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Onshore Wind (Planning Policy)

Volume 563: debated on Thursday 6 June 2013

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for Housing if he will make a statement on planning policy in relation to onshore wind.

The coalition agreement pledged to decentralise power to local people. We are committed to giving local people far more ability to shape the places in which they live. Through a series of reforms, this coalition Government are making the planning process more accessible to local communities. Planning works best when communities themselves have the opportunity to influence the decisions that affect their lives. However, current planning decisions on onshore wind do not always reflect a locally led planning system.

Following a wide range of representations, including the letter of 30 January 2012 to the Prime Minister from 100 hon. Members, and in light of the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s call for evidence, it has become clear that action is needed to deliver the balance expected by the national planning policy framework. We need to ensure that protecting the local environment is properly considered alongside the broader issues of protecting the global environment. Today my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has published the response to his call for evidence on onshore wind and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is publishing a written ministerial statement that will set out a number of key changes that I know the House will wish to consider. Let me set out the key elements for the benefit of the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris).

First, we want to strengthen the voice of local people. The submissions to the call for evidence have highlighted the benefits of good quality pre-application discussions for onshore wind development and the improved outcomes they can have for local communities. We will amend secondary legislation to make pre-application consultation with local communities compulsory for the more significant onshore wind applications. This will ensure that community engagement takes place at an earlier stage and may assist in improving the quality of proposed onshore wind development. It will also complement the community benefits proposals announced by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

Secondly, on better planning guidance, the national planning policy framework we published last year includes strong protections for the natural and historic environment. However, I know that local communities have genuine concerns that insufficient weight is being given to environmental considerations such as landscape, amenity or heritage. We need to ensure that decisions get the environmental balance right, in line with the framework, and that any adverse impact from a wind farm development is addressed satisfactorily.

We have been equally clear that this means facilitating sustainable development in suitable locations. Put simply, meeting our energy goals should not be used to justify the wrong development in the wrong location. We are looking to local councils to include in their local plans policies that ensure that adverse impacts from wind farm developments, including cumulative landscape and visual impact, are addressed satisfactorily. Where councils have identified areas suitable for onshore wind, they should not feel they have to give permission for speculative applications outside those areas when they judge the impact to be unacceptable.

To help to ensure that planning decisions reflect the balance in the framework, my Department will shortly issue new planning practice guidance to assist local councils and planning inspectors in their consideration of local plans and individual applications. Briefly, the guidance will set out, first, that the need for renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protections and the planning concerns of local communities. Secondly, decisions should take into account the cumulative impact of wind turbines and properly reflect the increasing impact on the landscape and local amenity. Thirdly, local topography should be a factor in assessing whether wind turbines have a damaging impact on the landscape. Fourthly, great care should be taken to ensure that heritage assets are conserved in a manner appropriate to their significance, including the impact of proposals on views important to their setting.

We will be writing to the Planning Inspectorate and to all councils to flag up the new guidance and its operation. This Government firmly believe that renewables have an important role to play in a balanced energy policy. However, as a localist Government, we also firmly believe that planning works best when local people are able to shape their local environment.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I should like to draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but it is a shame that this was not announced to the House first. Should the Department of Energy and Climate Change have been briefing the media on this announcement 24 hours before it was announced in this place, especially when its planning element comes from the Department for Communities and Local Government and is time-sensitive and commercially significant? What will be the impact of the policy change on proposed developments that are currently in the planning process, particularly those that are in the planning appeals system and whose appeal has been concluded but the result is not yet known? Will the proposed change be retrospective for schemes that have been granted planning permission against the wishes of the local communities or councils, but whose construction has not yet started?

For too long, developers have ridden roughshod over the views of local communities and local councils on inappropriately sited wind turbines. Can the Minister elaborate on how the new policy will be communicated to the Planning Inspectorate and local planning authorities, and on the timeline that will be involved?

There might have been some confusion within Government Departments about these matters, but I wholeheartedly welcome the planning changes. I really believe that this could be the beginning of the end of unwanted onshore wind farm development in England, and I welcome the Minister’s statement.

Order. This policy announcement should of course first have been made in this Chamber through an oral statement offered by the Government. Right hon. and hon. Members will appreciate that it was precisely because that offer was not made, which it should have been, that I granted the urgent question from the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris). We look forward of course to the Minister’s reply.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The two written ministerial statements are important, but the Government will always note what you have to say on these matters. That is important in this regard.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s wholehearted support for these important changes. I know that he has been an ardent campaigner on these matters, and I very much respect that. It is important that constituency Members of Parliament should feel able to do that. He asked which proposals would be affected by the changes. I must be careful not to mention any specific named applications, but when something has been determined at local level, we clearly cannot reopen it. The changes will not be retrospective. When something is in the planning application system but no decision has been made, local planners and the planning inspectors will now have to give clear consideration—as they would in any other circumstances—to this guidance. That will give comfort not only to Members of the House but to many of the constituents they represent.

I am grateful to you for your ruling, Mr Speaker. Once again we have had to learn the details of a Government policy from the press rather than from a statement to the House.

We know that planning approvals for wind farms in England have fallen from about 70% of applications in 2008 to 35% in 2012, which raises the question of why this guidance is being introduced now. We accept that there are clearly locations in which it is inappropriate to put wind turbines, and we welcome the greater incentives that will be provided to local communities that accept wind farm developments. Pre-application discussions with communities are clearly a good thing, and should be happening in any case, but can the Minister tell us what the threshold will be for the more significant applications that will trigger compulsory consultation, and do the Government intend to make the same changes for fracking planning applications?

It has been reported that local communities will, in effect, be given a veto over new wind farm planning applications. A senior Conservative source is quoted in the newspapers as saying:

“This is a bomb proof set of safeguards”.

That is not, however, what it says in the written ministerial statement, and neither did the Minister say that in his reply. Can he therefore tell us what will in fact be the case? Will there be a veto: yes or no? If so, how exactly will this power of veto operate?

Reference has also been made to significant local opposition. How will this be assessed and who will decide whether it is significant? Will local authorities still finally determine the planning applications? What will be the position in local communities where a local plan has not yet been drawn up or approved by the Planning Inspectorate? Do the Government have any plans to change the process for deciding on planning applications for wind farms generating more than 50 MW?

As we know, onshore wind is the cheapest form of renewable energy, so what assessment have the Government made of the likely impact of these changes on our carbon budgets and on the cost of electricity for consumers in general?

The hon. Lady raised a number of points, and she will forgive me if I say that the details on carbon emissions are not within the bounds of the planning decision, which is what this urgent question is about.

Let me deal with two particular issues that the hon. Lady raised. She rightly raised the question of what a “more significant” development is. This will depend on a number of issues. As hon. Members may understand, it may be about the scale and number of turbines, but it could also be about the height, size and massing of them. Clearly, we do not want to ensnare someone who is thinking of having a small turbine in the back garden. That is not the purpose of the approach; this will be set out clearly in the secondary legislation.

The hon. Lady then raised a broader point about retrospectivity. She did so quite imaginatively, I thought, in a number of different ways. Perhaps I can reiterate the point. Where a determination has been made, there will not be a retrospective change, but where an application is in the system, we expect the local planning officers and, if the case is in appeal, the inspectors themselves to give clear and careful consideration to the issue, in the knowledge that it has the potential to be a “material consideration”, which she will obviously understand has a legal implication as well.

The purpose behind this approach is very clear, but I am not sure that the hon. Lady was. We believe in making sure that local communities have a clear voice, and we want the balance between the global environmental issues and the local environmental issues to be made clear. The policy has been clear; sadly, as many hon. Members have found, it has not been applied appropriately on the ground. We intend to make sure that planning inspectors and the planners themselves on the ground are able to do so.

In congratulating my hon. Friend on this statement, may I ask whether he will extend the principles he has enunciated to offshore wind farms, where exactly the same principles apply, particularly in the case of the much-despised proposal for an offshore wind farm in Christchurch bay?

My hon. Friend is always adept at tempting Ministers, but I think I shall keep my feet on dry land.

May I return to a point the Minister did not answer a minute ago? Will he confirm that this change does not give a veto to local authorities and local communities over all wind farm applications? Will he confirm that what he has done is to put into the guidance matters to which the local authorities will now have to have regard in considering applications? These are in fact matters to which local authorities currently can have regard, and to which the best local authorities will already have regard.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which is that the policy has not changed. The frustration that many Members have experienced is about the way in which it has been applied at a local level. He is right to say that we are now making sure that these matters are dealt with in the appropriate fashion at the local level. These will now be material considerations, which is an important aspect. The policy has been clear. The sad part, as many hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, is that the application has been inconsistent. That problem will now be solved.

Is the Minister aware that the beautiful county of Northumberland has a large number of wind farm applications, and that there will be a welcome for this coalition Government’s recognition that visual and cumulative impact should be more effectively recognised in the system and that communities where appropriately sited wind farms are built should get a greater benefit from that?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; I have often felt that issues of amenity and landscape are things that people do care about in terms of their environmental considerations. This guidance will help to ensure that the balance is right now.

The Minister has not made it clear whether this will apply in Wales and England. Irrespective of that, will he confirm that it will mean more wind farms in urban areas and fewer in rural areas, and that more electricity will therefore be generated in Labour constituencies for Conservative constituencies, with the Liberals blowing in the wind, as normal?

The borough of Kettering is enthusiastic about its successful and expanding wind farm at Burton Wold, but we do not want wind turbines all over the countryside. Can the Minister assure my constituents that they can use the very good example of that wind farm to protect against the spread of wind turbines everywhere else?

That is the thing that people feel; the cumulative issue is often the concern that local communities have. That is why this guidance will strengthen the arm to make sure that it is a genuine material consideration. People will now feel that they are to contribute to the planning process, and that is good for the process itself.

There seems to be a lack of understanding among Labour Members. This is not about vetoes; it is about making sure, in a legal system, that we have appropriate and due consideration of the material issues—topography, amenity and heritage. On this idea that we have a blanket veto here at the Dispatch Box, I know that that is how they liked to do it in the Labour party in the past, but we let local people decide.

While I warmly welcome my hon. Friend’s statement, as I am sure most of my colleagues do, may I just point out to him that it contains no reference to general aviation and the Ministry of Defence, both of which have enormous concerns about the impact of wind farms? May I give just one example? As one of the few currently licensed aviators in this House, I was flying on Monday past Popham, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), where there is a huge concern about 22 wind turbines, each the height of the London Eye, and the massive impact they can have on general aviation. May I ask the Minister to take into account those concerns, which are certainly shared by my hon. Friends the Members for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) and for Winchester (Steve Brine)?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and we do need to consider that issue, although of course what he is referring to is strictly outside the nature of this statement. Perhaps I, or indeed the Secretary of State, might like to take a flight with him to see this directly.

I realise that the announcement on the planning changes refers to England, but given that the Government appear to have had time to brief the media, did they also have time to discuss any of this with the Scottish Government, as there will be concerns that it will perhaps be tougher to obtain planning permission in England and that that will have knock-on consequences in Scotland?

Clearly this is a devolved matter, but if the hon. Lady is directly concerned, she needs to talk to the Scottish Government, as we are already doing.

I have tried to push the Minister on this important issue, but will he just clarify whether the current applications at judicial review are included in the change in guidance?

The key point is that if a determination has been made, that cannot be undone, whether that is at the local level or at the planning level, and that, I think, incorporates any other aspect where there is a decision about this. Once a decision has been published, that clearly cannot be changed by this guidance.

E.ON wants to build a wind farm consisting of 25 wind turbines in the middle of my constituency, generating 64 MW of electricity, which is therefore over the 50 MW threshold. The final decision will be made by the Secretary of State. Does this announcement today mean that if the local planning authority is opposed and the local community is opposed, the Secretary of State will say no to it?

It is cute of the hon. Gentleman to try to tempt me into that area. He knows that these are quasi-legal decisions, and I am not going to comment on any individual application. What we have done today is make sure that the balance in discussions is correct at the local level and at the appeal level, so that there is an appropriate level of decision making. I am not going to be drawn into individual applications, as he will understand.

I welcome what the Minister has said—as, I am sure, will many of my constituents, particularly those in Denholme who have been battling against a wholly inappropriate proposal for a wind farm—but can he tell us what safeguards will be provided for local residents? My constituents have become accustomed to Labour-run Bradford council’s practice of sending its councillors over to parts of the constituency, riding roughshod over the wishes of local councillors and residents, and imposing unpopular decisions on them. What safeguards will be introduced to stop Labour councils such as Bradford imposing decisions on my constituents, contrary to the recommendations of the guidance?

Our key purpose in making these changes is to ensure that the voice of local people is stronger. My hon. Friend is evidently experiencing a difficulty with the local Labour council, which I must say does sound shocking, but I am sure that, in his usual terrier-like manner, he will ensure that it understands what it is doing wrong.

Whether we are talking about a change of policy or a change of guidance, will the Minister tell us what prior consultation he has had with local planning authorities?

The call for evidence produced responses relating to some 1,100 applications, in respect of both the planning and the energy aspects. Those responses have been very useful, and have come from all the parties to whom the hon. Lady has referred.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s statement. In my constituency, the council’s draft local plan proposes the development of 40 new wind farm sites on green belt land. What message would my hon. Friend send to a council which is intending to impose those sites, in environmentally sensitive areas, on local communities that are deeply opposed to them?

I think the message would be that the Government have listened carefully to what local people say about the way in which planning has been applied and why they are concerned about it. We want to ensure that their voice is clear and loud and listened to.

Does the Minister agree that today’s announcement is a further demonstration of the Government’s commitment to the principles of localism in planning, which—starting with neighbourhood plans—ensure that local communities have a greater say both when supporting and when opposing development in their areas?

The Secretary of State and I are strongly committed to ensuring that local voices are heard in the planning system. This is a legal process, and we need to ensure that it is conducted appropriately, but as my hon. Friend says, we are a localist Government with clear localist principles.

There is an increasing perception among many people who have opposed wind turbine applications in my beautiful part of Yorkshire that local wishes have been overruled in favour of energy suppliers and landowners who have been pocketing the subsidies. Does the Minister agree that if such applications are to be approved, they must have the support of those local communities and they must benefit those local communities?

I know that my hon. Friend is an ardent campaigner on this issue, and his constituents are fortunate in that regard. He is right: we must ensure that local voices are very clear so that proper, balanced decisions are made, and people are not made to feel that their own considerations have been ridden over roughshod.

I agree with my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) that there is a logic to extending community powers relating to onshore to offshore wind farms. As the Minister knows, there is a plan to build a rather large wind farm off our constituencies, and its proximity to the coast is concerning residents.

I understand that. My hon. Friend is another powerful campaigner, and I think it important for his campaign to continue. However, as I said earlier, I think it wiser for me to keep my feet on dry ground.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) on his urgent question, and also on his consistent and informed leadership on this subject from the Back Benches. I welcome the announcement of a change in the planning rules relating to wind farms, but may I suggest that if one wants to look green one builds wind farms, whereas if one wants to be green, one should build them only where they will be effective and acceptable to local communities?

As I said in my statement, we have an energy issue to deal with, but renewables must be sited appropriately. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to that, and we want to ensure that it happens.

There will be joy in North Yorkshire at this decision, which will be good for the environment and good for the countryside, but may I tempt my hon. Friend to specify the more significant onshore wind farm developments, and explain how that term will be interpreted?

I am delighted to be tempted by my hon. Friend, and as I said earlier, what is more significant is trying to make sure we do not unintentionally snare the small single turbine in someone’s back garden. This is about making sure we have consideration about the massing, the size and, indeed, the height, and we will set that out clearly in the secondary legislation.

I find myself much in accord with the Minister’s expressions of support for balance, as that is absolutely right, but I have some concerns that the pendulum might swing too far the other way. Will he be carefully monitoring things as the new guidance is implemented?

In joining colleagues in welcoming the announcement, may I pay tribute to the work of the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) on this issue?

May I push the Minister to be clear that where an appeal has concluded taking evidence but the inspector has not published their decision, today’s announcement will be taken into account, because that will give great comfort to my constituents, particularly those in Tydd St Giles, who are awaiting a decision on 17 July?

Where no decision has been published, as would be the case for local planners at that stage in the process, planning inspectors will now have to give consideration to this change in the guidance.

My constituents in Bury North will warmly welcome this statement. Many of them can already see a massive wind farm development over at Scout Moor, but it is very often the individual turbines going here, there and everywhere across my constituency that create a great deal of concern. Can the Minister confirm that these guidelines will apply to individual turbine applications, as well as those for large farms, which may already be affecting the landscape?

As I said earlier, we are trying to make sure that the principal concern people have about the impact, and particularly the cumulative impact, is properly and clearly set out in the guidance. That will make sure that decisions on the kinds of application to which my hon. Friend refers will be influenced in the same way.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) on leading the campaign against wind farms in this House, and I have a sneaking feeling that I can detect the hand of the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) in this new revised policy.

Until now, planning applications were refused for wind farms, but on appeal were granted. Under this new guidance, as I understand it, if local councils act properly and say no to a wind farm, normally they will not be overturned on appeal. Am I right in thinking that?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight that there have been a number of contributions in this particular debate. What I would say to him is that we want to make sure the system is balanced. What most constituents have been concerned about—I am, perhaps, speaking now as a constituency MP—is that they feel their views are ridden roughshod over. That is what my hon. Friend referred to, and that is what we are seeking to correct.

I note the Minister’s emphasis on significant and cumulative impact. Does he agree that minimum separation distances, as espoused by Wiltshire council, are arbitrary and therefore totally incapable of taking that into account?

We are not promoting buffer zones, as I think they are known in that context. We are a localist Government, and we want to make sure that the councils, which are accountable to their local electorates, take the appropriate decisions. The fact that we have specifically highlighted the issue of cumulative impact can, I think, give my hon. Friend some reassurance.

In addition to the turbines we already have, sometimes turning, in my constituency, we have 70 further ones consented, the largest development being for 34 turbines on the Isle of Axholme, which was granted by the previous Government on appeal, against the wishes of local people. Just yesterday another wind farm application was rejected, and a couple of weeks ago I spoke at an appeal against yet another wind farm application. Therefore, while I welcome the announcement, as will my constituents, may I urge the Minister to do a full and thorough review of how the appeal system works, because it is often at that point that my constituents are let down, not by their democratically elected councillors?

I understand that point, and the Secretary of State, the planning Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), and I are all very much aware of the need to make sure planning at the local level and at appeals runs appropriately, and we will always give consideration to representations.

I welcome the statement, which will also be welcomed by the constituents of Harrogate and Knaresborough, where there have been significant concerns about developments of a proposed wind farm along the Knabs ridge area. Does the Minister agree that the measures announced will help to address the confusion and anger about the fact that local landscapes and local environments can be damaged in the name of protecting our environment?

I know that my hon. Friend is a fantastic campaigner for local people in his glorious part of Yorkshire. I think he is absolutely right and he can now say to his constituents that this is a Government who are on their side.

This is wonderful news and the result of a long campaign. I welcome the announcement, because in Northumberland we have sporadic applications and sporadic wind farms that have no impact other than destroying the landscape in a very bad way. Cumulative impact is a massive issue, but how will it go into a local development plan when a local authority has not completed a local development plan thus far?

As I said in my opening remarks, we want to ensure that the guidance, as part of the balancing of the new planning policy framework, shows a clear understanding of the issue, especially the cumulative impact, and that that is reflected in the policies in the local plan.

I congratulate the Minister on today’s statement and associate myself with those who have congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) on the leadership he has shown on this issue.

I would like some clarity if possible from the Minister about the position as it affects Wales. Applications for large wind farms over 50 MW are not devolved to the Welsh Government. It seems logical that the new provisions should apply to those applications, so can he reassure me that that is the case?

As I think you will know, Mr Speaker, the process relates to England only. There is a sensitive legal issue, to which my hon. Friend refers, but I understand that the Secretary of State for Wales is attuned to that and is in contact with the Welsh Government.

Does the Minister agree that today is a victory for the Conservative party, which has finally brought some sanity and good sense to a very dubious energy policy?

The sad part about this has been that the Labour party seems not to have any understanding of why local voices matter. Members of this House have raised local issues time and again, and I agree with my hon. Friend; this is about localism and giving power back to local people, and we will ensure that that happens.

The Minister’s announcement will be widely welcomed by my constituents, particularly those in Humberston who are fighting an application in the neighbouring constituency. With particular reference to pre-application consultation, and because of the widespread impact such turbines have, can he assure me that a consultation area will cover neighbouring council areas so that everyone can be involved?

It is important that a wide range of local voices are involved, but clearly those matters and where the boundaries must lie in any individual application are a matter not for central Government but for local government.

People in my part of North Yorkshire will be thrilled with the announcement this morning. May I add my gratitude to the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) and the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), for championing these changes? Will the Minister assure the House that local councils will be given the correct level of support to implement the changes? They often come up against very clever and expensive lawyers from development companies and need far better support.

We will write to all local planning authorities and to Sir Michael Pitt at the Planning Inspectorate. I take my hon. Friend’s point and I know that the issue is foremost in the mind of the Secretary of State. May I add my strong congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris)? We have listened and we have improved the guidance for the better.

The Minister mentioned specifically that meeting our energy goals should not mean overriding natural environment considerations. Will he confirm that he will include in his amendment to the legislation the higher planning authorities that will make judgments about equally ugly pylons and the need to underground electricity transmission lines across the beautiful Somerset levels?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that question. Today, clearly, we are considering the question of onshore wind turbines, so I think it would be wiser if I did not draw myself into the even more vexed question of pylons. I know that the Secretary of State and I will consider her question should it have any due implications.