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Planning: Onshore Wind

Volume 745: debated on Thursday 6 June 2013


My Lords, with the permission of the House, I would like to repeat the Answer to an Urgent Question asked in the other place.

“The coalition agreement pledged to decentralise power to local people and give local people far more ability to shape the places in which they live. Through a series of reforms, this coalition Government are making the planning process more accessible to local communities, because planning works best when communities themselves have the opportunity to influence the decisions that affect their lives. However, current planning decisions on onshore wind are not always reflecting a locally led planning system.

Following a wide range of representations, including the letter of January 2012 to the Prime Minister from 100 honourable Members, and in light of the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s call for evidence, it has become clear that action is needed to deliver the balance expected by the National Planning Policy Framework on onshore wind. We need to ensure that protecting the local environment is properly considered alongside the broader issues of protecting the global environment.

Today, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has published the response to his call for evidence on onshore wind. This sets out how the Government have listened and are responding to what has been said. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has this morning in support set out our intentions for planning. Let me set these out.

We have set out clearly in the National Planning Policy Framework the importance of early and meaningful engagement with local communities. The submissions to the call for evidence have highlighted the benefits of good quality pre-application discussion for onshore wind development and the improved outcomes that can have for local communities. We will amend secondary legislation to make pre-application consultation with local communities compulsory for the more significant onshore wind applications. This will ensure that in more cases community engagement takes place at an earlier stage and may assist in improving the quality of proposed onshore wind development. This will also complement the community benefits proposals announced by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change today.

The National Planning Policy Framework we published last year includes strong protections for the natural and historic environment. Yet some local communities have genuine concerns that when it comes to wind farms, insufficient weight is being given to environmental considerations such as landscape, heritage and local amenity. We need to ensure that decisions get the environmental balance right in line with the framework and, as expected by the framework, any adverse impact from a wind farm development is addressed satisfactorily.

We have been equally clear that this means facilitating sustainable development in suitable locations. Meeting our energy goals should not be used to justify the wrong development in the wrong location. We are looking to local councils to include in their local plans policies that ensure that adverse impacts from wind farm developments, including cumulative landscape and visual impact, are addressed satisfactorily. Where councils have identified areas suitable for onshore wind, they should not feel they have to give permission for speculative applications outside those areas when they judge the impact to be unacceptable.

To help ensure planning decisions reflect the balance in the framework, my department will issue new planning practice guidance shortly to assist local authorities and planning inspectors in their consideration of local plans and individual planning applications.

This will set out clearly that: first, the need for renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protections and the planning concerns of local communities; secondly, decisions should take into account the cumulative impact of wind turbines and properly reflect the increasing impact on, first, the landscape and, secondly, local amenity as the number of turbines in the area increases; thirdly, local topography should be a factor in assessing whether wind turbines have a damaging impact on the landscape—that is, recognising that the impact on predominantly flat landscapes can be as great or greater than on hilly or mountainous ones; and that great care should be taken to ensure heritage assets are conserved in a manner appropriate to their significance, including the impact of proposals on views important to their setting.

We will be writing to the Planning Inspectorate and councils to flag up that new guidance will be available shortly”.

That concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I awoke this morning to find out from Twitter that the Secretary of State, Ed Davey, has just made another one of his grand bargains, this time with DCLG on onshore wind. I have to say that my heart sank. Yet again, it is a terrible bargain. In return for changes to planning laws that will undoubtedly make it more difficult to build wind farms, he has won an increase in the amount of money that communities can receive. Can the Minister explain what the benefit of that money will be if this pandering to a vocal minority ensures that planning laws are changed so that none of them gets built? Will these new rules also apply to planning applications for shale gas fracking?

My Lords, the unusual source of the remarks by the noble Baroness took me by surprise. I want to make it clear that this is not a change to the National Policy Planning Framework; it is an underscoring of what that policy has always said about the involvement of local communities in the development of local plans. Wind farms fall into the capacity of local plans and local structures. We are therefore making sure, for any wind farm development, that developers must talk to the local community before they put those plans forward and that the local authority also takes that into account. At present, it is not mandatory, and this will make it mandatory. The rules for fracking are not relevant to this particular Statement.

My Lords, why does my noble friend think that neither the Answer she has repeated nor indeed the commendably brief intervention of the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, made any mention at all of the impact on the consumer of electricity prices? Fuel poverty is reaching record levels and millions of families are finding present energy costs almost unbearable. The additions implicit in what she is saying must be quite considerable. Why is there no mention at all of cost—what about the consumer?

My Lords, I hesitate. I once got told off because I referred to another department while I was replying for the Government. The cost of electricity and the impact on that is a matter for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and the Statement from the Secretary of State there will refer to that.

My Lords, have the Government taken into account at the very least the admirable provisions of the Private Member’s Bill from my late and much lamented noble friend Lord Reay, in which there was a correlation between the height of a wind turbine and the distance from human habitation?

My Lords, the Statement referred to the thresholds that will be considered. I have no doubt that that is one of the aspects that will need to be taken into account. Of course, it is something that local communities will be expected to think about in the process of having discussions and deciding whether to oppose strongly any application or to see if it can be amended. With a great sadness that Lord Reay is not here himself to make that point, I think that he might be quite satisfied with the way things are moving.

My Lords, are the Government thinking of doing the same with open-cast coal, which they do not seem to be interested in at all? I would welcome the Minister to Durham, where I am surrounded by wind turbines, which are so much more attractive than the coal mines and the open-cast mines that we had, and still have, in our locality. There are a lot of myths around this. The Government need to show leadership, which will get us cheaper, more effective energy that is long-lasting and sustainable.

My Lords, I do not think that this Government or the previous Government ever pretended or thought that wind power was ever going to provide for all our energy needs. Therefore, this is part and parcel of the package that we need to take us into the future. That also includes nuclear and coal, which are still there. I come from the north-east so I appreciate what impact mines have, but until we are clearer about the need for energy they probably will not be abandoned.

The noble Baroness has assured us that the impact upon aesthetic values and considerations will indeed be very relevant. Can she say whether that will be a peripheral or a central and fundamental consideration? If so, how will these fundamental considerations be valued one against another; in other words, who will come to that almost impossible Solomonic decision?

My Lords, I do not want to get tempted into discussing what the guidance will say. The point the noble Lord has raised is central. However, we have made it clear that the aesthetic as well as the heritage impact will be relevant to what the guidance says. I will make sure that what the noble Lord has asked is taken into account.

My Lords, the Answer referred to the cumulative effect of planning applications for wind turbines. In an area such as the Pennines, where there is quite a dense but dispersed network of farms in many of the great open upland landscapes, if each of these settlements puts in for a couple of large wind turbines—which on their own might be acceptable—at what stage does it turn into a wind farm covering the whole area? Are the Government paying attention to this problem?

My Lords, the Statement refers to major applications. However, as I suggested in the Statement, where wind farms become cumulative it seems to me that that will need to be taken into account.

My Lords, what estimate has been made of the potential decline in the number of wind farm approvals to be made in the United Kingdom? What form is the public benefit—this buying of local communities—going to take? Can we have some more detail on how that will work?

My Lords, this does not change what the National Planning Policy Framework lays out at the moment. It advises that local people should be consulted about major planning applications. The Statement says that it will be amended so that they must be consulted. That then makes it a material consideration for the decision on planning applications and must be taken into account. Whether that increases or decreases the number of approvals given will become clearer, but, one way or the other, it seems to us essential that local people, who will feel the impact of wind farms—indeed, who already have experience of them—have a proper say on any future proposal.

My Lords, I express the hope that localism will be more than tokenism here. Much as I welcome what my noble friend said, does she accept that the vast majority of onshore wind farms are uneconomic, unreliable and very unsightly?

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend does not really expect me to say any of that. I can only repeat that we are trying to ensure that they are acceptable, aesthetic and take into account people’s views. I should also make it clear that this guidance and the Statement refer to England, not the whole of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, how much is being allocated for the so-called incentivisation of local communities to accept wind farms? Where is the money coming from? Is it coming from the hidden subsidy on electricity bills—in which case, would we not be bribing people with their own money?

My Lords, I am not certain where the noble Lord is coming from. He is rather suggesting that local people are to be bribed to have wind farms. My Statement, to which I stick firmly, is about ensuring that they are consulted.