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Renewable Energy Development (Beccles)

Volume 585: debated on Wednesday 3 September 2014

We move on to the second debate of this morning, on Government actions and planning applications for renewable energy development in the Beccles area—I hope I pronounced that correctly. I call Mr Peter Aldous.

You have indeed pronounced that correctly, Mr Owen. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship and I am pleased to have secured this debate.

Over the past three years, the Government have made a variety of changes to the planning system and the framework within which planning applications for onshore renewable energy projects are determined. Many of those applications are controversial and it was right that the Government responded to public concern.

The purpose of this debate is to draw attention to two planning applications in the vicinity of Beccles in my constituency. Both have been subject to appeals and raise concerns as to whether the Government’s reforms are working. The first application at Ellough, to the east of the town, is for a 46-hectare solar farm that the Secretary of State recovered for his own decision. He reversed the planning inspector’s decision to approve the scheme and his own decision was overturned in the High Court in June. The second application is to the west, at Barsham, where the Secretary of State declined to recover the appeal which the inspector had approved. That case is now in the High Court.

What causes me particular concern is that the Secretary of State recovered the Ellough case when I had personally received only one representation against the development, but he declined to do so at Barsham when most of the local community was up in arms against it.

In the foreword to the “National Planning Policy Framework”, which underpins much of the new planning regime, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who is now the Minister for Universities, Science and Cities but was at the time the Minister responsible for planning, commented that the framework’s purpose was to allow

“people and communities back into planning.”

From the experiences in the Beccles area, it is clear that that objective has not yet been achieved. The system is not working as it should be, and it is important to learn lessons so that it can be improved.

I should point out, Mr Owen, that I have interests in family farms in Suffolk, where a renewable energy project has taken place and where another is being pursued. I am a supporter of renewable energy, which provides an opportunity for the UK to update its ageing energy infrastructure, to produce clean electricity and to move towards a more secure means of supply, which will lead to greater price stability. There is also the opportunity, if properly handled, to create new jobs. That is important in the Waveney area, where offshore wind in particular has the potential to revitalise the local economy.

That said, it is important that developments are carried out in the right places and not imposed on local communities, that applications are determined in a reasonable time scale, that local people have every opportunity to have their say and that applicants know where they stand so that they can build their businesses in a sustainable way with a degree of certainty.

I shall briefly outline the framework that the Government have laid down within which renewable energy applications of less than 50 MW are determined. That is set out in a variety of documents and statements: the “National Planning Policy Framework”, the “UK Renewable Energy Roadmap”, the “Planning practice guidance for renewable and low carbon energy” dated July 2013 and the Secretary of State’s written statements of 10 October 2013 and 9 April 2014, which set out the criteria that will be considered in deciding whether to recover appeals.

I shall highlight five particular points in relation to the framework: first, the primary importance of the local planning authority’s development plan and its policies in determining planning applications, which to me is the most important issue; secondly, the duty on local communities to adopt green energy schemes, but with the understanding that they should not automatically override environmental protections and their planning concerns; thirdly, the need for special consideration to be given to the environment and the landscape of national parks—the Barsham site lies in close proximity to the Norfolk and Suffolk broads; fourthly, the requirement to consider whether unacceptable development can be made acceptable through planning obligations and conditions; and, finally, the extension of the Secretary of State’s ability to recover appeals, so that local communities can have confidence in the appeals process and that their concerns will not be ignored by the “man from the Ministry”. It is those factors that should be given most consideration in determining planning applications.

What happened at Ellough? The officers at Waveney district council recommended the scheme for approval. The planning committee went against that recommendation and refused the application. The developer appealed, and the planning inspector upheld that appeal. The Secretary of State, on recovery, reversed that decision, which the developer challenged in the High Court, where they were successful; the Secretary of State’s decision was quashed and the appeal referred back to him for redetermination.

I shall highlight the issues that have come out of the case. First, Mr Justice Lindblom, in his judgment, emphasised the importance, in deciding whether to approve such a planning application, of having regard to the local planning authority’s development plan and of making decisions in accordance with that. Waveney district council has set down policies as part of its development plan in which it provides guidance and a framework for determining renewable energy planning applications. Unless material considerations indicate otherwise, the decision should be made in accordance with those policies. That is, after all, an important aspect of localism. The judge concluded that a failure to have regard to that requirement was a “fatal flaw” in the Secretary of State’s decision.

It is important for the applicant to engage in pre-application consultations with the planning authority and to tell the local community about their plans and answer its questions. In this case, the developer did that, distributing more than 3,000 leaflets and holding a public exhibition.

It is necessary for the planning authority to consider whether the imposition of planning obligations and conditions could mitigate concerns about the development. That course was also pursued and the scheme was altered, with the removal of an area from the application site, increased buffer planting and a reduction in the height of the panels.

The development is in the Hundred River special landscape area, and the planning officers at Waveney district council considered whether that was a reason to refuse the application. They concluded that mitigating measures could address their concerns and they had it in mind that, unlike the broads, the Hundred River valley is not a nationally designated area. That was the consideration on which they differed from the planning committee. Taking all factors into account, I believe that the officers were right—that theirs and the planning inspector’s decisions were the correct ones and the Secretary of State’s was the wrong one.

What is happening at Barsham? The position there is that the application for a wind turbine with a height of 125 metres was considered by Waveney’s planning committee in March 2013. There was an officer recommendation for refusal, to which the committee that time agreed. The developer appealed. The public inquiry took place last October, and the inspector issued his decision to uphold the appeal this April. Subsequently, the local community has issued a High Court challenge against that decision. That was initially heard in July, and the case was adjourned until 28 and 29 October.

There is considerable local unrest and unhappiness about how matters have unfolded, and I fully sympathise with that. I shall highlight some of the concerns. First, large numbers of people feel that their views, those of their democratically elected representatives and the decision of their local council have been ignored and there has been no attempt to include people and communities in the decision-making process, as was envisaged in the Localism Act 2011 and the national planning policy framework.

The community group HALT, which was set up to represent the views of local people, has 350 supporters. Their concerns have not been listened to—nor have those of Beccles town council, nine parish councils, the district councillor, the county councillor, the leader of the county council and two Members of Parliament: myself and my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), whose constituency includes that part of the broads that lies close to the application site. All have made representations to the Secretary of State for the case to be recovered, but they have all been dismissed.

Secondly, the inspector has made the same mistake as the Secretary of State did at Ellough: he has not given Waveney district council’s local planning policies the priority that the legislation requires. In his decision, he criticised those policies at some length. He was wrong to do so, as the policies themselves had been submitted, examined and approved by another inspector before being adopted as the council’s planning policy.

The Broads Authority, the neighbouring planning authority, looked closely at the scheme, applied its own specifically produced seven-step landscape sensitivity study and concluded that the application should be refused. The inspector criticised its approach and applied limited weight to the study, partly on the basis that it had not been formally adopted by the authority, although that had not prevented him from criticising Waveney district council. The study is an excellent piece of work. I believe that in dismissing it, the inspector has misinterpreted his duty with regard to national parks, which is clearly laid down in legislation.

Another concern is that if the development proceeds, it is highly likely that an adjoining airstrip will have to close. It is not right that the planning system is in effect used as a vehicle for stopping activities, whether business or leisure, that have taken place for many years.

The inspector also commented that the proposed wind turbine was no different from the windmills that used to be an important feature of the broads landscape. In doing so, he missed the point. Not only is the proposed turbine much larger in scale than traditional windmills, but it is not intended for the local purpose of harnessing wind and generating energy that is used locally. As an aside, that is still happening in Germany today, where the planning system works better and where 50% of the country’s renewable power capacity is owned by private citizens, with profits remaining in local and often poor rural areas. Such an approach should be pursued in this country, but I digress. That is a debate for another time, with another Minister.

Various aspects of procedure have left the local community cynical, disillusioned and feeling as though the whole system is against them. First, HALT, which was a rule 6 party to the planning inquiry, made a prompt request when the date of the inquiry was announced for it to be changed so that its landscape consultant, who had an unavoidable clashing commitment, could attend to present her evidence. That request was rejected out of hand.

Secondly, it is a concern locally that in the High Court the Secretary of State and the developer are being represented by counsel from the same barristers’ chambers. I am fully aware that it is not unusual for barristers from the same chambers to represent different parties to the dispute, but the fact that that chambers is perceived to have a commercial interest in upholding a decision that, in effect, undermines Government planning policies, particularly with regard to developments in or near national parks, is causing considerable concern locally.

There was considerable upset about the fact that the High Court hearing on 10 July had to be adjourned because neither the Secretary of State nor the developer’s legal teams had put together and presented their evidence properly. That was understandably annoying to the claimants, who had invested considerable time and incurred considerable expense in putting their case together. However, the judge recognised the iniquity of the situation and awarded costs for the day in the claimants’ favour.

I must draw my conclusions together. On paper, the Government’s planning reforms have much to commend them, but they are not being put into practice in the intended manner. I refer back to the foreword written by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells for the national planning policy framework. He emphasised the need for planning to be a collective exercise that includes, rather than excludes, people and communities. The experiences from Barsham show that that is not being achieved. If the Barsham decision stands, it will effectively drive a coach and horses through the Government’s planning reforms. It will undermine the importance of local plans, create a precedent for development in close proximity to national parks and disfranchise local communities.

In summary, I have three requests for the Minister, which I hope he will address in his reply. First, at Ellough, the application is in a state of limbo. Although the Secretary of State’s decision has been set aside as being unlawfully made, the planning application remains undetermined. From the applicants’ perspective, the situation makes running their business difficult. I would be grateful if the Minister impressed on the Secretary of State the need for a prompt decision on the matter. Development that is sustainable should go ahead without delay.

Secondly, at Barsham, I urge the Secretary of State to quash the planning inspectorate’s decision and to instigate a fresh planning inquiry, which he should recover for his own determination. In his letter to me of 4 December last year, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins)—the Minister’s departmental colleague—commented that cases would be recovered only if they raised wider concerns and echoed beyond the local area. I submit that that is the case at Barsham.

Finally, I believe that full details of all renewable energy applications that have been recovered since October 2013 should be made available for Parliament to scrutinise, so that it can judge for itself how the new planning system is working, consider whether the system is achieving its objectives and decide whether reforms are necessary. It is important that the system should function properly, so that local communities and developers know where they stand. The renewable energy industry needs to have confidence in the system so that it can make investment decisions with a degree of certainty. Local communities need to know that they will be given a fair hearing. They need to know that their views will be properly considered and not ridden over roughshod, as I fear has been the case at Barsham.

Bore da, Mr Owen. Good morning. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in our novel, non-Westminster Hall surroundings. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing the debate and thank him for the clear and firm way in which he has expressed the strong views of his constituents on two renewable energy planning cases in the Beccles area: the solar farm case at Ellough—I am glad that he said that word many times, because I wondered how to pronounce it—where the High Court has recently upheld a judicial review against the Secretary of State; and the ongoing wind farm case at Laurels Farm, Shipmeadow in Barsham where the Secretary of State has declined to recover the case, against the strong local feeling that my hon. Friend has described.

I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that it is difficult for me to talk about the specifics of particular cases, because the quasi-judicial role held by the Secretary of State and his team of Ministers in the planning system makes it inappropriate for me to do so. I will respond in general terms about the planning policy issues that my hon. Friend has raised and try to answer his questions.

In the solar farm case at Ellough, the High Court found that the decision letter was flawed solely because it did not identify whether the development proposal was in accordance with the development plan. The Department successfully defended that challenge on all the other legal grounds argued by the applicant, including the alleged inconsistency with national policy and the suggestion that the Secretary of State had exaggerated the likely harm of the proposal. The case is now back with planning Ministers in the Department for determination, so I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that I cannot discuss the merits of the application. He said that the case was “in limbo.” I hope that it will help him to know that because of the flaw identified in the decision letter, we are not seeking to appeal the High Court judgment.

I think I am right in saying—perhaps the Minister will confirm this—that in his judgment, the judge denied the Secretary of State the right to appeal. Even though only one of the grounds was upheld, to my mind that indicates not a points decision against the Secretary of State, but a knockout.

My hon. Friend has made his point, and his phraseology is on the record. I am sure that the Secretary of State will take notice of how my hon. Friend chooses to describe that decision.

I turn to the coalition Government’s overall approach to renewable energy. We understand the strength of local concerns about the potential impact of the application, individually and cumulatively, on landscapes and local amenity. The coalition Government are committed to increasing the deployment of renewable energy, but that must be balanced with local environmental considerations and the concerns of local communities. The planning policies and practice guidance introduced by the Government address those concerns.

Strong protections are in place nationally for the natural and historic environment. The national planning policy framework is clear that an application for renewable energy development should be approved only if the impact is, or can be made, acceptable to local people. That is obviously a matter of judgment, as is clearly the case here, but we have made it clear that protecting the local natural environment should be properly considered alongside the broader concern to meet the policy objective of addressing climate change and protecting the global environment. There need not be a conflict, but both issues clearly need to be addressed in the decision-making process. Meeting our energy goals should not be used to justify the wrong development in the wrong location, so there certainly is not a blanket policy that such policies will be applied everywhere regardless of local circumstances, which are a crucial determining factor.

We have published new planning guidance to help ensure that decisions reflect the environmental balance in the framework itself. That guidance is designed to assist local councils and planning inspectors in their consideration of local plans and individual planning applications. Local plans are crucial, and we are determined that communities have an opportunity to influence the decisions that affect them through the vehicle of the local plan. My hon. Friend was not around in the previous Parliament, but I assure him that many debates took place in the actual Westminster Hall Chamber on the issue of top-down targets, whether in housing or renewable energy. Regional spatial strategies were a frequent topic of such debates. We have abolished those strategies and the top-down approach, and we are encouraging local councils to work with their communities to set out in their local plan where renewable energy developments should and should not take place.

Where councils have identified areas suitable for renewable energy developments, they should not feel that they have to give permission for speculative applications outside those areas if they judge the impact to be unacceptable. The Government’s aim is for every area to have a local plan, consistent with the framework, setting out local people’s views on how they wish their community to develop, against which planning applications will be judged. Those plans therefore have a pivotal place in planning decisions. Planning law requires that applications for planning permission must be determined, including on appeal, in accordance with the statutory development plan for the area, unless material considerations indicate otherwise.

I appreciate the natural concern in my hon. Friend’s constituency and elsewhere about local decisions being challenged on appeal. It is a long-standing feature of our planning system that applicants have the right of appeal, but it is important that local communities have confidence in the appeals process and that the environmental balance expected by the framework is reflected in decisions on renewable energy developments. I understand the frustration that communities feel when a planning inspector gives the go-ahead for a proposal that they and their elected representatives on the planning committee have opposed.

Planning inspectors, of course, do not reach such decisions lightly and—just like local councils, elected members of local councils and planning Ministers—they must take their decisions in accordance with planning law. That means that every case is considered on its individual merits within the context of the local council’s development plan. That is why having an up-to-date local plan is vital. Inspectors should also consider—in planning language—other material considerations, which include national policy and guidance. The new planning guidance is helping to ensure that decisions reflect the environmental balance set out in the framework.

My hon. Friend’s second main request is for the Secretary of State to “quash” the Barsham decision. Again, I understand local frustration when a planning inspector gives the go-ahead for a locally opposed proposal. The inspector’s decision, however, is made on behalf of the Secretary of State, and in that sense the decision is final unless it is challenged in the High Court.

My hon. Friend also seeks information on renewable energy appeals that have been recovered since October 2013. Individually, those decisions are put in the public domain as they are made, but I am happy to talk to officials in order to collate that information. He is trying to see the overall picture and pattern, so I will ask officials to collate that information and give it to him. I will also share the information with other colleagues, who I am sure will be interested, by placing the table in the Library of the House.

I appreciate that, in many respects, the Minister has not been involved with these cases, which are a hospital pass for him. I understand why, with a quasi-legal process ongoing, he does not wish to comment on the Barsham case, but can he confirm that the Secretary of State does have the ability at this stage to quash the decision? Will the Secretary of State consider doing so in light of the local opposition to the scheme?

The Secretary of State has a variety of tools at his disposal under planning law, including the ability to recover appeals and make the decision in person, but that decision is still based on advice from officials in accordance with the council’s local plan, the national planning policy framework and existing planning law and casework. The mere fact that it is a recovered appeal does not necessarily mean that the decision my hon. Friend and his constituents want can be made, as the decision still needs to be made in a quasi-judicial environment, but he is right that that power exists. As he says, I am not involved in the intricacies of the case—that is why I am doing this—so I will not answer off the top of my head the question of whether the power exists at this moment in time, given the status of the application. His remarks will appear in Hansard, and if any remaining point needs to be cleared up, I will ensure that he is written to promptly so that he has total satisfaction.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving that undertaking. Will he also confirm that he will take the issues I have raised today to the Secretary of State so that he can make the decision as to whether he will quash the scheme? Going to the High Court costs local people a lot of money.

Yes, I am happy to give that undertaking. The Secretary of State will be made aware of any information that may help him with whatever decision he needs to take, including information from the Hansard report of today’s debate and any correspondence that passes between me and my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney.

We need renewable energy to make the United Kingdom more energy secure, to help protect consumers from fossil fuel price fluctuations in a volatile world and to help build an economy with lower carbon emissions. National planning policies are clear that all communities have a responsibility to contribute to the Government’s aspiration of sustainable energy generation. Equally, we have ensured that local councils have the tools they need to ensure that sustainable energy developments are built only where the impact will be acceptable locally. We are encouraging all local councils to get an up-to-date local plan in place as soon as possible—I think that is an issue here—as local plans are the most effective way of managing development in a local area. We always keep national planning policy on renewable energy under review. As a result of this debate, we will take account of the cases that my hon. Friend has drawn to our attention when we review policy in the future.

Sitting suspended.