[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
It is an enormous pleasure and privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, as well as to introduce a debate that is important to many thousands of people throughout the south-west.
A hundred or so years ago, when the cry went up, “There be gold in them there hills,” I do not suppose that our ancestors all that time ago would have thought it possible to mine gold from wind. They might have thought that had they heard my speech, and they would certainly do so if they looked around the countryside in constituencies in Devon and Cornwall, because springing up throughout the landscape of those two exquisitely beautiful counties are more and more large industrial wind turbines, which are becoming a prominent and dominant feature in the landscape—indeed, in many areas, they already have.
There is usually an announcement in a newspaper, or a neighbour knocks at one’s door, when a new application has been made for a wind turbine. Whether it is one that is 300 or 400 feet tall, for a single turbine or a cluster of them, small rural communities are plunged into what can only be described as a miserable ordeal. There is immediately a cloud of uncertainty over people’s lives. If they recently bought a house in a village and the proposed turbine would be sufficiently proximate to their dwelling, they are immediately concerned about the price of their house. They are concerned about the quality of the landscape, and about reports of the deleterious health effects.
Above all, they are concerned when they learn that applications are often made by distant developers with shareholders seeking to make great profits, and when they learn that the potential profits are extraordinary.
I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend on having secured such an important debate. In the previous Parliament, the town of North Tawton and the village of Spreyton, which are now part of my constituency, were in his constituency, so he will know the tortuous sequence of events in respect of the planning application for the Den Brook valley wind farm, which underwent two public inquiries and a judicial review. Those events occurred over several years, so my hon. and learned Friend’s points about the uncertainty, the impact on property prices and the general distress caused to the local population are well founded. I would be interested to hear his comments.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I did indeed represent those parts of what are now his constituency when the Den Brook application was first made. I vividly recall the disruption, dismay and distress caused to not only those who live in the area but those who run businesses there. I know very well a couple who run a bed and breakfast just a few hundred yards from the site. I know their feelings when they learned that some six or 10 wind turbines of several hundred feet in height were to be erected in full view of their establishment.
My hon. Friend reinforces the point I was making, which will be alive and real to and keenly felt by thousands of people who listen to or read this debate. The machines that we are installing throughout the countryside cause real disruption, dismay and distress to small rural communities. It is not enough to dismiss such concerns as subjective, partial or nimbyism. I dare say that any of us living within a few hundred metres of a 400-foot wind turbine would feel the same concern that my constituents feel when they hear of a new application.
It is striking that this year, for the first time, the amounts paid by energy consumers for onshore and offshore wind turbines has topped £1 billion. An annual amount of £1.2 billion is being paid by the energy consumer solely to subsidise the price of electricity created by onshore and offshore wind turbines. That is an astonishing figure when we consider that it falls, in many hundreds of thousands of cases, on those least able to afford the inflated energy price resulting from the renewables obligation. Many people in fuel poverty are having to sustain a price inflated by the £1.2 billion that is currently being added to the cost of electricity as a result of the extraordinary benefits received by wind turbine projects.
I specifically wish to address planning policy. One could speak about the economics of wind turbines, which have has received the frequent attention of the House and been criticised by the Public Accounts Committee for not adding up to real value for money for the country. One could speak about the unsatisfactory noise standards that do not attract public confidence. One could, of course, speak of wind turbines’ efficacy in contributing to cutting carbon emissions. However, I wish for the moment to concentrate on planning policy.
The main planning considerations for wind turbine applications can be found in two primary documents: first, the national planning policy framework; and secondly, the national policy statement on renewable energy infrastructure. There is now a third document, to which I shall come, but my case is that the planning framework for wind turbine applications is still affected by a substantial bias in favour of renewable energy. That is a disappointing concession to have to make, because only last year the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced in a written ministerial statement that he was intending to rectify the balance.
The publication of the third document of which I spoke, the planning practice guidance for renewable and low-carbon energy, was widely publicised last year. By means of that third document and the written ministerial statement, we understood—I speak certainly for myself, and I know for some other Government Members—that there would be a concerted effort to rebalance the planning system so that landscape and other local considerations played a greater role in planning decisions. It is a pleasure to see the Minister present, but I must report with considerable regret that I seek his clarification on the planning practice guidance, because it is apparent from the decisions of planning inspectors on applications in my constituency that it has made little difference. That is certainly the opinion of the planning departments responsible for applications in Torridge and West Devon.
Often, the real issue at stake in the consideration of a wind turbine application is whether the benefits of the scheme, including the production of electricity from a renewable source, outweigh any harmful effects. That is the central question. Do the benefits outweigh the harmful effects? The inspector is mandated to have particular regard to the effect on the character and appearance of the area, including any cumulative impact from other permitted turbines in the area. He will also look at the effect on the living conditions of neighbouring residents. He will have particular regard to their outlook, the noise and the effect on nature conservation issues.
However, at the heart of the planning balance is this central equation: do the benefits of the scheme, particularly the production of electricity from a renewable source, outweigh its harmful impacts? The equation needs only to be stated for the listener to realise that if we are going to have a simple equation of that kind—whether the benefits outweigh the impacts—the answer is going to be influenced by the hierarchy of priorities on either side of the equation. Which is to take precedence? Is it the benefits—the production of renewable energy—or the impact on the landscape? Which, in the planning framework and the documents and policies that affect the decision, takes precedence?
The moment someone looks at the national planning policy framework, the answer starts to emerge. That document makes it clear that no overall demonstration of need for the development is required. In other words, the developer is not required to prove that his development is needed or to produce evidence that the proposed development will make any material or significant difference to the overall generating needs of the country in relation to renewable energy.
On the contrary, the NPPF, published in March 2012, makes it absolutely clear that there is a presumption that even small-scale developments make a valuable contribution to cutting emissions. Although the Government have stated that the onshore wind target of 15% has already been reached by applications that have already been granted, by wind turbines that have already been erected and by those that are pending, still there is no requirement on the developer to show that his development will make a significant or material contribution —indeed any contribution whatsoever—to cutting emissions.
Once we set up an equation that requires the planning inspector to question whether the benefits outweigh the impacts, and yet we excuse the developer from having to prove the benefits, we automatically have an unequal playing field. Regrettably, the issue goes beyond that, because the NPPF states that approval is to be mandated if the effects on the landscape are “acceptable”. Now, what does that word mean in the context? What it plainly means, and what it has been interpreted to mean by planning inspectors up and down the country, is that some damage to the landscape is assumed to be a consequence of a wind turbine development.
Again, when we look at whether the benefits outweigh the impacts, when we take into account the fact that the developer is exempted from proving the benefits and that the framework document requires a planning inspector to assume that some adverse impact on the landscape is implied in every such application, we can see that the equation is set up to make it far more difficult for the objector to succeed on the grounds of the intrinsic value and unique and precious nature of the landscape, and far easier for the developer to do so every time.
In case any of my hon. Friends listening to me doubts what I say, I shall cite a case study. In an appeal relating to three turbines of 100 metres in height at Dunsland Cross in Torridge, generating a proposed 7.5 MW, the inspector making the decision said that
“within a distance of about 1.5 km of the site the height of the wind turbines, anemometer mast and the movement of the turbine blades would contrast sharply with the form and scale of existing elements of the landscape and the largely unspoilt qualities of the surrounding countryside. This would entail a high magnitude of change to the character of the local landscape and result in a dominant and overtly man-made addition to this rural area…Between 1.5 km and 3 km of the site the form and height of the turbines and the mast, as well as the movement of the turbine blades, would entail a medium-to-high magnitude of change to the predominantly unspoilt rural character of the landscape…this change would be at odds with and harmful to the existing character of the local landscape… At these distances the proposal would be a prominent feature within this part of the countryside and would be very different to the landscape qualities of the local area.”
With so scathing an assessment of the damage to be caused to what the planning inspector described as a valuable landscape, one might assume that it played the decisive and tipping feature in that decision. However, I must report with dismay that the inspector allowed the turbines to be built. Regarding the despoliation of the countryside, he commented that as “some harm” to the character of the landscape is an “inevitable consequence” of renewable energy development, he attached only “moderate weight” to the harm he identified.
Let us examine what that means. The inspector acknowledged that, up to a radius of 5 km from the three 325-foot wind turbines, there would be serious harm to the quality, visual appearance and amenity of the landscape, yet it is said that that harm must be endured for the sake of renewable energy development, the need for which is unproven, and despite the fact that the Government’s target has already been reached. It is said that the harm would be contained within a 5 km envelope, but how many 300-foot turbines does one have to build, and how many envelopes of 5 km in which the damage on the landscape is serious and severe, before eventually, like blisters appearing on someone’s skin, an area of exquisite landscape is permanently and irredeemably harmed? How many pockets of 5 km of serious harm to the landscape does it take to have an overall cumulative impact that ineradicably alters the fundamental character of the landscape?
Torridge is facing dozens of such applications. The last time I consulted the district council, in Torridge alone there were 60 pending applications for wind turbines. How many of those need to be constructed before there are multiple pockets of harm to the countryside?
We need to pause—I urge the Minister to reflect. There are parts of the south-west whose intrinsic character has been severely harmed—on the inspectorate’s own analysis, in this particular case. Why are the applications still allowed? It is because there is an inherent bias in the planning system, which has still not been eradicated despite the good intentions of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. That bias is still active and it still influences planners. I urge the Minister to provide some assurance today so that we do not leave the problem untackled.
It is simply not enough to say, as the Secretary of State announced in July 2013, while introducing planning practice guidance for renewable and low carbon energy, that
“it is important to be clear that…the need for renewable…energy does not automatically override environmental protections”.
I fully accept that he intended that that new document would have the effect of restoring the balance in favour of landscape, or that it would at least even that balance a little, but it does not work. The document explicitly says that
“the need for renewable…energy does not automatically override environmental protections”.
However, the answer that an experienced planner will give someone when confronted with that document is, “Well, it never did.” It was never automatic in any planning decision that the landscape value would be overridden by the need for renewable energy, but there was always an inherent bias in the system towards allowing wind turbine applications, and that inherent bias is not addressed by simply making it clear that the need for renewable energy does not “automatically override” landscape and local concerns, because the planner will simply say, “Well, it never has. We’ve always carried out balancing. It’s just that in that balancing, the hierarchy of values and priorities favours renewable energy.”
What the July 2013 document needed to say was something along the lines of, “The visual impact on valuable landscapes must be considered to be a priority at least equal to the need for renewable energy.” What the document actually said is entirely otiose; it does not address the fundamental problem. I do not wish to downplay the well-meaning and—I have no doubt—convinced opinion of the Secretary of State that what he did was intended and was in practical effect to make a change. The problem I have is that planning departments throughout the south-west do not interpret it as a change. I can tell this House that, for example, Torridge district council’s planning department does not regard the July 2013 document as effecting any significant or substantial change in the planning equation and—as I have sought to identify—there is already an inherent bias in that planning equation. I submit that we as a Government must attempt to do something about that bias.
I fully accept that the Secretary of State’s intention was to do that; I accept that the cutting of the tariff will make a difference; and I also accept that other measures, such as the Secretary of State’s recovering a number of planning appeals, might very well continue to reduce the number of applications. I regret, however, that although the initial effect of the July 2013 document may have been salutary, the number of applications, along with the number of applications that have been granted, continues to rise in Torridge and West Devon, and throughout the south-west, and it is that concern that I ask the Minister to address.
What is going to be done and what can be done to redress the balance in the planning equation? I say to the Minister that throughout the south-west, and I dare say wherever rural communities and others are affected by these applications, there is a genuine and growing sense of frustration. There is a sense of helplessness, as communities realise that, although applications may have been refused by their local planning committee, more often than not those decisions are overturned on appeal. In July 2013, the rhetoric surrounding the publication of the document on planning guidance was ramped up—I must say that to him—to suggest that a substantial departure from existing practice was about to occur, but people’s expectations that that would be the case have not been fulfilled. That is why I say that although what the Government have done is welcome, there is much more to do.
The feed-in tariffs are astonishingly generous. It was recently reported that the introduction of the carbon price floor last year would bring even greater benefits to those who construct wind turbines, and that it would certainly benefit those who had already constructed wind turbines, by 2017. The Minister may not be in a position to help me with that issue, but it is clear that the combination of the bias in the planning system and existing incentives and rewards has led to multiple applications throughout the countryside to build these kinds of wind turbines.
This issue concerns those I represent in Torridge and West Devon—from Dolton to Lifton, and from Brandis Corner to Bradworthy. Communities have come to me in desperation because of what they see as the alien invasion of their homes and their familiar landscapes, which are some of the most exquisite and beautiful in the country. Those communities include business owners who make their living from the tranquil and unspoiled fields and pastures of Devonshire. All the people in those communities feel that their interests are being harmed, and that they do not have a voice. They look to this Government—dare I say that they look to the Conservative party, which traditionally has had the closest affinity with the aim of preserving our countryside and landscape?—for redress. In responding to my speech today, I profoundly hope that the Minister will be able to give those people some comfort that it is the Government’s intention to move in a direction that will suppress at least some of the numbers of these machines that have come to disrupt their lives.
I conclude by saying that this issue is a real and serious one; it will have political ramifications in the south-west. I know that hundreds of people are listening to and following what the Minister will say this afternoon. I also know that they hope he will offer them some comfort, that he will at least acknowledge that this issue is regarded at the highest levels of Government as one that needs resolution and that he will say something to give them the hope for which they desperately yearn.
Before I call other colleagues to speak, may I tell them that an hon. Member approached the Chair and asked about the parameters of the debate? The debate is entitled, “Planning Policy and Wind Turbines in the South-West”. I hope that is helpful for colleagues. The debate is predominantly about the south-west, given that the Member who secured the debate is from the south-west. I call Neil Parish.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.
I thank my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) for securing the debate, because it is very important that we discuss this issue. We have had changes to the planning policy, but I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. and learned Friend that it is still not strong enough.
People who come to Devon to live, and the vast majority of people in Devon who are indigenous, do not wish to have the whole of their countryside—all the rolling hills of Devon—covered with wind turbines. If both the residents of Devon and those coming to the county thought that wind turbines were the answer to our electricity and energy needs for the future, perhaps they would accept them a great deal more than they do.
One point that I want to make is that, even in one of the windiest spots, if such a spot can be found, very often wind turbines work only for some 30% or 35% of the time. Therefore, the intrusion into the countryside and the amount of energy that they produce just do not stack up. Also, on a very cold, frosty morning, when we all have our fires on and we need the maximum amount of energy, what will happen? Nothing will come from the turbines. On a very windy day, the turbines have to be stopped because they may rattle and come off the end of their—I do not know the technical term, so I will call it their “stalk”, for want of a better expression.
We also have to wake up to the fact that what is happening in Devon, Cornwall and across much of the west country is that, because wind turbines are so lucrative in the form of grant and subsidy, all sorts of companies are just using a scattergun approach. They say, “Let’s try this authority. Let’s try Mid Devon, let’s try Torridge and West Devon, let’s try East Devon. Let’s just see if we can get those applications through.” And because the planning system is not strong enough to protect our countryside, those applications are coming through.
The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting argument, saying that wind turbines are not effective at generating electricity, but are effective at accruing subsidy. Does he accept that it is only through generating electricity that the developers of wind turbines attract any subsidy and that it is because wind turbines in the south-west of England generated 20 TWh last year that any subsidy was paid to them at all?
My argument is about whether such an amount in subsidy—basically, from those who pay energy bills—is warranted to produce that amount of electricity, and whether that electricity was produced during a valuable time of day or not. The thing is that that process can be controlled only when the wind is blowing.
Comparing wind with nuclear power, it is apparent that nuclear produces a base load all the time. Yes, I admit freely that that is quite highly subsidised, but there is a base load that can be used at all times of the day, when it is needed. Wind turbines do not achieve this. I assure hon. Members that I can be pretty certain that, if I did a straw poll in my constituency, the majority of people there would far rather have a nuclear power station than the rolling Devon hills covered in wind turbines.
It is interesting to note that Hinkley Point in Somerset will take up some 165 acres and will produce 7% of the UK’s energy needs. To achieve the same energy output, 6,000 wind turbines would need to be built on 250,000 acres of land. That is the difference and what we are up against. This is why people are so fed up with those turbines appearing everywhere.
I suspect that the planning Minister will reassure us that the Department is coming forward with tougher rules all the time. The rules have to be much tougher. Local authorities often turn down planning applications for wind turbines, but they are often granted on appeal. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon makes a good point; all the time this planning process is going on, there is a blight on people’s lives. That is apparent.
This is an opportune moment to look at wind turbines and the planning system. Let us look again at the economics of wind turbines. If I thought that this was a free market approach and the answer to our energy needs, that would be one thing, but it is not, is it? Without huge subsidy, the turbines would never, ever stack up. It was not rocket science to work out that subsidising green energy and piling that on to energy bills, driving them up between 8% and 12%, would put more people into fuel poverty, so I do not know why this was not thought of; it is fairly logical.
My hon. Friend is right. If that figure of 58% by 2020 is correct—I have no reason to doubt him—it is a concern, because we are told so often that we need a basket of green energy that is not targeted just towards wind.
Another green energy that is much more acceptable to Devon is the biodigester, which uses waste from farms and food waste and creates energy all the time. It works not on the nuclear process, but generates gas and electricity throughout the whole day and, therefore, again contributes to a base load in electric supply.
One bone of contention with the whole system is that wind turbines do not produce electricity for a sufficient length of time to make them necessary in our most beautiful countryside.
In my constituency, we had an application at Bampton Down farm for 20 wind turbines, 22 metres high, in a prominent position on Bampton Down, above the Exe valley. This is the highest land south of Exmoor and east of Dartmoor in Devon and it goes down to semi-permanent pasture land. That application has, at the moment, been withdrawn and I hope it stays withdrawn and disappears. But is the planning policy in place strong enough to stop that coming back and will it be strong enough to stop the application being awarded on appeal?
At Blatchworthy farm, an application for nine wind turbines was withdrawn, but for how long? At Highlands farm, there was an application for one wind turbine, with a height of 34.2 metres; again, that was withdrawn, partly after local objections from Hemyock parish council. An application at Plainfield farm in Withleigh for one 100kW wind turbine with a maximum height of some metres was withdrawn. At Rifton farm there was an application, which is still going on, for a turbine with a maximum height of 77 metres. At Sydenham farm, one wind turbine has been rejected
Planning applications are happening all the time in my constituency. Planning policy needs to be so much stronger, so that people know that, under the process, there can be local objections and that they can, along with the local and district councils, put a case together and be certain that they will be able to reject large turbines in prominent positions. Turbines need to be in an area where there is maximum wind, even though they will still be working only some 30% or 35% of the time. They will always be in the most prominent spots. We are a Government who look to the countryside and to rural areas for support, but we are not providing protection for those areas as far as wind turbines are concerned.
Some people refer to wind turbines as windmills, but they certainly are not. Three or four turbines would probably require nearly half an acre to an acre of concrete in the ground. I can assure hon. Members that a mast some 180 metres high would need an awful lot of concrete to keep it in the ground. Infrastructure, including roads, is also needed to allow access to the turbines, to service them. They are not the fluffy wind turbines and windmills that they are sometimes portrayed to be.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. On the visual impact of turbines, I do not want to get into a bragging war about who has the largest turbines, but those that he mentioned were probably no higher than 60 or 70 metres. Those that are likely to be built now in the Den Brook valley will be 120 metres high; that is almost the height of St Paul’s cathedral. Whether they are smaller turbines up on hill ridges, which are obviously visible, or turbines down in valleys, they are often of such a magnitude that they are visible for miles around.
My hon. Friend knows that Devon’s tourist industry is valued at about £1 billion a year. There will be huge, cumulative detrimental impact on that business if we continue to despoil our landscape in this way.
My hon. Friend talks about a mast that is 120 metres high; in real money that is 400 feet, which is a huge height. People must remember that it will be seen for miles. Turbines will be put in prominent positions to catch the wind in the first place and they go 200, 300 or 400 feet up in the air, so they can be seen. They cause huge detriment to the visual aspect of the countryside, to the people living there and, as my hon. Friend says, to the people coming to visit Devon, Cornwall and the west country. Believe it or not, people do not come to the west country to see wind turbines; they come to the countryside to see the great landscapes and, dare I say it, the lambs, sheep and cattle in the fields, along with our beautiful rivers. People do not come to see massive wind turbines that are being built in the countryside not because of the economics but because they are over-subsidised.
The Minister cannot be held responsible for the over-subsidy of wind turbines, which is not in his Department’s portfolio, but the Government should consider the over-subsidy more closely because I am certain that if we killed the economics of wind turbines, we would kill the applications, irrespective of planning. The Minister might not be able to answer that today, but it needs to be passed down the line.
I support microgeneration: a single turbine in a farm or business that provides power to that business, with any spare capacity being sold to the grid. We are now seeing more and more single turbine applications that are not microgenerating; they are clearly just cash cows. Would my hon. Friend support a moratorium on single turbine applications that neither provide power locally nor microgenerate for a farm or business?
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point because speculative single turbine applications, especially for very large wind turbines of some 300 or 400 feet in height, are the ones that particularly need to be stopped. Some of the smaller wind turbines that generate for small businesses, farms or communities are acceptable. The other problem, and the Minister may be able to talk about this, is that such wind turbine applications are not linked to local communities. If a local community thinks it could benefit from a wind turbine, despite all my rhetoric this afternoon, people might find them a little more acceptable, but they are foisted upon communities that receive no benefit from them. All a community sees is a vast wind turbine restricting its view.
The flight paths of birds are also affected. One application in my constituency, for instance, is very close to a wood that has a lot of buzzards. Such applications can have a hugely detrimental effect. If I were a bird, I would not want to get caught in a wind turbine. We have to take all those things into consideration.
I thank my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon for securing this debate, and I look forward to what the Minister has to tell us.
I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) on securing this debate. I anticipate that I will be a dissenting voice—[Hon. Members: “Lone voice.”] We shall see. I may find that the Minister agrees with me, but certainly among Beck-Bench Members, I anticipate being a dissenting voice in this debate.
I start by setting out some common ground in the interests of a cordial debate. I support renewable energy, and I welcome the contribution of onshore wind turbines. Members may agree that renewable energy developments, like all forms of development, should be judged on their individual merits by planning authorities and considered in the light of planning policy. There will be some development proposals that are suitable and some that are not. As I listened to the many skilfully deployed arguments earlier, it occurred to me that I might have been inclined to make those arguments against other sorts of developments, such as certain housing developments in some situations. Although we certainly need housing, and there are developments for which authorisation is right, there will be settings in which a development is simply not appropriate. We ought to have planning law and planning policy, and I believe we do, that enable local authorities to make individual decisions about individual applications.
As I listened to the hon. and learned Gentleman, I asked myself how on earth the Didcot power station ever got planning permission. I am sure hon. Members pass the power station on the train as often as I do. Our planning system has to consider the benefits that developments will bring, which will often be further afield than the development’s immediate locale. Although some hon. Members have considered the full breadth of this debate’s title, I came here intending specifically to address planning because of our experience in Wiltshire during the development of Wiltshire’s core strategy, with which I hope the Minister is familiar. If not, I am confident that his aide is familiar with it.
Policy 42 of Wiltshire’s core strategy is heavily based on Lord Reay’s private Member’s Bill, the Wind Turbines (Minimum Distances from Residential Premises) Bill. The core strategy has not yet been adopted. In fact, such was the controversy surrounding policy 42 that, when the planning inspector considered the strategy, he spent the best part of a day hearing evidence on the merits or otherwise of that policy. Although I cannot be sure of exactly why the core strategy has not yet been successfully adopted, policy 42 is one of the issues on which the planning inspector had to deliberate following his examination of the local plan.
Lord Reay’s private Member’s Bill did not become law. Members who have already spoken did not advocate the Bill’s proposals, and I do not know whether they support them, but the proposals are not law. Yet almost by the back door, and with changes proposed at the last minute in Wiltshire council’s deliberation on the local development plan, the council sought to take the Bill’s provisions, which do not have the authority of our democratic Parliament, and introduce them into our local plan. I recognise that there are certain locations in which development should be approved and other locations where development should not be approved, but a policy for minimum separation distances is a clumsy way of making that distinction.
The point I am making is that a separation distance, in itself, does not take into consideration all sorts of other factors, such as the quality of the landscape, that we would expect councillors to consider when making a planning decision. My understanding, and the Minister can correct me if I am wrong, is that it is not our coalition Government’s policy that minimum separation distances should apply to such developments in England.
The other argument that I wish to deploy this afternoon is that we ought to be making policy and planning decisions on the basis of evidence. We have heard many genuinely held concerns this afternoon. Some of the objections relate to how people genuinely feel, and I do not suggest that they are anything but a genuine reaction to the situation, but we are in a position to test some of the concerns that have been cited. It would be helpful to consider the evidence. I have heard concerns, but I have not heard evidence, and perhaps hon. Members can at least provide anecdotes. For example, it would be useful to understand how far away from the development of a wind turbine there is evidence of a fall in house prices, or whether there is evidence of the tourism economy in Devon or other parts of the south-west suffering in a different way from the rest of the country. We may want to consider international evidence: on a holiday to France not so long ago I saw plenty of onshore wind turbines, but the region I was visiting clearly had a vibrant tourism economy.
I understand that the hon. Gentleman argues for the precautionary principle, which is not supported in many other areas of policy making. I am sure that he would like consistency about that.
We have heard about developments that have already happened. I am not suggesting that we embark on an experiment; I am suggesting that we consider the evidence of what has already happened. It may be reassuring to people to know that house prices have not fallen near other developments—although I am sure it will not greatly reassure those in some parts of the country who are yet to be able to afford housing. I make a plea to the Minister, who will respond to the genuine concerns that are being voiced in the debate, to ground his policy making firmly in evidence. It is not beyond the wit of man, or indeed of his colleagues in the Department, to stick to that principle.
I want to consider the question of benefit to the local area. I have been pressing another Department in relation to the Government’s long-awaited community energy strategy, which was finally published at the end of last year. I believe it is important that as we reform the energy sector, we empower many more stakeholders than the owners of the big six companies. Renewable energy gives an opportunity—it could slip through our hands but we could grasp it, with good policy—to democratise the relationship between consumers and producers in our energy system. An example would be Delabole in Cornwall, where a reduced energy tariff is available to people living near the wind farm. I should like more to be done to enable local people to benefit if their community contributes to decisions—we need those decisions to be taken somewhere in the country—to secure the energy supply. I look forward to that happening in my constituency, where a major solar project presents a substantial contribution to the local councils, to ensure that the community will be a beneficiary. I do not want to stretch the parameters of the debate, Mr Pritchard, but we have heard of at least one alternative source of energy this afternoon.
The recent rush—and there has been quite an increase—in applications for solar power projects in Wiltshire may not be unconnected with the effective blanket ban proposed under policy 42 of Wiltshire’s draft core strategy. The contribution to energy needs in Wiltshire is perhaps more likely to be provided by solar because of the blanket ban, which is not in the least pragmatic and which is effected by the minimum separation distances proposed in the local plan. There may be consequences, and I do not know how they would be received in sunny Devon, should its councillors go down the same route as those in Wiltshire.
I wanted to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question about evidence of an effect on house prices. A study in Cornwall analysed 201 sales transactions of houses within half a mile of a 16-turbine wind farm and found a noticeable effect. It said that both the noise and the flicker from turbine blades could blight certain properties, and that the view of the countryside enjoyed by the occupier had some value, which might be affected by a wind farm. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors argues that there is evidence suggesting an effect on house prices. The matter is not evidence-free. There is growing evidence of an effect, certainly while there is uncertainty about whether a development will be built.
I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for that intervention, but I was rather hoping that in looking for evidence of the effect on house prices, we might examine prices rather than assertions about what might or might not influence them. I understand that house prices have continued to march well out of reach of affordability in Cornwall and other parts of the south-west of England.
I hope that Ministers will stick to an evidence-based policy to avoid the unwanted consequences of unnecessarily closing down one option for a clean and secure source of energy.
The debate and the issue are hugely important. I live in Montgomeryshire, which is a long way from the south-west, and I did not intend to speak when I came to the debate. I came because I have a great love for the south-west. I spend much of my holiday time there. St Ives and Padstow are beautiful, and I find the Isles of Scilly irresistible. We spend a great deal of time in the south-west, so I travel through it. Inevitably one notices the impact of the development of onshore wind turbines while driving through Somerset and Cornwall. They are quite dominant. I was hugely impressed by the power of the speech made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox). Because the issue is so important to me, I felt an irresistible urge to speak in the debate.
My aim is to speak about planning policy. I would not want to incur your wrath in any circumstances, Mr Pritchard, and particularly not when you are in the Chair. I have a special interest arising from my constituency, but I shall make a passing reference to what makes this such a big issue for me: it is scale. My constituency has more than 240 turbines already, and we have a proposal for probably 35 miles of 400 kW cable, a 20-acre substation and about 500 extra turbines—it is a dedicated line—and about 100 miles of cables criss-crossing the constituency from the centre. The proposal would completely change a beautiful part of Britain, which shares a standard of beauty with the south-west. Anyone representing such an area is bound to be involved in the debate. It is a question of scale.
We have a general Government policy, supported by the Opposition and all parties, of seeking an energy mix. I think that that is right, and have never argued that wind should not play a part in it. The question is about the scale. The Government do not have a target, other than having 15% of energy coming from renewable sources by 2020. As for onshore wind, there is, I think, an expectation of what it would provide. That expectation is between 10 GW and 13 GW of power. Currently, we have 7 GW of power that is up and operating, 6.8 GW that has passed planning and another 6 GW that is in planning. We have achieved the target that the Government expected to achieve by 2020. Clearly, the level of support is so high that there would probably be an onshore wind farm on every hill in Britain if planning permission could be gained, but the case for a moratorium is strong. As manifestos are prepared, I hope that all parties seriously consider a moratorium to protect the most beautiful parts of Britain.
There is a real issue with local democracy and how people feel locally. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon referred to hopelessness, and that is exactly how people feel. A research project at Aberystwyth university looked at how wind farms impacted on mid-Wales. The research found a sense of hopelessness and helplessness throughout the area about being able to affect the implications of Government policy on where they lived. The council signed off on the development and gave up believing in local democracy. It is probably one of the poorest local authorities in Britain, yet it felt that it had to set aside £2 million to support its decisions and defend its policies at a public inquiry.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the other baleful effects of the proliferation of applications for out-of-scale wind turbines is that it tends to turn people against renewable energy as a whole? As they search for arguments to defend their communities, they immediately start to look at the whole case for cutting carbon emissions and do so from a hostile point of view. That cannot be a good thing for a cause that we would all support.
I absolutely agree with my hon. and learned Friend on that issue. In 2004, I was thought to be a strong supporter of renewable energy. I campaigned for the principle of renewable energy. When the project that impacted on my area came forward, I said that it would damage the view of renewable energy in a part of Britain that was the most supportive of it—the Centre for Alternative Technology is in the middle of my constituency—and, indeed, the opposite is now true. Some 2,000 people came to Cardiff to protest on the steps of the Assembly with me. The impression is that we are now anti-renewable energy, but that has been driven by this obsession with onshore wind. It seems crazy to me.
I have a few points to make before I finish. The first is on cumulative impact. How can cumulative impact not be a major part of planning? I was a planning committee chairman for seven years, and with every development the cumulative impact was a hugely important factor. Suddenly, as with everything else, there are special rules for onshore wind, and cumulative impact hardly matters. We are seeing huge proliferations close together. We must pay real attention to cumulative impact and take into account the new pylons that the National Grid has to build as part of that development.
The second point is about the individual turbines that are popping up everywhere. The local planning authority has to have a policy that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) said, accepts a certain number, where they support the community. We would support a farmer who wants to use the policy to develop their own energy production. Local planning authorities, however, do not have a policy and are approving those turbines on a hit and miss basis. I have seen them go through when the planning officer has recommended refusal, and we are destroying the most beautiful parts of our country.
Finally, we need to have an appreciation of landscape at the core of our planning policies. Before coming to this place, for three years I was the president of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales, which is the equivalent body to the Campaign to Protect Rural England. We worked together. It is heartbreaking to see policies being adopted that pay almost no regard to the value of landscape. The planning inspectors have got one view only, which is this mythical target. They say, “We have listened to what you have told us and we accept everything, but it is trumped by the target.” It is devastating for rural parts of Britain, it is devastating for the south-west and it is devastating for my constituency. It is time that the Government recognised that and came forward with a policy based on a moratorium.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and to respond to an interesting and thoughtful debate. First, as a constituency MP, I fully understand the concerns that our residents express from time to time about significant planning applications, and the strength and sincerity with which those concerns have been reflected by Members will be welcomed by their constituents. I am replying today on behalf of the Opposition. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) usually leads on these issues for the shadow Government, but she is not able to be here.
Like all Members who have spoken today, I have a constituency interest in these issues. My constituents have a broad range of views. Most, to be frank, do not get exercised about wind energy. The issue does not come up regularly when I am out and about on the doorsteps in many parts of the constituency, although I find advocates for it as well as opponents. I can think of very few examples where those who are opposed to or concerned about wind farms are opposed to wind energy in principle. It is more often about planning applications that residents feel are inappropriate for one reason or another, such as proximity to existing homes or the impact on the landscape. Members have highlighted those issues, and that is where the planning process needs to take account of local views.
The hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) spoke strongly about the concerns of his constituents. Similar concerns have been put to me regarding applications in my constituency, and I have tried to support my constituents. Many Members have said that local public opinion should be taken into account, and that must be right. I pay tribute to the local authorities in my constituency, which is unique in nature. I represent one very Conservative area that is covered by East Northamptonshire council, and one area that leans heavily to Labour in Corby borough council. Both councils are different in character, but they generally do a fair job of weighing up the representations they receive from the public on planning matters. As an MP, I recognise that I often amplify the concerns of the local public. I do not, however, have the same responsibility as a decision maker to weigh those concerns against other considerations of the wider needs of our communities.
Planning applications, whether they are for new housing, new industry or new energy supply, are inevitably not always popular with those who live close to them. At times, people are cynical about that, but we have to be honest. We would seek to protect our communities and what we love about them, and I am fully respectful when my constituents tell me that something is on their doorstep and is not welcome.
The hon. Gentleman tempts me to comment on something that I would have to see in context. The voices of those concerned about planning applications should be heard in the planning process. I always endeavour, as an MP—I am absolutely sure from the speech made by the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon that he does so, too—to ensure that they are heard. However, the voices of those who want the housing, jobs and energy supply should be heard as well, and that is why the debate about wind energy must be considered in context.
Like my constituents, I am sure that many people across the south-west, particularly in the light of recent events, are concerned about climate change, energy prices and energy security. Climate change is a security threat for families, businesses and the country as a whole, because it could destabilise entire regions of the world and cause the mass migration of millions of people and conflict over water and food supplies. The events of the last few weeks have shown that it is an issue in our own country, too, with people’s homes, businesses and livelihoods under attack from extreme weather, particularly in the region that most hon. Members present represent, and that is the focus of our debate.
Political division at Westminster, some of which has been reflected today, means that we are sleepwalking into a national security crisis on climate change. The science has not changed, and the terrible events of the last few weeks should serve as a wake-up call. The climate change consensus that once existed in this country has frayed. My party stands ready to work with people from all parties who are prepared to do what is necessary. The contribution from the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames), which was slightly different in character, helped the debate by rounding it somewhat. The need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuel based energy sources is real. Over 160 Governments, including our own—although that seems to be a moveable feast—and the United Nations agree that the burning of fossil fuels is causing our climate to change dramatically.
The transition to a low-carbon economy is essential, but it also presents a huge opportunity for the UK, with the potential to be a major source of jobs and growth that we need now more than ever. The Government started out by promising to be the greenest Government ever, but the reality is that they have a terrible record on climate change. We see squabbling and inconsistent messages from Ministers and policy uncertainty on decarbonisation and support for renewables. The Prime Minister says that he has not changed his mind, but, in the face of pressure from his Back Benchers and the UK Independence party, he has ignored the issue or allowed it to become downgraded across Whitehall. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs apparently refuses to be briefed on climate change by his own civil servants.
I am very short of time.
Government Members have today described their own Government’s approach as “obscene”. As a direct result of the Government’s failure to get behind green businesses and to set a decarbonisation target, the UK is falling behind with investment in green growth, meaning that the jobs, growth and industry that should be coming to this country are now going overseas.
Order. Just to be helpful to the shadow Minister, given that he has three minutes left only, given the debate’s title and given the interest, I am sure that he will want to narrow his contribution down to wind farms in the context of climate change.
Mr Pritchard, you have anticipated my next remark, which is, “Let me turn specifically to wind energy.”
The UK is the windiest country in Europe. We are the world’s eighth largest producer of wind energy. It is our second-largest source of renewable energy—[Interruption.]
Government Members seemed keen a moment ago to hear my response, although they may of course not like it.
Wind energy is our second-largest source of renewable energy, with the capacity to power 3.3 million homes. The UK should be a world leader in wind energy, but since the coalition came to power, the UK has slipped from third to 13th in the world for investment in green growth, and investment in wind power has fallen by 40%. The wind industry alone employs more than 10,000 people in the UK, but it has the potential to employ thousands more. Foreign companies, such as Mitsubishi, Gamesa and Siemens, are lining up to invest hundreds of millions of pounds, to create new industries and to bring new jobs to the UK, but they will not commit until the Government get behind green British businesses. Evidence from all over the world suggests that wind power is cheap and is the most developed form of clean energy. It has the potential to create thousands of badly needed new jobs in Britain, but Government splits are undermining this key growth industry and putting Britain’s energy security at risk.
Offshore wind has the potential to be a vital part of decarbonising the UK’s energy supply, too. This debate has focused on onshore, but offshore must be part of our consideration of how we take forward a wind energy strategy.
The Government’s lack of policy is damaging not only to renewable commitments and tackling climate change but to localism, because it creates an uncertain, ever-shifting context in which local authorities must determine planning applications. My party has made it clear that local communities should be able to shape their local areas, and we want to provide local authorities with the tools to do so. I am unsurprised, however, that communities are sceptical of the Government’s evolving changes over the past year around the extent to which local communities will be consulted. Will the Minister assure us that the statutory instrument introduced in December, which introduced pre-application consultations for all onshore wind developments of two turbines or more, is more than a tick-box exercise?
The Government’s own figures show that more than a third of applications are refused. There will be examples of where hon. Members have disagreed with applications in their constituencies, some of which we have heard about today, but the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) acknowledged the need for a new energy mix. The way forward is to consider a national strategic plan that sets out clearly how we will manage the need for renewable energy in the future. We cannot simply say that we do not want wind farms anywhere. We need to say how we will meet the nation’s energy needs and how we will ensure that the public’s views are more properly considered when determining where wind farms are sited. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) on securing this debate and commend his excellent work on representing his constituency’s interests.
I want to set my response in context. I have a constituency. It is a constituency with some beautiful landscape, and it is a constituency where some individuals have sought to place certain applications before planning committees, and I have views on that. I am also aware that another Department has discussed, contemplated and brought forward this Government’s policy on renewable energy and it is for that Department to address that matter. Members have mentioned the costs and merits of mitigating our carbon figures, but I will leave that to those individuals. Although I am tempted to participate in some political knockabout with the shadow Minister, my role is quasi-judicial and I will discuss the matter strictly in that context.
Will my hon. Friend address three specific points? First, does he agree that the document of July 2013 has not had the effect that was desired or intended? In other words, does he agree that there is an inherent bias in the system, which was intended to be addressed by automatic overriding? Planning departments are telling my hon. Friends and me that it does not do what the Minister thought it would. Secondly, can we get some improvement in the planning framework so that landscape value is accorded the weight and priority that the Secretary of State said last year that it should have? Finally, will the Minister consider giving further guidance to planning departments as to how decisions should be taken in the planning system? More specifically, can he say anything about the recovered appeals that the Secretary of State is currently considering and the purpose and intent behind that consideration?
I have 12 minutes. I heard all those points when they were made in my hon. and learned Friend’s initial speech, and I want to address them, so I would appreciate the opportunity to respond. The issues are important and we can provide people with some confidence as to where we are.
It is quite right to challenge the Government on how our planning policy for wind turbines and our recently published planning practice guidance for renewable and low carbon energy are impacting on particular local areas. I hope that I can provide some clarity. I recognise that wind farms have created a lot of interest and debate among local communities in the south-west and right across the country, and people are often concerned about the cumulative and visual effect of wind farms on landscapes and local amenity. We understand that there are concerns over the development of onshore wind, but such issues are addressed by the policies and, in particular, the new planning practice guidance that the Government have put in place.
There is, however, no excuse for putting wind farms in the wrong places. The national planning policy framework is clear that applications for renewable energy developments, such as wind farms, should be approved only if the impact, including landscape, visual and cumulative impact, is or can be made acceptable. We are committed to safeguarding the natural and local environment and we are clear in the framework that planning should take account of the different roles and character of different areas, protect the green belt, recognise the character and beauty of the countryside and support thriving rural communities within it. National parks, the broads and areas of outstanding natural beauty have the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty. The framework is clear that great weight should be given to conserving that.
The framework is clear that local councils should design their policies to ensure that any adverse effects from wind farms are addressed satisfactorily. To ensure that decisions reflect the environmental balance expected by the framework and that the views of local people are listened to, we published new planning guidance for renewable and low-carbon energy last summer. Those were integrated into a new web-based resource, which has been accessible since 6 March.
The new planning guidance resource is a key part of the reforms that the coalition Government have introduced. We are committed to making the planning system simpler, clearer and easier for people to use. The new practice guidance is designed to assist local councils and planning inspectors in their consideration of local plans and individual applications.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) raised the fundamental question of whether the new planning guidelines have provided the rebalancing, which the Minister has argued for, of the planning decisions more in favour of the environment and less in favour of renewable energy. A test of that would be the number of applications that have come through and been successful since that new guidance came into effect. Will the Minister tell us whether applications are coming through at the same sort of level, or are there more or less than before the planning guidance came into force?
I reassure Members that I will answer every question that they have asked, but I have just had another minute knocked off my ability to answer. Please give me the opportunity to get through these—[Interruption.] I will come to the points made, which were valid.
In particular, we are clear that the need for renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protections and the planning concerns of local authorities. The guidance is clear that cumulative and visual impacts require particular attention and it sets out criteria on how to assess them. It also sets out the importance of protecting local amenity, including concerns about noise, and such consideration should be given proper weight in planning decisions. We have made it crystal clear in the guidance that great care should be taken to ensure that heritage assets are conserved in a manner appropriate to their significance.
Under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, local planning authorities have a statutory responsibility to consider planning applications for renewable energy developments of 50 MW or less. Planning law requires that applications for planning permission must be determined in accordance with the statutory development plan for that area unless material considerations indicate otherwise. Those material considerations include national planning policy and guidance.
Local authorities will take into account relevant representations from the local community on the planning merits of a proposal. The Government aim is that every area should have a clear local plan, consistent with the national planning policy framework, which sets out local people’s views about how they wish their community to develop, against which planning applications and planning appeals will be judged.
I am aware that West Devon borough council put its core strategy in place in 2011, before the publication of the NPPF, and that North Devon and Torridge district councils are working together to prepare a new plan to cover north Devon. It is important that local councils get up-to-date plans in place as soon as possible and use those to set out their plans for the development of renewable energy, and clearly indicate where developments should or should not take place take place in line with the framework. Where councils have identified areas suitable for renewable energy, they should not feel that they have to give permission for speculative applications outside those areas when they judge the impact to be unacceptable.
Bearing in mind the fact that time is running short, I will leave decisions on a site-by-site basis to one side. Planning inspectors’ decisions and recovered appeals are something on which Members wanted clarity. If applications are refused locally and taken to appeal, they will be judged by an independent planning inspector. As is the case with local councils, planning inspectors determine planning appeals in accordance with the development plan for their area unless material considerations indicate otherwise, as I said. In reaching a decision, the inspector would take account of all the relevant material in such planning considerations, including local community views and the national planning policy framework.
I understand the frustration that local communities can feel when a planning inspector gives the go-ahead to a proposal that they opposed. I will give some reassurance, however, that since the publication of the guidance last summer, appeals for “more significant” wind turbines have been turned down in greater numbers than the numbers approved: 68 were turned down and 56 approved. In the 12 months before that, 85 were approved and 77 were refused. We therefore see a clear turnaround in the numbers compared with the previous 12 months. I am happy to give Members more details if they so require.
Applications can be recovered so that Ministers can check that an application or process meets the published criteria. Instead of an inspector making the decision, he or she will write a report that will make a recommendation on how the appeal should be determined. That will be passed to the Secretary of State to make the final decision.
We are determined to give communities a greater say over the proposals that affect them. On 17 December, the planning regulations were changed to make pre-application consultation with local communities compulsory. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon mentioned his concern that applications were appearing without an opportunity for people to contribute. We now have a pre-application consultation period, which is really important as it will ensure that nothing is sprung on communities; they will have an opportunity to voice their concerns clearly. That will also allow the developer to understand the level of support, or lack thereof, for an individual application. That consultation is required in a development with more than two wind turbines, or if the height of a turbine exceeds 15 metres.
We are clear that communities must be properly engaged with and see real benefits from hosting wind farms. Last year, the Department of Energy and Climate Change announced a fivefold increase in the value of community benefit packages that wind farms developers fund for local communities. That is an important part of the package. I will not comment on individual applications, but if Members believe that a particular planning application has not been processed appropriately, I encourage them to write to me. I will consider the recovery of such applications.