My Lords, in introducing the Bill I should like to declare an interest: I live within one and a half kilometres of a wind farm that is in the pre-planning application stage and which would be disallowed under the provisions in this Bill because of its proximity to my house and, I am told, to about 600 other houses, which would all be within two kilometres of the 110 metre-high turbines.
There are many reasons to be opposed to the Government’s policy towards wind farms and I agree with most of them. But this Bill only concerns itself with one disadvantage of onshore wind turbines—their propensity for making life a misery for those unlucky enough to find themselves forced to live in their shadow.
There is now a well-established body of evidence, collected worldwide, that demonstrates the harmful effect of turbines for at least some of those who live close to them. Complaints are made continuously to the environmental health officers of local authorities. In February 2009 the Renewable Energy Foundation produced a roll, obtained under freedom of information requests, of 27 out of 133 wind farms in the United Kingdom which had given rise to noise complaints. This number subsequently rose to 46 out of 217 wind farms by April 210, with 285 complaints having been recorded in total.
In her book Wind Turbine Syndrome, Dr Nina Pierpont recorded and analysed the symptoms of a number of families in different parts of the world who had been driven out of their homes by their sufferings from wind farms. Dr Pierpont concludes that a minimum setback distance of two kilometres should be required, also that developers should be obliged to buy out affected families at the pre-turbine value of their homes.
Jane Davis is another famous authority on the subject, and a victim herself. Driven from her Lincolnshire home by a wind farm that appeared within 1,000 metres upwind of her, she has fought for the last five years for recognition and compensation. She goes to the High Court in July in a case expected to last for 12 days. In the very recent BBC2 series “Windfarm Wars”, which chronicled with admirable fair-mindedness the story of a Devon wind farm application, at Den Brook Valley, viewers will have seen Jane Davis’s evidence, together with plenty of other examples of the intolerable consequences for some people of having to live close to such developments.
Only the day before yesterday an account appeared in a local newspaper, the North Devon Gazette, under the heading “Our Sleepless Nights with Wind Turbines”, of a Torrington couple who were being forced to sell their home and business following a planning inspector’s decision to overrule Torridge District Council and allow a wind farm within 500 metres of their home.
“I can hear the turbines through my pillow at night”,
the wife was quoted as saying.
“It’s unbelievable the noise they make sometimes”,
said her husband.
Wind farm noise differs from other continuous forms of noise, for example the noise from a nuclear power station. It has a rhythmic, pulsing quality, with at times a vibrating effect which many have found too invasive and disturbing to live with. It can quite obviously seriously damage people’s health. There are many illustrations of this in Dr Pierpont’s book.
But there is another baleful effect, which is more than visual or aural. This derives from the scale of the turbines. So vast have they become—the largest currently in the planning process being over 600 feet high, twice the height of Big Ben—that the more humane inspectors, those few who have chosen not to be ruthless agents for enforcing the Government’s renewable energy policy, have described them as dominating, intimidating, blighting for a generation the lives of those who have to live under them, and have rejected applications on that score.
So except by hoping to be lucky in the choice of the inspector that is parachuted in on them from Bristol, how can local communities hope to defend themselves against the threat of this nuisance to their lives?
In England, in practice, developers decide on the limit they will adopt, many opting for 500 metres, some for 800 metres, some not setting limits at all. A 100 metre high turbine has recently been permitted by Lancaster County Council within 250 metres of a dwelling and kennel business. Paragraph 22 of PPS22 in fact permits local authorities to set limits to the distance between wind farms and other existing developments, which they could interpret to mean dwellings. But the reference is oblique, and virtually no local authorities have made use of it, Devon County Council being an exception, setting a limit of 600 metres in 2009 in the case of one proposed development at Holsworthy. Today, by coincidence, a Private Member’s Bill introduced by Christopher Heaton-Harris MP is being debated in another place, which would give statutory authority to local authorities to set distance limits.
The revised Draft National Policy Statement for Renewable Energy Infrastructure (EN-3), which is currently before Parliament, says,
“appropriate distances should be maintained between wind turbines and residential properties to protect residential amenity”.
To leave it to the developer to interpret what is appropriate is like leaving it to the motorist to decide an appropriate speed limit for him to observe.
In Scotland, Scottish planning guidance contains an advisory, rather than mandatory, limit of two kilometres. Adherence to this seems to be gaining ground. The Scottish Borders Council last month approved a presumption against any turbine within less than two kilometres of any residence. Of course Scotland has more open, undesignated countryside than the rest of the United Kingdom, although not so much so in the Borders.
In Wales, Technical Advice Note 8—TAN 8—adopted by the Welsh Assembly, specifies what it calls a “typical separation distance” of 500 metres, not to be applied rigidly. However in Wales a flurry of interest has recently been caused by Carmarthenshire County Council, which decided that its new development plan would not permit wind farms within 1,500 metres of dwellings. I believe that the Welsh Assembly may have the power to annul that decision. I also notice that an e-petition against TAN 8, which is incidentally still open for signature, has gathered the most signatures to date for any petition on the Assembly for Wales website. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, may perhaps be able to comment on these stirrings in Wales.
In sum, I believe that where limits are imposed at all, they are generally insufficient as well as haphazard and that it is time to do something about it. The need to do something is increasingly widely perceived as the number of those affected has risen. I suspect also that the effects today are more dire as the number and size of turbines have grown so massively. This in itself is a reason for the Government to bring up to date their absurdly out of date system of rules for prescribing tolerable noise levels—the so-called ETSU R 97 rules, which are now 14 years old.
In resisting any attempt to prescribe distance limits, Ministers have deployed the argument that it is illogical to require a distance limit for wind farms and not for nuclear or fossil-fuelled power stations. This makes a ludicrous comparison. In the first place nuclear and fossil-fuelled power stations, being for the most part sensibly sited unlike wind farms close to the places where the electricity is required, are generally to be found in semi-urban or brownfield sites where there is no comparable destruction of visual amenity and where also any noise they make is smothered by other noises.
In the second place there is nothing like the same number of them; fossil-fuelled power stations can be counted in dozens, while wind farms already number hundreds, and wind turbines thousands. I believe that the latest official figure for those operating and under construction on shore is 299 wind farms, comprising 3,649 turbines.
Ministers have also said that it would be unfortunate to remove the possibility for wind farms to be placed in semi-urban or brownfield sites, which this Bill as it now stands would do because there are always houses around such sites. There is not a very large demand to place wind farms in such places, but in so far as there is, I can see some force in the argument. I would therefore be happy to see my Bill amended to give discretion to the local authority to set its own distance limit where the application was for a development in a brownfield site.
It has also been argued that to restrict development in more inhabited areas will put greater pressure on the less inhabited areas, in particular national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. But my Bill does nothing to lessen the protection which is rightly given to those designated areas under present planning policy and which will remain in force.
Would my Bill if enacted therefore preclude any further onshore wind farms? Plainly not in Scotland, where a two-kilometre distance limit is already recommended and apparently largely observed. But in England? CPRE once did a study which I believe indicated that at these limits something like 70 per cent of existing wind farms in England would not have been allowed.
So my Bill might to some seem likely, if ever enacted, to deal a devastating blow to the Government’s present renewable energy policy. But why is it thought appropriate for England's green and pleasant land to be industrialised by ever more gigantic wind turbines for the sake of a pointless gesture towards an economically crippling green ideology?
The Government claim to believe that they will achieve support for their onshore wind farm policy by encouraging developers to pass on to local communities in one form or another more of the subsidies which they are about to receive. Apart from being unlikely to succeed, this policy is both corrupt and divisive. The people who will receive the advantage will not be the same as those who suffer the injury. How will a community playground, while it may sway a planning committee, compensate someone who has seen his environment immeasurably degraded and the value of his house fall by 35 per cent?
At the same time, some farmers and landowners are enriched obscenely. How can the Liberal Democrats, or my modern caring Conservative colleagues, let alone noble Lords opposite, tolerate this, achieved at the direct expense of those who are pushed into fuel poverty? This is the way to create the torn society, not the big society. So I hope that the Government will have a change of heart, show some humanity and remove this scourge from our countryside by adopting this Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Reay, for introducing this Bill and for the way he set out his stall—if I may put it like that—with clarity and persuasiveness. On the whole I agree with what he said, but there are two major problems with wind turbines. One is to do with noise, and the other is visibility. The noise point has been satisfactorily illustrated by the noble Lord, Lord Reay. If any of your Lordships have actually been near a wind farm, you will understand what the noble Lord has been saying. There is brutal noise on two levels: noise that can be heard and noise that, curiously enough, cannot be heard but still affects the brain. That is one of the major problems that this Bill will have to deal with.
Noble Lords will know that this issue was raised in another place about a year and a half ago by Mr Peter Luff. There was a wind farm application in his constituency of Mid Worcestershire. Nothing much came of it in another place, but I gather there are again moves to produce something along the lines of the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Reay. I welcome that.
We might be able to put up with these problems of noise and unsightliness if these machines were efficient and cost effective, but they are neither. The average wind turbine will probably produce something just over 20 per cent of its installed capacity in a given year. It is enormously costly. When we had the big freeze last winter, there was a high-pressure system over the whole of the United Kingdom. Wind farms in the UK produced at 3 per cent of their installed capacity, just when the electricity was needed. That really shows how dreadfully inefficient these things are.
They are also extremely expensive. The noble Lord, Lord Reay, referred to Wales. It is certainly true—we have a plague of these things in Wales. In Powys and Ceredigion, about 240 turbines are in operation, and another 1,000 are under application. The cost of these—together with the cost of lines, pylons, hubs and low-voltage lines—will be in the order of £1.3 billion. This works out at something like £5 million per achieved megawatt. That is the scale of the economic disaster that we seem determined to invest in. I do not believe that the Government have been entirely honest, because the vast bulk of this cost will not be paid by the developers. It will be paid by either the taxpayer or the consumers of electricity.
I understand that when local authorities come to assess planning applications, they have to pay attention to the policy guidance that comes from central government. The problem with that is that none of these planning policy statements—neither PPS 22 nor the additions to PPS 1—is properly debated in Parliament. They are just issued by government, and the chief planning officer, known as the chief planner, simply writes to local authorities saying they are obliged to have regard to these statements when they assess the applications for wind farms according to their development plan. The courts have ruled that these are material considerations for local planning authorities when they make that assessment.
None of that has been discussed in Parliament. I am sure the Minister will be able to assure us that—under the localism proposals—that will change, and we will have an opportunity to discuss, in both Houses, planning guidance that comes from central authorities. The problem is that, not only do we not have a discussion of what government policy is but other organisations—such as Natural England, which I will come to in a minute because it is important for Reeves Hill—seem to take these policy guidance notes as government policy that they themselves must respect. They believe these notes should override the instructions given to them by Parliament. Under the Act setting up Natural England—this is relevant to Reeves Hill—it is perfectly clear that Natural England has a general purpose of enhancing and protecting the landscape. There is an application for four turbines at Reeves Hill. Natural England originally opposed the application, but suddenly withdrew its objection in the light of something called the local landscape enhancement fund, which was to be created in order to compensate people who felt they were affected. This has nothing to do with the general purpose of Natural England, yet it went on to say that the person who should distribute our money is the developer, not the local authority. So the developer not only gets the money himself, but also the right to distribute it as he thinks fit. That simply cannot be right. I would like to ask the Minister if she would impress upon the Government the necessity to instruct Natural England to have regard to the general purposes—which were laid by Parliament—in the Act that set it up.
I do not want to go on too much about the unsightliness of these turbines. However, your Lordships will recognise that, in Wales, we have them on top of hills. If they were in valleys, they might be reasonably acceptable. If your Lordships go along the Cambrian mountains and see the wind farms there, they will understand what I am talking about. If you put them on top of hills, they can be seen for miles. The proposed turbines on Reeves Hill stand on one of the most beautiful parts of western Herefordshire. You can see the Brecon Beacons from there. You can almost see Plynlimon from there. You can see right across towards the Upper Wye Valley. That will be destroyed by these enormous turbines that are going to be erected if this application is successful, and Natural England really ought to be there to oppose it.
Fortunately, it may be that access to the site has to come through Powys. Powys County Council has started to move—very sensibly—in the direction of saying, “We have had enough of these turbines in mid-Wales”. If it does that, we are at last getting somewhere. As the noble Lord, Lord Reay, said, we should Carmarthen if we can and start to change what is a disastrous policy. If the Government wish to engage in renewables, there are plenty of reliable renewables—in tides, nuclear or even offshore wind, which is much more reliable than onshore wind—that they can use. If they wished they could do it, but it needs political will. There is no point wrecking the landscape to try to save the planet, and these turbines do wreck the landscape. I hope very much that the Government will give the noble Lord’s Bill a positive reception—possibly even a fair wind.
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Reay, for missing the first 30 seconds or one minute of his speech. I usually go back to Cornwall from this House by train. Today I have to go back by car, because I am picking up my daughter and all her paraphernalia from university to drive her back to that county. One of the pleasures—and I say this absolutely seriously—of driving across Cornwall is when I come along the A30 to an area called Fraddon/Indian Queens, which many noble Lords who have driven to Cornwall will know used to have massive traffic jams, but is now a dual carriageway. As one comes over the peak, there is an array of three wind farms. They add to the fantastic vista of central and west Cornwall.
A few years ago someone who was affected by a wind farm in north Cornwall asked me to look at a similar vista, though a very different one, where the wind farm was going to be established. The major despoiling factor—as is the case in Scotland, but maybe not so much in Wales—was the pylons, which were rather ugly, and criss-crossed the landscape. In terms of comparison, wind turbines are one of the most elegant structures of recent technology ever devised, though I readily accept that they are not to other people.
There was a wind farm application recently in north Cornwall, near Davidstow. One of the concerns on the community side is that the Cornish tourism industry might be affected. A colleague of mine on Cornwall Council but not, to give him his due, of the same party, surveyed tourists on whether they would like a wind farm in that area. He had no difficulty in filling his petition for the wind farm to go ahead. So I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Reay, says about people’s reactions. It is true of some people, but it is not necessarily the reaction of the majority. Indeed, another fellow councillor in west Cornwall—again, not a Liberal Democrat—commented on strategic planning and said that people tend to like wind farms and when they have them nearby, wonder what all the fuss is about.
With regard to issues with households, I am not going to discuss the broader matter of energy policy, which previous speakers have done. That is not what the Bill is supposed to be about. The main problems are to do with flicker and noise. Recently I was at Delabole, which has just been repowered. It has larger wind turbines, but far fewer of them. That is the way the movement is going: fewer individual turbines, but larger ones which are much more efficient. I walked round Delabole wind farm and I cannot remember even hearing the noise. I am sure that there are sometimes noise issues, but I suggest that noble Lords stand by wind turbines to hear what noise there is. It is extremely low; it is far less than a main road or a railway. On many occasions it is not particularly perceptible.
With regard to flicker, I was interested to read a recent study by Parsons Brinckerhoff—not an organisation I know particularly—for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, which found that:
“There have not been extensive issues with shadow flicker in the UK. The frequency of the flickering caused by the wind turbine rotation is such that it should not cause a significant risk to health. In the few cases where problems have arisen”—
and clearly there are individual cases where wind turbines have been badly sited, and there will be noise and flicker; that is a planning issue—it says here that:
“they have been resolved effectively using mitigation measures”.
So the case about the alien nature of wind turbines and the effect they have on local communities has been strongly exaggerated in relation to the facts and the reactions of the communities living near them.
It is important to look at the Bill’s effects. The figure is that if there was an exclusion around dwellings of two kilometres, 0.5 per cent of the UK landmass would be able to take wind turbines. Effectively, we would end that industry completely. Although some noble Lords may welcome that fact, this Bill would effectively close down this most efficient and cost-effective form of renewable energy.
I was interested that the noble Lord, Lord Reay, mentioned the Liberal Democrats. I am pleased and proud that he did, but we should remember that it was the Labour Government who primarily promoted wind power and renewables, and the Conservative Party has also been strongly supportive. This is an all-party conspiracy, if you like, against the British landscape, but one in relation to which it is important to meet our renewable targets. However, this should not be the major argument with regard to this Bill.
I do not recognise the strong feelings expressed in this debate; wind power is an obvious, traditional and effective way of generating renewable energy.
Does the noble Lord recognise, as the noble Lord, Lord Reay, said, that a massive number of people have signed a petition in Wales against TAN 8, more than have signed any other petition to the Assembly? Does he also recognise that the other evening 2,000 people went to a village hall in mid-Wales to protest against an application for a wind farm? That is local response.
I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. I do not know the situation in Wales; clearly the noble Lord, Lord Williams, knows that far better than I do. However, many issues generate long petitions. I have used them many times myself during my political career. Do they always accurately reflect public opinion? Sometimes they do, sometimes they do not. They are not necessarily conclusive. But I would not want to comment specifically on the Welsh situation.
Will my noble friend take on board that the proposals in mid-Wales are for 170 wind towers that are closely stacked together? Not only that but, because there is no energy-generating plant close by, the towers have to be taken into Shropshire over a very considerable distance. It amounts to the destruction of a beautiful landscape in mid-Wales.
I thank my noble friend for that intervention. I was about to conclude by saying that there is an issue with the over-density of wind turbines—we see this in other European countries, particularly Spain. The irony of this Bill is that that is exactly what we would get. The effect would be an over-concentration of wind turbines in the most rural areas. I would probably be in favour of a Bill that stated that, through strategic planning, we had to ensure that the amount of clustering was not over-dense. I rest my case and look forward to hearing other noble Lords on this subject.
My Lords, I strongly support my noble friend’s Bill. Indeed, I empathise with the sort of buildings that he is seeking to protect, finding myself, as I do, sandwiched in the speakers’ list between two powerful wind turbines. I hope that everybody realises that the environmental impact of wind farms is an important point. It is not acceptable that they should do huge damage to the environment of people where they live; that matters as much as anything to those people. The purely environmental aspect of any wind farm application must have a high priority.
Of course there are places where wind farms are completely acceptable. I drove down this morning from Suffolk, and I always drive through Dagenham. In Dagenham, there are two enormous wind turbines which enhance the factory landscape. Just to give your Lordships an idea of the scale of some of these wind turbines, the Ford factories barely reach their knees. They are very welcome there, and I get from Dagenham the sort of delight that my noble friend Lord Teverson feels in Cornwall.
However, there are real problems with the number of applications coming forward, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, has already said. They are tempting because of the economic subsidies that are offered. Many farmers are tempted by that monetary reward. A couple of years ago, the Marlesford Parish Council, which I chair, objected to a wind farm at Parham, the next-door village. Although it did not affect me or my property or anything, it would have damaged a number of houses in Parham because it would have been very close to them. This is an example of the sort of thing which my noble friend’s Bill seeks to counter.
Of course, the location of wind farms that are agreed depends primarily on the planning authorities, then on the planning inspectors when there is a public inquiry or objection, and finally on Ministers. Inspectors have often been particularly brave, especially in the rather notorious example of Whinash in Cumbria, next to the Lake District, where distinguished locals such as the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, Chris Bonnington and John Dunning all successfully opposed that wind farm with ultimate success.
However, my main worry is the way in which the Government have embraced wind farms as a means of increasing the proportion of renewables and reducing Britain’s carbon footprint. In fact, as has been said by others, they are in general very uneconomic without the huge subsidies they get. As the noble Lord, Lord Williams, has pointed out, the intermittent nature of their output makes their real contribution of rather doubtful value.
One of the most dramatic experiences of my life was visiting the pump storage station at Dinorwig in Snowdonia; how unlike that wind farms are. There is this enormous cavern with a huge wheel which slowly circulates. At night, they use electricity which is surplus to the grid to pump the water up to the top of the mountain and, in the morning, they release it as everybody puts on their electric kettles. It adds something like an 8 per cent surge to the country’s electricity supply. That is the sort of renewable which is thoroughly desirable. A wind farm which will not obey anybody except the weather—and we all know that the weather obeys no one, including the Government—is much more doubtful. I am afraid that wind farms are largely political tokenism, and very expensive political tokenism.
One of the disappointing aspects of this Government is how they have yielded to tokenism in their policies. To some extent—one does not know how much—I suppose that this reflects the costs of coalition politics. If one wants an example, one has only to look at Germany, where Chancellor Merkel has had to do a total U-turn on nuclear power and has made a commitment that is quite undeliverable. Frankly, it is probably about as undeliverable as the commitment made at the G20 in Seoul in November to underwrite all the sovereign debt of any European country up to 2013.
However, there are other examples of such tokenism in the UK. I will not mention one of them as we will spend two days debating it in the next couple of weeks. But another, which is all too real, is the determination with which the Government have set their face against GM foods—this is not directly relevant except as an illustration of the mischief in some of the thinking—at a time when the production of food is of paramount importance in a world with masses of starving people. It is a paradox that the Government oppose GM foods—this is where I wish they would get their thinking sorted out—while making the aid budget a top priority. It makes them very guilty of the charge of tokenism.
It is another illustration of tokenism in government policy. I believe that wind farms are an illustration of this.
I conclude by saying that I hope my environmental credentials are sufficient. Although I do not think that I would qualify as a “bunny hugger”, I am nevertheless passionately keen on preserving the landscape. Therefore, I ask the Government to focus their efforts on what will really help this country. I hope very much that my noble friend’s Bill will prosper and that the priorities reflected in it will be reflected in the new policy planning framework which Secretary of State Pickles is planning to bring before us. It is extremely important that we have the opportunity to debate that policy fully in this House. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to give us that reassurance.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, ought not to worry too much about being sandwiched between my noble friend Lord Teverson and myself. This issue is not aligned on rigid party lines. If one takes a spectrum of opinion on terrestrial onshore wind farms, my noble friend Lord Teverson and I would find ourselves nearly at the opposite ends. I am one of those people who believe that wind farms constitute a blind alley, are not the answer and, to cite the words of the noble Lord, Lord Reay, are a scourge on our countryside. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, that there is no point in wrecking our landscape in order to save the planet. I am not against all wind turbines—
I thank the noble Lord for that. We have a unique landscape in these small islands. Geologically, the rocks on which the landscape is formed cover the entire length of geological time, from some of the oldest rocks known on this planet in the Isle of Lewis through to the most modern. The landscapes which we have as a result are of extraordinary variety yet are concentrated in such a small area. No other part of the world has landscapes as diverse and interesting as those in the islands in which we live. To cover them in industrial power stations seems to me the height of folly.
I accept entirely that people have different views on whether wind turbines are wonderful, beautiful modernist structures and will attract lots of tourists, as my noble friend suggests, or are a blight on the landscape, as I believe. Many of Cornwall’s landscapes were devastated by tin mining and, in particular, china clay mining. Why, when we are cleaning all that up and dealing with it, are we devastating the landscapes with more industrialisation in this way?
I welcome the Bill. It is not perfect by any means, but it is at the very least a means of debating these important issues. There are three main issues, as noble Lords have said. There is noise and flicker. However, unlike my noble friend, I do not believe that they are the only main issues. Amenity and landscape are crucial. Of course, people will always go to look at unusual things. I do not know if they still do so in our part of the world, but people went to look at the first wind farms when they were erected on the Pennine moors because they were new and therefore interesting. That is not to say that if we cover all the Pennine moors with wind farms—it is an ideal place for them if they are to be placed on the land—suddenly people will come from all around the world to look at our wonderful landscape of continuous wind farms, instead of the wonderful, wild and open wilderness that we have in many areas. For a one-off, lots of people go to Sellafield, because it is a very special place. There used to be a tourist facility at the nuclear power station in mid-Wales at Trawsfynydd. However, if there were a whole series of nuclear power stations next to each other, they would not all be tourist attractions. It is the unusual things that people look at in that sense.
The noble Lord, Lord Reay, suggested that an unforeseen consequence of the Bill might be the pressure put on other areas, but said that it would not be important. This issue must be looked at in context. He suggested that that concern would not be too important because there are national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty with special designation. Indeed, there are other areas such as large SSSIs and so on in the uplands. However, a large part of our uplands and interesting coastal areas do not have that kind of designation. I am interested in the mid-Pennines. There are national parks in the Pennines, but there is a whole area of the Pennines between the national park in the north and the Yorkshire Dales and Derbyshire that does not have that sort of protection. The areas of mid-Wales that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, was talking about have been precisely targeted for large wind-farm development because they are situated between the national parks. There are the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons, and Snowdonia in the north, but there is a huge area of mid-Wales that does not have such landscape protection. Yet who can deny that that is a wonderful wilderness area that should be protected from this kind of large-scale development?
I return to the issues in the Bill. The issue of noise is crucial and there is no point in pretending that it is not difficult. The traditional approach to noise is to measure the decibels. That is a technical matter but fairly straightforward. If there is a noise problem in a particular area, the appropriate environmental health officers are called out, they come with their noise meters, and they measure the level of noise. However, in many cases, some of the most annoying noise does not register loud enough to count as an environmental nuisance. I am not talking just about wind farms. There can be all kinds of industrial and commercial premises cheek by jowl with housing. You might have heating plants, for example. You might have generators. You might have other plants which cause low-level low drones, low whines and sometimes even the kind of throbbing, drumming noise that you get with wind farms. That kind of noise, which is relatively quiet, nevertheless can be extremely irritating and annoying. It can prevent people from sleeping. Whether it has an effect on people's brains is a matter of technical research, which I do not understand at all.
Is my noble friend aware that noise can come from the most unexpected places? I once had a case involving a house next to a primary school. We measured the decibel level at 120 decibels at playtime, which was the equivalent of Concorde taking off.
I am sure that that is the case, but if the decibels are there, you can do something about it. If there are not sufficient decibels, it is very difficult to do something about it, but that noise may be ruining people's lives. My noble friend said that there is no evidence that that affects their health, but if people cannot sleep and are having their mental health affected by it, because they simply cannot cope with it, there is a serious problem. Those of us who live in areas where industry and housing exist side by side know about those problems. From my experience, noise from wind turbines can be heard for considerable distances across valleys in some circumstances. There is a real problem there.
There is the question of the relationship between height, distance and size, which needs discussing. There is also the question, fundamental to the Bill: at what level should those decisions be made? I have great sympathy with the aims of the Bill, but am not sure that it is appropriate for national primary legislation. It seems to me that it ought to be incorporated within the planning system. Nevertheless, the basic principles are right.
I wanted to make some technical, detailed points about the Bill. Clause 3, which covers exceptions, states:
“The condition is that the owners of all residential premises which fall within the minimum distance requirement”,
can give their consent. I would hope that the noble Lord would consider that it is residents, including tenants, who should have to give their consent, not just owners, because it is the people who live there who have to suffer. Clause 3(3) comes very close to putting in legislation that people should not break the law, which seems a little unnecessary. Having made those cavilling points, the Bill has my general support and I hope that it will get thorough and careful consideration in Committee.
My Lords, I strongly support the Bill produced and so eloquently proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Reay, and supported generally by Members of this House. The Bill would not be needed were it not for our foolish commitment to sign up to the EU requirements. Our renewables obligation requires us to produce 20 per cent of our electricity from renewables by 2020. I hope that the whole House, including the Minister in her reply, will bear that in mind. That requirement means that one particular energy generator, wind, is guaranteed a market share and a price—which is underwritten by the taxpayer, regardless of how competitive that energy source is.
The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said that he believes that wind power is competitive on cost and efficiency. I do not know how he can say that with a straight face. A moment's study of the facts will show that to be completely nonsensical. Let us take costs first. Here I take the facts from the report of a House of Lords committee on The Economics of Renewable Energy, 2008-09, which said that onshore wind is twice as expensive as coal, gas or nuclear; that is before taking into account the cost of transmitting the power produced by this uneconomic source to the National Grid, which is a substantial added-on cost. The result is that—thanks to the requirement to produce our 20 per cent by 2020, as we are told by the EU—our consumers will be forced to pay twice as much for a proportion of their electricity requirement.
Turning to efficiency, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and other noble Lords, there is the well known problem of intermittency and fluctuation. Who has not driven down any road recently, particularly during the past two winters, and seen wind turbines totally stationary and not generating a single watt of electricity for weeks on end? The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, said that he had driven down this morning and seen two attractive turbines in Dagenham. Perhaps he could tell us whether they were revolving and producing electricity. This morning I drove to the station from my house and passed a wind turbine which was running a road-warning sign; that was stationary. Coming in on the train from Moreton-in-Marsh to Slough, I saw a large factory outside Slough with four large wind turbines and not one of them was moving a single inch; they were not generating a single watt of electricity. They are grossly inefficient.
The problem is that in order to maintain a stable electricity supply, wind turbines have to have a permanent back-up, whether they need it or not; it has to run all the time. That may not be a problem at the moment because such a tiny proportion of our power is produced from wind, but it will become a problem if we ever hope to achieve this absurd 20 per cent target of our energy from renewables and particularly wind.
Perhaps in answering the debate the noble Baroness could tell us how many extra fossil-fuel or nuclear power stations would have to be built simply to support the extra percentage of power which is due to be produced by wind, according to the aspirations. She may not have the answer at her fingertips, but perhaps she could write to me about that and put the answer in the Library. It may be a little technical.
I would like to put something that the noble Lord said into context; it is an important point. Clearly wind is an intermittent technology. Generally, the utilisation of the UK generating capacity is about 50 to 60 per cent anyway; it is quite staggering how inefficient it is as a whole, and wind is probably a lot worse than that. To put the issue in context, the other half of the equation on renewables and intermittent renewables is that, in terms of the distribution grid, you have to move towards smart grids. How you use those is part of the total package. You have to do both and one helps to solve the other. That is how the overall energy strategy works. The argument itself is not conclusive.
I think it is conclusive. The noble Lord has made my point for me. There are huge added costs in creating a wind grid which will feed into the national grid. That problem is not even close to being addressed, let alone solved yet.
I turn briefly to the environmental impact of wind farms. As the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, said, they are scarring some of our most beautiful landscapes. He mentioned Wales. I have been to Wales on many occasions and seen the increase in these dreadful wind farms over beautiful parts of mid-Wales. One noble Lord mentioned a figure of 160, but there are proposals for 800 new wind turbines in mid-Wales that will scar the Cambrian mountains beyond redemption. Each turbine will be 425 feet high—higher than St Paul's Cathedral. Not surprisingly, local communities have come together to oppose this despoliation and vandalism of the countryside in pursuit of a chimera—a dream—that is unachievable. The Department of Energy and Climate Change must know that there is no chance of achieving these dream targets.
I go back to the report of the Select Committee. With masterly understatement, in paragraph 227, it summed up the opinion of its witnesses on the Government’s target on renewables. It stated:
“Witnesses’ views of the target ranged from challenging to unachievable”.
We know from Sir Humphrey Appleby that “challenging” is the equivalent of “unachievable”. We should say that the targets are fully and wholly unachievable.
I will present my own evidence. My electricity is supplied by Haven Power, which thoughtfully provides its customers with a statement detailing the fuel mix for the electricity that it supplies. In 2010, 33.7 per cent of its electricity was generated by coal, 54.1 per cent by natural gas, 7.2 per cent by nuclear and 1.3 per cent by renewables. I would guess that that pattern is representative for England as a whole. We must now crank up the frankly derisory percentage of 1.5 to 2 per cent of electricity generated from renewables, mainly wind, to 20 per cent, according to our masters in Brussels.
What are we doing about that? First, we are wrecking some of our most cherished landscapes. Secondly, we are forcing electricity users to pay far more than they need simply to subsidise these grotesque, inefficient and costly wind farms. As a result of government intervention, the wind industry is turning into a money-grabbing scam masquerading as an environmental benefit. There is no environmental benefit from wind farms—but it is a money-grabbing scam.
Yesterday, BP produced figures showing that global emissions in 2010 from energy consumption increased by 5.8 per cent. China accounted for the biggest rise, overtaking America as the prime emitter. Whether the UK increases or decreases its CO2 emissions will have absolutely zero effect on global emissions as a whole, yet in the vain pursuit of this chimera—this dream—the financially and morally bankrupt policy continues. It enriches landowners—as the noble Lord, Lord Reay, said—and wind farm operators at the expense of pensioners on fixed incomes who are least able to afford the luxury of subsidising renewables and wind power. This is Robin Hood in reverse: robbing the poor to pay the rich. It is completely crazy.
Opponents of wind farms—we have heard from some of them this morning—are branded routinely as Luddites by the proponents of wind energy. In truth, the wind energy fans are the Luddites. They are blocking the one energy that will give us a secure supply without damaging our landscape for ever, which is of course nuclear. The dream of relying on the wind to keep the lights on will go down as one of the most costly and damaging fantasies of our time.
My Lords, I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Reay, in the excellent Bill he is putting before this House, to support its committal and to thank him most warmly for the effort he has put into creating the Bill. This is a very important topic indeed, and I believe it has been underresearched, underdiscussed and, perhaps, underdebated.
I shall explain my interest. My colleagues behind me will be surprised to hear me speaking on wind farms and on energy when some of them have spent most of their political lives thinking about these important topics and I have apparently not done so. That is not precisely the case. My initial constituency, Blyth in Northumberland, drew my attention very seriously to fossil fuels. It is one of the great coalmining constituencies, but unfortunately I did not win it. I was then selected by Torridge and West Devon. The noble Lord, Lord Reay, has already mentioned a very important case that arose in my constituency when I was a Member of another place: the Holsworthy wind farm case. In the European Parliament, in which I subsequently served, I sat on an important European Union/US climate change scientific committee for several years and, as a result of that experience, I gladly accepted the invitation from the noble Lord, Lord Lawson of Blaby, to join the Global Warming Policy Foundation, and I declare that interest today.
I shall turn first to the important point on which this Bill rests, which is the separation of wind farms and human habitation by a precise measurement. I also serve as vice-president of the pre-eminent school for deaf children and young people in the United Kingdom, the Mary Hare School just outside Newbury, where I was brought up. I have a lot of knowledge and experience about human hearing. First, I wish to focus on why the premise on which this Bill is based is so profoundly right. I recently asked the House of Commons Library to extrapolate for me the statistics available on problems of human hearing in the British public. According to the House of Commons Library, something like 27 per cent of the British population has hearing problems. There may not immediately seem to your Lordships' House to be an absolute correlation with the potential difficulties caused to human hearing, which have already been mentioned by a number of noble Lords, but that is not so. Every year 400 babies are born profoundly deaf in the United Kingdom and a vast number of young people now have induced hearing loss but that does not, alas, give them a fundamental protection from pain, distress and psychiatric problems caused by noise. In fact, it is a curious fact that quite often the loss of human hearing or its failure to develop in the womb creates a much higher sensitivity in the brain. I do not know enough about it to understand the connection. All I can say is that when a noise drills through the brain, that is perhaps where the hearing should have been, and it causes immense pain. The fact that one-third of noble Lords should by rights perhaps be seeking some hearing enhancement from technical devices would not mean that the noble Lords in question could not feel pain despite the fact that they could not hear the noise in a normal sense.
My attention was drawn to this problem by another case, in North Tawton in my then constituency. A retired man with very acute hearing had pain from the noise that emerged. It came from a long way away from his retirement home, but it hurt his head. It was absolutely clear. The hospital tests showed that it was the case. I merely make the point that the fact that people cannot hear does not protect them from pain and acute psychological distress. If you penetrate the brain with harmful noise, you upset people very much indeed. That gentleman and others like him—he was certainly not unusual—experience great physical difficulties through accessing parts of the brain that should be left alone unless it is through our normal hearing mechanisms.
On top of that, I saw from the case in Holsworthy that the general population was extremely distressed. I accept that over the border in Cornwall things may be different, but I hae ma doots, dear colleagues and friends—very large doots—because my experience is that people mind very much indeed about the persistent noise. It is painful, it is harmful and, as I said a few moments ago, it has a bearing on noise-induced hearing loss. It is the easiest thing of all to bring about in babies and young children, in whom the delicate mechanisms of the ear are still developing. These can be readily damaged. In most young people it happens because of discotheques, jazz concerts and so on where the noise is at too high a level, but it is all too easy to damage babies and young people by noise.
I shall touch on a point briefly, although there is much more to say. Why has this not been raised by the National Health Service? Noble Lords may not be aware that the NHS does very little indeed on hearing. Of the total professional medical training provision for doctors in the United Kingdom, only five days out of the seven years of training are spent on the human ear. The National Health Service is very unlikely to have an understanding of this, other than in bits and pieces.
One or two noble Lords have said that the population is comfortable with wind turbines, but we are discussing the spending of taxpayers’ money. I believe that when taxpayers know the truth about the subsidies that wind turbines have attracted, they will not be at all comfortable that their hard-earned income is being spent in this way. It is an unhappy fact that wind farms are almost entirely subsidised by a complex yet hidden regime of feed-in tariffs, tax cuts and preferential tax credits. A typical turbine generates power that is worth around £150,000 a year, but attracts subsidies of more than £250,000 a year. These subsidies are of course added directly to consumer bills on the premise that the consumer pays. The cost to consumers of the renewables obligation scheme has risen from £278 million in 2002 to more than £1 billion in 2009, which is a total growth of £4.4 billion over seven years. Ofgem predicts that the total cost to consumers of the renewables obligation between 2002 and 2027, when the scheme is set to end, will amount to a staggering total of £32 billion. I cannot believe that consumers would be happy if they fully understood this.
An analysis of wind patterns in the United Kingdom suggests that at high penetration levels here, wind generation offers a capacity of between 10 and 20 per cent, which in itself is an indicator of how much of the capacity can be statistically relied on to be available to meet peak demand. It compares with around 86 per cent for conventional generation. This means that fossil fuels and other thermal or hydro power still have to be available as a back-up in times of high demand and low wind output if security of supply is to be maintained. I therefore make the point that new conventional capacity will still be needed to replace the conventional and nuclear plant which is expected to close over the next decade or so, even if large amounts of renewable capacity are deployed. To put it plainly, this means that every 10 new units’ worth of wind power installation has to be backed up with some eight new units’ worth of fossil fuel generation. This is because fossil fuel sources will have to power up suddenly to meet the deficiencies of wind. Wind generation does not provide an escape route from fossil fuel use, but embeds the need for it. Nuclear fuel runs at base load and therefore cannot power up to cover the absence of wind.
I thank my noble friend for giving way. That energy prices go up as a result of renewables is clearly a concern of us all, but does she not agree that the cost of renewables is almost insignificant in comparison with the increase in the cost of gas and oil, which has put up the real bills of consumers hugely? It is that supply pinch on fossil fuels that has caused the explosion in cost to consumers.
My noble friend’s argument might hold water if wind power or the other alternative renewables were able to provide the 86 per cent of our energy that conventional fuels provide. Since conventional fuels have to back up renewables, I cannot give credence to his argument. Conventional fuels have to be around to back up the intermittent wind power that is all we get in the United Kingdom. I happen just to have spent the Recess in Oklahoma, just down the road from cyclone country. It is very different there. I was blown so hard in the street one day on my way to the conference I was attending that I almost fell over. How very different that is even from the Isle of Lewis, with its unique rock, and the Isle of Man, with its trembling granite—another unique feature of the United Kingdom.
I cannot accept that wind power offers a decent alternative to fossil fuels. Of course, fossil fuels, as my noble friend has immediately pointed out, are themselves expensive, which is why I have always backed nuclear fuel as the only really sensible, long-term solution for the United Kingdom.
I say again that I am enormously grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Reay, for bringing about this important debate. I am immensely unhappy that our intermittent wind power has attracted such monstrous subsidies. Largely, of course, I am unhappy because it has been kept away from the consumer, for it is ultimately consumers who will have to tell us how they wish to go. There is enormous unhappiness about the wind farm programme. The chair of energy policy in the Parliament of one of our closest allies in the European Union, Denmark, calls the Danish wind programme a terribly expensive disaster. I support the Bill.
I shall speak in the gap in this immensely fascinating debate. I was stimulated to make a very short contribution by a statement made by my noble friend Lord Greaves. He said that wind farms were not the answer. Then I began to mull over the question. Do we really know what the question is? Surely the time has now come for us to reconsider whether we need to increase relentlessly and in an unthinking way the despoliation of our countryside, establishing wind farms and wind turbines in order to produce inefficient energy on a cost-benefit analysis, when we should be asking and undertaking a total reassessment of the impact of so-called climate change. I suggest that the documents which have just been adduced by our noble colleague Lord Turnbull be read by everybody. Only on that basis will we be able to see that these things are changing inexorably—the balance between the costs of fossil fuels and the amount of electricity that is required. We are going back to old statistics without taking the new assessment into account.
My Lords, I support the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Reay, and I do so as a Labour person. Not everyone on this side takes that view, but I do because it is the poorer parts of our community that are paying the main price for this bizarre programme. As has been pointed out, they are paying often without knowing, because the extra taxes that come through the subsidies are often not revealed. I also resent the fact that it involves a huge transfer of wealth from the less well-off to my good friends who own great estates in Scotland and make millions of pounds out of it. I am very happy for them but unhappy for the poorer parts of our community who have to pay for it. I hope that my party will look more closely at this situation in the future than it has in the past.
I also support the noble Lord, Lord Reay, as an environmentalist. It is bizarre that the environmental warriors support this programme when what it does to the visual environment, as has been pointed out, is quite appalling. I object to the fact that they are described as “wind farms”. Farms and the farming community contribute enormously to our visual environment but these objects do quite the opposite—they scar it. We need a new collective name and I think “wind blight” is one that could be used in the future because environmentally they are a menace.
As a one-time economist, I particularly object to the economics of the programme, which are absolutely appalling. I shall not go over it all but the wind, especially, is the most uneconomic part; the cost of it is outrageous relative to its contribution. Its contribution is minute. During the winter, the official figures produced showed that wind contributed 0.5 per cent to our energy, partly because of the feature that during very cold spells—certainly in this country—the wind blows less.
The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, in passing, mentioned a figure of 60 per cent in relation to the efficiency of wind farms.
The noble Lord said 60 per cent for the others and that wind was not far from it. I can tell him that it is a very long way from it. Official figures on the efficiency of the wind blight show that it may be up to 30 per cent but on average it is around 20 per cent. That is a very poor contribution indeed.
I should tell the Minister that just before the Recess I put down two Written Questions on this issue and received helpful Answers. The Government stated that the cost of the whole programme, of which wind is a part, was up to about £30 billion but pointed out that a large number of costs were not included in that. It would be helpful if the Government could explain the full gross cost of this programme. I asked also about the number of jobs that were forecast to be lost and the Government said that they had not made any calculation of this. It would be helpful if the Government would make a calculation of jobs lost.
I considered tabling an amendment suggesting that 100 miles might be an appropriate distance between the wind blight and houses. I support the Bill.
My Lords, this Bill has implications on a very important policy area in Britain’s energy policy. It aims to put the UK on a path to cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 and some 70 per cent by 2050. The size of this challenge is underlined by the fact that in the next decade over 30 per cent of existing traditional electricity power sources will be removed from the grid as current power stations are decommissioned. Abundant gas supplies are set to diminish. Shale gas exploration has been put into review following fears that it has triggered small earthquakes in Lancashire. Fossil fuel supplies are being pursued in ever more hazardous environments, with deep-sea oil drilling. The investment required for the UK’s energy policy is estimated at over £40 billion, well beyond the capacity of the public sector alone.
Increased development from all quarters is vital to facilitating the delivery of UK commitments on both climate change and renewable energy. This inevitably puts increased focus on land use, agriculture and food and bio-energy production, as well as supply chains and transport. In response to criticisms that agriculture is responsible for an overproportionate amount of CO2 emissions, the agricultural industry has voluntarily signed up to the greenhouse gas action plan to reduce emissions by 3 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents by 2020 without compromising domestic production. This plan was launched by Jim Paice, Minister of Agriculture in another place.
This is the wider context and the place within which the provisions of this Bill are to be assessed. This Bill is focused not only on larger development but also on small farm-scale turbines in the larger end of the small wind sector, including some turbines that fall within the definition of microgeneration. That area has been unlocked by the feed-in tariffs regime brought forward by our previous Labour Administration. All planning decisions reflect a balance of competing interests and benefits, advantages and disbenefits, development and conservation. In this case, striking the right balance between regulations and incentives is vital.
We have heard today across the House of the challenges that wind farms face from your Lordships. All but one noble Lord today has expressed disapproval, but it is important to distinguish between, on one hand, long-term legislative and prescriptive “thou shalt not” regulations—which may be necessary to protect citizens and the environment where there is certainty of outcomes and overwhelming evidence—and assessment against guidance on the other, where parameters are set to measure each situation on a case-by-case analysis. On these Benches, we would be concerned that this Bill’s definitive prescription would be required for all cases. As has been argued even by the noble Lord, Lord Reay, this situation is covered by provisions in PPS22, which sets out government policies for renewable energy and parameters which planning authorities should have regard to when preparing local development documents and taking planning decisions. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, made the point that nuisances such as noise could perhaps be encompassed within these provisions rather than primary legislation being brought forward.
The first thing that could perhaps be said about the Bill is that it uses an unusual way in which to measure wind. The Bill takes the tip of the blade as its highest point in measuring its impact. The more accepted method of measurement is to the top of the nacelle, where the rotor is fixed. Adding blade length to the standard scale of masts may impact on the development of technologies that reduce noise and have other impacts in future. I also wonder whether the exceptional condition that owners of residential premises that fall within the minimum distance requirements must agree in writing to the construction of a wind turbine could lead to a number of perverse outcomes affecting blade choice and effective siting. Planning policy statements set flexible parameters within which developments can take place that take account of changing circumstances and technical advances. Experience and knowledge could perhaps inform our decisions in future.
In a Written Answer on 14 September 2010, Charles Hendry, Minister of State for Energy in another place, replied to a Question concerning reports on and challenges to the Energy Technology Support Unit method of assessment and rating of noise from wind turbines, most notably ETSU R 97, by acousticians. He replied that he had,
“asked Hayes McKenzie to carry out new analysis of this”.
This method remains the applicable guidance for assessing and rating noise from turbines. Could the Minister provide the House today with any more information on the progress of this analysis and when it may be published? This is separate from and in addition to a University of Salford report which has already endorsed the ETSU system. As this is not primarily her department’s responsibility, could she ask her colleagues to write to me on the matter? In a further Written Answer that same day, the Minister stated:
“There are currently no plans to introduce a proximity rule. The assessment of an application to develop a wind farm already includes, among other things, an analysis of visual and landscape impacts to ascertain whether the location and height”,
of a wind turbine,
“is acceptable. The Government consider that these impacts are best assessed on a case by case basis so that local factors can be taken fully into account”.—[Official Report, Commons, 14/9/10; cols. 960-61W.]
Will the Minister confirm today that as yet nothing new has been learnt to override this statement?
While acknowledging that the balance of benefits of any development can be controversial, it would be foolish not to take account of the considerable animosity and protest that has arisen in such areas as Devon, Dorset and west Wales. However, there are procedures and mechanisms that already apply in this situation. From these Benches, I urge caution before embarking on heavy regulation that defines prescriptive parameters for all cases and situations. The continued use of site-specific assessments may still provide the most appropriate and effective means to assess and determine any potential development impacts, while protecting the amenity and health of local residents.
The recently announced review of the renewable heat incentive and feed-in tariffs has been extremely destabilising and disruptive to investments in renewable energy. Let us take care today before endorsing further planning constraints on the enormity of the task we face on energy security.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Reay for providing the opportunity to discuss an issue that is clearly close to his heart. From the speeches made around the Chamber, it is obviously close to the hearts of all those who have spoken. We have had a thoroughly interesting debate and I thank the noble Lord for the opportunity. I appreciate that the noble Lord has long-standing concerns over wind turbines, and that this Bill proposes a way of tackling some of the matters that can arise when proposals for wind farms and wind turbines are considered. I have listened with interest to the points that have been made.
While I can appreciate the concerns that have led to this Bill being placed before us, we need to consider whether legislation, and particularly legislating in this manner, is the most appropriate way to address them. I have my doubts, not least because the approach set out in the Bill sits uncomfortably with the Government’s reforms to the planning system and energy policies. We also need to recognise that in a rapidly changing world some degree of flexibility is both desirable and necessary. Fixed separation distances may be attractive, but once in place there may be good and unforeseen reasons why the original justification for setting them no longer applies. By that I mean that technological advances could lead to sites that were once seen as unsuitable being suitable in the future.
It is helpful to put this Bill in context and remind ourselves of why we need more renewable energy developments. Harnessing our renewable resources is necessary for energy security and environmental reasons. The Government firmly believe that climate change is one of the gravest threats we face. It is not something that we can ignore and hope will go away, so there is no question that the United Kingdom must become a low-carbon economy and decarbonise, where possible, its electricity supply. Having said that, we are aware that this is a huge challenge, as was absolutely clear from the speeches.
Onshore wind is one of the most cost-effective and established renewable technologies. Where small-scale schemes are put forward by local communities or individuals or much larger-scale ones are put forward as part of a commercial generator’s portfolio, our energy security is enhanced by a resource—wind power—which is ours alone. Renewables also provide opportunities for investment in new industries and new technologies: the kind of opportunities we so badly need to help the economy recover.
None of this, though, gives an excuse to ride roughshod over local communities, or for building wind farms in the wrong places. The views of local communities are a vital contribution in making decisions about the suitability of a proposed wind farm’s location. Through the Localism Bill we are committed to ensuring that local communities should have a much greater say in shaping the places where they live, and that includes renewable energy developments. I do not think that my noble friend will agree, but wind farms can bring real benefits to communities as long as they are in the right place and of the right size.
The noble Lord referred to ETSU R 97, as did the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester. That report potentially gives a different answer in every case, varying according to factors such as: the number, type and space of turbines in the proposed wind farm; ambient noise levels at the nearest residence, which can vary significantly around each site; and topography between the turbines and affected property. For local plans to set minimum separation distances from wind farms, all those factors would have to be assessed for all likely locations while looking at them case by case would vary the separation distances. The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, asked me two questions that I cannot at this moment answer, because they are not actually for my department, but I will ensure that he has a Written Answer to them.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams, raised the advice given by Natural England to support a development in Wales. He was kind enough to give me notice that he was going to ask that question. I am bound to tell him that, unfortunately, all of that is still an undecided planning issue and I therefore cannot comment on it today. However, he referred to the land enforcement fund, which would provide local landowners and communities with funding for environmental schemes such as the replacement of hedgerows to help mitigate the effect of the wind farm proposals. I do not know where that is being pursued but it is clearly a factor which will now be taken into consideration during the planning process. The noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, also asked a question to which, again, I am afraid that I do not know the answer. It may sound feeble of me to say this but again it is not for my department. However, I will make sure that the noble Lord gets an answer to it.
The Government have stated on many occasions that decisions on siting wind farms should be made on a case-by-case basis, so as to take account of the local context. This Bill would prescribe fixed-separation distances according to the height of the wind turbines. The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, drew attention to the fact that it is the height where the measurements are taken from. The Bill would also automatically rule out locations that might otherwise be suitable for wind turbine developments because, for example, it makes no allowance for matters such as local topography or the presence of other buildings. Both are capable of providing mitigation against the impact of a turbine. That can make a development which might otherwise be considered unacceptable in isolation of its context quite acceptable when considered in its context.
There can be good reasons for rejecting proposed wind turbines. However, the reasons for some refusals could be addressed by future advances in technology. Improvements in technology could make acceptable sites which are currently deemed to be unacceptable.
I hate to interrupt the Minister in what I think are her winding-up remarks, but she has not chosen to comment on my important points, which have not been put to the House before, on the impact wind farms’ proximity to communities can have on psychiatric, mental and hearing health. Does she not agree that this is an important and almost wholly under-researched topic? Might she be minded to recommend to her colleagues in the Department of Health that they should perhaps undertake a proper research study on this vitally important issue?
My Lords, the noble Baroness has intervened a little before I got to the conclusion of my remarks. However, it would be sensible for me to address her concerns now and to say that of course the matters that she has raised in her speech today will be referred on; I will make sure that they are.
Returning to where I was, technological advances in radar, for example, could overcome current objections on radar grounds. Future turbine designs could be quieter than the turbines being erected now. Our approach to localism means that we want communities to be able to shape and influence new developments—[Interruption.] I do not think that my remark justified that thunder!
I am concerned that even small-scale or community-backed developments could be inadvertently ruled out through fixed separation distances. I accept that the Bill makes some allowance for flexibility where local agreement is reached, but there are flaws in this approach.
On the planning policies coming forward, the current approach is looking at each proposal on its individual merits within the context of the local council’s development plan; that is well established. It enables a flexible and customised approach to be taken to each proposal. Decisions on applications such as wind farms are therefore taken on a site-by-site basis. This enables impacts such as noise and shadow flicker to have tailor-made assessments using recognised methodologies rather than being judged against an arbitrary separation distance. It enables the impact on the surrounding landscape to be considered, and for topography to be taken into account. That case-by-case approach is evidence based. I am not aware of any evidence which supports the thresholds proposed in the Bill. I am afraid to say that they appear to be quite arbitrary.
Noise issues were referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and several other noble Lords. It might be helpful if I told the House that the Department of Energy and Climate Change is currently undertaking research to analyse how noise impacts on, and is considered in, wind farm planning applications in England. The aim is to ensure that noise assessments are consistent and effective, and provide the intended level of protection from noise impact. The results of this research are expected to be published in the next few weeks. I hope that that will address some of the points that have been raised.
On planning, we are in the middle of major reforms to the planning system. We are taking forward major changes to the way planning decisions are approached and we are firmly committed to decentralising power to local authorities and communities. The creation of neighbourhood plans will help with this. My noble friend’s Bill unfortunately cuts right across our proposals for localism. By prescribing in legislation separation distances, it is setting out—actually imposing—the type of top-down approach from which we want to move away. I, of course, recognise that the Bill is intended to apply also to major infrastructure projects as well as to proposals decided by local councils, but in fact because of the way it is drafted it does not, unfortunately, fulfil this ambition.
Over the past few months we have been working hard to put together the new national planning policy framework. This will simplify the reams of existing planning policy. Part of it will cover renewable energy. It will be published for consultation and I am sure noble Lords will ensure that we have an opportunity to discuss it in this House. I believe that its approach to localism and the importance it places on protecting the environment will be reassuring.
We want to reward those communities that welcome development and help deal with the demands for supporting infrastructure that may arise. Specifically, our commitment to the local retention of business rates generated by renewable energy developments will reward communities who host these developments.
Focusing on the detail of the Bill, if it were to progress further, a number of technical drafting issues would need to be addressed for it to become a workable piece of legislation. For example, it would need to clarify what is meant by “relevant authority”. The reference to “government department” in the definition of “relevant authority” could imply that my noble friend intended that his Bill should apply to all wind turbine proposals, but I am not clear whether this is the case. Is it meant to include within its scope those wind farm proposals which are considered to be major infrastructure proposals as well as those decided by local authorities or by the Secretary of State if the local decision is appealed? However, under the Planning Act 2008, nationally significant infrastructure projects require development consent rather than planning permission. The Planning Act removes the need to obtain planning permission, so as drafted the Bill would not apply to wind farms with an installed capacity of more than 50 megawatts.
The exception provisions in the Bill may not empower all those who live in properties within the thresholds to be involved in the written agreement process. That point was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. Owners do not necessarily live in the properties they own; they can rent them out. The Bill would also need to be amended to clarify the position with regard to leaseholders. Would they be classed as an owner, or would “owner” include only the freeholder? I am also unclear as to how a “relevant authority” might be expected to ensure that written agreements are not elicited by unlawful or pressurised means. How do we stop this becoming a charter for bureaucrats laying down their view of the law?
I have other concerns, but my final point is that by setting such rigid separation distances and linking them to the height of the turbines, the Bill could actually lead to perverse outcomes—and I suspect not at all the sort that my noble friend has anticipated. I wonder whether, as a way of getting round the Bill’s provisions, we will simply see proposals being submitted for turbines which cluster just below the height limits. Instead of submitting a proposal for, say, four turbines of a particular height, a developer might bring forward a greater number of smaller ones just to get around the relevant separation distance limitation, so in the end the impact could be greater.
I conclude by restating that by imposing rigid separation distances, the Bill would cut across the Government’s reforms to deliver localism and the decentralisation of power. Ruling out what could be suitable sites on an arbitrary basis could hinder our ability to meet our ambitious but necessary renewable energy and climate change commitments. I understand that wind farm proposals, and even individual wind turbines, can cause a great deal of concern in communities about the impacts that they might have—we accept that—but I do not believe that this Bill is the way to address these matters.
It is normal practice for the Government not to support or oppose Private Members’ Bills and I do not propose to break that convention. However, I ask my noble friend to consider the extent to which the localism agenda will address his concerns, and how he might contribute to the national planning policy framework on this matter through the forthcoming consultation.
My Lords, will the noble Baroness clarify one point? She said, rather encouragingly, that the Government wanted to move away from the top-down planning structures that we have seen in the past. Under their policies, including the Localism Bill, perhaps local people will have more of a say on wind farms. Does that mean that there are no proposals to reinstate the Infrastructure Planning Commission that was dismantled, but would have had the power to override local decisions, and thus render null and void the decisions of local people and local authorities? That was the specific role of the IPC. Is there a “son of the IPC” in the making, or has it been abandoned?
My Lords, the son of the IPC will be the Secretary of State. These matters will be brought back under democratic accountability and the final decision will be made by a Minister or the Secretary of State. It will not and cannot be made by the IPC alone. I should add that neighbourhood planning will also be helpful and effective in this matter.
My Lords, one of the difficulties of a debate such as this is that it ranges across several departments’ responsibilities. The two matters that my noble friend has now raised do not come within the ambit of planning, and that is the aspect that I have been addressing today.
My Lords, I am profoundly grateful to all who have taken part in an extraordinarily good debate with most powerful, passionate and well informed speeches from many parts of the House. Of course I am particularly grateful to those who supported me, but also to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. He and I have taken part in debates when I have been in a minority of one. It is only fair that the tables should be turned on this occasion. It would have been unnatural if not one person, apart from those on the Front Benches, was willing to put forward his point of view.
The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said that he thought the effects of wind farms were being exaggerated and that people got used to being near them. Many who find themselves in that position get on with life, however much they dislike the situation. It is probably only a minority who are so severely affected that life becomes intolerable, but it is a substantial minority, and some inspectors have found that even a minority of a single family was sufficient reason for them to reject a planning application as being for a farm too close to where they lived.
The noble Lord referred to renewable energy and wind power in particular as being cost-effective, but, unlike many other noble Lords, he ignored the effect of the subsidies. The current subsidies paid through the ROCs system by the electricity consumer are running at a rate of £1.2 billion a year. Under policies that are already adopted, this figure will increase to £5 billion or £6 billion a year by 2020. If wind power needs that, how can you possibly describe it as being cost-effective?
The noble Lord suggested that the consumer was suffering more from increases in the price of oil and gas. It was interesting that he mentioned gas. Because of the recent extraordinary discoveries around the world of shale gas deposits, there is an opportunity for cheap gas to be available on a huge scale for long into the future. This is an alternative that the Government should welcome, not seek to close out by favouring renewable energy instead—which is what is happening.
I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for fully addressing the subject in her wind-up speech. Of course, I dispute many of her assertions, but I should like to study carefully everything she said. There were positive features, including her invitation, which I eagerly accept, to take part in the debates leading up to the adoption of the national planning policy framework.
This issue will not go away. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, I think that the public are waking up to the costs that they are having to pay through their bills for the Government's current renewable energy policy, and I doubt that that will be welcomed by them.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.