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Energy Resources (Lancashire)

Volume 550: debated on Tuesday 18 September 2012

Given how many times I have previously raised this subject, I thought that I might bore the Energy Minister if I did so again. However, there has been a reshuffle and there is a new Minister, so I now have a new audience. I take this opportunity to thank the previous Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), who always dealt with the matters I raised seriously and with his usual good humour. I am sure that the same will be true with the new Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), whom I congratulate on his new position.

Put simply, my constituents and I are concerned that a huge amount of energy exploration and production is going on across Lancashire and a lot more is planned. Energy production of almost every variety is being planned across the county, much of it in or around my constituency. We have wind turbines in abundance, both onshore and offshore. We have nuclear power in Heysham and the possibility of a new reactor there. We had the discovery of shale gas just outside my constituency—the fracking process, which was being undertaken by Cuadrilla, is currently on hold—and Halite Energy Group has applied to store natural gas in salt caverns in Preesall. We have small-scale hydro and solar schemes across the county, and we even have a serious proposal for a tidal barrage across the mouth of the River Wyre in Fleetwood, which has been on hold since 1991; we are still waiting for a national statement on tidal power.

If any or all of those schemes go ahead, we face the additional pylons and substations needed to transfer the power from Lancashire to the national grid. To underline the problem, I add that before any of those new schemes have happened, the existing wind turbines in the Irish sea have led National Grid to consult on brand new pylons that would cross the Lake district. The power would come over land or under the sea to Heysham, which is just outside my constituency, and arrive at the village of Quernmore, where a new substation is proposed; then, to connect the power from the existing turbines in the Irish sea to the national grid, large new pylons would be erected down the core of my constituency and others to reach Pendle in Lancashire. That proposal takes no account of any of the other plans that I mentioned a moment ago.

My question in a nutshell is: with all those proposals, where is the overarching plan? Who assesses the effect of the multiple types of energy? How will all those energy developments impact on one another? Can the fact that other schemes are planned be considered as part of the planning process by the relevant planning authorities? I am also concerned because applicants resubmit applications that are almost entirely the same in nature, for the same sites, time after time, in a sort of salami-slicing process designed to wear down opposition. The Minister has a lot of questions to deal with, so to give him time, I shall highlight just one or two major proposals in my constituency.

We are near the end of the planning process for proposals to store gas in excavated salt caverns under the River Wyre in Preesall. This is the third application: two previous applications from a company called Canatxx were refused; and the third application to store the gas is from a new company, Halite. Residents are concerned about safety—we had the collapse of an old salt cavern in Preesall—and about the impact on the unique geology of the River Wyre. Alongside the Protect Wyre Group, I and my fellow MPs will again oppose that third proposal. I pay tribute to the Protect Wyre Group, which is a residents’ association that has fought year-in, year-out against the proposals, with no extra money. It has none of the resources of energy companies, but it is defending its bit of my constituency. What concerns the group is the repeated applications, which it tries to deal with by fighting planning battles. The uncertainty in the meantime reduces property values because of worries about safety and the possibility of compulsory purchase orders in the area.

I even question the need for the development, and this is where the Ministry comes in. We understand that there have been more than enough applications for natural gas storage to meet national needs for years, yet we in Wyre and Preesall are faced with yet another application. Where is the overall national concern about how many applications will be allowed in the process? The joined-up nature of the plans is what I question.

The application to store gas in Preesall is also relevant because it highlights how one scheme might impact on other. Gas storage on its own may be deemed safe, but what if fracking were given the go-ahead on a larger scale just across the River Wyre in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies)? Because of minor earthquakes, the Department of Energy and Climate Change has suspended the operations there, which were being conducted by a company called Cuadrilla, but how do those operations affect the proposal for the storage of natural gas in salt caverns on the other side of the River Wyre? My understanding is that the planning inspector is looking at the link as part of the Halite application, but I am unsure how much weight a hypothetical development elsewhere carries when reaching a conclusion on the application that is in front of the planning inspectorate.

I turn to the shale gas development. As I have stated in previous debates, I am not against the development of shale gas, and many of my residents also see the national need for gas. However, local people—particularly people living in Bleasdale—are concerned because they get their water not from the mains, but from bore holes. One can see why they are concerned about the protection of watercourses if the process is pursued. They will need reassurance about tight regulations and controls where underground watercourses may be affected.

As I have mentioned in other debates, Lancashire is in danger of becoming like a British Texas, given all the energy exploration, but the key thing about Texas is that, despite the obvious blight, the wealth then goes to local people. What I find difficult to explain to people is that we are part of the Duchy of Lancaster, and it is the duchy that controls and owns the mineral rights. Any farmer who grants permission for fracking to go ahead and gets the drills going will not get much return, and nor will the county or the district. If the process is to be pursued and supported nationally, local people must see a benefit, and from what I understand, the employment benefits are not large.

Fracking also has an impact on the scenery. If, in addition to the pylons and wind turbines, storage wells are to be built all over that part of Lancashire, the natural scenery will be destroyed. I am also concerned about the new substations and pylons needed for the transportation of the gas.

As my hon. Friend knows, many people in Fylde are concerned about fracking. I call on the Minister to recognise that what I am pushing for is tight, robust regulation that is fit for purpose. We also have to take into account population densities, because as my hon. Friend mentioned, our area is not like Wyoming or South Dakota. Lancashire is a densely populated place, which must be a major factor.

As usual, my hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. It is not so much that the people of Lancashire are opposed to the development; they see opportunities in it both for them and for the country, but they are concerned about who will regulate it and who will provide assurances about safety. At the moment, the only people in Lancashire doing the running on this issue are those who are against any kind of development, and a lot of my residents are left wondering who is telling the right story.

I want to underline to the Minister the mineral rights issue. That is a key issue in Lancashire. Who is to get the benefits if the developments go ahead? I know that the Minister’s brief does not include planning, but knowing him as I do, I am sure that he has a wide interest in energy impacts and in the planning process. I have mentioned before that repeated planning applications unsettle local residents, especially when it comes to wind farm developments. In another example, in Claughton moor, at the other end of my constituency, the original application submitted by the developer was for 20 wind turbines between 110 and 126 metres high in an area of outstanding natural beauty. It was rejected unanimously by the planning authority, but the applicant then came back with another application, this time for 13 turbines. That was rejected and then rejected again on appeal, but we are now faced with a third application, this time for 12 turbines. Hon. Members can see what is worrying residents. If the third application is thrown out, will there be a new application for 11 turbines? When does the process cease?

It is all right for the developer and, presumably, the energy company behind it—they are willing to speculate over a long period with a great deal of money—but what about the local residents? Here, I pay tribute to the Friends of Eden, Lakeland and Lunesdale Scenery, the FELLS group. They are volunteers, who have steadfastly fought and fought and fought the applications, but they are beginning to ask: when does the process come to an end? Residents in Preesall are in exactly the same position. They are fighting the third application from Halite. Will that be the final application? Will that be the end? I believe that the Government must step in and say, “Enough is enough.”

We in Lancashire recognise that there is an important national need in relation to gas, electricity and, indeed, any other kind of energy. Lancashire is clearly prepared to play its part. As I am sure the Minister knows, it was, historically, the centre or part of the centre of the industrial revolution. In the energy revolution, however, we face so many applications and the possibility of all sorts of things—pylons in particular—scarring the countryside, that we are asking: who will take a balanced view on this? Will I and my fellow Members of Parliament for Lancashire face a succession of repeated applications, with residents worn down trying to deal with those applications?

I would like to get a plug in for the proposed tidal barrage on the River Wyre. There is another oddity in the energy balance in this country. It has always seemed to me odd that even though this is an island with seas and the power of the waves, we are right at the bottom of the table when it comes to using that energy. I know that the Government have brought through new proposals, but I repeat that what some of us want is a national statement on tidal power. The proposal for the River Wyre has existed since 1991. In 1991, the county council went through a whole planning process in relation to that tidal barrage, but now, all these years later, we are still sitting here with the price of electricity rising.

People can argue for or against a tidal barrage. Many people would argue that it would have far less impact in the form of scarring of the natural scenery in my part of Lancashire than other proposals and that it would have huge potential for regenerating the town of Fleetwood and in terms of flood protection. The proposal is being handled by a small group of people who are determined to try to get it on the agenda, but there is no possibility, it seems to me, of solid financial support to see whether it is a runner in 2012. I say to the Minister that if it was a possible runner in 1991, it must be even more of a possible runner in 2012, particularly given that the revived proposals for the Severn barrage are on such a massive scale. What some of us have proposed in Wyre is the Wyre tidal barrage, because it would be on a much smaller scale, being seen as a pilot to test the engineering necessary for a scheme as huge as that on the Severn.

We all strike a different balance between the different parts of the energy process. Some of us prefer this, some of us think that that might be better, and some of us like the other. What I am trying to underline in the debate is that the pressure on Lancashire, particularly my part of the county, is such that residents are questioning where national, joined-up government is in the approach taken to these matters. In the next few months, as I mentioned, we will have the proposal from National Grid for new pylons in relation to existing wind power from the Irish sea. That proposal and others will ratchet up the debate. There will be the final hearings in relation to Halite and there is the possibility of a new nuclear station at Heysham. Interestingly, the support for a new nuclear station at Heysham is pretty widespread because people can see the strength of the proposal and the job opportunities that it would provide. Given the safety record of the present Heysham power stations, which is second to none, there are very few quibbles from the majority of the population in my area about the proposal. Again, however, although the proposal has been made, I am not sure exactly where it lies in the national strategy.

What we want in Lancashire is a share of the cake. I underline the duchy and mineral rights issue, which is real. What we want in Lancashire is, obviously, jobs. What we want in Lancashire is support to make up for the disastrous lack of planning by the previous Government over 13 years. People understand that, but no one has got to grips with it. We want some security. We want to know that the Government are taking a balanced view and that Lancashire will not just become a Texas where there is no money, where the scenery is scarred by the different attempts by different energy companies to get their proposals through, and where residents have finally given up the fight because they have to carry on with their normal lives and their own jobs or work. We need some reassurance from the Department that people are considering these issues and considering them sympathetically. Lancashire can deliver so much—so much—but we need that security for our residents. They need to know that they will not be ignored, that they will not be trodden over by energy companies and that the scenery that they have will be protected.

It is always a delight to serve under your benevolent and sagacious chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) on securing the debate. Disraeli said,

“Man is only truly great when he acts from the passions”

and my hon. Friend has shown that passion admirably today on behalf of his constituents and the area that he represents. I hope that I can equal that passion in my determination to do right by his constituents; of course, we must do right by the national interest simultaneously.

My hon. Friend is right to focus on the circumstances in Lancashire with regard to energy infrastructure—gas storage, shale gas, nuclear and wind. He covered all those matters in his remarks. He knows that securing sufficient energy is vital for the UK’s future—for national well-being but also for economic growth—but it is also vital that communities play their part in making key decisions about the character of that investment. It is right that they feel a sense of ownership of those decisions and that they are fully involved and consulted before any such decisions are taken. After all, those issues, as he said, will impact on them now but also for years to come. They are matters of considerable concern for those who look to their children’s and their grandchildren’s future, as well as to the immediate prospects that he has described.

I think that the Government can be proud of the approach that we are taking to these concerns, not least through the sustainability appraisal process for the national policy statements at a strategic level, but also at the project level for nationally significant infrastructure, where interactions between developments are considered independently and objectively. The debate is an excellent opportunity to highlight the Government’s overarching strategy for energy and infrastructure and to provide reassurance to my hon. Friend and other Members. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies), who has been a worthy champion, in his place and I would not ignore my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace). My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood made a powerful case on behalf of his constituents in defence of what he identified as the strategic changes and cumulative effects of energy matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Fylde has been notable for his keen interest in the development of shale gas particularly. I will say a little about it today, but more in due course.

We should be in no doubt about the massive scale of investment required to ensure our energy security over the coming decades and to make the transition to a lower-carbon economy. Our electricity plant is old and needs replacing. About a fifth of our existing capacity is due to close over the next decade and will be replaced by energy sources that are increasingly intermittent, such as wind, or inflexible, such as nuclear. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood knows, almost all our existing nuclear plant is due to close by about 2023. Despite being aware of the time scales, in recent years, as he described, we simply did not see the necessary levels of investment.

For the first time in a generation, we faced the prospect that at the end of the decade there would simply not be enough electricity to meet demand. That is clearly not merely unpalatable, but wholly unacceptable for our economy and wider society. Our priority therefore is to rebuild our power sector to guarantee our energy security, and to do so in a genuinely low-carbon way at the lowest possible cost to consumers. Those are the balancing elements in the task that I have been set in my job: to ensure energy security at the lowest possible cost, to attract investment, and of course to do so in a way that is sensitive to local communities and delivers the sense of ownership to which I referred a few moments ago.

To put it in crystal clear terms, we need twice as much investment in every year of this decade, as in the last decade. To put it in numbers, we need £110 billion invested in our energy infrastructure in this decade alone. I learned that fact on the first day I came to this job, and I came to appreciate, perhaps as never before, the scale of the task. Every part of the country has a role to play, and all stand to benefit from secure energy supplies, the jobs created—as my hon. Friends the Members for Lancaster and Fleetwood and for Fylde mentioned—and the stimulus to the UK economy. We need to proceed in a way that is appropriate in terms of not only the energy mix that we deliver, but the environmental impact of the investment. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood made that point repeatedly and powerfully here and previously.

The energy national policy statements designated in July last year set out the need for new energy infrastructure to deliver power to the low-carbon economy. They help to ensure that the UK is a truly attractive market for investors in energy infrastructure, by ensuring that the planning system is rapid, predictable and accountable. The overarching national policy statement EN-1 sets out an overview of the Government’s strategy, and the policy that will lead to an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, while maintaining security of supply and ensuring affordability for customers.

At the last two meetings I had with the Minister’s predecessor—at one stage my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood also met with him—it was made clear to us that there were more than enough applications for gas storage in the pipeline to cover national need. Will the Minister reaffirm that that is still the case and that this particular application does not necessarily make or break the national strategy?

I am looking at gas storage closely; indeed, I met with my officials on it in anticipation of the debate. We will shortly publish our gas strategy, and it is inconceivable that consideration of storage will not form part of it. I have personally asked to take a very close look at the matter for the reasons my hon. Friend highlights. It is critical to see it as part of the solution to the challenge I describe, but to do so in the round. I hear what he says and will certainly feed it into the discussions we are having. The policy statements were subject to a rigorous sustainability appraisal process, which looked at the strategic impacts of a range of policy options.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood mentioned shale gas, which I will speak about at some length. As he knows, the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change carried out an inquiry into shale gas, which confirmed that, providing good industry practice is followed and careful regulation applied, hydraulic fracturing—fracking—is unlikely to pose a risk to ground water or aquifers. The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering recently reported on a detailed study into the potential risks of shale gas extraction and how those can be managed.

Let me be absolutely clear: before there is any return to the exploration necessary—long before production, by the way—I will ensure that rigorous measures are in place to minimise risk, to take local community interest into account, and to allow for a rigorous and thorough planning process. It would be absolutely wrong to proceed on any other basis. As a result of the debate, and of course the earlier work that all my hon. Friends here today have done, I am happy to meet them to talk through the issues prior to publication of any further statement from the Government on the subject. We shall make those arrangements through my officials in the normal way.

Clearly, there is a need to navigate a careful path in overseeing this interesting new energy source. The Government have been active in ensuring that regulations and monitoring systems in the UK meet that need, not least in their current consideration of the comments received in response to expert reports on seismic tremors in Blackpool last year, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood will be aware. The constituency in which much of the activity takes place is often described as Blackpool, but is in fact the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde, which is partly why he has been such a champion of the interests of local people. We published the report of a panel of independent experts and are considering the comments received. The Environment Agency has concluded that any further fracking operations in Lancashire will require permits, which will of course be subject to public consultation.

To ensure full co-ordination of the work of the regulators, we have established a strategy group, chaired by the Department of Energy and Climate Change, including the Health and Safety Executive, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Environment Agency, to oversee the strategic and regulatory issues of shale gas. It is right to say that shale gas in the UK is still in its earliest days; just one well in the UK has been drilled and fracked, and the production prospects are unknown at this stage. However, it may prove to be an interesting, additional energy source, providing that the regulations are in place and all the necessary precautions are taken. My hon. Friends take a measured, moderate and sensible approach to such things.

As you see, Mr Hollobone, I am rushing through my speech at immense speed. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood also mentioned pylons. Network companies, such as National Grid, are required to make a balanced assessment of the benefits of reducing any environmental impacts against the costs and technical challenges of doing so, following extensive consultation with stakeholders. My Department will assess each application on a case-by-case basis, taking advice from local authorities. We will certainly take into account visual amenity and other impacts, as well as consultations with, and representations from, affected communities.

In addition, I will personally work with the Planning Minister. As a result, once again, of the debate, I have arranged a meeting with him to do just that. It is important to keep such things under regular review to see whether the existing system is fit-for-purpose in delivering the outcomes we all want. After all, are we not in politics to pursue truth and beauty? Is beauty not the expression of truth? We must not see things in entirely utilitarian terms; perhaps that has been the problem with the debate in the past, but now I am here to put that right.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood also mentioned wind power. It is of course right that we meet our targets for emissions, and he will also know that there is a renewables target. We consider such matters carefully in all respects. I hear what he says about cumulative impact and I know the views of the House on these matters. I will look again, as any new Minister would, with appropriate rigour and vigour.

My hon. Friend made many other remarks, with which I have not been able to deal, but, as is my habit as a Minister, I will write to him picking up in detail all the matters that he raised. My officials are already busy constructing that letter. It has been a pleasure to speak in the debate and a pleasure to hear from him. Let us move forward together, in confidence, delivering energy security sustainably.

Sitting suspended.