustrialised, we are not getting any of the benefits.

We are getting energy from other renewable sources such as hydro, landfill, and biomass, and now our constituents are beginning to wonder whether we are all in this together. They look at Hampshire, which is using three times as much energy as Durham but taking only about 4% of it from renewables. Moreover, there is not one on-shore wind farm in the area, despite the fact that it is the county in which the Secretary of State for the Department of Energy and Climate Change has his constituency.

Only five members of the Cabinet have wind farms in their constituency. Some have a lot. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury has 259 in his constituency of Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, but his constituency covers l,911 square miles—almost as many as there are amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill. The Scottish Secretary has 226 turbines in a constituency covering almost 1,500 square miles. The Foreign Secretary, whose constituency is adjacent to mine, has 24 turbines in an area covering 739 square miles. Sedgefield covers 151 square miles. If the developers get their way and all 87 turbines get the go-ahead, we could see one turbine for every 1.7 square miles. Does the Minister not agree that the planning system for such huge structures is chaotic?

Is my hon. Friend aware of the concerns of Newcastle airport about the concentration of wind farms and of the Ministry of Defence over the effects that such a concentration will have on using parts of the north-east for low flying?

That is an important point. Durham and Tees Valley airport, which is in my constituency, occasionally raises important issues about radar. I have seen the wind farms on its radar scopes. Pilots have to navigate their way round the wind farms to avoid hitting them. Moreover smaller aircraft have to cope with the turbulence that these turbines generate.

What we are facing in County Durham is the reindustrialisation of the landscape, but without the jobs. Durham county council has done tremendous work over the past 30 or 40 years in reclaiming the pit heaps that scarred the landscape for generations. At the height of the coal mining era, thousands of jobs were created in the area. Wind turbines are not bringing that kind of benefit to the region. Reindustrialisation with jobs is one thing; without jobs, both the land and the people are being taken for granted. Their good nature is being abused and that is simply not good enough.

According to the Renewable Energy Foundation, if the Isles wind farm goes ahead with 45 turbines, E.ON will see a revenue stream of more than £570 million over 25 years, some 54% of which is subsidised through our utility bills. E.ON has said that the Isles wind farm could generate enough electricity for 53,000 households. The subsidy would equate to £235 per household per year. The community benefit that it proposes is £460,000 a year or £8.60 per household. The company is taking with one hand and giving us back peanuts with the other. What plans do the Government have to reform or review the subsidy system for wind farms and for renewable energy in the round?

Only a handful of landowners on the Isles will benefit from the rental income from the turbines on their land. One developer said that the income from each turbine is, on average, between £10,000 and £15,000. I do not know the rental figure for the Isles, but even at £10,000, 45 turbines will bring in some £450,000 income for a handful of landlords—the equivalent in community gain for a population in the area of between 40,000 and 50,000.

The Government are looking at the business rates that would be generated if the wind turbines stayed with the local authority. According to the House of Commons Library, business rates income from the Isles would be less than £1 million. That may seem a lot of money, but it is not when we consider the plans of the Department for Communities and Local Government for business rates retention, which could see tens of millions of pounds removed from Durham county council’s budget. Again, this is about taking with one hand and giving back peanuts with the other.

The designs for the Isles place the turbines on either side of the A1 and the east coast main line—the main transport arteries through the north-east. If someone enters County Durham by road or rail from the south, they have to go through my constituency. I do not want the first thing that they see to be a massive wind farm of between 25 and 45 wind turbines, each four times the height of the Angel of the North, each a clone of its neighbour and each working only intermittently. Durham county council has informed me that the average capacity factor for a wind turbine nationally between 2004 and 2008 was 27%. Recently, the average for wind turbines in County Durham has been almost 20%. That belies the claim of many developers, especially E.ON, who say that the Tees valley plain is appropriate for wind farm development. They would not develop wind farms if it were not for the subsidy. Does the Minister not agree that it is time for that process to be reviewed and changed?

E.ON’s imposition on the landscape will affect tourism and the willingness of housing developers to build in the area. I want to see new industry come into the area, Hitachi is to build a train factory at Newton Aycliffe and I want that to be followed by more industry, which means that we need further housing in the area—not just affordable but executive as well—and leisure facilities. This massive wind farm could have a negative impact on such developments.

The Duke of Northumberland has said he will not allow wind farm development on his land. In The Daily Telegraph, he said:

“I have come to the personal conclusion that wind farms divide communities, ruin landscapes, affect tourism, and make minimal contribution to our energy needs and a negligible contribution towards reducing C02 emissions. The landowner and developer are enriched while the consumer is impoverished by higher energy costs. Turbines are ugly, noisy and completely out of place in our beautiful, historic landscape.”

Will the Minister look closely at wind farm development in County Durham, as it has caused a great deal of anxiety in the community? I believe he will see that the cumulative impact is not just a threat but is already with us. He will find that developers are targeting the county because of the good nature of its people. Low incomes will provide the incentive for local people to accept the small amount of money from community gain and ensure that they will find it difficult to raise sufficient funds to campaign against the wind farms.

Local people feel as if they are involved in a David versus Goliath contest in taking on E.ON. Campaigners against the Isles have come together. The following towns and parish councils are against the development: Bradbury, Brafferton, Bishop Middleham, Bishopton, Bolam, Chilton, Coatham Mundeville, Elstob, Ferryhill, Fishburn, Foxton, Great Stainston, Little Stainton, Mordon, Newton Aycliffe, Nunstainston, Preston Le Skerne, Rushyford, Sedgefield, Trimdon, Windlestone and Woodham. The campaign group against the E.ON wind farm can be found on the web at www.

It is now time to look at a planning system and an energy policy that fight climate change by taking people with them, rather than taking them for granted or making them feel helpless. We need a strategic view that ensures that all parts of the country share the burden as well as the benefit of renewable energy. My constituents are united in opposition to the massive imposition of the E.ON wind farm for the Isles. Durham County is known as the land of the prince bishops. I will not stand by to watch County Durham become the land of the wind turbine.

Thank you very much, Dr McCrea, for calling me to respond to the debate. I thank the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) for securing the debate and introducing it in a very thoughtful and considered way. I understand that the subject is very emotional and emotive, and I am grateful to him for the points that he made. We have heard many of the points that he and his hon. Friends made before, but that does not reduce in any way the strength of the argument behind them. I hope to address as many as I can in the time available to me.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that I cannot comment on particular applications, because their nature is such that they may well come to a Minister for final determination and I cannot say anything to prejudge that. However, it is important to say on the record that the E.ON process is currently a consultation. I think that he would wish his speech today to be considered as part of that process, and that the company will be keen to know the views of the local community and local business people on what they consider to be the right way forward on the application.

All applications for major energy infrastructure are dealt with on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the views of local people. To the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), I say that it is entirely proper that the views of the airport and the Ministry of Defence should also be taken into account in that process. That will continue to be the case under the national policy statements as they become part of planning policy. In addition, the decision maker has a duty to make a decision only after full consideration of the balance of the proposed development’s benefits and negative impacts; that includes consideration of the environmental impacts, which he and others might feel should be taken into account.

I think that the hon. Member for Sedgefield and I agree on the two most critical points: that renewable energy is necessary for energy security and environmental reasons, and that local communities should be given a say in shaping the environment in which they live. Consequently, in the few minutes that I have today I will seek to explain how I see those two aims coming together and set out the steps we are taking to ensure that they do. I also want to address the democratic deficit and show that wind farms can bring real benefits to communities, as long as they are situated in the right place and they have democratic approval.

Our challenge is to build an economy that cuts our carbon emissions to tackle the threat of climate change, that makes our energy secure in a volatile world and that creates sustainable green jobs to help to bring back economic prosperity. As one of the most cost-effective and mature large-scale renewable technologies, the appropriate deployment of onshore wind will play a key role in meeting that challenge. We want Britain to be a global leader in the transition to a low-carbon economy. We are committed to producing 15% of our energy from renewable sources by 2020 and to reducing our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. In July, we published the renewable energy road map, which sets out our approach to unlocking our renewable potential. It includes a comprehensive suite of targeted, practical actions to accelerate the development of renewable energy in this country.

Given that I only have 10 minutes to respond to the whole debate, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to try to respond to as many of the points made as possible.

Our analysis suggests that approximately 90% of the generation needed to meet that target can be delivered from a subset of eight technologies and that onshore wind has the potential to contribute perhaps 10% to 14% of overall generation. Currently, there is 4.2 GW of operational onshore wind capacity in the UK; in capacity terms, it is the single most deployed renewable electricity technology.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the Government support the deployment of renewable energy through the renewables obligation which, by supporting generation rather than capacity, is structured in a way to incentivise the best use of the available resources and to maximise efficiencies. If an application has a very low load—I would consider 20% to be a low load—it will receive little benefit through the renewables obligation. The higher the load factor, the greater the support that an application will receive through the renewables obligation. However, we have recognised that it is time to review that approach; the review was scheduled for next year, but we have brought it forward because we think that it is right that communities and developers have early clarity about the thinking.

I was not entirely clear about the thinking behind the points the hon. Gentleman made about Cabinet members’ constituencies and how that factor plays in. Most of the applications that we have seen were made well before they were actually in the Cabinet and it was a different set of Cabinet Ministers who were responsible for the policy. Indeed, much of the policy was developed under the leadership of the previous MP for Sedgefield when he was Prime Minister. I am not quite sure where the hon. Gentleman was seeking to go in that part of his contribution.

None the less, I acknowledge the important role that the north-east is playing in the transition to a low-carbon economy. I pay specific tribute to what is being done in Durham already. All of us who know the county know that it is an incredibly beautiful county—a very special part of the country—so we understand the competitive pressures already present there. We recognise the contribution that the county is making.

As a whole, the region has 150 MW of operational onshore wind capacity, which is 3.5% of the total UK deployed resource. Those onshore wind projects have also helped to deliver real economic growth and benefit to the local community, such as the work being done by the National Renewable Energy Centre to develop the region’s old manufacturing heritage, to help to pull the region out of recession and into recovery with new industries for the future.

I understand the concerns expressed today about the impacts that such a level of deployment might have. As the market brings forward applications for wind farms, we need to ensure that they are in suitable locations, taking account of viability and the concerns of local communities. Part of the renewables obligation certificate review is designed to ensure that wind turbines go where the resource is best, not anywhere in the country. The Government are keen to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach and we consider that planning applications for wind farms are best assessed on a case-by-case basis. The national policy statements and the national planning framework set out a clear and simplified framework to do that, but it is a requirement of a planning regime that cumulative impacts, for example those in locations such as Durham, are considered in the total. We would expect the local planning authority to set out important local issues in its local impact report, just as we want host communities for the installations to reap the benefits of taking the assets into their communities.

I am pleased to say that through the Localism Bill we are proposing changes aimed at addressing some of the concerns that have been raised in this debate. They include abolishing regional spatial strategies and their top-down regional energy targets to move towards a localism-driven approach, so that more control is given to local authorities, as the hon. Gentleman wants; introducing provisions for projects submitted to local planning authorities, so that developers will have to show how they have worked with communities in developing their planning applications; closing the Infrastructure Planning Commission and merging its functions with a more efficient and effective Planning Inspectorate, which means that the ultimate responsibility for making decisions on nationally significant infrastructure, such as the application that the hon. Gentleman raised today, will return to democratically elected Ministers; and ensuring that energy decisions on major infrastructure projects are made by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change based upon recommendations from the new expert unit within the Planning Inspectorate. All decisions will be made in accordance with our recently designated national policy statements and important local considerations.

Our aim is to support appropriate renewable energy development, which the country needs, while maintaining environmental safeguards and, through local and neighbourhood plans, giving local authorities and communities a much greater say in how development is delivered. More broadly, if it is agreed, the framework will also enable local communities to set their own growth agenda according to local needs, and to plan and manage development to deliver that agenda.

As well as ensuring that local people have a real say in what happens in areas near to them, it is right that communities hosting renewable energy projects are rewarded for the contribution they are making to the wider society. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, there is a concentration of renewable energy resources in different parts of the country and all of us are benefiting from the actions of the communities that decide to host those facilities.

As part of achieving that, we announced that local authorities in England, on behalf of individual communities, will be able to retain the business rates generated by renewable energy deployments, not just for one year, but on a continuing basis. I am pleased that, in parallel, the wind energy industry has published agreed minimum standards for the contributions that wind farm developers will make to community development in England, as part of an ongoing commitment to close consultation with communities. Financial contributions might include, for example, building new community assets, or investment in energy efficiency measures to reduce electricity bills. That would be on top of any direct benefits for those living in the area, such as economic activity, jobs or rent paid to landowners. Of course, the most powerful reward for a community is to have a direct stake in a project and we want to encourage that.

There are real economic benefits that can be delivered by these projects. The hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) talked about that and we want to prioritise it much further to ensure that where major applications happen, we see more jobs coming to the UK.

In these few minutes, I hope that I have been able to show that we very much understand the points that the hon. Member for Sedgefield made in his expertly argued speech—I am very grateful to him for making those points—and, that the Government are using our review of the renewables obligation and the wider policy framework to ensure that we respond appropriately.