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Navitus Bay Wind Farm

Volume 570: debated on Tuesday 19 November 2013

Having been closeted in the Whips Office for a while, I take great pleasure in being back in Westminster Hall and able to stand up and fight for the rights of my constituents.

I start by saying that it is a great pleasure to see so many Dorset colleagues. In no particular order, the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and my hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) and for South Dorset (Richard Drax) are here.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns), my constituency neighbour, is also here—we have both been putting in for debates on this subject, so which one of us starts the debate and which one comes second is a matter of pure chance. I also attended the debate on this proposal that my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset secured earlier in the year. It says something about people’s concern over the proposal that all of us are here, interested and wanting to put on the record the views and concerns of many of our constituents.

Whatever view we take, we are all very disappointed by the process, which, as one understands it, is that following the Crown Estate identifying a site, in comes a preferred bidder who floats a number of potential scenarios. People are never quite sure what they are dealing with—how many turbines, how big, or what will be generated. The proposal goes through various phases of consultation, and it is only towards the end of the process that we get it firming up and we start to see what the shape of the development will be. That makes it very confusing and difficult for constituents, who mostly do not understand the process—indeed, Members of Parliament sometimes have great difficulty dealing with it.

The reality, therefore, is that later in the process there is a more specific application that eventually goes either to the Planning Inspectorate or to the Department of Energy and Climate Change. A decision is taken without councils being involved, although they will be consulted—Bournemouth, Poole and Dorset will be consulted—and without Members of Parliament being able to have their say, apart from getting up and whingeing in a debate.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) has come in to add to the array of talent in the Chamber.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so early. There are a number of issues to cover. He touched on the Crown Estate, which is the genesis of this entire discussion because it gave the footprint and suggested the area that we need to consider for use for wind farms.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that that very footprint that we now call Navitus Bay was, in fact, incorrect, because it included areas just off Weymouth that are military zones for shooting? They could never have been included in the first place for consideration as a place for wind farms to be erected.

The Crown Estate identified several sites, including the one we are discussing. I think there are areas around our coast that may be the most appropriate for offshore wind, and I know that in Redcar and Thanet there is some support for such proposals.

As I shall say in a moment, Dorset is an area of tourism, not only because of the beauty of the county and of the view, but because of the hard work put in by many thousands of businesses in South Dorset, Bournemouth, and Poole that promote and invest in the area and want to promote the area for tourism. It is a great disappointment to them that the proposal could well, if it goes ahead, and as Navitus Bay has acknowledged, lead to a reduction in tourism, which is very important for jobs.

The hon. Lady mentioned to me earlier that she wanted to put something on the record, and I am perfectly happy for her to intervene.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way—it is nice sometimes to get my own way—and I congratulate him on securing the debate.

What is most important is that the evidence is properly evaluated. There is not great evidence that tourism will necessarily be affected, and at the end of the day a Minister will survey all that has been presented. Lots of myths surround the whole application, and I think that is down to the process, which is very difficult for local people. However, I want to put on the record that I am, in principle, in favour of offshore wind farms. It is very important, however, not only to get the details right for our local populations, but to assess the evidence and the facts at the end of the day.

I thank the hon. Lady for putting her views on the record. I understand that she has concerns, but that, in principle, she is in favour. Other Members here today probably have more concerns, and I shall start to go through those.

The biggest concern is visual impact. We have heard that there could be up to 218 turbines—they will be very tall and they have to have lights on top. The turbines will be about 12 miles off the coast of Bournemouth and Poole, although there may be points at which they are less than nine miles off the coast of South Dorset, which is a Jurassic coast and a great asset to Dorset.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Not only is it a Jurassic coast, but it is a world heritage site. It has the top designation; the Great Barrier reef is one of the other areas with the same designation. As I have said in the many speeches that I have made on the subject, I hate to think what the Australians would say to us if we suggested that they put 218 turbines as close to the Great Barrier reef as is suggested for our world heritage site. In fact, I know exactly what they would say. Will my hon. Friend comment on the issue of the coast’s being a world heritage site? The point I object to is that the windmills will be too close.

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. The coast has a UN world heritage site designation, and there are also areas of outstanding natural beauty. As we all know, onshore, there is heathland and a variety of sites of special scientific interest. Those constrain the planning authorities, yet just a few miles out at sea, we will have a proposal that may have a major visual impact.

I have mentioned tourism, which we may argue or disagree about, but I am sure that there is genuine concern about the impact on it. What is not up for debate is that thousands of jobs rely on tourism, whereas not many jobs will be generated by the proposal. Once it is built, some people will have to maintain the wind farm, but on the whole, it will not be a heavy employer.

The concern about potential noise has also been raised. I know of many colleagues in the House with wind farms—certainly onshore wind farms—in their constituencies who say that it is not true that they do not make any noise. There is noise. It may depend on which way the wind is coming, but many of my constituents have raised concerns about that issue.

Sailing and navigation have been mentioned. The Solent and the area around Poole bay are among the busiest areas for sailing and navigation. If 218 turbines are to be put offshore, they are bound to have an impact on shipping and the variety of vessels and ships in the ports of Poole and Southampton. Of course, we have a local but small fishing fleet, which it is very important to nurture.

Not a great deal has been said about birds, but clearly 218 turbines will have a major impact on bird life.

I understand that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has not objected to the proposed wind farm. I would be happy to be corrected on that point, but again, we need to look at the evidence.

I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. Concerns about that and a variety of things have been raised by hundreds of my constituents and by local people, many of whom are members of the RSPB. It is very important that we use this opportunity to put the concerns that have been expressed on the record.

The development is very substantial and will have an impact on the communities that we represent. I have had several hundred e-mails and letters from people objecting, while I have had fewer than 10 in favour. Even if we accept that in this world, more people would object than support a proposal, it is clear that there are very real concerns. The proposers of the scheme have to lay those concerns to rest and I do not think they have been able to do so with this process.

My hon. Friend touches on an important aspect of the matter, which is the views of the residents. I concur with him on the ratio to which he has just referred. Many residents of Bournemouth perhaps approve of the concept of wind farms, but are very concerned about their proximity to the coast. I think that that is what we are debating: what distance is agreeable?

Does my hon. Friend agree that there are Government guidelines that suggest that the nearest to the coastline that wind farms should be is 12 nautical miles? The company has proved that it can build such wind farms in other parts of the continent. I do not understand why there is such pressure to build so close to the shoreline when that will have such an impact on tourism, as my hon. Friend has already outlined.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, of course. If a cable has to be run from the wind turbines to connect into the grid, the longer the cable is, the more expensive the proposal is. If there are maintenance teams, wherever they are based, going out to maintain the turbines and they have to go out an extra 2 or 3 miles, clearly that adds a real cost to the operation of the wind farm.

That issue has to be part of the proposal. I think that if the Navitus Bay proposers had come forward and said, “We’re happy to push the wind farm out so that it is out of sight or as far out of sight as can be,” and if its scale had been smaller, they would have got a better hearing. What shocked people was that when they saw the footprint that the Crown Estate had given us, the wind farm was very close to the shore and very close to the view that many of us who have stayed in Bournemouth hotels know.

Does my hon. Friend have any information on how much public money will go in subsidies from British taxpayers to the Dutch-owned company that is planning this development?

I do not have any firm information. I know only that when I saw the recent and very welcome announcement on the Hinkley Point C proposal, there was a great deal of criticism of the rates of subsidy that the Government were giving—I think very sensibly—and that offshore wind has twice the level of subsidy. One would have to say that this is the most expensive way of generating electricity and, given that the wind does not always blow, it may not be the most efficient way of dealing with the situation.

There are things that we can do on renewable energy. There are many things that we can do, if we insulate homes and make changes to electrical equipment and so on, to save money. But I am not sure that this is good value for British taxpayers. Coming back to the specific proposal, I think that what is proposed is too large. I do not think that it has public acceptance and it will change very much the offer that our area has for many people.

I am sorry for testing my hon. Friend’s patience; he has been very generous indeed. The guidelines about the distance from the shoreline to the leading edge of the wind farm are important. My concern is that the 12 nautical mile guideline that has been created was designed when wind turbines were only 100 metres high. We are now hearing that these turbines might be as high as 218 metres. They stick up higher, so I suggest that that leading edge—12 nautical miles—should be increased even further to ensure that they are out of sight.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. As I said, because of aircraft, there would have to be lights on the top. A number of us had meetings with representatives of Bournemouth airport a few weeks ago, in which they stated that there was a concern about what impact there would be on the navigation facilities at the airport. The navigation facilities have been upgraded, so that is less of a problem than it used to be, but there clearly will be a navigation problem if there is a large wind farm in the sea, just offshore from a major international airport.

There are many concerns. I do not think that my constituents have been reassured by the process. The process needs looking at, certainly, but I have a feeling that whatever the merits of offshore wind, this is the wrong place to put the wind farm. Many of our constituents have invested a lifetime in businesses such as hotels. Bournemouth borough council has certainly been out there investing in tourism, attracting people and putting on lots of events to get people into Bournemouth. I am just concerned that this proposal will offset that offer, which has been built up over generations.

I know that we do not always agree 100%, as the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole said, but I wanted to use today’s debate as an important opportunity to put my concerns on the record. I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West, who also wants to say a few words.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) on securing the debate to highlight this very important issue. He has been very active on this subject. After I raised it with the previous Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, the gentleman who is no longer a Member of the House, my hon. Friend and I went to see him to put on the record our concerns about the process of this development.

Let me pick up a couple of points that colleagues have made. I say to the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) that the critical difference between her constituents and those of other hon. Members present is that her constituents will not have to look at this wind farm. All of ours will, so the impact, by definition, will be greater on the constituencies represented by other hon. Members here.

My hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) intervened twice on the point about the distance from shore and the definition that the Government lay down. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to give us some clarity on that point. I put it to the company before the closure of phase 4 of its consultation; I raised the issue that my hon. Friend raised about the 12 nautical mile limit. In the reply to my letter of objection, Mike Unsworth, the project director at Navitus Bay, said:

“Regarding the wind farm’s distance from the shore, I would emphasise that the Government has not issued guidance that stipulates a 12 nautical mile limit. Indeed on 10 October 2013, the Climate Change Minister Greg Barker was clear that DECC ‘has not issued guidance on the distance that offshore wind farms should be placed from the coast’”.

He was quoting from column 342W of Hansard for 10 October 2013. I ask the Minister to give us some clarity on what the Government’s position is on distance.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. As I understand it, the EU guidance refers to 23 km, which is not 12 nautical miles, and the Crown Estate had identified eight other sites, which my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) was talking about, totalling some 22,000 sq km. There is no world heritage site in those sites; there is no coastline in sight. Why cannot the company go there?

My hon. Friend makes a very valid point. Even if the company has to go within the development area that it has been given on this site, it does not have to go within the area of the development site that it has chosen. It could go significantly further out to sea.

All hon. Members, at the beginning of this process, were very open in engaging with the company. We have no in-principle objection to wind farms or wind energy at all. That is the policy of the Government. There is no point in arguing on that, whatever our views. We are arguing on the impact that this proposal will have on our local economy and, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) says, on a world heritage site.

Bournemouth attracts more than 6 million visitors annually. The tourism economy is worth in excess of £425 million to the town’s economy. It supports in the region of 16,000 local jobs. Navitus Bay’s own research suggested that one third of summer visitors questioned would not return to Bournemouth during the construction period, which it is estimated will last for five years. That would be a devastating blow to our local economy. I have to question how many of the town’s businesses, which rely on tourism, would even be in business at the end of that five-year period if those figures—

My hon. Friend has been a passionate advocate in looking at the detail of this proposal. Does he agree that one concern is about the shape of the bay? On the left, in the east, we have the Isle of Wight, and on the right, Studland bay. That offers a frame from which visitors can look out to sea. It is very different from Blackpool and other areas, where there is just an open expanse of water. These are reference marks whereby people can measure the height and, indeed, the intrusion of the wind farm. That is why we have been pressing, as my hon. Friend said, for the wind farm to be pushed back as far as possible.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point well. The bay and the beach are the hook on which the local tourism economy hangs, and anything that had a detrimental impact on that visually would be very serious. My hon. Friend will know the figures. Navitus Bay’s own research goes on to say that 14% of visitors surveyed—these are the company’s own figures—said that they would never return to the conurbation if there was a visual impact.

There are other things that we still do not know, because the company is sitting on information. Several reports vital to our assessment of the impact of the scheme are ongoing or have not been released, including the assessment of the noise impact, which my hon. Friend the Member for Poole referred to, the night time visual impact report, the climate and microclimate assessment and outstanding issues in the landscape, seascape and visual impact assessment.

The Minister will be aware that even at this stage, the company will not tell us how many turbines there will be, where they will be or what configuration they will be in. When we do not even know what type of turbine the company has in mind, how are we to believe that it has produced accurate visuals on which the public can reasonably comment? The fact is that it has not done so. That is at the centre of our argument about the flawed nature of the consultation process that Navitus has entered into.

Last year, Navitus told us in terms of great rejoicing that we should all celebrate the proposed reduction in the number and height of the turbines. I question how we were supposed to celebrate that when we had not been told how many turbines there would be, what height they would be or where they would be. It is absolutely vital that we know and understand exactly what the proposal looks like. In his letter, Mike Unsworth says:

“It is vital that the views of the public are taken into account.”

The public overwhelmingly want their views on the views that they enjoy to be taken into account, and that cannot happen without accurate visuals.

There was a news story on the subject in October in the Bournemouth Daily Echo, and one of the comments on the story—it is often wise not to read the comments on the Bournemouth Echo, but I did on this occasion—called those who were opposed to the plan “NIMBYs”. Someone commented below:

“Simple answer. My Back Yard is a World Heritage Site.”

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) on securing today’s debate on the proposed Navitus Bay wind farm—a topic of great interest to his constituents, as well as to those of my hon. Friends the Members for South Dorset (Richard Drax), for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) and for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), and of the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke).

I know that my hon. Friends understand that I cannot comment directly on the merits or otherwise of the proposed Navitus Bay wind farm, because any application for development consent for the proposed wind farm and any associated onshore and offshore infrastructure will be examined by the Planning Inspectorate before it makes a recommendation to the Secretary of State on whether consent should be granted or refused. The Secretary of State will then have to consider the recommendations and the report that accompanies them and make the final decision on the application. In those circumstances, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the proposed development, because that might be interpreted as being prejudicial to the eventual decision.

May I underline my thanks, and that of my colleagues, to the Minister for the frequency with which he has been willing to listen to the concerns of our residents, which we have expressed in this place and in the main Chamber? Does he have in mind a date when the Secretary of State will eventually see the proposals? My concern is that that might happen on either side of the general election, and much as I hope that there will be a convincing Conservative win, there is a possibility that the decision might be left to another Secretary of State who was not so sympathetic to the needs and concerns of Dorset residents.

I have no information on the likely date of the Secretary of State’s consideration, but it might be helpful to my hon. Friends if I explained the process for the consideration of nationally significant infrastructure projects. Navitus Bay is classified as such a project under the Planning Act 2008 regime.

The process can be broken down into several stages. The first stage is pre-application—the stage that the Navitus Bay proposal has reached—and is when an applicant has notified the Planning Inspectorate of its intention to apply for development consent. During that period, an applicant is expected to carry out extensive consultation on the proposal in question, the results of which will feed into its thinking on the configuration of the project before the application is submitted.

The second stage is acceptance. Once the pre-application process has concluded, an application for development consent is submitted to the Planning Inspectorate, which must decide within 28 days whether the application meets the required standards for acceptance.

The third stage is pre-examination, in which an examining authority—an individual or a panel of examiners—will be appointed by the Planning Inspectorate. Members of the public and other interested parties can register with the Planning Inspectorate and provide summaries of their views on the proposals. I encourage all individuals and organisations with an interest in the proposal to engage with any public consultation when it is launched. The inspectorate will convene a preliminary hearing at which the process for consideration of the application will be set out and questions about it considered.

The fourth stage is examination. The Planning Inspectorate has six months to carry out its investigation of the application, which will be undertaken by way of hearings, and to consider any written representations submitted to it. During that process, the examining authority will give consideration to all important and relevant matters that are brought to its attention. The examining authority will also consider any relevant national policy statements that set the policy framework for determining applications for nationally significant infrastructure projects, which were themselves subject to public consultation and scrutiny in the House.

The fifth stage is recommendation. The examining authority must prepare a report and recommendations for the Secretary of State within three months of the close of the examination period.

The final stage is decision, in which the Secretary of State has a further three months to decide whether consent for the proposed development should be granted or refused.

The company has told us that, as it understands the rules, it can change the terms of the application—the height, distance from shore and configuration of the wind farm—after the Secretary of State has given permission for the development to go ahead. Is that the Minister’s understanding?

That is not quite my understanding, but perhaps I could write to my hon. Friend on that point. Applications for development consent can include infrastructure, which, as the name implies, is associated with the main development in some subordinate capacity. Where that is the case, the planning issues that might affect any of those works will be considered alongside the application for the main development.

I was asked about how far offshore wind farms have to be from the coast. I confirm that we have not issued guidance on any minimum distance. The offshore strategic environmental assessment clarified that the environmental sensitivity of coastal areas is not uniform, and in certain cases, offshore wind projects may be acceptable closer to the coast than in others.

In conclusion, I hope hon. Members understand that interested parties’ concerns about the potential impact of such projects will be thoroughly considered during the planning process, which is designed specifically to encourage participation by all interested parties. I repeat that people or organisations with views on projects that are subject to such applications to the Planning Inspectorate should be encouraged by my hon. Friends to register their interests and to take a full part in the process.