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House of Commons Hansard
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Planning Act 2008 (Amendment)
12 December 2012
Volume 555

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Planning Act 2008 to exempt planning applications for onshore wind farms producing 50 megawatts or more; to provide that they be referred for decision to local planning authorities; and for connected purposes.

I am pleased to report that County Durham has played more than its part in the development of renewable energy. The equivalent of 70% of the county’s household electricity comes from renewable sources; what is more, the equivalent of 27% of the county’s energy needs are already supplied from renewable sources, only 3% off the 2020 target of 30%. Some 68% of the renewable energy generated comes from wind energy. In total, 193 MW of renewable energy is either operational or approved, 132 MW from wind. A further 109 MW is in planning, all of it from wind energy. That is one of the best records of any local authority area in England.

I want to see further renewable energy development in the county, but as far as wind farm development is concerned, I believe the landscape in the county is near or at full capacity. If it is allowed to continue, the cumulative impact on the landscape will become severe. The county now hosts 17 operational wind farms, a further six have been permitted but are not yet operational, and another 13 are in planning. At present, County Durham has 70 commercial-scale turbines and a total of 155 turbines of various sizes. Another 72 turbines of all sizes are in planning, without counting the 24 turbines E.ON would like to build at the Isles in my constituency, which, on a good day, would generate 63.5 MW of electricity.

It is apparent that my Bill is not born out of any sense of nimbyism, because Durham has done its bit. The county understands the need for a good energy mix and has played its part. Today in Durham, the sheer size of the turbines is starting to place a burden on the landscape that I do not believe was envisaged by the legislators when the policy was devised to ensure that local people, through their planning authority, could not say no to a wind farm proposal if the energy generated exceeded 50 MW. Instead, the decision lies with the Secretary of State, through the Planning Inspectorate.

The Isles wind farm proposed for my constituency exceeds the 50 MW threshold and must therefore be referred to the Planning Inspectorate because it is deemed a nationally significant infrastructure project. The county council will merely be consulted. The national significance of the Isles wind farm is not its physical size but the energy it produces. According to E.ON, on a good day it would produce sufficient energy for towns such as Newton Aycliffe and Sedgefield in my constituency. Newton Aycliffe and Sedgefield are great places to live, but is a wind farm that can generate sufficient energy for them an infrastructure project that warrants national significance? I think not. For me, Hartlepool nuclear power station, which is about 10 or 12 miles from Sedgefield and generates 1,190 MW of electricity, is an infrastructure project of national significance.

This is why I believe that onshore wind farms, especially in areas where there are many of them, should be exempt from the 50 MW threshold and that the planning decision on whether they should be built should lie with the local planning authority. If the Isles wind farm gets the go-ahead, local people will be left with a wind farm that covers 12.5 square miles and hosts 24 wind turbines, seven of which will be 126.5 metres high, whereas the other 17 will be 100 metres high. That is in an area that is designated as able to accommodate only four turbines. It would be the largest array of turbines as part of a network of wind farms on the Tees valley plain, including those already operational at Butterwick and the Walkway, as well as those which have received consent at Moor House farm, Lambs Hill and Red Gap farm but have yet to be built.

The Isles wind farm is not a power generating station of national significance, but it is an imposition on local people. Their views should be listened to and the decision on any approval for such a wind farm should be made locally. But where exactly did the 50 MW threshold come from? The figure is enshrined in the Planning Act 2008, in a spirit of consistency since the same figure was used in the Electricity Act 1989. That Act is now almost a quarter of a century old and wind farm technology has moved on.

In fact, during the debates on the 1989 Act, wind farms did not take centre stage. The Government wanted to create a new tranche of renewable energy capacity, but hydro was mentioned rather than wind. In 1994, when Durham county council wrote “Renewable energy in County Durham”, the first strategy document of its kind to be prepared by a local authority, the average wind turbine generated 300 to 400 kW and had a tip height of 40 to 50 metres. By 2001, the wind farm at Tow Law in County Durham was furnished with the latest turbines, which generated 750 kW and stood 71 metres high. The technology has moved on apace, but so has the size of the turbines, from 40 to 50 metres at the end of the 1990s to well over 100 metres today. Some of the turbines destined for the Isles will be 126.5 metres high—six times the height of the Angel of the North or almost twice the height of Durham cathedral. Consequently, the Government should look at increasing the 50 MW threshold.

The threshold is used by utility companies to their advantage because they can design a wind farm to exceed the 50 MW threshold, taking the planning decision out of the hands of local planning authorities. E.ON’s proposal for the Isles is a case in point. Its original proposal was for 10 turbines, but it was withdrawn because it knew that in all likelihood Durham County Council would turn down the application because it was following an Arup report on wind farm landscape impact, which said that the Isles could not take more than four turbines. E.ON withdrew the application, and introduced a new proposal for 45 wind turbines, but has settled on a wind farm of 24 turbines after taking planning restraints into consideration.

To achieve that, however, E.ON has performed all kinds of contortions. The area allocated for the wind farm is huge, but to avoid conservation areas it is designed to stand in two clusters about 2 km apart, each with its own substation. Looking at the map, people would think there were two distinct wind farms, not one. I have pointed that out to E.ON, which told me that as the wind turbines appear within the area designated for the wind farm, it is one wind farm. On that basis, E.ON should draw a red line around the whole of County Durham and have done. E.ON’s approach is cynical and takes for granted the good nature of the people of County Durham.

Durham has led the way in the pursuit of a cleaner and sustainable environment, and Durham county council is to be congratulated. I am not against wind farms, and accept the need for a strong energy mix. Durham county council and the county have done their bit, and we are proud of it. The possibility of a huge wind farm in an area that has proved that it is not averse to accepting wind farms is a step too far, which is why the threshold figure of 50 MW should be withdrawn for onshore wind farms, or at least increased significantly, as they do not provide infrastructure of national importance when compared with nuclear power stations, for example.

County Durham’s industrial heritage is one of coal mining. Those days have gone, and the slag heaps that once scarred the landscape have been removed. Yes, a wind turbine is more elegant than the pit heaps I grew up with, but with the pit heaps came thousands of jobs. What we are experiencing in County Durham today is the re-industrialisation of the landscape without the jobs. What we face in County Durham is massive utility companies being cynical in their approach by attempting to impose on the landscape wind farms which are not really of national importance.

Exempting wind farms from the 50 MW planning threshold, especially in locations where wind farms already dominate and are close to communities, will ensure that other parts of the country, which need to play their part in developing renewable energy, including wind power, are not taken for granted.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Phil Wilson, Pat Glass, Tom Blenkinsop, Grahame M. Morris, Natascha Engel, Angela Smith, Ian Lavery, Mrs Mary Glindon and Mr Richard Bacon present the Bill.

Phil Wilson accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 1 March 2013, and to be printed (Bill 109).