Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Turner. Two minutes ago, I was getting slightly worried that the Minister was going to miss the debate, but I am delighted to see him in his place now. I should have known better, and that he would not let the House down.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. However, if I had my way we would not be having this debate here today, as the matter under consideration, which essentially relates to the exploitation of Welsh natural resources, would be a matter for Welsh democratic institutions.
I have yet to be a Member of Parliament for three years—I am coming up to the three-year anniversary—but I have already lost count of the number of times that I have raised the issue of the need to devolve responsibility for these issues. Indeed, I introduced my own Bill, which was unceremoniously voted down by Tory and Labour MPs before it even got to Second Reading.
To be fair, the Liberal Democrats joined us in the Lobby, and I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), who led that rebellion, present in Westminster Hall today.
Many of my constituents are extremely confused why some developments within the two technical advice note 8, or TAN 8, areas that I have in my constituency are a matter for the local planning authority, and why the development at Brechfa West is determined by the Minister. This development by RWE npower renewables is aimed at generating up to 84 MW, and therefore supersedes the ridiculous 50 MW limit that currently determines where responsibility lies.
The Minister will be aware that the UK Government-sponsored Silk commission is currently taking evidence on part two of its report. My party has called for the devolution of power to determine all energy-generating developments. The Labour Government in Wales have limited themselves to calling for full devolution of renewable energy projects. I read in the Western Mail that even the Tory Assembly group wants to increase the limit to 100 MW, although the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) has declared on Twitter that that will happen only “over his dead body”. I have not seen a submission by the Lib Dems on the Silk report but I am confident they will be on the side of progress on this issue.
The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the Welsh Lib Dem commitment that the power to determine all those consents regarding projects above 50 MW should be vested in Assembly Ministers. That is of direct relevance not only to the two TAN 8 areas in his constituency but to a significant TAN 8 plan in Nant y Moch, which is in my Ceredigion constituency.
I am glad to see that commitment by the Lib Dems in Wales. However, we have seen the UK Government submission, which I believe was published this morning. I have not read it in great detail, but I am led to believe that it argues for maintaining the status quo. If that is the case, it will be slightly embarrassing for the Tories and the Lib Dems in Wales.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that I am greatly opposed to devolution of these matters, but that is purely because in my view the Westminster Government are more likely to listen to the opinions of local people than the Welsh Government are at the current time. That is the reason why I am opposed to devolution on this issue and will continue to oppose it; it is in the interests of local democracy and reflecting the opinions of local people. I would have thought that he might support me on that.
I hope that that is indeed the case, and that is why I secured this debate in the House this morning.
Ministers need to be aware that the current situation is frowned upon by people in Wales, who are protective of their natural resources. They do not understand why Scotland and Northern Ireland have full control over this policy field, while Welsh projects over the 50 MW limit are determined in London.
I have been forced to call this debate because my constituents feel that they have had precious little opportunity to express their views. All developments to date within TAN 8 area G have been determined by the local planning authority. Each development has been open to a full public consultation, and the lines of accountability with the planning department and planning committee have been clear. Indeed, based on the experiences of the only functioning development within the TAN 8 area, local planning guidance has been amended to include mitigating measures, such as an enhanced buffer zone.
None of those things applies to the Brechfa West development, as it is being determined under a completely different set of planning criteria. Local people feel that that particular development is being determined in a completely undemocratic manner. Only last week, a group of them travelled all the way down to London to present a dossier to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and I am confident that the Minister has read that document in the meantime. They feel that consultation by the planning inspector was lacking, and are as aggrieved as I am that the Minister and his team are making this decision without having even visited the area concerned. The Minister could have taken his dog, Otto, for a walk in the area, as it is a lovely part of west Wales, enjoyed by tourists from around the world.
As much as I would like to, I am not going to spend the time available to me today making the case—once again—for repatriation of energy powers to Wales. Instead, as the Minister will be making his decision on the Brechfa West project within the next week, I want to move on to the substantive issues regarding this development, and in particular the issues that have been raised with me by constituents.
Put simply, neither I nor my constituents are satisfied that either the Minister or the Secretary of State will visit Brechfa before passing judgment on the wind farm application. Even local planning authorities, made up of councillors living within the county, carry out regular site visits to gain a sound understanding of any proposed development. How can my constituents have any confidence in the Minister’s decision when he—sitting in his office down here in London—decides on an application for a project that is more than 200 miles away, in a village he does not know, in a community he does not understand and in a county he will not visit?
Many constituents have written to me regarding the noise levels of existing wind turbines situated in TAN 8 area G, more commonly known as Alltwalis wind farm, which is a stone’s throw away from the proposed Brechfa West development. Target noise limits for the proposed Brechfa West wind farm are based on ETSU-R-97, the same methodology used for the existing Alltwalis turbines. As the Minister should be aware, the 10 turbines at Alltwalis already make the maximum noise permitted under ETSU-R-97. The 28 proposed turbines at Brechfa West would inevitably add to the existing noise, thereby breaching noise limits. My constituents firmly believe there was no proper discussion during the planning process for Brechfa West about the cumulative noise effect, or about the possibility of using alternative noise or turbulence measurements to ETSU-R-97.
Of course, ETSU-R-97 is itself unsatisfactory. Since 2009, the UK Government have asked, first, Hayes McKenzie and, secondly, the Institute of Acoustics to review the application of ETSU-R-97, which is the Government’s recommended methodology for predicting and assessing the noise coming from wind turbines. As I have pointed out in correspondence and on the Floor of the House, the issue is not how consistently ETSU-R-97 is applied but whether it is effective in protecting people who live near turbines. The Minister should ask my constituents about this issue. It is their strong view that ETSU-R-97 is far from effective, and I strongly believe—I make the point again today—that the UK Government should commit to reviewing ETSU-R-97 on that basis.
The National Assembly for Wales agrees with that position. In May 2012, its Petitions Committee carried out a review into the control of noise from wind turbines. The cross-party group of Assembly Members made four key recommendations, one of which was that
“ETSU-R-97 guidelines be revised to take into account the lower ambient noise levels in rural areas and the latest research and World Health Organisation evidence on the effects on sleep disturbance.”
My constituents would be very interested to know the Minister’s views on that recommendation and whether he agrees with colleagues in the National Assembly.
Is the Minister content to allow wind farm applications to be judged in accordance with guidance that is 16 years old and arguably out of date? If so, what assurances will he put on record today to state categorically that the proposed 28 turbines at Brechfa West will not exceed the noise limits set out in the guidance? Why is there no provision, for example, for excess amplitude modulation? In particular, how will any breaches of noise regulations be policed? Which development—Alltwalis or Brechfa West—will face enforcement action? To whom will local people complain? Will it be to the local planning authority or to DECC here in Whitehall? Those are complicated issues and I am not convinced that the architects of TAN 8, which concentrates developments within strategic zones, have thought them through. Admittedly, that is, of course, an issue for the Welsh Government, as TAN 8 is Welsh Government policy.
It cannot be right that some of my constituents consistently lose sleep due to the effects of wind turbines. If the Minister is minded to approve the Brechfa West application, my constituents would expect his personal reassurance that no resident will suffer loss of sleep due to the turbines and that there will be clear enforcement procedures to protect them.
I have also received many complaints from constituents about the access route for the Brechfa West development, which will be built only 150 metres away from the access route to the Alltwalis site. I have written to the Minister about that issue. Surely it is ridiculous that the developments will not be forced to use the same access route, should Brechfa West be approved, because they adjoin the same location. The operator of the Alltwalis development, Statkraft, has a continuing dispute with the landowner of its access route, and the situation has turned extremely unpleasant. Surely the Department should use the new adjacent development at Brechfa West to address some of the outstanding issues with the Alltwalis development, if the Minister consents to the Brechfa West development in the next week.
In answer to my recent parliamentary question, the Minister confirmed that the Planning Act 2008
“allows for applications for development consent for new generating stations above 50 megawatts (MW) and associated electricity connections to be contained in a single application, or in separate applications submitted in tandem”.—[Official Report, 18 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 956W.]
Given that the Minister will be determining the Brechfa West application on its own, my constituents in Brechfa, and in the surrounding communities of the majestic Towy and Teifi valleys, can reasonably expect him to give a cast-iron guarantee this morning that no additional infrastructure, such as pylons or electricity cabling, will be required to connect the Brechfa West turbines to the national grid.
The infrastructure has been more contentious in mid-Wales than the energy-generating projects themselves. The understanding of local people is that, should the Minister approve Brechfa West, National Grid will make an infrastructure planning application linking TAN 8 area G in the north of my constituency and TAN 8 area E in the south before joining the main south Wales electricity network at Swansea.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me a second intervention. Does he agree that, for any other form of application, seeking approval without the associated infrastructure just would not happen? Someone could not seek permission for a house if there was no road to it, yet in mid-Wales we have a public inquiry into six wind farms without any idea of how the power is going out. The idea is that the approval of the wind farms would force the infrastructure to follow. That is absolutely outrageous. The Governments in Westminster and in Cardiff are forcing something on local people and are coming up with every stunt in the book to try to undermine local opinion.
The hon. Gentleman is correct. Indeed, the Department’s planning guidance is that projects and infrastructure should be agreed in tandem.
The Merched Beca uprising of the 19th century was spawned in the communities of north Carmarthenshire, and if the worst fears about pylons are realised, there will be huge protests throughout Carmarthenshire, as we have seen in mid-Wales.
If the Minister is not prepared to give a guarantee, my constituents would expect a moratorium on the Brechfa West application until additional planning applications for electricity infrastructure are submitted. As UK Government energy planning policy dictates, the applications should be considered together, otherwise the people of Carmarthenshire would rightly feel they have been misled by his Department, the Labour Government in Cardiff and the multinational companies involved in the development.
Given that there are 10 turbines in Alltwalis, that 15 turbines are currently being erected on Betws mountain in TAN 8 area E and that a proposal for 21 further turbines was recently refused for Llanllwni mountain in the TAN 8 area of north Carmarthenshire, it seems logical for electricity infrastructure proposals to be submitted in tandem. Only then will those passing judgment on the applications have a true and accurate picture of the impact the developments would have on the communities I represent.
I find myself in the somewhat strange position of defending the interests of the defence industry and its testing of unmanned aerial vehicles to justify my constituents’ concerns on Brechfa West. My opposition to UAVs is a matter of public record, and I stand by my comments. Nevertheless, my constituents have significant concerns about the safety of operations in what is now regrettably a highly militarised area.
Since the planning process ended, the Ministry of Defence has warned that the proposed Brechfa West turbines would cause unacceptable interference to range-control radar at Aberporth. The interference would desensitise radar in the vicinity of the turbines, leading to aircraft not being detected and not being identifiable to air traffic control. There would also be false aircraft returns, thereby increasing the workload of controllers and air crews, which would have a significant operational impact.
The MOD also states that radar is used to separate and sequence both military and civilian aircraft, and that
“radar is the only way to do this safely.”
The Minister should be aware that the whole of north Carmarthenshire was recently designated an air corridor for the testing of military drones between the air base at Aberporth on the Ceredigion coast and the military training area on Epynt mountain in south Powys.
Despite identifying risks to public safety, and initially demanding that those risks be mitigated by developers before any construction begins, the MOD withdrew its objections before the start of the planning process. It has been suggested that the MOD was subjected to considerable pressure from the developer, and the MOD apparently made the decision only for legal reasons—for fear of facing a legal challenge— and not because of a change in policy or position.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that the pressure that may have been brought to bear on the MOD goes to the heart of the issue about conflicting policy agendas? The Welsh Assembly Government and the MOD are investing a lot of money in the development of drones at ParcAberporth, but TAN 8 wind turbine sites are being designated comparatively nearby. That is a big clash of policy, is it not?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. North Carmarthenshire now has the only air corridor over the British mainland, yet the area has been heavily mapped for the development of renewable projects, which affect defence projects. There seems to be a lack of coherence, whether that is the responsibility of the Welsh Government or the UK Government—the air corridor is a UK Government policy, of course.
Additionally, the MOD is blocking the Met Office’s objection to the proposed wind farm, which, again, was formulated on public safety grounds due to interference to the only weather radar station in Wales. As we are talking about flying objects, with rumours of weaponised drones being tested in the near future, those responsible for approving the wind farm must be satisfied that the development poses no public risk. Will the Minister outline his understanding of why those objections from the MOD and the Met Office were withheld?
My constituents have endeavoured to engage with each and every step of the application process. Many have been unable to take part due to different authorities being responsible for developments of different sizes, which leads to confusion. I find myself getting confused, and I am a Member of Parliament. Some of my constituents have requested that, at the very least, turbines 17, 18 and 23 be removed to minimise the noise and visual impact on their homes. If the Minister decides to approve the development in the next week, I would ask that he particularly considers those three turbines.
It is regrettable that I have had to secure this debate to air my constituents’ concerns. My constituents feel that, compared with the planning processes of the local planning authority, they have been unable to express their view on the procedures employed by the Infrastructure Planning Commission and the Department. There is no doubt in my mind that decisions on such developments should be made in Wales. I hope the Minister, before he makes his decision within the next week, will consider the points I have raised today.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) on securing this debate. I know he has taken a strong and long-standing interest in the topic, which is important for his constituents. Over the past three years—his anniversary is coming up—he has been diligent in asking written and oral questions in the House.
I am sorry to start my response to this interesting debate by making what might seem to be an unhelpful statement, but the hon. Gentleman has mentioned that the Department is currently considering the application for development consent from RWE npower renewables on the proposed Brechfa Forest West wind farm. Given my quasi-judicial role in approving the application, I regret that I am unable to comment on the merits of the arguments for and against the proposal made both this morning and during the Planning Inspectorate’s lengthy examination of the application.
I am also unable to respond to the pithy interventions by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) and the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), but I acknowledge their points. I assure them that I have listened carefully to the discussions this morning. I cannot prejudge the outcome, but I will consider whether any of the points raised are material to the deliberations on the consent. There will be a revised submission in light of this debate, and my officials and I will read it carefully before coming to our considered decision.
My deliberations will also have to include the other relevant matters that have been drawn to my attention, including the representations delivered to the Department of Energy and Climate Change by the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr and several of his constituents last week, and the report from the Planning Inspectorate dated 12 December 2012, which drew together the various issues that were considered during the examination of the Brechfa application.
The hon. Gentleman expressed his frustration that I had not been able to visit the site. I can assure him that that is nothing peculiar to his constituency, and it has nothing to do with the fact that it is in Wales. It is not usual for a Planning Minister to visit individual sites, because that might jeopardise, counteract or duplicate the professional site visits that the Planning Inspectorate undertakes. It is my job to bring together all those detailed observations and the representations made locally, and to consider them. I could carry out that consideration in Whitehall or Kathmandu, but I have to look at the evidence impartially and reach a decision. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no reluctance on my part to visit such a beautiful part of the country, and I am sure that were Otto given a say in the matter, he would be all in favour of a site visit.
For the sake of clarity, it might be worth setting out briefly the process by which the Brechfa application and other infrastructure projects classified as nationally significant—in the case of onshore wind farms, those with a generating capacity of more than 50 MW—are considered and determined. One of the key planks of the Planning Act 2008 process for such projects is the role of the Planning Inspectorate. Until its report and recommendation are submitted to the Secretary of State, the inspectorate leads on various aspects of the process. It is, therefore, the inspectorate that engages in discussions with applicants before an application for development consent is submitted; it is the inspectorate that considers whether an application should be accepted for examination; and it is the inspectorate that will conduct the examination of that application. As part of the examination, the inspectorate’s examining authority—either an individual or a panel of three of five members that is hearing the case—visits the sites of proposed developments. That is as it should be. The inspectorate’s officers have the expertise to assess the issues on the ground and weigh up the benefits, or otherwise, of the proposed development package. It is not Ministers’ place to engage in that aspect of the process.
In considering all the evidence, I will have the opportunity to weigh against the professional submissions that I receive additional submissions from local people, not least the information that the hon. Gentleman has so assiduously brought to my attention. He brought it to my Department last week, and I can assure him that it will be weighed in the balance as a decision is reached.
As indicated earlier, it is only at the end of the process that the Secretary of State can consider the information that has been provided by the applicant and any interested parties, and the way in which the Planning Inspectorate’s examiner has considered those matters. Finally, the Planning Act process is precise about the timetable for decision making. Decisions must be made within three months of the submission of the Planning Inspectorate’s report and recommendation. I am sure we all agree that it is in nobody’s interest for such decisions to be spun out, leaving local communities and businesses hanging, waiting for Government decisions. If that timetable cannot be met, the responsible Minister must make a statement to Parliament and to interested parties indicating why not. In the case of the Brechfa application, a decision must be reached by 12 March 2013, so we are close now.
I know that the Minister wants to make progress, and I am listening intently to what he is saying. One of the arguments against the development is that it will not be possible to use the existing electricity connection grids to transmit the energy to the main line in south Wales, which runs from Alltwalis to Carmarthen. New infrastructure will be required, and the UK Government’s planning guidance clearly states that such projects should be considered in tandem.
I understand why the hon. Gentleman raises the question of grid connection for the Brechfa project. Although I cannot go into detail and comment on the specifics of that case, for obvious reasons, it might be worth outlining the process that is set out in the overarching national policy statement for energy, which is known as EN-1, for considering grid connection issues. EN-1 sets out that, wherever possible, applications for new generating stations and related infrastructure should be contained in a single application to the Planning Inspectorate or in separate applications submitted in tandem that have been prepared in an integrated way.
Does the Minister know that the inspector in the conjoined public inquiry into the six applications I mentioned has specifically refused to do that? Protesters, including me, have wanted that to happen, but the inspector has refused to look at the infrastructure side at the same time, even though that would satisfy local people’s concerns.
I hear my hon. Friend’s point, and clearly it would be best for the applications to be made in tandem. However, that is not always possible, and it may not always be the most practicable way of dealing with such issues. In some cases, therefore, applicants may decide to submit an application that seeks consent for one element but contains some information on the second strand of the project, including an assessment of impacts. Where that is the case, the decision maker will need to be satisfied that there are no obvious reasons why the necessary approvals for the other element—the grid infrastructure—are likely to be refused.
I would like to touch on the other big issue that was raised, namely the devolution of consenting powers for energy infrastructure to Welsh Ministers. I understand that that raises a degree of emotion. The Government support the principle that decisions for particular matters should be taken at the most appropriate level, and as locally as possible, wherever that is feasible. For nationally significant energy infrastructure projects in England and Wales, as defined in the Planning Act, we consider that the right decision maker is the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. For offshore renewable energy projects of up to and including 100 MW, that responsibility is vested in the Marine Management Organisation, under the relevant provisions in the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. We believe that the present arrangements for decision making are fit for purpose in that they minimise delays and unpredictability and ensure investor confidence in the decision-making process.
The major infrastructure planning regimes are different in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for historical reasons, and they reflect each nation’s devolution settlement. The Planning Act and the Localism Act 2011, which broadly cover England and Wales, introduced the current major infrastructure planning regime. Those changes were devolution-neutral and did not make any significant changes to the division of responsibility between the local and national consenting authorities. The Government are clear that any requests for further devolution of powers in this area to Welsh Ministers or the Welsh Assembly should be considered in the light of any recommendations made by the Silk commission, which is currently reviewing the powers of the National Assembly for Wales and is due to publish its recommendations in spring 2014.
The hon. Gentleman asked about noise and reliance on regulations that date back to 1996. We have procured updated analysis from acoustic experts Hayes McKenzie, which carried out a research project. Its report was published in June 2011, and it found that although ETSU-R-97 guidance remained fit for purpose, good practice guidance was needed to confirm, and where necessary clarify, how it is being implemented in practice. We are producing new guidance, which will be published in the first half of 2013. We are updating the guidance, but we believe that it is fit for purpose. I am afraid I cannot go into more detail, but I will be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman.