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Electricity Consents (Planning) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006

Volume 685: debated on Wednesday 25 October 2006

rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Electricity Consents (Planning) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006.

The noble Lord said: This order would introduce provisions amending the Electricity (Northern Ireland) Order 1992 to bring consents for electricity projects in Northern Ireland broadly into line with those in Great Britain. The Great Britain arrangements with which those in Northern Ireland are being brought into line have existed since 1990, so it is not something that has just happened. It broadly reflects what has happened since 1990.

I shall comment briefly on what we are seeking to achieve with this order and then comment on the two detailed provisions. In Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the world, demand for energy continues to grow. With that increased demand comes the danger of global warming and climate change. I know that noble Lords recognise that climate change is with us and that there is a necessity to take up the challenges associated with it. Renewable energy is something that Northern Ireland is uniquely placed to develop, as it has an abundance of wind, tidal and marine current potential and the opportunity to expand the contribution of renewables in a growing all-island energy market. It is with this in mind that the Secretary of State has made a commitment to establish Northern Ireland as a world leader in the development of renewable energy.

The order will streamline the electricity consent procedures for developers by, for the first time, charging one department with the responsibility of managing a combined consent process for electricity generating projects. The order will enable the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to grant deemed planning permission and deemed hazardous substance consent on applications for consent to construct, extend or operate an electricity generating station under Article 39, or consent to install overhead electric lines under Article 40 of the Electricity (Northern Ireland) Order 1992. Rather than the current dual process whereby a developer must apply to the Department of the Environment for planning permission or hazardous substance consent and to DETI for electricity generating consent, there will instead be one point of entry and one contact point for the developer. DETI will have the lead role in managing applications.

I want to make this absolutely clear, so that there is no misunderstanding: there is one entry for one consent to effectively two departments. All planning and environmental safeguards currently in place will remain and be operated. Doing it concurrently through one department rather than two will save time and money, which is in everybody’s interests. The order will ensure that electricity consent applications, the vast majority of which we anticipate will be from renewable energy sources such as wind farms, are dealt with as a high priority and as efficiently and effectively as possible. I repeat that there is no attempt in the order to circumvent or cut the normal planning and environment safeguards. All applications will go through that process, but there will be one entry into government instead of entry through two departments.

There are two provisions in the order. Article 2 sets out the power of the department to grant deemed planning consent and deemed hazardous substance consent. Article 2 also inserts new provisions into the 1992 order to enable the department to prescribe procedures for notification of and objections to the application for electricity consent, to set out requirements for notification of a public inquiry and to appoint additional inspectors to assist in conducting an inquiry.

Article 3 amends the Electricity (Northern Ireland) Order prohibiting planning and electricity consent procedures being carried out concurrently. That is a very important process of trying to speed the process up and cut out red tape.

The measures in this draft order lay the necessary foundations for ensuring that consent for important electricity generating projects is prioritised and dealt with efficiently. There is a responsibility for managing combined consents for electricity generating projects where they belong, with the DETI, which has responsibility for the strategic development of an efficient, economic and environmentally sustainable electricity industry in Northern Ireland.

It is as simple as that—and it makes you wonder why on earth this was not done years ago. The fact of the matter is that the push that the Secretary of State wants to give in Northern Ireland to environmentally friendly renewables leads us to the view that we should remove the hurdles and barriers, some of which are plain red tape. In a way this is red tape, because there is no change to the process or the way in which consent will be looked at by planning and environment or the DETI. It is just that consent will be applied for via one department instead of two and given by one department instead of two. So it helps everybody all around. There is no attempt to circumvent the planning and environmental regulations in this order. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Electricity Consents (Planning) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006.—(Lord Rooker.)

I declare an interest, as I have three turbines on my land at the moment and the developing energy company is waiting for planning permission for a further number of turbines, some of which may well go on my land. But, speaking for the Conservative Party, I can say that we support this order.

We, too, welcome the order, as it seems a sensible way in which to speed up the process on electricity consents. Could the Minister reassure us that safety will always be the priority when such consents are granted?

I do not want to spoil the happy atmosphere that has surrounded the order up to this point, but I have a couple of queries, or two queries and one observation. The first query is hugely important.

The Minister assured us that all the normal environmental safeguards will remain intact. That is a hugely important matter, because the forms of energy that he is talking about, such as wind farms, are highly controversial in Northern Ireland. In some of the other proposals, I think that I caught a reference to tidal matters. If, as a result, a barrage is to be built across Strangford Lough to generate electricity, that will be probably the most controversial planning application in the last generation or two. These are potentially matters of great controversy.

The Minister says that the order will streamline the procedures and that, instead of applications to two departments, there will be an application to one department and the consent would be given by one department. That gives me great concern, and it is likely to give great concern generally. Is the consent now to be given by DETI, rather than by the Department of the Environment? The Government are bound to say that the normal environmental safeguards will be followed, in that the normal consideration will be undertaken within the Department of the Environment, but who takes the decision at the end of the day? Will people in the Department of the Environment take decisions on environmental matters or will those decisions now be in the hands of DETI.

The question of which department makes the decision potentially opens up a tremendous problem. If the final say goes to DETI on matters that are highly controversial in environmental terms, even when the procedures for the environment are followed through, there could be a significant lowering of environmental protection and of the extent to which the public can have their voice heard. That is the huge question.

I have a minor question, as well. In paragraph 1B under Article 2 of the order, a quite normal reference is made to notice to be given and,

“published in at least two newspapers circulating among persons likely to be affected”.

That requirement of publication is quite normal and is there in a host of legislation. But I understand that the practice is creeping in of putting those notices in what are called community papers, rather than in formal newspapers that circulate in a normal way and which you can buy in a newsagent’s. That gives rise to concern, because in Northern Ireland the term “community” covers a multitude of sins, and to develop the practice of putting advertisements into those so-called community newspapers may defeat the object of the legislation, which is to let the whole public know—and some of those newspapers are not available to the whole public.

The Explanatory Memorandum says that the new procedures have been introduced to streamline inquiries and to enable a multiplicity of inspectors to consider different lines or aspects of the inquiries simultaneously. The relevant paragraph ends by saying that the streamlining provision cannot be used if the Planning Appeals Commission carries out the inquiry on DETI’s behalf. That underlines the problem that the commission creates in planning matters through excessive delay and the slowness of its procedures.

If, however, as a result of the legislation, the commission does not feature in inquiries, we need to know an awful lot more about who will be appointed as inspectors. It is all very well for the Minister to say that this brings us into line with the position in England. In England there is the Planning Inspectorate, which is formally established. The people who man it are known and their quality is known, but we do not have an equivalent in Northern Ireland. We have a Planning Appeals Commission, but if it is not to be used, who will the inspectors be? We do not have an existing inspectorate to draw on. We need to know answers to this before we can assess whether the legislation will respect the existing environmental safeguards and safeguards for public consultation in these procedures.

I understand the desire to enhance electricity supply and explore other forms of generation. That is perfectly understandable and, in general terms, I would welcome such proposals, but I am concerned about the points that I have raised. I hope that the Minister can allay my concerns.

I absolutely can allay the concerns because there is no substantial change in procedure here. First, there is no plan for a barrage in Strangford Lough. There is an experimental turbine in Strangford Lough for generating electricity; it is sunk into the water. That was done after proper consideration of all the environmental issues. But there is no plan for a barrage.

As the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, says, these things are controversial. Wind farms are controversial—energy generation is controversial—but everybody wants the lights to go on when they flick the switch. If we do not go down this route, there will be other forms of power generation that people will find even more objectionable. There are no plans for nuclear stations in Northern Ireland—and I raise the issue only as a way in which to knock it on the head. The fact is that energy use is growing in Northern Ireland, just as it is anywhere else in the UK, and we have to do better in using renewable energy. People put up these Aunt Sallies and say, “We don’t want coal stations that damage the atmosphere, we don’t want to use fossil fuels and we don’t want nuclear or wind farms or tidal barrages”. But we cannot all live off the sun, because sometimes it gets dark and cloudy. We have to be responsible and say to people, “We’ve got to get energy in a safe way for the sake of the planet”. We do not have a good record in that, so we have to move things around. Making greater use of renewable resources is one way.

The points that the Minister is making are not controversial. The question is whether, in doing this, there will be adequate safeguards for the environment.

I was just about to say that all the methods have the potential to do damage to the environment. The general consent among scientists is that burning fossil fuels has a highly damaging effect on the environment and the planet. Wind farms damage the visual amenity, depending on where they are located. In parts of Britain, I have seen wind farms that look really ugly. Environmental issues will arise and must be taken into account. However, if we want renewable, safe and clean energy, these decisions must be taken. You cannot say that you do not want them. All the factors—location, size, visual impact, whether a wind farm should be sited on land or offshore—must be looked at. There may be barrages, but there are no plans for any at the moment. There are no plans for a barrage in Strangford Lough.

Following the review that was instituted late last year, changes have been made in the way advertising is placed by the Government of Northern Ireland to achieve better value for money. Planning applications undoubtedly have a strong local focus. I say in response to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, that we are talking about big energy operations—they may be individual operations, but they would be large. I assure him that there will be proper and adequate advertising for these projects. Nobody will be able to say that they did not know about them. That is one of the issues with which we have to deal. However, we do not use advertising to fund papers or organisations; we use it to advertise jobs or to provide public information. We have been looking at this matter during the past year. The change followed a review of advertising policy and was aimed at getting value for money.

I was asked who takes the decisions. We are talking about two government departments and one Secretary of State. There has to be collective responsibility. We want a lead department to deem the planning consent, but it would not be possible for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to take the planning decision alone, ignorant of all the factors raised by the Department of the Environment and by the Environment and Heritage Service. Those bodies would be deeply involved as statutory consultees. If planning officials or the Environment and Heritage Service—or indeed the Health and Safety Executive—took a contrary view, it would be hard for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to take a decision that went against that view, because all the factors would have been disclosed and would be known. Ultimately, the Secretary of State would be responsible.

Expert consultees must be involved. The assessment of the environmental aspects of the legislation will be carried out in the Department of the Environment because it is the planning authority. Some projects, subject to changes that occur in the reform of public administration, will be assessed by local authorities when they become the planning authority. Those projects will probably be the smaller ones. However, I suspect that some energy projects, because they are infrastructure projects, will be assessed at the centre.

I was asked who can object. The appeals system in Northern Ireland is different from that in Great Britain. We have always said that it was not our job as direct rule Ministers to transfer to Northern Ireland what happens in Great Britain; instead, it is our job to find a process that is better for Northern Ireland. The Planning Appeals Commission has agreed to conduct public inquiries under the new electricity regime subject to consultation on the detail of its role in the inquiry and the procedure rules that will follow the order.

Article 3 allows inspectors to work concurrently on different aspects of the process. This is similar to what happened in planning legislation in England and Wales following the long delay over Terminal 5. That allowed different aspects of the process to be looked at at the same time, with those doing it reporting to the body that was taking the final decision, rather than a mini-inquiry being followed by another mini-inquiry and nothing being done. That is not to say that the decision is pre-taken—far from it. This is a faster, fairer way of arriving at the decision.

The environmental and planning safeguards must be in place; that is, publicity for the application, consultation with district councils, and input from the public and the statutory consultees. The Food and Environment Protection Act, the Pollution Prevention and Control Regulations, the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations will all be involved in the issuing of consents and licences. In other words, no attempt to short-cut or circumvent the existing planning and environmental rules will be made. The application will merely be made through one department instead of two. I emphasise that point, as I did more than once in my opening speech, because I do not want the wrong impression to be given in Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord asked about the process. Detailed processes have yet to be decided for environmental impact assessments and inquiries, but it is expected that they will follow those currently in operation in Great Britain with adaptations for the Northern Ireland context. Officials will work closely with colleagues in the DTI and across government departments in Northern Ireland and with other interested parties to develop the processes necessary. There will be full consultation on all the regulations that will flow from the order. That is the safeguard; it is not the be-all and end-all.

The noble Lord asked me about additional inspectors. It is envisaged that additional inspectors will be appointed by the department in circumstances where they are necessary for the progress of an inquiry, which because of its size and complexity requires additional inspectors to handle specific aspects. They will report to the lead inspector. This is virtually the same as the process under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 for England and Wales. The lead inspector will be responsible for reporting to the department. Even when devolution of planning to local government takes place—if the reformed Assembly desires to proceed down that route—a planning appeals process will still exist, even for small applications that are devolved. Larger planning applications will be dealt with at the centre—that was implicit in the review of public administration—because that is where the mass of expertise will lie.

I hope that I have given sufficient information to enable noble Lords to approve the order. I repeat that its purpose is to streamline. First, we want to see a big push on renewables. We make no apology about that and there is no secret about it, because budgetary funds have been made available as one of the Secretary of State’s three new funds in the budget that we agreed for energy and renewables.

There is a big push in another area, too. When I travel around England as environment and farming Minister, I praise initiatives in Northern Ireland in extracting energy from waste. Massive research projects into extracting energy from waste, whether it is food or animal waste, are taking place in some colleges and institutions in Northern Ireland. It is important to do that because it is environmentally friendly. More projects will be undertaken to meet the energy needs of Northern Ireland and to sell some of that energy to the south. We have the facility to do that and to have an all-island electricity market.

On Question, Motion agreed to.