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Navitus Bay Wind Farm

Volume 584: debated on Wednesday 9 July 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Anne Milton.)

It is a pleasure to rise to address the House in this Adjournment debate. It is four years and two weeks since I stood in exactly the same place and made my maiden speech, which was in an Adjournment debate on student visas. I was pleased on that occasion to make significant progress with the Government afterwards. I hope that the same will be the case today. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is responding and the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), is in his place.

This is not a debate about the Government’s energy policy or about their renewables policy; those are debates for another day. This is about a particular proposal to build a wind farm off the Dorset coast. It is appropriate that we are debating it while councillors from across the country are enjoying the Local Government Association’s annual conference in Bournemouth and the stunning views from the wonderful conference facility. I recently conducted a survey on the proposed wind farm and have brought with me a small sample of the responses. They show overwhelming opposition from my constituents and others, and for good reasons.

I wish to discuss the potential impact of the Navitus Bay wind farm on England’s only natural world heritage site, the Jurassic coast, designated by the Government and UNESCO in 2001. That status, under article 4 of the world heritage convention of 1972, obliges the Government to protect, conserve, present and transmit to future generations the sites identified as being part of the cultural and natural heritage. A proposal for a wind farm of up to 194 turbines, each of up to 200 metres in height, is currently before the Planning Inspectorate for evaluation. It will be sited within full view of the Jurassic coast and its main visitor centre at Durlston castle. As part of the planning process for this proposal, DCMS submitted an environmental impact assessment to UNESCO. I wish to address the response of UNESCO and the International Union for Conservation of Nature to that environmental impact assessment.

In its comments on the environmental impact assessment, the IUCN raised a number of concerns about the potential impact of the proposed wind farm on the Jurassic coast world heritage site, particularly regarding the unique processes that shape the Jurassic coast and contribute to its outstanding universal value. If this outstanding universal value is compromised and the natural erosion processes on the coast are affected, the reason for the site’s designation as a world heritage site would be threatened. The IUCN notes, too, the potential for the proposal to affect the protection and management of the property. It states that

“in particular, the adequate protection of the wider setting of the property, recognized by the World Heritage Committee to justify at the time of inscription the lack of a defined buffer zone, will be compromised.”

As such, the IUCN said that

“any potential impacts from this project on the natural property are in contradiction to the overarching principle of the World Heritage Convention as stipulated in its Article 4”

as

“the completion of the Project would result in the property being presented and transmitted to future generations in a form that is significantly different from what was there at the time of inscription and until today.”

The first of a number of questions I would like to put to the Minister is this: what is his response to IUCN’s conclusions, and how will the Government meet their obligations under the convention to protect the setting of the site, as well as its listed outstanding universal values?

UNESCO does not make hollow threats. In 2011, there were plans to site a three-turbine wind farm development 10.5 miles from the shore near Mont St Michel in Brittany. As this threatened the setting of the world heritage site, the French Government acted to exclude wind farms from a buffer zone around the site. They were right to do so, as UNESCO is not afraid of removing a site’s designated status. The Elbe valley in Germany was removed from the list of world heritage sites in 2009 following the construction of a four-lane bridge in the valley which meant that

“the property failed to keep ‘its outstanding universal value as inscribed.’”

My colleagues would not expect me to say this, but my second question to the Minister is this: will he follow the French example and take action in England to protect the setting of our only natural world heritage site for future generations, thus avoiding the fate that befell the Germans?

I believe that if the Jurassic coast were to lose its designated status as a world heritage site, the tourism economy throughout Dorset would suffer drastically. Over 30 million trips were made to Dorset in the past year, some 5 million of which included the Jurassic coast, and evidence suggests that visitor numbers have increased since the Jurassic coast’s designation as a world heritage site. Given that Navitus Bay’s own research shows that 48% of people visiting the area cite the sea view as a reason for doing so, and that IUCN

“considers that the impact of the Project on the visitors’ experience and appreciation of the property in its wider natural setting is likely to be significant”,

it is by no means a leap of the imagination to say that the proposed wind farm will have a significant impact on tourism numbers.

The fact that there are many Dorset MPs in the Chamber today shows that we fully support the compelling case that my hon. Friend is making. My constituents are very worried about this proposal and the impact that it will have on the local economy.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and I salute his dogged determination in opposing this plan and, indeed, that of my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and for South Dorset (Richard Drax), who are sitting behind me. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) would be present, except that he is on manoeuvres on Salisbury plain as part of his Territorial Army activities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms), who is my parliamentary neighbour, knows about the vital impact on Bournemouth and the conurbation. Tourism is Bournemouth’s second most important sector of the economy after financial services and it is worth about £475 million to the town annually. It directly supports 8,500 local jobs, with a further 2,000 jobs indirectly dependent on visitors. Across Dorset as a whole, tourism is worth in the region of £1.7 billion annually and supports in the region of 47,000 jobs.

Given that 20% of summer visitors surveyed by Navitus Bay—they were surveyed by the development company itself—said that they would be unlikely to visit Bournemouth during the five-year construction phase and 14% said that they would be unlikely ever to return, the development would have a major impact on our tourism economy and change the nature of our town and conurbation.

May I, therefore, ask the Minister another direct question? Given the importance of tourism to Bournemouth and Dorset’s economy and the Government’s commitment to our long-term economic plan—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!] I am not surprised that my colleagues expected me to say that—what steps will the Minister take to ensure that this damaging proposal does not go ahead?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and fighting, as we all are, this cause. Does he agree that what is surprising is that it is not as if there is nowhere else to locate this wind farm? The Crown Estate identified eight other sites totalling about 225,000 sq km that would be nowhere near the land and that certainly would not damage this fantastic site. Why on earth did the Crown Estate choose this most special site, which we are trying to protect?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The development company was given a vast area to put the wind farm and my hon. Friend will remember that in our initial meetings with its representatives, we told them that we would not oppose it if it was not visible from the shore, if its visual impact did not deter visitors and if it did not damage the world heritage site. All the company had to do was push it further out within the area given to it by the Crown Estate, but it did not do that.

I want to turn to some of the criticisms of the submission process, starting with the independence of the environmental impact assessment. I agree with the IUCN that it would have been more appropriate for DCMS to have commissioned an independent environmental impact assessment, rather than use one prepared by the proponents of the scheme—the Navitus Bay development company. In the words of IUCN,

“this raises questions on the credibility and objectivity of the assessment.”

I have heard some of the arguments made by Navitus Bay to discredit IUCN’s comments, including that they were merely interim and are not aligned with other impact assessments. Could that be because other impact assessments have been provided or commissioned by Navitus Bay itself? Is this a case of, “We’re right, because the documents we have written say so”?

Then there is the question of the appropriateness of the guidance used. The IUCN notes that the guidance used by Navitus Bay for its assessment was not the most appropriate possible. Rather than using the IUCN world heritage advice note on environmental assessment, Navitus Bay used the International Council on Monuments and Sites “Guidance on Heritage Impact Assessments for Cultural World Heritage Properties”, which is adapted to cultural heritage. According the IUCN, it did so despite being aware of the IUCN guidance, which is referred to in the environmental impact assessment.

IUCN claims that by adopting the other guidance rather than the IUCN advice note, Navitus Bay failed to adhere to all eight world heritage impact assessment principles. Notably, IUCN believes that Navitus Bay failed to adhere to the principle that

“reasonable alternatives to the proposal must be identified and assessed with the aim of recommending the most sustainable option to decision-makers, including”—

crucially—

“the possibility of the ‘no project’ option”.

Why did the DCMS not commission an independent environmental impact assessment?

Did the Minister or any of his current or previous colleagues in the Department approve the letter to UNESCO of 17 February—sent by Leila Al-Kazwini, the DCMS head of world heritage—that takes for granted the evidence provided by Navitus Bay regarding the impact of the proposal on the Jurassic coast while dismissing the concerns of, among others, the steering group for the world heritage site itself?

Sixthly, given those criticisms, does the Minister have confidence in the environmental impact assessment submitted by his Department but created by the Navitus Bay development company?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this important debate. Does he share my concern that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport did not issue a formal response to the UNESCO letter of 2 May? That letter contains some powerful arguments. Surely they merited a response from my hon. Friend the Minister. Instead, according to a parliamentary answer I received from him on 23 June, that letter was passed to the planning authorities as part of a process. Is that not most unsatisfactory?

My hon. Friend makes a very important and valid intervention. One reason why I attempted to secure the debate was so that the Minister has the opportunity to explain the Department’s thinking. He also has the opportunity to explain to the House that this is not simply a matter for the Department of Energy and Climate Change or the planning inspector in Bristol, but a matter for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which has a vital, and indeed legally binding, obligation to do all it can to protect that world heritage site, and, as it says, to pass it on intact to future generations. I look forward to his response in a moment.

I conclude as I began. This is not about the Government’s energy policy, renewable energy or subsidy. Hon. Members have different views on those. The debate is about a proposal that my constituents and those of my hon. Friends fundamentally believe is the wrong proposal in the wrong place. Its demerits vastly outweigh its merits. The Government can achieve all their energy ambitions and still say no to the application. My hon. Friend the Minister of State now has an opportunity to tell us what he is prepared to do to assist us. It does not just affect us in Dorset. As things develop, it could affect Hampshire Members—I notice that my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne) is sitting on the Front Bench. The New Forest would be torn up to allow energy to get into the grid.

This is very serious. I say without exaggeration that it is possibly the most significant issue in Bournemouth and the conurbation, and Dorset more widely, in a generation. I hope that the Minister, in his reply, can assure us and our constituents that he is with us and will do what he can to protect that fantastic bit of England.

I am grateful for the chance to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) and thank him for promoting me to Minister of State ahead of the reshuffle. I hope that the Whip in the Chamber will pass on that recommendation. My hon. Friend mentioned the Local Government Association conference in Bournemouth, so I shall use this opportunity to pay tribute to Sir Merrick Cockell, who is standing down as chairman of the LGA. He has been a fine servant to the LGA as well as to Kensington and Chelsea council.

Let me respond to the pertinent points my hon. Friend has made about the Jurassic coast, the world heritage site and the potential impact of the Navitus Bay development. It is important to note that several colleagues are in the Chamber—my hon. Friends the Members for South Dorset (Richard Drax), for Poole (Mr Syms), and for Christchurch (Mr Chope), and the Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne), who may well wish to involve himself in the debate in future, given what my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West said about the potential impact of the wind turbines on the New Forest West constituency.

As I have said, my hon. Friend has made a number of important points. Let me try to deal with them as effectively as I can. He asked six direct questions, and I shall try to answer them in the course of my speech. I will start with the letter from Kishore Rao from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but let me first set out the framework of my remarks. It is important to state that a process has to be gone through in considering the planning application for Navitus bay. That approach is effectively quasi-judicial, which means that one’s personal opinion must necessarily come second to the opinion of experts and to the process itself.

Let me make it absolutely clear that the letter was from the IUCN, which is a UNESCO advisory body—IUCN advises on natural heritage sites, but it is not UNESCO—so the letter does not give UNESCO’s opinion on the world heritage status of the Jurassic coast. The proposed wind farm development has not to date been examined by the world heritage committee, so neither the world heritage committee nor UNESCO has an official view on the potential impact of the Navitus bay site on the world heritage site. Currently, the world heritage property is not considered by UNESCO to be under threat, and it is not in immediate danger of losing its world heritage status.

My Department, which my hon. Friend mentioned, is responsible for acting as the UK state party on all world heritage matters and for liaising with the UNESCO world heritage centre. The IUCN submitted its comments to UNESCO, and they were forwarded to the DCMS on 2 May. It is our responsibility not to respond to the IUCN, but to ensure that the Planning Inspectorate is made aware of its comments, and we passed on the IUCN’s comments to the Planning Inspectorate on 7 May.

The IUCN letter referred to the effect of the wind farm on the world heritage property and its setting, and such views will be taken into account by the Planning Inspectorate alongside those of English Heritage, which is a statutory consultee.

Is it not correct that the letter that arrived on 2 May was deliberately sent in advance of the Government’s decision to refer this application to the Planning Inspectorate, and that the letter urged—and, indeed, pleaded with—the Government not to refer the application to the Planning Inspectorate because it had not passed the first hurdle?

It is not the IUCN’s role to say whether a letter should be passed on to the Planning Inspectorate. My reading of the letter is not the same as my hon. Friend’s, but I will re-read it to double-check his point, and I will respond to him by letter if necessary. As I have said, our responsibility is to pass the letter on to the Planning Inspectorate so that the IUCN’s views are taken into account.

As well as the views of the IUCN, the Planning Inspectorate will take into account those of English Heritage, Natural England, and of course the world heritage site steering group, plus all other representations made to it as part of the planning process. Natural England has made representations about the effect of the proposals on the natural beauty of the coast, as has English Heritage about the effect of the wind farm’s setting on listed buildings and scheduled ancient monuments.

It is important to stress that the Jurassic coast is a world heritage site not on the basis of its natural setting, but on that of its unique geological interest. In addition to the world heritage site, there are two areas of outstanding natural beauty and two stretches of heritage coast. The need to protect the natural beauty of those areas and the effect of the wind farm on them will be considered as part of the planning process, as indeed will the cultural heritage. All such representations are publicly available on the Planning Inspectorate’s website.

I will touch briefly on the UK marine policy statement, which is the framework for preparing marine plans and taking decisions that affect the marine environment that is required by the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. The marine policy statement identifies the social, economic and environmental factors that should be considered in the preparation of marine plans. Those include the seascape.

This proposal is classed as a major infrastructure proposal under the terms of the Planning Act 2008. Its determination is subject to the overarching energy national policy statement and the renewable energy infrastructure national policy statement. The Planning Inspectorate has to assess the wind farm proposal in relation to those provisions and under the national planning policy framework and other relevant planning policies.

It is important to stress that heritage protection policies and nature conservation policies are reflected in that guidance. It includes the recognition that heritage assets can be affected by offshore wind farm development, either directly through the physical siting of the development or indirectly through the impact on the marine environment. The guidance includes a presumption in favour of the conservation of designated heritage assets. The more significant the heritage asset, the greater the presumption in favour of conservation. The setting of heritage assets can contribute to their significance. National planning policy is clear that applications for renewable energy schemes should be approved only if the impact on the local environment is or can be made acceptable. The guidance states that local concerns should be listened to.

Perhaps it would be appropriate at this point to talk about the environmental impact assessment. My understanding is that it is normal practice for the developer to pay for the environmental impact assessment. However, it is still an independent environmental impact assessment. It is not the job of the DCMS or any other Department, as far as I am aware, to pay for the impact assessment or to commission another one if it has not been paid for adequately by the developer. There is no suggestion that the environmental impact assessment is not independent. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West made his point effectively.

I am incredulous about what the Minister has just said. If Navitus Bay has paid for the assessment, how on earth can it be independent?

I am not the planning Minister, but as far as I am aware, it is normal practice for the developer to pay for the independent assessment. The assessment is still independent and is effectively done at arm’s length from the developer.

The Planning Inspectorate has received many representations and will convene a preliminary meeting, where the process for the consideration of the application will be set out and questions about it considered. The inspectorate will have six months to carry out its investigation of the application, which will be undertaken by way of hearings and the consideration of written representations. It will consider all the important and relevant matters that are brought to its attention. It will then report and make a recommendation to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West put a number of points to me. First, he suggested that I follow the example of the French. He should be aware that that is something which I try to do on many occasions. I am one of the people in the Chamber who has some admiration for the French in general, although not necessarily for their Government or policies. The case of Mont St Michel was unique, as is every case in which a world heritage site is considered. It is impossible to read across from one case to the other just because they both involve a world heritage site and an offshore wind farm. That does not make the two cases identical. However, that example from my hon. Friend is a reminder of the power that UNESCO has and of the need to be vigilant about world heritage sites.

English Heritage has advised me on world heritage sites in the past. For example, I wrote to oppose the development of Elizabeth house, which is just across the river, because of its impact on the setting of this august building. Indeed, English Heritage took the Government to court and judicially reviewed the decision of the planning Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), which did not make him particularly happy. That example shows that English Heritage is prepared to make a stand when it has a genuine view that a world heritage site is under threat. Unfortunately, from the perspective of my hon. Friends who are here this evening, that is not currently English Heritage’s position in this case. Its current advice is that the offshore wind farm would not have an undue adverse effect.

I stress that I have heard the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West has made, and if I was in his position, I think I would be making similar points. I am not across the specific details of the planning application such as whether the wind farm could be put in a different part of the zones that the Crown Estate has designated, but I certainly encourage him to enter negotiations with the Crown Estate and the developers to see whether it could be moved. Although the process is of course independent and quasi-judicial, and although there are objective considerations to be taken into account to do with the designation of the world heritage site, common sense and simple corporate responsibility surely dictate that the Navitus developers should sit down with my august friends who are here this evening and discuss alternatives.

The site was chosen because it is the closest to land, and it is all about the money. The other sites are far further out and would cost the company many millions of pounds more. Whatever negotiations we enter, there is no way it will change its mind.

I hear what my hon. Friend says. As I said, I am not close to the planning application itself and do not know the technical considerations that Navitus has made. Clearly money, and the return on capital that it hopes to achieve, will be a factor, but as I understand it the Crown Estate is the landlord. It should be encouraged to enter a dialogue with my hon. Friends, who represent their constituents’ and the nation’s interests so ably on the matter, and I hope it will do so.

My hon. Friend will know that the Crown Estate gets money only for developments within the 12-mile limit. If the wind farm were pushed beyond the 12-mile limit, it would not get any money for it. That is why it is not in favour of doing that.

The Crown Estate is free to grant planning permission for individual developments, and I am sure that it will take into account its wider responsibility and its relationship with local communities and stakeholders in deciding how it wishes its estate to be developed. I believe that it should sit down with my hon. Friends and local stakeholders and discuss the merits or otherwise of the proposal.

To return to my role and that of the DCMS, I hope that I have emphasised that we are not shy in coming forward when we think a world heritage site is under threat, even if it involves disagreeing with colleagues in other Departments, because we put the interests of world heritage sites first. As I understand it, the professional advice from English Heritage and English Nature is that although they have some concerns about the impact on some historic buildings, they do not state that the current proposal for the offshore—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).