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Navitus Wind Farm, Swanage

Volume 547: debated on Wednesday 4 July 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Francois.)

I am grateful to have this debate on an issue of great concern to people in my constituency and others along the coast. I welcome this opportunity to talk about a proposal that could change the character of our coastline for decades. The Navitus Bay offshore wind farm will cover 76 square miles of seabed owned by the Crown Estate. It is to be located to the south and west of The Needles on the Isle of Wight and will be clearly visible from Swanage, one of the seaside resorts in my constituency.

The project is a 50:50 joint venture between two foreign firms—the Dutch energy company Eneco and the French utility giant EDF. It forms part of round 3 of the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s programme of offshore development, which is designed to generate 33 GW of energy by 2020. Working at full capacity, the wind farm will generate enough electricity for about 800,000 homes. It will create jobs and foster engineering and marine-based skills, and it forms part of a regeneration agenda for some of the most run-down areas on the south coast. Put like that, and in the context of the Government’s enthusiasm for renewable energy, it seems almost irresistible.

However, Dorset and East Devon’s stunning Jurassic coast is the only natural UNESCO world heritage site in England. The Great Barrier reef has the same status, and if we were to suggest building 300 wind turbines off that, the Australians would tell us in typically blunt fashion exactly where to go. World heritage status was granted to the Jurassic coast 10 years ago in recognition of our glorious coastline, which UNESCO describes as being of “outstanding universal value”. It is a prized designation, and a magnet for 16 million visitors every year. Tourists spend nearly £700 million a year there and support more than 45,000 jobs. And yes, the unspoilt view is key to this success, so why are we considering jeopardising this jewel by siting a giant wind farm just offshore?

The precise details have yet to be confirmed when the three phases of public consultation are closed in autumn next year, but we know enough to be concerned. The aim is to generate between 900 MW and 1,200 MW of wind energy a year. That translates into a need for between 100 and 333 turbines. Each, depending upon capacity, will be somewhere between 150 and 210 metres tall. To put that in perspective, one of the larger turbines would dwarf the Gherkin in the City. Just one of these giant turbines would be significant; 100 of them, or more if smaller turbines are used, would blight the coastline for years to come.

Importantly, the proximity of this wind farm to our shoreline totally contradicts the Government’s own guidelines. The Department of Energy and Climate Change suggests that such developments should be more than 23 km from the coast. Unfortunately, the majority of this project is inside that limit. Indeed, the closest point is a mere 13 km away. Interestingly, there was, and presumably still is, the possibility of locating the turbines further out to sea. Originally, the Crown Estate earmarked a far larger area for the wind farm. Inevitably, the site chosen by Eneco and its partners is the closest to shore in depths of between 20 and 50 metres, which is clearly intended to reduce the cost. That would indicate, rather worryingly, that whatever the result of the public consultations there is little room for manoeuvre. The truth is that Navitus Bay will be too big and too close.

This is not just nimbyism. Those who think that a simple view should not impede our future energy requirements should think on this: UNESCO considered withdrawing the world heritage designation given to the beautiful and secluded site of Mont Saint Michel in France when it was threatened by just three wind turbines 20 km away. The French electricity firm involved quickly backed down and Mont Saint Michel remains undisturbed, surrounded by a permanent 40 by 80 km exclusion zone.

I have written to the UNESCO world heritage centre to warn that our own natural world heritage site is in jeopardy. It has written to the ambassador to the United Kingdom’s permanent delegation to UNESCO and to the advisory body of the World Heritage Committee. It has also demanded a visual analysis of the potential negative impact on the coastline. In the visual analysis I have seen, viewed from Durlston, a viewpoint in Swanage, a full third of the horizon is taken up by wind turbines. To be clear, that is the same Durlston that, following a £5 million restoration, is called the “Gateway to the Jurassic coast”. There would be a stretch of water between the land and the wind farm, but the undisturbed and peaceful skyline would be broken by man’s folly.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change has confirmed that Britain is still dedicated to producing 15% of the country’s energy from renewables by 2020, yet we know that wind energy generation has proved intermittent and unreliable. At peak output, wind farms average only a third of their proposed capacity, so wind energy has to be supplemented by conventional power stations or nuclear energy—not the stuff of green dreams—which are expensive to build and neither is renewable, but they will keep the lights on. Connecting Navitus Bay to the grid would be far costlier than anyone anticipated. The electricity networks’ strategy group reported this year on what it rather coyly describes as “regional connection issues”. Put simply, our networks cannot cope with carrying the extra capacity. The ENSG estimates that £450 million will need to be spent on “system reinforcement” in the south-west, which includes the proposed Navitus Bay development, before any electricity flows.

Then there is the vexed question of subsidies, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) has drawn our attention to so successfully. To make wind farms attractive, investors were lured with promises of excessive financial incentives, and 105 Members of this House have already protested against those subsidies.

I commend my hon. Friend for securing this debate and support him absolutely. The 105 signatures actually related to subsidies for onshore wind farms, but we know that the subsidies going into offshore wind are even greater and even less affordable for the taxpayer.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I shall come to that point and ask the Minister to reassure me that the subsidy withdrawal will also apply to offshore wind farms. With households already struggling to pay their energy bills, the financial incentives for investors are almost obscene. The news yesterday that such subsidies will eventually be reduced to zero should deter companies hoping to exploit our energy crisis.

Unfortunately, that news will not apply to schemes such as Navitus Bay because it will not be applied retrospectively, if ever it were to happen. Is my hon. Friend as concerned as I am that, based on the numbers he has quoted, the total subsidy for that wind farm over the next two decades would be in the order of £1.5 billion to £2 billion, which is an awful lot of money for other consumers to find?

I entirely concur. At a time of austerity, when we are all looking for the pennies here and there to keep our country afloat, this is not a moment to dish out money to, in particular, foreign companies. That is what is so ironic: they are Dutch and French companies, not British.

To their credit, the companies involved, Navitus, Eneco and EDF, have consulted and are consulting those who live near to or use those waters, and they have promised to take their views into account. Opponents of Navitus believe that the giant turbines will have a catastrophic effect on the environment and on tourism. Millions of people do not flock to our coastline to watch turbine blades go round; they go for peace and a chance to escape this busy world in which we live.

I worry that our current planning guidelines will not help local people to defeat unwanted wind farm proposals. In a recent reply to my letter, the Minister explained that the Navitus Bay wind farm is a

“Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project under the planning act”.

As such, the project goes straight to the Planning Inspectorate, together with an environmental statement on the potential impact of the wind farm, and that, too, is prepared by the developer.

The Minister points out that the public may submit their views to the inspectorate, but he reminds me that the wind farm is part of our commitment to meet renewable targets. There is a hint of inevitability about his reply, and I should appreciate his reassurance that the scheme is not a foregone conclusion.

I fear, as with recent onshore wind farm planning appeals, that we may find inspectors citing renewable energy targets as more important than planning considerations. I sincerely hope that the national planning policy framework amendments suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry and by other colleagues in the House—in which we recommend that renewable energy targets should not be used by developers as a reason to override the unsuitability of specific locations, and that the wishes of local people should still be considered paramount—will be adopted in the case of offshore wind farm applications as well.

Perhaps I should declare an interest as someone who has enjoyed sailing off the Jurassic coast. I assure my hon. Friend that this historic and wonderful coast is enjoyed not just by Members and the people of Dorset but by many tourists from miles around, so on behalf of many other south-east MPs I support him. It is a valuable resource and a landmark of national importance, and that must not get lost in the planning process.

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. He is absolutely right, and I hope that the Minister and the Government listen to him, to us in the House, to the millions of people who live on our coastline and to the millions of others who go down to use it.

There are other sites, further away and less visible, if such a wind farm is unavoidable, but there are no other natural sites designated as world heritage sites in the entire country. I ask the Government to think very carefully about what they are doing before we blight one of the jewels in our coastal crown.

It is a pleasure to make a brief contribution to this debate.

I shall not dwell on the points that my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) has made so eloquently about the philosophy behind offshore or, indeed, onshore wind, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) has also spoken at length in the past, except to say, as my right hon. and noble Friend the Baroness Thatcher once did:

“Nothing is more obstinate than a fashionable consensus.”

This is a profoundly serious issue for my constituents and, indeed, for the entirety of the conurbation, and that is demonstrated by the fact that my hon. Friends the Members for Poole (Mr Syms) and for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood)—the entire conurbation—are in the Chamber this evening to highlight our profound and real concerns and reservations.

Bournemouth is well known to Members, who go there for the party conferences and will have all stood in the Highcliff hotel and enjoyed the incredible views across the bay. The bay and the view are the hook on which our local tourism economy hangs. The vital prosperity of our area is dependent on that, and we have profound reservations about this scheme and what it may do to the tourism economy.

I have extreme concerns about the process of consultation in which Eneco is involved. The initial consultation did not fill us with confidence; it included questions such as:

“How far do you agree with the following statement?” ‘People have a ‘not in my back yard’ attitude to wind parks’…. How far do you agree with the following statement? ‘I am happy to live close to an offshore wind park if it helps to combat climate change’…How many average households’ energy consumption do you think an offshore wind park can produce in one year?”

Those are not open-minded consultation questions, but dogma-driven ones.

We also have real concerns about the inability so far of the company to provide us with real graphics about what the park will look like. The company keeps telling us that it cannot yet do that because it does not know where in the development area the farm will be, how many turbines there will be or what height they will be. If the company does not know all those things, I find it strange that it can tell us exactly the quantity of energy the wind farm is intended to produce. When the company does give us illustrative graphics, they are of a dusky winter scene. We want them to show the wind farm at the height of the season on a clear, blue-sky day or on a clear night, so that we can see what it would mean for the area.

We are concerned about the economic impact assessment. In fairness, the company is seeking to talk to more than 400 businesses, but some are up to 10 miles away from the coastal area. That will not give us meaningful data about the potential impact on our area.

I close with a simple point, one of the most important that my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset made. I would love the Minister to give us a firm and detailed reply. It is about proximity to the shore. Eneco’s preferred site is 7 nautical miles from the coast, but the Department of Energy and Climate Change offshore energy assessment 2 says that new offshore wind farm generation capacity

“should be sited away from the coast, generally outside 12 nautical miles”.

The same report goes on to acknowledge that

“The environmental sensitivity of coastal areas is not uniform, and in certain cases new offshore wind farm projects may be acceptable”.

“In certain cases”—I find it inconceivable that anyone could judge that an exception could be made for the case under discussion. My hon. Friend talked about the beauty of the Jurassic coastline and I have dwelt on the beauty of our area, which attracts so much tourism.

The project may be some way off, but our constituents—mine and others across the conurbation—will not forgive us if we do not highlight today the impact that it could have. If it damages our area, our constituents would rightly not forgive those of us sent to this place to stand up for the interests of the areas that we serve.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) and for South Dorset (Richard Drax), the latter of whom secured this important debate. I will not detain hon. Members for long as I am looking forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

I echo some of our concerns in Bournemouth. Tourism is our biggest industry. It is the fifth biggest industry in the country, but it is certainly the biggest in Bournemouth. The wind farm installations will be sited 10 miles off the coast. We are supposed to be having a consultation, but we do not know three important things. We do not know the actual location of the wind farm within the upside-down “T” shape that has been given to the company by the Crown Estate. The company has chosen to take the very top of the “T” nearest the land, but we do not know exactly where the wind farm will be.

We also do not know the height of the turbines—whether they will be 100 metres or just over 200 metres high, and we do not know how many there will be. How can there be a consultation without some understanding of what we are considering and what might appear on our doorstep? I am not conceptually against offshore wind farms, but there is a threshold in respect of which they could be accepted.

People have managed to locate a wind farm 20 miles off the coast of our fellow tourist town of Blackpool, and that shows that such projects can work. There are 102 turbines 150 metres high there, and they provide 370 MW. Three times that amount will be required for the Bournemouth area. If the turbines were situated 20 miles off the coast, well within the identified Crown Estate area, that would work. The argument that the cable that links the site to the mainland would be too long is ridiculous, because the one at Blackpool is 43 km long. We can reach a compromise that will ensure that the wind farms can exist, if that is what these companies want, but also guarantee that they does not affect the tourism that is so important to the people of Bournemouth.

I am grateful for the chance to respond to this brief debate. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for South Dorset (Richard Drax), for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) and for Christchurch (Mr Chope), and I appreciate the support for their comments that they have received from other hon. Friends. It is clear from their measured and thoughtful speeches that this matter is of profound concern to them and to their constituents. Those of us who know this particularly stunning piece of coastline, which has been enjoyed not only by local residents but by many visitors over the years, know that it is a special part of the countryside and we understand the emotions that lie behind their comments. It is important to say at the outset that no planning application has yet been made. This is an outline proposal on where some potential offshore wind farms can be positioned, but it has not yet moved to being a formal application.

I hope that my hon. Friends accept that all of us as Government Members agree that the way forward for our energy policy has to be secure, affordable and low carbon. That means having a mix of new nuclear, carbon capture to support coal and gas into the future, and renewable sources. We need to combine that with energy efficiency, which is the cheapest way of delivering energy security. Renewable energy, and offshore wind in particular, is set to be a major part of our energy future. Wind is a low-carbon energy source. It is also a domestic source of energy supply, which means that it will play a role in our energy security because we do not have to rely on imported fuels in order to deliver it.

I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that I cannot because I have been given a relatively short time to respond and I want to pick up as many points as I can. If there is time at the end, I will be more than happy for him to contribute.

When we look around, we see that some of the most energy-rich countries in the world are also harnessing their renewable resources, be it solar power in Saudi Arabia, hydro power in Norway, or wind power in Kazakhstan. If it makes sense for them to be harnessing their renewable resources, it surely makes sense for us to do so. For us, offshore wind is a crucial part of that equation because it is one of our most abundant and deliverable renewable resources.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) talked about sailing on the southern coast. The fact that it is such a good area for sailing shows that the wind resource is strong there. That is one of the reasons the Crown Estate identified the area for potential development. Offshore wind generates more energy, and more often, than other technologies, and it is therefore right that we should be considering it.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset talked about the designation of the scheme as a nationally significant infrastructure project. That is not a subjective assessment made on the basis of having looked at its merits; it is simply a recognition that it is a scheme of more than 50 MW. Any scheme of more than 50 MW has to go through the new national planning system, but following the changes that the Government have made, the final decisions will be made by Ministers.

We understand the local community’s concerns about the proposed development. While we are committed to a rapid increase in offshore wind, we need to ensure that wind farms are located in the right places, and that is the purpose of the planning process. We recognise the need to make balanced decisions on the appropriate location of offshore wind farms. We also recognise that we must take account of the views of local residents, and I give that absolute assurance to my hon. Friend. A proposal must take account of the interests of other users of the sea and of the impact on the environment. All renewable energy developments take place within a fair and transparent planning process that allows all relevant stakeholders to put forward their views on the likely impact of a proposal.

Let me turn to concerns about the site selection process for offshore wind in the context of local sensitivities. Decisions regarding the location of the round 3 offshore wind farm zones, which include Navitus bay, were made by the Crown Estate based on its own analysis of multiple constraints and opportunities. That is a broad zoning aspect. It is then for the planning process to make recommendations on individual applications. It is during the planning process that all relevant stakeholders will have the chance to ensure that their views are heard, including on aspects such as the potential visual impact of a proposal. We all recognise that the environmental sensitivity of coastal areas is not uniform, and neither are the particulars of individual wind farm applications. It is therefore right and proper that decisions will be taken on a case-by-case basis.

My understanding is that the developers for Navitus intend to submit an application to the Planning Inspectorate in the autumn next year. The inspectorate will decide whether the application can be accepted. It will examine in detail the application and all the relevant information, including the views of local stakeholders and the local community, before making its recommendation to the Secretary of State for a final determination. I know that my hon. Friends will understand that, as one of the Ministers involved in the determination process, it is not appropriate for me to go into the details of a specific application. However, I want to reassure them of the thoroughness of the process. Their views as local Members of Parliament, the views of their local authorities and the views of their constituents will be an integral part of that process.

I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset that this is not a done deal. That a project is of a scale that makes it nationally significant does not mean that it automatically will go through the process without changes being made. I understand the reservations of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West about the nature of the consultation, but that is an integral part of the process. It is important in determining the exact location that may ultimately be developed and the scale of the wind farm. We will try to accommodate the views of the local community. If there is not seen to be a full and proper consultation process, that will jeopardise the likelihood of success.

I hope that I have reassured my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset about the nature of the process, and about the chance for his and his constituents’ views to be heard.

I want to make some further observations, but if there is a chance for my hon. Friend to make some further comments, I will be pleased let him do so.

Order. Minister, may I ask you to face towards me and to speak into the microphone? We keep losing the sound when you turn around.

I willingly accept your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker. Many people are quite glad when the sound goes off while I am speaking, but I know that in such an important debate the words are all important.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset raised the potential impact of offshore wind farms on the environment. That was a core part of his speech. The impacts on other sea users and the environment have to be assessed at a strategic level as part of the Department’s offshore energy strategic environmental assessment, and are assessed again at the application stage for each individual project in the environmental impact assessment. The most recent strategic environmental assessment report, which we published in 2011, concluded that at a strategic level, there were no overriding environmental considerations to prevent the achievement of up to 33 GW of offshore wind in the renewable energy zone and the English and Welsh territorial waters by 2020.

We should be in no doubt, however, that the level of ambition is linked directly to the costs involved. We are working with the industry to ensure that the costs of offshore wind can be brought down significantly. At the moment, the cost is about £140 per MWh; we need to see that brought down to £100 per MWh. The industry ambition of 18 GW by 2020 is absolutely dependent on progress being made in that direction. We understand that that has to happen in a way that works for consumers and the industry as investors. It is worth observing that, last year, there was pressure to push up bills by more than £100 because the wholesale price of gas rose by about 40%. The renewable energy element of a bill is less than £20, or less than 3%. We have to look at these issues in the round.

The most important message that I can give to my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset is that this is one proposal, which will come forward in a formal application next year. There will be significant opportunities to ensure that people’s views are heard. I am adamant as a Minister involved in the process that local engagement with the community will be an integral part of that process.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.