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Navitus Bay Wind Farm

Volume 597: debated on Monday 15 June 2015

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

What a pleasure it is to be in the Chamber with you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is the first time I have spoken while you are in the Chair, so it is a double pleasure.

Before I begin, I want to thank several important contributors to today’s debate. Dr Andrew Langley, founder of the Challenge Navitus campaign, has provided me with information, updates, analysis and photographs over a number of years. Bournemouth Borough Council has made its extensive, commissioned research available. Mike Unsworth, the wind farm’s project director, has been most accommodating. Of course, there are also my fellow Dorset MPs, several of whom are in the Chamber.

We are faced with the daunting prospect of a giant wind farm off Dorset’s coast. Navitus Bay is a joint venture between two foreign energy companies: EDF and Eneco. Together, they formed Navitus Bay Development Ltd, which will hereafter be known as the developer. As with every infrastructure project of national significance, the proposals have been examined in depth by the Government’s Planning Inspectorate. Its recommendations have been passed to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and a decision is due by 11 September.

The purpose of tonight’s debate is to impress on the Government the contentious nature of the wind farm and how many people are opposed to it. I am most grateful that the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), is in her place and I welcome her to her role.

The plan is to erect 121 giant wind turbines, each 193 metres tall. The nearest will lie a mere 9 miles off the resort of Swanage in my constituency. The wind farm will generate power for 700,000 homes. It will occupy 153 sq km, which is an area the size of Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch combined. A second, smaller so-called mitigation option for 78 turbines was submitted very late—I want to underline that—in the process.

Both proposals are hugely unpopular. The Planning Inspectorate received more than 2,000 interested representations during the examination period. That is more than twice the number received in respect of the Brighton Rampion project and the highest number for any proposed offshore wind farm the inspectorate has handled. In a test sample over nine days in February, 97% of emailed submissions to the inspectorate were found to be against Navitus Bay.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me and many people in the highlands of Scotland that locational price modelling causes distortions in the market? I can hear from what he is saying that the idea of these things being built is not very popular in south Dorset. Such things might be more popular in other areas, such as the Tiree Array, but locational price modelling makes it expensive to connect to the grid from some parts of the coast, whereas other parts of the coast are almost given a subsidy. That is distorting the market, seemingly to the detriment of his constituents.

I hear the hon. Gentleman, but I will not go down that road because I have only a short amount of time. I am grateful to him for intervening.

Before I move on to the unprecedented opposition to the Navitus Bay proposal, it is important to point out that most of the objections to it are due to its size and its proximity to Dorset’s Jurassic coast. Offshore wind generation is accepted as part of our renewables commitment and is already established in places such as the North sea. The problem with Navitus bay is that it is too big and too close.

The development will desecrate one of the most beautiful parts of our country. The Jurassic coast is made up of about 60 miles of the most highly designated coastline in England, including its only UNESCO natural world heritage site, a national park, two areas of outstanding natural beauty and two heritage coasts. A more sensitive site is hard to imagine, yet at its nearest points the wind farm will sit only 9 miles off Swanage, 10.9 miles from the Isle of Wight and 13.3 miles from Bournemouth. Those distances are all inside the 13.8 miles that was recommended by the offshore energy strategic environmental assessment in 2009. Furthermore, 70% of the pylons in the primary allocation will fall within that limit. The so-called mitigation option is little better, with the nearest turbine located 11.5 miles off Swanage.

Why on earth would anyone choose this site? Cost is surely the answer. As it is close to shore and in shallow water, the potential savings must run into millions of pounds when compared with a site further out to sea. However, the area is popular with the sailing, boating and diving communities, and is home to an array of wildlife from migratory birds to harbour porpoises, bottlenose dolphins and, of course, fish. On land, a 40 metre swathe will be carved through the New Forest to enable the wind farm to plug into the national grid.

In addition, studies have pointed to negative environmental impacts, such as rain and radar shadows, and light flicker and sound, including an ultra-low-frequency hum. Project director Mike Unsworth admits that, under the right atmospheric conditions, the rotating blades could be heard onshore. Most significantly, in 2001, UNESCO designated the Jurassic coast as England’s sole natural world heritage site of outstanding universal value.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. It is good to see so many hon. Friends from across Dorset here in support of my hon. Friend. Does he agree that this issue affects the whole of Dorset, including the local authority areas of East Dorset, Poole and Purbeck, which fall in my constituency? The tourism industry across the whole of our county will be affected if this goes ahead.

I entirely concur with my hon. Friend. I will flesh out the very point he raises shortly.

The UNESCO designation inscription states that world heritage sites should be

“transmitted, intact and unchanged, to future generations.”

UNESCO’s director of the world heritage centre, Kishore Rao, on advice from a UN advisory body, has warned of the wind farm’s impact, saying:

“from being located in a natural setting that is largely free from man-made structures to one where its setting is dominated by man-made structures”,

this, he added,

“could affect the long term viability”

of the site and therefore, ultimately, its designation.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. It was clear from the general election the strength of opposition in my constituency. This is a very real threat to yachting, birds, the community and the view.

I entirely concur with my hon. Friend. The wildlife is important, and millions of people travel to enjoy our beautiful wild coastline because of the unspoilt view. It is one of the reasons for the world heritage designation.

The Government have said that they wish to give a say to local people in relation to onshore wind farms. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be ironic if they were not giving a say to local people in relation to offshore wind farms, which can have an equally dramatic impact on local communities—as will the 26 mile corridor of cables across my constituency?

I entirely concur. I am very glad that the Minister is sitting in her place. I know she will be listening intently to every single word that we utter and take our concerns back to her Department to ensure that the right decision is made. My only concern is that, because the Government have put less emphasis on onshore, it might mean there is more likelihood of something happening offshore. I hope the Minister does not think that and that that is not the situation.

Although the risk of losing the designation has been played down, the threat is clearly there. Objectors include the National Trust, the New Forest national park, English Heritage, the Jurassic coast world heritage site steering group, numerous environmental groups, recreational and commercial sea users, Dorset County Council, Christchurch, Purbeck, and Bournemouth Councils, Poole Conservative councillors, local MPs and, of course, thousands of residents—an impressive list.

Natural England has concluded that there would be

“significant effects on designated landscapes”

and the Campaign to Protect Rural England agrees. Both organisations say they are unable to undertake a thorough review of the second submission because it was submitted so late in the process. The National Trust has also complained of the “lack of transparency” in allowing both applications to run in tandem, describing it as “contrary to the spirit” of the process.

For most local councils, the effect on tourism is the greatest concern. John Beesley, leader of Bournemouth Borough Council, wrote in a recent letter to the Prime Minister:

“Navitus Bay offshore wind farm would be highly visible from land and dramatically alter and damage the intrinsic appeal and beauty of what is currently a natural and untouched seascape…The industrial-scale turbines would be classed as permanent structures and fall into the highest category of harm in terms of visual assessment.”

A report commissioned by the council found that nearly 7 million visitors to Dorset raised £1 billion in revenue and supported 24,000 jobs, and visitor and business surveys, commissioned by Navitus Bay itself—interestingly —predict a drop in tourism of between 32% and 20% during the construction phase alone. Using the lower figure of 20%, the wind farm, over its 30-year lifespan, could cost Bournemouth, Poole, Christchurch and Purbeck up to £6.3 billion and almost 5,000 jobs. The developer does not accept these findings.

Meanwhile, UNESCO has criticised the in-house environmental impact assessment used by the developer, saying that a more genuinely independent report should have been commissioned. Certainly schemes to mitigate this eyesore are on occasions ridiculous. For example, local residents are described in the report as “principal visual receptors”—I am not making this up—and what effect the wind farm has on these so-called receptors depends on whether they are sailing, walking or cycling, which is a very strange way of judging it. Interestingly, environmental concerns were assessed and graded, while, suspiciously, the visual impact was downplayed.

To be fair—it is only right because the developers are not here—I will say what is potentially good about the project. The developer says it would create up to 1,700 jobs during the construction phase; one of three ports—Poole, Yarmouth or Portland—would be chosen as a base for operations and maintenance; the preferred supplier for the turbine blades would secure 200 jobs on the Isle of Wight; and if the foundations are concrete rather than steel, hundreds of jobs would be created on Portland. Some £15 million has been promised to negate the impact on tourism, and a further £8.6 million would be spent in schools and colleges and developing a supply chain with regional businesses.

That is the sweetie shop, and of course I welcome the potential benefits, but they are dependent on the green light, which we hope the Government, whom I know are listening tonight, will not give. However, the longer-term risk to the tourism industry and the desecration of this unique part of the country’s coastline would far outweigh the advantages. The crux is that there are plenty of other places where this wind farm could and should be sited.

My hon. Friend is deploying his arguments with his usual fluency and cogency. Tourism is an integral part of my constituency’s local economy, but the tourist economy is often very fragile, as we can see from lots of our seaside towns around the country. People have plenty of choice, and our county cannot take the risk of seeing even a temporary downturn in tourist numbers. Those numbers might never return, and that would hammer lots of local businesses in my constituency.

It would, and while we are all trying to get long-term secure jobs into our constituencies, there is no doubt that in a beautiful part of the country such as ours, tourism still has a major role to play and must continue to do so. More importantly, we must protect it.

Navitus Bay has been controversial, flawed and deeply unpopular from the start. If the public are to continue supporting such projects, surely it would be wise to site them with greater sympathy, judgment and balance. Ironically, this Government created an organisation in 2012 with the intention of protecting our precious natural environment from uninformed and destructive decisions. A decision to refuse both of the two options put forward by Navitus Bay would be a very good start.

It is a pleasure to speak for the first time with you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate you on your elevation. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on securing the debate.

For those Dorset Members who were here in the previous Parliament, the issue dominated our lives. I looked this afternoon at the number of times I have raised the issue. I did so first on 12 July 2011, when the former Member for Eastleigh, Chris Huhne, was the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. I spoke again on 4 July 2012, 19 November 2013 and 5 December 2013. I posed written questions on 11 June 2014. I raised it at the Culture, Media and Sport Committee with the then Secretary of State on 19 January this year, and mentioned it as recently as 11 June 2015.

It is the biggest issue that confronts our constituents across Dorset. The point my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset made needs to be emphasised: every single one of us present tonight made it a major feature of our election campaigns. Opposition to Navitus and fighting its detrimental impact on my constituents in Bournemouth West was the No. 1 promise I made to my electorate in my personal election address. I am delighted to see new Members joining the fight—my hon. Friends the Members for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) and for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson).

I place on record the gratitude we all feel to Bournemouth Borough Council, and in particular to its leader, John Beesley, who has put the full resources of the council and its officers behind the opposition to the proposal.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset made an important point that is worth emphasising: more people registered as interested parties in this proposed development than in any other offshore development. I hope the Minister understands, but it should not be thought that opposition to the proposal is confined to those who live on the coastline or adjacent to it. When campaigning in my constituency, I was struck by the opposition of people in the north of Bournemouth—in Kinson and Redhill—and by the opposition in Alderney and Branksome East in the borough of Poole. I was struck by the opposition, too, when I campaigned with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole.

Right from the beginning of the proposal, we said to the company and to Mike Unsworth that, if we could not see the development, and if the visual impact was minimal, we would be prepared to work with the company to bring it to fruition, but in the development zone that the Crown Estate provided to the company, it is strange that the only area it deemed capable of development was the area that is closest to the shore and that has the greatest visual impact.

I understand that the Government have listened intently to other colleagues and their concerns about onshore wind, and I understand the Government’s resolve to put the brakes on it, but I hope it is not the case that on is off and off is on. I hope the application will be determined on its merits. That is all any of us ask. We believe that the arguments against the proposal are absolutely compelling.

I hope the Minister also notes that, in everything all of us who have spoken about the proposal over the last Parliament and in the beginning of this one, we have not sought to take issue with the Government’s energy policy, and we have not sought to discuss the merits or demerits of renewables. We accept the Government’s energy policy to be exactly that. We contend that the application is potentially deeply damaging to our communities.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset quoted from the advisory body to UNESCO, which said that, if the development goes ahead, it will take the Jurassic coast from being largely in a natural setting to being largely in a man-made setting. We should be under no illusion about the fact that UNESCO will revoke the coast’s natural world heritage designation. It has done it in Germany, and threatened to do it to Mont Saint Michel.

The Minister will rise to speak in a moment, and I have great sympathy for her. She will be able to say almost nothing about this matter, because the application is under consideration, and must be considered quasi-judicially. I can see that you want me to wind up my speech, Madam Deputy Speaker, but the Minister would probably like me to continue a little longer.

Our constituents cannot understand why the Planning Inspectorate’s recommendation—which followed a lengthy public inquiry that took place throughout last year and during the early part of this year, and which has now been put to Ministers in the Department—is secret. We think that that is quite wrong. In our view, the matter should now be out in the open, and debate on it should be welcomed.

Some people will naturally accuse us of being nimbys, but the backyard of Dorset Members of Parliament is a world heritage site. I plead with the Minister to implore her colleagues to reject this case on its merits. Were the project to go ahead, that would be the beginning of the next phase of the fight, because we are united in our determination that it shall not proceed.

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on securing the debate. I know that this matter is of great interest to his constituents, and that he has been assiduous in pursuing opportunities to discuss the proposed wind farm in the House on their behalf. I also know that the matter is of great interest to the constituents of my hon. Friends the Members for Poole (Mr Syms), for Christchurch (Mr Chope), for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns), for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson), and for North Dorset (Simon Hoare). Along with my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset, they are long-standing advocates in this matter, and have been diligent in representing the views of their constituents. They should all be commended for their efforts.

As Members will appreciate, I am relatively new to the energy portfolio, but my short time in the Department has reinforced my awareness of the huge importance that the energy sector has, and will continue to have, to the country’s economy. I am also very aware of the importance to local communities of proper consideration of the potential local impacts of energy projects.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has set out the key aims of her Department: keeping the lights on, powering the economy, and keeping bills low for families and businesses. The achievement of those aims will require a robust energy strategy, and will, in turn, depend on a broad energy mix for electricity generation, including new nuclear, gas, carbon capture and storage, renewables, and other relevant technologies. We will approach the United Nations climate change conference in Paris with both ambition and pragmatism. I know that energy infrastructure projects of all sorts can have real impacts on local communities, but such projects can also bring real benefits. Finding the right balance between impacts and benefits is a key issue for the Department when it makes its decisions.

As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West, I cannot comment on the specific merits or otherwise of the Navitus Bay proposal this evening, as doing so could be considered prejudicial to the planning process.

As my hon. Friends will know, the Planning Inspectorate completed its examination of the development consent application for the proposed wind farm, and its associated onshore and offshore infrastructure, in March this year. During a debate that took place in November 2013, before the Navitus Bay application was submitted to the Planning Inspectorate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), who was Energy Minister at the time, encouraged individuals and organisations with an interest in the proposal to engage with any public consultation that was launched. I know that a number of the Members who are present tonight noted that encouragement, and were among the many hundreds, if not thousands, of people who made representations to the Planning Inspectorate during the examination of the Navitus Bay application.

Prior to examining the application, the Planning Inspectorate indicated that it would cover a broad range of topics it considered to be of importance in assessing the potential impacts of the proposed wind farm. The topics on which views were to be sought included biodiversity, fishing, navigational safety, onshore and offshore heritage—including the Jurassic coast world heritage site—and visual and socioeconomic impacts.

The Planning Inspectorate’s report was submitted to the Secretary of State on 11 June along with its recommendation on whether consent should be granted or refused. It will now be for the Secretary of State to consider her decision in the light of that report and all relevant information.

Can my hon. Friend give any indication of the Secretary of State’s timeframe for coming to a decision on the report?

I was just coming to that. My very next comment is that it is now for the Secretary of State to consider her decision and she must announce it no later than 11 September 2015, to meet the statutory requirements for planning Act cases. My hon. Friend will forgive me for not being more precise, but he will appreciate that we have only had that report for a couple of days

In taking decisions on planning applications, it is important that all parties are given a fair crack of the whip and that issues are analysed on their merits with an open mind. The consideration of all such applications has to be robust and thorough—this is a fairness point for all interested parties and the applicant.

Large energy infrastructure projects inevitably attract considerable interest from people who may be directly affected by the proposals and also from people who have views on energy projects in a more generic way.

Yes, big energy projects do draw huge attention, but the only reason this one is drawing a lot of attention is that it is so near the shore. If it was miles out, we would not give it any attention at all.

I thank my hon. Friend for that remark. He should certainly feel reassured that my officials and I are very much listening to his and other hon. Friends’ concerns.

In planning Act applications of this sort, it is for the Secretary of State, as decision maker, to consider all the arguments that are made for and against these projects and that are set out in the Planning Inspectorate’s report. I can assure all hon. Friends that the Secretary of State’s consideration of the Navitus Bay application will be rigorous and fair.

In conclusion, I hope that all hon. Members are reassured that the concerns raised by interested parties about the potential impacts of this project are being properly considered through the planning process. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset for raising this constructive and thoughtful debate and to all other hon. Friends for attending and for their contributions. I can assure them that I will note the views expressed tonight and will relay them to Lord Bourne, who will be taking the decision on the consent application.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.