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Renewable Energy Providers: Planning Considerations

Volume 738: debated on Wednesday 25 October 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered planning considerations for renewable energy providers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I am biased, but I think you can never have too many Siobhans in one room. It is great to be here, and I thank everyone for joining us so early on a Wednesday.

This debate really matters to my constituents and local businesses. They are environmentally focused and trying to do the right thing by our planet and for our children and grandchildren, but planning barriers and delays are holding back the renewable potential of the Stroud district and the UK. It is taking years to deliver projects—big projects and little ones alike—and it is not good enough for our constituents, who really want to see progress.

We know that renewable energy sources, as well as critical transmission infrastructure such as grid connections, are vital for the UK to reach net zero by 2050 and decarbonise the power sector by 2035. I have argued for years that technological innovation will provide the solutions that help the UK beat our 2050 target. There are also countless businesses in the Stroud district that show me they will achieve this, because they are leading the way nationally and internationally. It is our businesses that will win the climate battle. It will not be me gluing myself to things or sitting on roads, or getting arrested and stopping people getting to work or going to hospital appointments. I am not going to spend my time being a permanent protester or refusing to recognise where the UK is doing well, just for a political agenda. I want to find practical solutions, and I am going to get things done, using this place in any way I can.

The development of renewables should clearly continue at pace while we transition from oil and gas. The state and local government should protect residents where necessary, but they have to get out of the way wherever possible, and without the taxpayer—all our constituents and everyone in this room—subsidising eco-businesses up the wazoo.

Even in virtue-signalling councils that have declared a climate emergency, planning barriers are causing difficulties for local people. For example, I need clever civil servants and the excellent Minister to help me with issues relating to solar tracking. A local company called Bee Solar Technology contacted me about this many years ago. It is run by a female entrepreneur who, to be frank, gives me a really hard time because she is fed up with some of the problems, but she impresses me every day with her knowledge and desire to make things better for everybody.

Solar tracking systems rotate and follow the sun all day from sunrise to sunset, which enables them to generate more power than static roof or ground-mounted systems. In simple terms, six panels tracking the sun equal approximately 10 panels of static roof system. Fewer panels are needed, and as they are ground-mounted and freestanding, they can be cleaned easily to ensure that we are getting maximum bang for our buck. They can generate direct current electricity from sunlight, even on cloudier days, and people can take the device with them if they move. It works for small homes and big, posh homes, and it can heat a swimming pool, a summer house or a little office at the bottom of the garden.

When we talk about solar, we tend to talk about roof panels, and actually, all the drama is in the massive solar farms, which I will come on to. But people are not well aware of the technology coming through; local planning departments and councils are certainly not. I am not criticising roof panels, as Members will see. I believe they have a vital role to play, particularly against the big solar farms, but everybody I explain solar tracking to thinks it is a really good idea. Indeed, Bee Solar Technology gets lots of inquiries and has won awards, yet it has found that planners do not want to engage or learn properly about new technology, which I think is due to a mixture of being very busy in their jobs, caution and laziness.

The hon. Lady is enlightening us about how solar technology is moving on. On the point about local authorities, I have been approached by the Blackdown Hills Parish Network, a network of councils in my area that represent the Blackdown Hills area of outstanding natural beauty. It suggests that the problem might not be local authority planners but the national planning policy framework that planners have to work in accordance with. Specifically, it fails to give sufficient emphasis to the climate emergency, ecological decline and the principle of leaving the environment in a better state than when we inherited it. Does the hon. Member agree?

I think this is part of the problem. I love parish councils—they often follow the real detail of planning applications and have battles on a day-to-day basis—but while what the hon. Member proposes sounds very worthy and important, what we want is not statements but the mechanisms. At the moment, we have local authorities blaming the Government and the Government saying local authorities have the power, and local people are caught in the middle. I am happy to work with him to look at the NPPF—we know we are getting a new draft; it has been too slow and we need that information soon—but I want to avoid any more well-meaning rhetoric and get to the bottom of how we get some of these projects over the line. That is really important.

Going back to solar tracking, planning applications are getting rejected. Few people can afford to pay for an expensive planning consultant, and they obviously do not want to engage in local long-standing appeals. The Government planning portal on solar planning regulations makes no reference to solar tracking systems because the technology was not available when the regs were published.

I and Melissa Briggs from Bee Solar have done our best to raise awareness. We have written to endless Ministers and Secretaries of State, from even before I became the Member of Parliament for Stroud. The current position is as follows:

“The installation of solar panels and equipment on residential buildings and land may be ‘permitted development’ with no need to apply to the Local Planning Authority for planning permission.”

At that point, we think, “Woo-hoo! We can get there”, but then it goes on:

“There are, however, important limits and conditions, detailed on the following pages, which must be met to benefit from these permitted development rights”—

and the list is long. The conditions set out are not too problematic, but the fact that they must all be met could be. I will give some examples. First,

“No part of the installation should be higher than four metres”.

Why? Nobody can explain the 4-metre rule. It seems pretty arbitrary. The Bee solar systems are 4.3 metres when they are at their most vertical, but just under 4 metres for most of the day. What difference does it make if it is in someone’s private garden or business space whether it is 4 metres or 4.3 metres? We have already established that it is an acceptable amenity of the area. I ask the Minister: can the limit be at least 5 metres, or can we have no restriction at all unless there is a serious visual issue?


“The installation should be at least 5m from the boundary of the property”.

Again, why? That precludes people with smaller gardens, narrow gardens and smaller homes from being able to install renewable technology. Should only people with huge personal land be permitted to benefit from renewable technologies? Can that be reduced to 2.5 metres or be at the discretion of councils, depending on the circumstances?


“The size of the array should be no more than 9 square metres or 3m wide by 3m deep”.

Why? Where has the 9 metres come from? Solar panels have grown since the legislation was published in 2011. They were about 200 W then and are now about 400 W, and panels of upwards of 500 W are becoming commonplace. Can the requirement be removed or adapted to at least 15 square metres, or is there another way through?

I need the Minister and the Department to answer these questions, because I am banging my head against a brick wall. I want them to look closely at whether local authorities already have the powers—even though some of them do not think that they have them—to grant permission for these things, or whether we need to change the regulations. If so, I will work night and day with the Minister to make that happen.

Although I have highlighted the specific technology of solar tracking, the realities of what I have just explained apply to other issues with renewables. Often the planning systems or the planners and the councils—it sounds as though I am giving local authorities a hard time, but they are at the coalface of local people’s applications and inquiries—do not reflect the up-to-date world that we live in, and planners are blaming the Government, so it goes round in a big circle. Without clarity, local people cannot face battling with planning authorities and do not have the resources to engage experts. They will give up—and who can blame them, in some circumstances?

I give my thanks to another organisation, the Big Solar Co-Op, and to Maria Ardley, who is a Stroud co-ordinator. She has set out a number of issues that it faces in trying to get solar on to commercial rooftops. I think we can all agree that that is a good thing to do. The BSC is a national community energy organisation aiming to unlock the huge potential of rooftop solar to cut carbon emissions. Its target is to install 100 MW by 2030, which is equivalent to the energy used by about 30,000 homes. The Stroud team has a target of 400 KW of rooftop solar energy in the first year, which is about eight tennis courts’ worth of roof space. However, it is coming up against some big problems that it had not really appreciated would be there, particularly in an area that is so environmentally focused and a council that is so committed to tackling the climate emergency.

There are plenty of large rooftops in our area that could host solar panels. As a non-profit group, the Big Solar Co-Op is pretty attractive to building managers and business owners, because there is no capital cost. The financial and carbon savings to be made are important for head, heart and planet, but as I said, the planning barriers are holding them back. Maria explained to me that a presumption in favour of rooftop solar, as is the case with Kensington and Chelsea Council, would make things easier for BSC in Stroud and nationally. It allows for well-designed, aesthetically responsible arrays to be professionally designed and installed, even on listed buildings. That could make a huge difference.

I also have a lot of time for CPRE as a charity. The Gloucestershire CPRE works incredibly hard to scrutinise planning applications that affect the countryside and nature and will no doubt have a lot to say about the NPPF needing to be updated, as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) said. I note that its position in response to wide concerns about solar farms is to reiterate its commitment to rooftop solar policies. Similarly, Heritage England has released guidance on how to install solar in a way that is sensitive and respectful to the building in question and not scaling out listed buildings.

At the moment, the BSC is working on a fabulous building called the Speech House hotel in the Forest of Dean. I have permission to mention that my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) and his team have been contacted about this recently, so they will be working through the issues too. Due to the rules on curtilage, the owners of the Speech House hotel and BSC must go through full planning application and hire a planning consultant. That is costly and cannot be done each time by a not-for-profit organisation. If the rules are not changed, BSC may have to rule out listed buildings, when these are exactly the properties that we need to help. Gill, the owner of the Speech House hotel, has said:

“We are particularly keen to reduce our carbon footprint as quickly as possible as well as having the need to reduce our overall energy costs. The hotel uses a great amount of electricity daily to provide the services that our customers need and want. These costs have more than doubled over the last twelve months. As a major employer in the Forest of Dean, not only do we need to be sustainable, but also, we need to be able to control our costs to maintain employment and levels of business.”

This is a sensible, conscientious employer who is struggling to make progress. She has a brilliant organisation in BSC, which is raring to help. However, I am informed that the Forest of Dean planners did not engage or inform BSC about the visit to the property, and it has been unable to discuss the matter with them. It has been reported to me that Stroud and other councils find it difficult to engage with planners.

I would be grateful to hear the Minister’s response to the issues raised about applying rooftop solar to commercial buildings and to how issues related to listed buildings could be addressed. Will Ministers replicate what councils such as Kensington and Chelsea Council are doing, or say from the Front Bench whether councils can follow and do this unilaterally right now? That would be helpful, and we could then send that to all councils.

On solar farms—I really appreciate the indulgence of my colleagues on this issue—I represent a rural area, and quite a few constituents have contacted me about the rise of solar farms in the last few years. They are concerned that they are ruining our countryside, with little thought for food security or the future of farming. A meeting with the hard-working Ham and Stone parish council last week brought home the pressures that our small rural villages and communities are under from the development of massive solar farms. Stroud District Council granted permission for a large solar farm at World’s End farm against the advice of the parish council and highways.

At a similar time, neighbouring South Gloucestershire Council approved another massive solar farm, which will effectively join up with the other solar farm and create a huge loss of green space. The practical consequence for residents, post-permission, is that they are trying to work out how the delivery of hundreds of solar panels will work; they will have to come down rural country lanes, past a primary school and over a very weak bridge. I have met a few local families who are devastated by this planning decision.

Local people are worried about climate change and care about the environment, but they feel under siege. Arlingham village fought long and hard against a huge solar farm there; long-standing relationships were broken, and there was a very upsetting loss for one family. A local councillor also told me that during the Arlingham case, it was established that Stroud District Council had already met its renewable energy targets, so local people were perplexed about why the Green-led council was approving planning applications that are wrong for small areas.

This issue has become entirely confused and quite worrying. I have a good friend and constituent who runs a business, and I trust him to provide me with sensible, constructive information about solar farms. That business spends a lot of time consulting local people, and if it is going to apply for a solar farm, it will ensure that it works for the local community. He sets out that the total UK land covered by solar panels is 0.1%, and under 0.2% of agricultural land, yet that is not how many of our communities feel. They feel that solar farms are here, and that there will be more coming, but the Government have not quite got on to the issue.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing a debate that is definitely timely. She raises the issue of consultation. Does she agree that consultation on proposals as far in advance as possible is essential? Local people, whether they are businesses or neighbours, need to understand completely what is coming, so that they can accommodate it where possible. If there is a rising tide of opposition, the applicants need to understand why that is, and try to amend their proposals to take account of any concerns in the area.

I could not agree with the hon. Gentleman more; he says it far more eloquently than I ever could. Consultation is key, and good businesses, as Low Carbon has been, are getting caught in the mix with others who are riding roughshod over local people, and with situations where consultation is not happening. Also, where big solar farms are coming in, there is no compensation to local areas, unlike in the case of wind and other developments.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s contribution to this debate, but my experience of these things is quite different from hers. As both Minister with responsibility for energy and as a local MP, I did not see friendly, local energy companies that wanted to go to the local community. I saw profit-hungry and greedy big firms that did not give a damn what the local people felt. Let us be frank about these kind of businesses: they are less interested in energy than money.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. He is an incredibly experienced local MP with ministerial experience in this field as well. Sadly, our experience on the ground with a lot of applications has been of big applications and big companies not listening to local people. However, I have found a good company and gone through the steps that it takes, and I think it is important for everyone to say that such companies exist. They are the ones that should win out.

A local area is under threat from an application for a potentially huge solar farm, and there would be two tenant farmers in the middle of it. Tenant farms are like gold dust—it is really difficult for any of us to find them for our constituent farmers—yet those farmers will lose their livelihood and home to landowners who could not care a jot about anything. Food security issues are also getting muddled in the mix. I want to highlight what we can achieve by working with good companies, by working sensitively, and by working with communities with solar farms—it is possible to do. It would be remiss of me to be completely down on these things, but I am incredibly worried.

I think that Ministers have said that the rules on solar farms should be changed to protect agricultural land. The Government need to define the protections for land used in food production to make it easier for communities to decide whether a solar farm application is right in the light of the UK’s long-term food security issues. I give credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith), who has done an amazing amount of work, and has proposed amendments that I know the Government have looked at carefully, but such changes will need to go hand in hand with changes to planning rules about rooftop solar, or massive farms will always fill the gaps. Will the Minister give us an update on the issue of solar farms, to reassure local people that even though local planning is erratic, the Government are taking steps to protect agricultural land? What is happening, and when will we feel it on the ground? When will we feel those protections that we say are coming?

Turning to national barriers, I have had some really amazing briefings, and my thanks go to people who are sending them in, including the Conservative Environment Network and RenewableUK. I defer on this to my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who will speak for me on a number of the things that she is concerned about. When it comes to the national grid, we want to see the Government looking more lively. The new Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero said at an Onward conference event that she had 99 problems and they are all the national grid. I know that she is working really hard on it, but again, we need to see the detail.

Before I conclude, I again thank all here for indulging me, as this matters so much to Stroud constituents. I have two tiny little children who cause me chaos before I even get here, so this is a lovely, calm existence for me. I look at my baby and I think about the world she is growing up in, and the desire to ensure that we protect nature and the environment runs really deep. I know that many parents feel the same. I get really angry about all the abuse I get from eco-campaigners who say that I do not care. I do care. I care about this every day, but I make no apologies for taking a practical approach to net zero, as I always have done. I can see that the Prime Minister is trying to do the same thing in the face of great opposition.

I have always picked organisations and local businesses to work with, such as WWT Slimbridge, BorgWarner and PHINIA. I am about to ask about hydrogen combustion engines at Prime Minister’s questions. I work with those people to run campaigns that will make a difference, because they are the ones in which I think that I can carry influence. I do that rather than just virtue signalling or shouting into an echo chamber on Twitter. I desperately want to help businesses such as Bee Solar and Big Solar Co-op, who have smart people taking a smart approach to difficult issues.

The Government and local government should remove barriers that do not need to be there. My constituents and I will work on whatever is necessary to make that happen, but as I said, we cannot keep banging our heads against a brick wall. We are answerable to people who come to us saying, “We want these things in our houses, but it is just not happening.” I am very pleased to see the Minister who will respond to the debate in his place; he has so much experience from his career. I look forward to hearing what he and all our colleagues have to say.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) on introducing this important subject with such knowledge. She will not be surprised to hear that I too face a lot of abuse online, but for sometimes taking the opposite position. We on the Opposition Benches are concerned that what the Government call a pragmatic approach to net zero means further delay, which is the one thing we cannot afford.

Net zero should be non-negotiable. At a time when we should be strengthening our climate commitments, it is folly to weaken them. The UK has done well to lead the way on climate change, but recently this Government sadly seem to have given up on the country’s leadership position. How unnecessary! Renewables are the cheapest form of energy and would secure our energy supply. Moving rapidly towards renewables is central to reaching net zero by 2050, and will help to limit the devastating impacts of climate change. The Climate Change Committee has said that we are not moving fast enough towards renewables. Offshore and onshore wind development has been slow, and solar is particularly off-track. It is just not good enough.

The proportion of renewable projects being delayed is on the rise. Grid capacity, which the hon. Member for Stroud mentioned, is the obvious issue. However, the planning process must also be improved. My region of the south-west built the UK’s first transmission-connected solar farm. Despite its success, the developers said that planning was one of the most significant hurdles to delivering renewable energy at scale. Speeding up the planning process is vital; it takes up to five years to gain approval for an offshore wind farm after the application has been submitted to the planning system. We do not have the time for that in this race to net zero.

Resourcing needs to improve. The Planning Inspectorate and statutory consultees do not have enough resources to carry out timely and accurate reviews. It is all well and good saying that there is a debate, and ping-pong about what or who is responsible—is it the national planning framework, or is it local planners? However, if we do not have enough local planners to make these decisions, all these things get desperately delayed. Local government needs more resources and funding to make sure that planning decisions are made in a timely manner; otherwise, there are delayed projects, and delayed progress towards net zero.

The Government must make proper funding available. Local authorities depend on national Government to give them more money, so that the Planning Inspectorate can also do its job. That resource is also missing at national level. That is simply about funding.

On a point of clarity, is the hon. Lady saying that local people should have more say, and local communities should be more empowered, or that they should have less say, and that there should be more direction from the centre? I could not quite understand the point she was making.

I am happy that the right hon. Gentleman made that intervention, and happy to clarify for him. We Liberal Democrats believe passionately in local decision making, so that is obviously what needs to be strengthened, but local decision making cannot happen if we do not have the resources in our planning departments.

We have also been talking about consultation. I was a councillor for ten years, and was always appalled at how poor consultation was, mainly because councils had statutory obligations to consult only in a very small area. Why do we not widen that out, particularly in rural areas? If the obligation is just a matter of distance, then 10 people will be consulted, and awareness of big planning applications will spread only through local knowledge, rather than as a result of the council approaching people directly. Why do councils not do that? Because they do not have the money. If they do not have the statutory obligation to consult widely, they will consult only a small number of people. If we want to strengthen local decision making, that must change. I absolutely believe in local decision making, and if a planning decision does become a national decision—if an inspectorate comes in—then, of course, we do not want delays there either, because delays are unacceptable either way. That applies to any planning decision, by the way, not just renewable planning.

The Government must also do more to remove the barriers to renewable energy. Renewables developers still face a planning system that is stacked against onshore wind. It is treated differently from every other energy source or infrastructure project. If that persists, we will not get the new onshore wind investment we need to rapidly cut bills and boost energy security. Onshore wind farms are actually popular: 74% of voters are supportive of onshore wind, and 76% of people would support a renewable energy project in their area. That support holds strong in places that already have an onshore wind farm; 72% of people who live within five miles of one support building more. That addresses a problem that we have: people are anxious about things that they do not know, and a lot of political hay can be made with that, but when people actually have a wind farm development nearby, they support it. That is not surprising: communities benefit massively from onshore wind, both directly—for example, from developers, through bill reductions—and indirectly, through the wider socioeconomic benefits that such investment can bring.

Carbon Brief calculated that the de facto ban on onshore wind cost consumers £5.1 billion last year. That is unforgivable during a cost of living crisis. Planning rules must not block the benefits of renewable energy. The Government must bring the planning rules for onshore wind in England back in line with those for any other type of energy infrastructure, so that it can compete on a level playing field, and so that each application is determined on its own merits.

We Liberal Democrats recognise the importance of community buy-in. We need to win hearts and minds, and to persuade people that renewable projects are good for their communities. Yes, good consultation is part of that; if local communities feel that they have not been properly consulted, they will get their backs up. I absolutely believe in proper consultation. Only with consent from our communities can we deliver the path to net zero. That is why empowering local communities is so vital. More and more power and decision making has been eroded from local government—I can say that, because I was a councillor between 2004 and 2014. We still had a lot of decision-making powers, but they have been eroded in the last 10 years.

I agree with much of what the hon. Lady says, but when it comes to onshore wind, she must surely acknowledge that consultation often results in opposition. The problem with onshore wind is that too many of the applications are for areas of outstanding natural beauty or beautiful rural areas, rather than, say, docks or industrial estates. Does the hon. Lady think the focus should be on placing onshore wind farms in more suitable locations?

I thank the hon. Member for the intervention. A long time ago, when I was a councillor, a big wind farm was built in my ward. I remember well the local objections to it; people said, “Oh, the beautiful, natural environment of our hills!” The natural environment of the hills had been destroyed decades or centuries ago. There were no trees any more. Local people come forward and talk about our beautiful natural environment, but the natural environment had become like that, and wind farms are now becoming part of the landscape that we are creating for people. Once wind farms are there, people stop objecting to them; surveys are very clear on that.

Of course, it is clear that people are always worried about change. We are building something new and taking away something that was there, but if we are doing so for something that is so important, why can we not make the case that a wind turbine might be a much nicer thing to look at than, for example, a coal-fired power station, which we also need to put somewhere if we need energy? What we do as humans creates some disruption to our local environment, and it has done so forever, so what do we want? We need to get to net zero, build this infrastructure and build wind turbines, including in places where we can see them. As responsible politicians, it is up to us to make the case for that. We have no time to waste: it is a race to net zero, and it is difficult. Yes, some people do not like to look at wind farms.

But this is something of which we can persuade people, and I believe in persuading local people. Yes, that sometimes takes time, but it is for us to do, because we have that persuading power and are in the position of influencing people. That is where we should be, rather than always being on the side of the nay-sayers. That is my honest position. I know that it is not easy; I have been there, too, in my time.

I commend the Liberal Democrats on Bath and North East Somerset Council, which has become the first council in England to adopt an energy-based net zero housing policy. That requires that all new major non-residential buildings must achieve net zero in operational energy. Research from the University of Bath indicates that the policy is likely to establish significant carbon savings in new buildings and reduce energy bills for occupants. Again, did my local council sometimes have difficulty persuading people? Yes, it did, but our local election results show persuasively that where we go out and make the case, we win—even as local councillors. Let us ensure that we persuade people and take them with us. I absolutely believe in that, but I also passionately believe that it is possible to take people with us if we confront people with the alternatives.

Unfortunately, Government funding cuts have forced many local authorities to make sacrifices on climate change policy, as climate change does not come under their statutory duties. That must change. Planning legislation must be bound to our climate change legislation, so that climate change takes greater weight in planning decisions. A major reason why renewable projects are waiting up to 15 years to connect to the grid is that the planning approval process is not adequately focused on the urgency of delivering net zero. The Royal Town Planning Institute argues that nothing should be planned unless the idea has first been demonstrated to be fit for net zero. The Government should certainly consider the institute’s proposals further.

We cannot wait any longer. The UK needs to move further faster towards renewables. Improving the planning system to quicken the building process is an important place to start.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) on securing this important debate.

I have a specific project that I wish to speak about today. I established and chair the all-party parliamentary group for the Celtic sea, and I have championed floating offshore wind, or FLOW, projects across the Celtic sea, working collaboratively with developers, ports, MPs and associated businesses right around the Devon, Cornwall and south Wales coast. I therefore find myself in a particularly difficult position, as are my constituents, on the proposed White Cross wind farm in my North Devon constituency. This project is 80 MW, so it is only a demonstrator project, and it has secured a distribution-level grid connection at Yelland. Given its scale, it has avoided being a national infrastructure project, and decisions about its development now lie with the Marine Management Organisation, which is under the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the local planning authority.

The local community is hugely supportive of FLOW. Although there are some environmental concerns about the six proposed turbines, it is the cable corridor that is proving highly controversial. I have been expressing my concerns about the proposed cable route ever since the project came to light. The route submitted to the planning authority involves tunnelling through several miles of sand dunes, a large seaside car park, holiday chalets, a golf course and possibly a world war two munitions dump, and it will take several years to construct. The quickest route to the plug-in point at Yelland is across Crow Point, a very active sand system and highly designated sand dune complex. Although that route is potentially more environmentally contested, it would cause far less damage to hospitality businesses in a constituency that is dependent on its tourism economy. No one has been able to explain to me who decided on the cable corridor, and both the MMO and the local authority advise that they have no influence and cannot comment on whether a better corridor might exist.

White Cross is owned by Flotation Energy, which has recently been taken over by the Japanese company TEPCO. As somebody in the industry observed last night:

“Their website is a disgrace. There is no contact details for anyone within the company. Just a generic reply section. Very poor and unacceptable. They are taking advantage of the consenting regime because they are under 100 MW. Compared to the work done on other projects it is a joke.”

Other developers have fallen over themselves to engage with the APPG, which works cross-party and cross-Government, but not White Cross. I would like to put on the record my wish to meet TEPCO, and for it to explain why it is bulldozing its project through our community.

One of the objectives of the APPG for the Celtic sea has been to co-ordinate a more strategic approach to this new region of offshore renewables, to avoid some of the cable issues seen on the east coast. The APPG’s preference throughout has been to establish a single cable corridor to Devon and Cornwall, and one to south Wales, in order to reduce sea floor damage, as well as cabling onshore as the bigger projects go out to sea. The project, which is ready to bid for a contract, will connect to Pembroke, and I know that the cable corridor there has been well managed, and that landowners have been fully consulted. Local landowners are being threatened with compulsory purchase orders, and businesses were not consulted or advised until the planning application was submitted. Councillors are completely at sea when it comes to dealing with this type of planning application.

Additionally, the project is now taking up almost the entire time of one planning officer, in an area where planning is the biggest factor slowing down commercial development and the building of the homes we so desperately need. I hear that the planning department apparently does not have any planning grounds to reject the application. Any support that the Minister’s team can provide to the council and councillors on planning would be most welcome.

I have spoken with the MMO and it also does not believe it that it has grounds to reject the application, or the ability to challenge it. It appears that the developer has been able to choose a cable route of their suiting, without any agreement with the local community or the bodies that provide the planning and leasing.

My concerns are multiple. There are only two potential grid plug-ins along the north Devon coast, and these are vital national infrastructure resources at this time—Yelland and Alverdiscott. My understanding is that Yelland is smaller, but I have been unable to speak to National Grid ahead of today to clarify whether the White Cross development will completely utilise the capacity at Yelland. The concern is that it will not.

My view, and that of many in my constituency, is this: if we have to endure this level of disruption to get a cable corridor installed on land, does the development maximise the potential of the Yelland socket? There is growing concern that the developers have chosen a scale that avoids being classed as a national infrastructure project and the scrutiny that would come with it. That may mean that the socket is not optimised.

I have asked White Cross why it could not work with the other projects in the region and consider Alverdiscott for its cable. I was advised that it is too far and therefore too expensive. If a strategic view of cable corridors was taken, the costs might be reduced, but I do not believe that this has even been considered.

I recognise that Alverdiscott has had concerns about the situation it finds itself in as a hub for plugging in huge renewable projects. It is vital that communities that are asked to host this sort of infrastructure are properly compensated. White Cross does not seem to have offered any community reimbursement, as recommended in the report by the electricity networks commissioner, Nick Winser.

The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech, and I agree with a lot of what she is saying. As she is talking about compensation, will she explain what compensation would be adequate?

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Please do not think that this is a nimby issue. North Devon is home to the Fullabrook wind farm, which, when it was built, was the largest onshore wind farm in the country, at 66 MW. The project established Fullabrook CIC—community interest company—which was set up with £1 million from the then owners of the wind farm. It has now given over £1.58 million for community projects and receives £100,000 per annum from the current owners. I find it bewildering that White Cross has seemingly made no offer of community involvement. Indeed, its only offer is to decimate huge sections of coastline for its own financial gain.

I am gravely concerned that White Cross is not acting in any way appropriately with this development, and is taking advantage of the planning system, which it has chosen to use. I strongly believe that the entire Celtic sea FLOW project should be considered as one national infrastructure project. That would enable proper strategic planning and ensure that we hit our offshore wind targets, and that communities are included in decisions and appropriately recompensed for hosting infrastructure.

It is increasingly possible that the development will undermine all the support for FLOW that has been generated along this coastline. Hundreds of objections have been lodged, and further meetings are planned by local parishes in the coming weeks. It seems that the developers have carte blanche. As someone who is hugely supportive of the renewable opportunities ahead of us—as is my constituency—I ask that steps are taken to find a way through this cross-departmental maze to have this development withdrawn in its current form; that a better plan for the cabling is devised; that the Yelland socket is optimised, if used; and that the community across North Devon are properly consulted and recompensed for hosting this infrastructure.

With energy security so critical, alongside reaching net zero, surely we can devise a better way to install just six wind turbines, so that we can progress more quickly with these crucial infrastructure projects, with community support and transparency.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) on securing today’s debate, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on her speech. There is no doubt that there will be a lot of overlap in our various comments today. She has just spoken very powerfully about the need for local representation and, frankly, how planning blights so much of the agenda for renewable energy and energy efficiency.

I say that in the context of our country having made tremendous progress over the last decade in the transition to more renewable energy. There is a whole new raft of innovation and technology out there, and we are leading the curve. I also pay tribute to many of our former Energy Ministers who have led what has been quite a taxing issue for the last decade.

As our energy grid is being weaned off fossil fuels, renewable energy accounted for almost 43% of electricity generation in 2020. That represents a very significant increase from 14.6% in 2013 and 2% back in 1991. This country is leading the way, and even in the confines of this debate, I do not think that anyone should overlook what has been achieved. That is welcome, and it is right that we as a nation are moving in the right direction, as well as looking at options for nuclear energy and small-scale nuclear projects, in particular—I say that as a Member of Parliament for the east of England. The Bradwell site is not far from my constituency, and we are looking at all sorts of options there. We should also look at incorporating more efficient energy-saving measures, as well as small-scale solar. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud spoke in a dynamic way about that and the flexibilities needed.

However, with innovation and technology, which we should always encourage and support as a Government through various economic means, we should also look at the planning implications of what all that means, and how it can be practically delivered for our fantastic country. I have many constituents who are deeply frustrated with the planning process, as we all do. I could speak for hours about the planning process, as I have two district councils, one city council, a county council and a town council, as well as various parish councils.

Of course, I will contextualise my remarks. The point about the planning process is that when constituents try to do the right thing—my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned this—and want to invest in the right measures for renewables, such as double glazing or renovation works, planning prevents them from doing so, particularly in conservation areas. I have a number of conservation areas in my constituency, where people face bureaucratic hurdles to make such changes and where well-designed uPVC—unplasticised polyvinyl chloride—windows, which are sympathetic to conservation areas, are completely refused because of rigid policies. I have raised that matter with Ministers for a long time, particularly in relation to the focus on infrastructure. There is a clear message that planning policies must adapt when innovation and technology around renewables is adapting. The case is often, “This is good for the environment, but our planning processes are just too rigid.”

Turning to larger infrastructure projects, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon mentioned, the Winser review into electricity networks was published this summer. It contained a raft of recommendations, many of which were interesting, including those relating to the standardisation of equipment, developing the supply chain and ensuring that the appropriate jobs, skills and training are in place. No one will disagree with any of that; we need it all because we believe in being innovators and pioneers in this space. However, there were also recommendations covering strategic spatial planning and the methods by which locations for infrastructure are determined. That is important, as the public need to be aware of the full impact of new energy infrastructure, including the locations where it is generated, the infrastructure connecting it to the grid and where the energy is needed for use.

In theory, that is all very nice, because if we apply the benefits in the right way, everyone should benefit. However, the review has caused a lot of concern and anxiety for communities across the country, certainly in the east of England, and I speak about this for many of my colleagues in the east of England—not just in Essex, but in Norfolk and Suffolk. The Minister will be familiar with the “great grid upgrade” plans, as it is now being rebranded, for the new transmission infrastructure between Norwich and Tilbury. The plans will lead to 100 miles of overhead power lines and cables—pylons, in layman’s terms—being erected across the countryside of the east of England, including in my constituency.

National Grid is putting forward those plans because new offshore wind energy is being generated off the east of England. All that was set up nearly 10 years ago, and we are proud of that offshore energy grid—the energy coastline, as we call it in the east of England. It is hugely successful and has attracted billions of pounds in foreign direct investment that has come into that offshore process.

The Government want to connect 50 GW of offshore wind to the grid by 2030, and about 60% of the current offshore wind farms will have the energy that they generate come ashore on the east coast. The sites marked for potential development are heavily marketed to investors by the Crown Estate—we can see exactly where this is going in terms of investment opportunities, and the return on investment that people will get—but with a reliance on the power generated connecting into the Norwich substation. Wind farms are being developed, having received consent, and more wind farms are in the pipeline.

There are so many sensitivities around this issue. I should also point out that, due to commercial sensitivities, there is, frankly, a lack of transparency and openness about what is happening. Local communities have no information about what is being proposed and happening on their doorsteps, and shockingly—this is why local communities and local authorities matter—contracts and agreements between promoters and developers of sites, National Grid and central Government have been kept secret. That is simply not acceptable.

On top of that, contracts for difference have been provided by the Government in many cases—again, there is a lack of transparency, and it is inevitable that residents feel angry about the proposals. This situation has led National Grid to put forward the plans for new pylons that have angered so many across the region. Constituents and campaigners feel their views and objections are being run roughshod over. These are closed deals that have been done behind closed doors, involving central Government, promoters and National Grid.

Constituents and campaigners’ concerns have been compounded by the Winser review’s recommendations on community benefits. Recommendation CB2 states:

“Residents of properties close to new overhead lines should receive a defined direct payment. Communities should receive a set amount of money for new visible infrastructure they host. The benefit should be a defined value per kilometre of overhead line (OHL) or an appropriate amount for other visible infrastructure. This benefit would only be available for hosting OHL or other visible infrastructure, (e.g., substations).”

What Winser now calls “a defined direct payment” is what my constituents call “a bribe”, which papers over the cracks of unaccountable decision making and the lack of proper consultation. They feel that the current plans will be imposed on them and any bribe provided is an attempt to buy their silence and agreement. Of course, that assumes that the benefits of the defined direct payment process are in place in time to be relevant to the current plans and proposals. They may not be; we just do not know because nothing is transparent.

Communities across the east of England do not want money; they want a genuine say in the future of their community and countryside and a say in what renewable energy could look like, what infrastructure is needed and where it should go. Winser’s recommendation of developing spatial strategies for communities in the east of England is simply too late because the pylons are advancing at a fast pace. National Grid wants to hold its statutory consultation next year. I am afraid that that is simply too late.

I and many colleagues from across the east of England have been working with the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero to effectively put forward alternative plans. We have been working with the Under-Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), and colleagues in the Department not only to air our frustrations and concerns, but to highlight the lack of transparency. We recognise that legal and planning processes are taking place, so the Government’s powers to intervene are limited. Frankly, however, they need to intervene. We want alternative offshore proposals and have even put forward proposals for what that could look like and how the Government could proceed with a proper and transparent consultation. But much of that is falling on deaf ears.

Communities across the east of England are incredibly worried. The plans will simply be badged and presented as riding roughshod over local communities when they and local authorities are powerless in the face of what is being done to them. That will be detrimental to the Government’s whole proposal for increasing renewable energy, to wider proposals relating to infrastructure, and—this could affect the entire country—to wider infrastructure development on energy going forward.

I recognise that the Minister will not know the ins and outs of the Winser review and what is being proposed around Norwich to Tilbury. However, there are alternatives, and the Government need to listen carefully in relation to the planning issues, the lack of consent and the lack of engagement with communities. That speaks to some of the recommendations and points that have been raised in the debate. We need the right kind of focus and we need community engagement.

If I am perfectly honest, in planning departments across the country, it is no longer just about money; it is about skills and capability. We need planners with the right kind of skills and capability who understand how we can future-proof planning policy in this country, so that we get a planning policy that is fit for purpose on infrastructure development, whether that is energy or transport links. We should think about how we can develop the right capacity and skills, in conjunction with real consultation with local communities.

When societies and civilisations lose their sense of the spiritual—their sight of God—the void is filled by causes, which, like the divine, are immense, inspire guilt and are pursued with intolerant zeal. Our cause, rather like the ancient people who danced for the rain or worshipped the sun, is the weather, which is now almost always described as “the climate”. All can be sacrificed, rather like religious fanaticism, in the name of the pursuit of our climate goals. Whether that is the wellbeing of people in London, who face ULEZ and not being able to get to hospital, school or work, or people across our constituencies who will have to replace their gas boilers with air pumps, costing thousands and thousands of pounds that they can ill afford, or whether it is eating up our most precious agricultural land with acres of onshore solar plants—they are not farms; they are industrial structures—all can be defended, as communities are ridden roughshod.

With his typical skill, my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) teased out of the remaining Liberal Democrat in the Chamber, the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), the dilemma for those whose zeal is such that they want to impose these things on local communities but dare not say so. The truth is that communities are ridden roughshod because of that zeal. Across the country, a blight is coming. That blight will be pylons in Essex, trunking in Devon and the eating up of tens of thousands of acres of the most precious agricultural land in Lincolnshire. That is unacceptable, communities do not want it and their views should be respected.

I hear what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but what are the alternatives? Does he not recognise that we need to get to net zero by 2050? We need to provide political leadership to take our communities along with us. We are making the case for community energy, for example, which is a wonderful way to take communities with us. Does he not believe that that is our job—that we take communities with us, rather than denying net zero?

Denying “our goal”, “our God”—I believe it is the hon. Lady’s God, certainly. She is right that it is important that what we do in respect of energy, which I spend a great deal more time thinking about than she ever has, needs to reflect a balance. Everyone who understands energy provision knows that renewables can and should be an important part of an energy mix. Yet they are not nirvana for all kinds of reasons—we need the flexibility provided by the kinds of energy provision that can be switched on and off, in a way that solar and wind cannot—but it is vital that we invest in renewable technology.

That is why, for example, I have been a passionate supporter of offshore wind, which is a very effective way of generating energy in a way that does less harm to the environment than onshore wind, which the hon. Lady champions. That essentially means littering the countryside with small numbers of turbines, which are much less productive, much less concentrated and with countless connections to the grid. That greatly increases transmission and distribution costs, which already represent 15% of every energy bill. It is both economically foolish and environmentally damaging to site wind turbines in presumably thousands of locations across the country, when we can concentrate large numbers of much larger turbines offshore, producing much more energy, with a single point of connection to the grid.

There is a similar situation with solar. I imagine that the hon. Member for Bath will know, as others may, that in Germany a much higher proportion of solar power is located on buildings. In this country, our record is very poor, and I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I would be interested to know what further steps he intends to take to incentivise, indeed oblige, adding solar panels to buildings. Warehouses are springing up all over the country, but I do not see a solar panel on any of them. There are large numbers of industrial sites, commercial sites and all kinds of other places where we could have solar panels.

My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. As someone who represents a hugely rural community, I would like to ask this about solar panels. Does he agree that farmers need to be farming, that we face a food security crisis and that we need our land to be productive for food, and that rooftops are indeed the right place to put solar panels?

Absolutely. That brings me to—I do not know whether my hon. Friend anticipated this by a kind of telepathy or just through her wisdom—the next point that I intended to make. Recent worldwide events have taught us of the need for national economic resilience. We are moving to a post-liberal age—thankfully—when we will no longer take the view that we can buy whatever we want from wherever we want and it does not matter how much is produced locally or how far supply lines are extended.

We know that domestic production and manufacture of goods and food is vital for our resilience and security; in order to have that, we need to preserve the best agricultural land to grow the crops that we need. If people were really worried about the environment, they would have thought these things through a little more fully and so understand that shortening supply lines reduces the number of air miles and, indeed, road miles between where food is made and where it is consumed—as we once did—rather than extending supply lines endlessly, with the immense cost to the environment and in every other way. We need more domestic production, but to have more domestic production we must recognise that there should be no industrial solar or wind developments on grade 1, 2 or 3 agricultural land, yet that is exactly what is proposed.

No one can deny that we need an explosion of rooftop solar panels; we Liberal Democrats absolutely agree. But can the right hon. Gentleman give me an example of where good agricultural land has been used for solar farms? I ask because outside Bath, my constituency, a good solar farm has been built on land that cannot be used for food growing.

Let me give the hon. Lady a precise example. In Lincolnshire, there are currently applications for large-scale solar developments equivalent to 62 Hyde Parks, totalling 9,109 hectares or 1.3% of the total land across the county. She may know that Lincolnshire boasts the highest proportion of grade 1, 2 and 3 agricultural land of any county. These solar plants are proposed on the best growing land in the country. Once that land is lost, it will never be regained. There is this nonsense that the solar panels will be there for only 20 or 30 years. What about the 20 or 30 years while they are, when we cannot grow the crops that we need to survive? This is a preposterous circumstance.

I had a meeting this morning with the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), and I met at the weekend a Minister of State in the same Department. Those Ministers responsible for the environment and agriculture recognise that it is unacceptable to lose this scale of land—the best growing land in the country—because of these developments, largely by businesses that have no connection with the locality whatever and are entirely careless of the impact that this will have on food production and local communities. This rides roughshod over the wishes of local people and local councillors. It is frankly a scandal that we should do that while simultaneously claiming that we want to build more national resilience through food security. Let us make more of what we consume in this country, here in this country; let us reduce our dependence on places far-off of which we know little—and in many cases wish we knew less; and let us have a Government who respect the interests of local communities and defend our land from this blight.

Finally, there is also the sensitive matter of aesthetics. Do we really value the English landscape, or do we not? Is this going to be a green and pleasant for the generations to come, or is it going to be a place full of industrial wind turbines and large-scale solar developments? I know which of those futures I want for my children and grandchildren. Because I know that the Minister is a fine man with a strong sense of the aesthetic, I rather suspect that he sees that future too, but we need urgent policy to make clear to planners and others that we will not simply allow communities to be beleaguered by blight.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) on her diligence in obtaining this important debate about the nuts and bolts of how our country gets to a low-carbon renewable energy outcome.

I take it that, with the possible exception of one hon. Member present, there is pretty much a consensus that our country needs as much renewable power as possible, both offshore and onshore, so that we are on target for our climate goals. I also take it that we can organise our energy structures so that they mindful of how our landscape and community work while maximising the output of renewable and low-carbon energy in all circumstances. Clearly, decisions will have to be made about where things are sited, how they are sited and what the most productive use of land is under different circumstances, but those will be made within an overall view that we want to move forward on renewable energy as quickly as possible.

The hon. Member for Stroud identified the problems in a number of those areas, and I would say there are three: the small print, time, and connections. Those problems stand within the choices that we have to make, and resolving them does not undermine the principle that we must move forward on renewables on the basis of an acceptable use of the landscape, acceptable support from local communities, and an acceptable outcome in terms of the national stock of power and connections. We will have to do a lot of work across the landscape in different ways to ensure that we have not only the renewable plant, but the connections for that renewable plant, the planning arrangements for that renewable plant and all those things that work together strategically to enable us to get the best result for renewable energy across the country.

For example, the hon. Member for Stroud identified a number of things in our planning regulations that quite absurdly stand in the way of perfectly good schemes that everybody wants—the local community and so on. It seems to me that there is an overriding responsibility on Government to get that right. Planning regulations should not impede good schemes that are wanted and agreed just because of the small print. There is therefore a substantial job to be done by Government in actually going through those regulations to ensure that they presume in favour of renewable development wherever possible, with proper concern where there are exceptions, but are not written in such a way as to impede those perfectly good schemes.

By the way, in the most recent alleged amelioration by the Government of the problem of planning for onshore wind, it is claimed that they have pretty much come to terms with the development of onshore wind in their most recently announced changes to planning arrangements. They are no such thing in reality. The small print of those changes still effectively bans onshore wind from moving forward, because of the way that footnote 54, in particular, is to be written in national planning frameworks. Alongside the examples mentioned by the hon. Member for Stroud, that is an example of how the small print can have big effects on stalling, overthrowing or frustrating renewable and low-carbon development. It needs to be removed.

The hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) made the point about just how much time is taken on offshore applications. Time is so important in not only getting these arrangements over the line, but ensuring that the investment happens in the first place. Someone faced with a 12-year process of getting their application sorted out, permissioned, thought about and given the go-ahead faces, among other things, a severe gap—a valley of death, as it were—between their application being progressed and the revenue from that application being arrived at. In many instances, those people will simply go away and not develop. Getting the time right, reducing the amount of time that the Secretary of State can take to make decisions and speeding up the process for renewables across the board are of vital importance. That is another thing that the Government can really have a hand in getting right.

The third question is on connections. We have increasing examples of the distortion of decision making on the siting of ground-mounted solar farms, because the developers of solar farms are faced with virtually no connectivity at distribution network operator level as far as their applications are concerned. They are therefore not necessarily looking for the best site for their solar farm in a particular area; they are looking for the small windows of remaining connectivity that might be possible for their solar farm to develop. They are looking for those permissions before, say, 2035. I have a direct case of that from some people I was talking to recently, who have done exactly that in their application for a solar farm. Unless we can quickly get the connectivity sorted out both offshore and onshore, planning schemes will increasingly be distorted. The Government can do a great deal on that. I hope the Minister will be able to comment on that this morning.

The hon. Member for Stroud has given us a good lesson on the detail and how we need to get the details right to bring the schemes forward.

I was hoping to hear from the shadow Minister, who is so diligent and always gets in the weeds of the details, which I say with the greatest respect, because he looks very carefully at issues, about his leader’s position on planning. The right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) says that he will override local views to get planning applications through—I appreciate he was talking about homes rather than renewables—but how does that work with local people’s concerns and what he says about issues with councils? There is a lot of confusion out there about Labour’s policy, which we know can change with the wind.

I think that what is being referred to is entirely in the context of what I have been saying about the impediments that we have at the moment. It is well known that we have broad support—this has been mentioned in the Chamber today—for particular proposals and a deep, narrow objection among certain people. I am afraid the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) is in that category of people who are just fundamentally opposed to these things, and he has various techniques that he puts forward to underpin that.

Perhaps I could phrase the question in another way for the hon. Gentleman. His party is the largest party in local government and is in control of the London Government Association right now, where the focus is on net zero. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that there is a disregard in the policies of his party for local communities and that it comes at net zero at all costs? That is effectively the stance that he advocates.

No, I am not saying that at all. Indeed, if right hon. and hon. Members have been following what I have said, they will recognise that what I have said from the beginning is that the role of local communities in assenting to arrangements is vital and should not be eroded, but there is a difference between communities dissenting from various things and one or two people completely holding up something because of their particular positions.

We therefore need to achieve a balance in which the planning system recognises what most of the public want, while ensuring proper rights of consultation and objection, and taking broad support through to the end of the planning system. One reason why onshore wind was banned for a long time in this country was that one person could object to a local scheme under the rules that were in place from 2015 onwards, and that would effectively turn the whole thing over. That is just wrong. It should not be tolerated in a planning system that should, in principle, be in favour of renewables and low-carbon energy. That is the balance that needs to be struck with these developments, and the Opposition are committed to achieving that.

I hope the Minister will take from today’s debate that there is a lot of work for Government to do on getting the planning arrangements right for the development of renewable energy and on getting the development right, in terms of the proper arrangements that should exist for local consultation, reputation and possibly compensation. For example—

I am happy to bring my remarks to a close, Ms McDonagh, which I anticipate is what you are going to suggest.

I just want to briefly mention the great work that the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) is doing on the Celtic sea. I think she will agree that we must get the offshore planning right for those developments so that landing can be assessed in terms of a planned arrangement at the start of that process, as it should increasingly be for the North sea, and so that the issues that she raised do not fall outside planning arrangements. That is another thing that the Government can get right; I hope the Minister was listening to the hon. Member for North Devon about how, among other things, they should go forward with the Celtic sea.

It is a great pleasure to respond to this debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) for securing the debate. I am short of time, so although I hope to answer most of the points that she raised, I am happy to get back to her at a later stage if I have not done so. I also thank the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), my hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) and my right hon. Friends the Members for Witham (Priti Patel) and for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) for their contributions.

I want to assure everyone that sustainability remains at the heart of this Government’s ambition for development, and that that includes the protection of the environment and local communities. Energy security and protecting our environment are just some of the key challenges we face in the UK. Meeting those goals is urgent and of critical importance to the country, and we believe that they can be achieved together for the UK.

We believe that renewable energy will play a key role in helping to secure greater energy independence while building a more sustainable and greener future for generations to come. However, the Government recognise that, as with any new infrastructure, there will be local impacts. It is therefore essential that we have a robust planning system that not only helps to deliver energy security, but protects the environment and local communities and supports the Government’s wider ambitions on net zero.

The dramatic rise in global energy prices following the covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has emphasised the urgency of the need to build a strong home-grown renewable sector. Energy security is therefore one of the Government’s greatest priorities. As the British energy security strategy sets out, there is a growing need to diversify our energy sector by growing our nuclear sector, increasing our capacity for renewables across solar, onshore wind and offshore wind, and exploring how hydrogen can be incorporated into the domestic energy supply mix.

Our “Powering Up Britain” policy paper, which was launched in March this year, made clear how important the planning system is to delivering the Government’s commitments on energy security, net zero and energy prices. We need lots of new low-carbon infrastructure, including generation, network connections and storage, as we have heard today. Our national planning policy framework makes it clear that local planning authorities should have a positive strategy in place to promote energy from renewable and low-carbon sources. Last month, we updated the framework in relation to onshore wind. These changes are designed to make it easier and quicker for local planning authorities to consider and, where appropriate, to approve onshore wind projects where there is local support.

I will come to the points that my right hon. Friend made in just a moment.

For nationally significant infrastructure projects, the average time for development consent order applications to be decided increased by 65% between 2012 and 2021, and demand on the system is only increasing. We are therefore bringing forward reforms, as set out in the NSIP action plan, to speed up the process for users of the NSIP planning system, to grow our economy, achieve our environmental and net zero goals and level up jobs and opportunities for local communities.

I am sorry, but I am very tight for time and I want to come to some of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned.

I turn to community engagement. Early engagement between developers and communities is essential to understanding the impacts of energy development in local areas and to securing appropriate mitigation where impacts cannot be avoided. It is key to securing benefits from projects.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned solar farms. The Government recognise the need to preserve our most productive farmland, as far as possible. The Government seek large-scale ground-mounted solar deployment across mainly brownfield, industrial and low and medium-grade agricultural land. Where significant development on agricultural land is shown to be necessary, the NPPF sets out that areas of poor land quality should be used in preference to those of higher quality. It is proposed that any use of land that falls under Natural England’s BMV—best and most versatile—agricultural land classification will need to be justified during the consideration of a planning application.

Can the Minister say that grade 1, 2 and 3 agricultural land will not be appropriate, and that that will be in the policy? Furthermore, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer) gave me a commitment on wind that topography will be a factor and that wind cannot be sited in areas that will have a disproportionate impact on the landscape.

I hope to come on to my right hon. Friend’s second point. On agricultural land, the BMV classification covers land in grades 1, 2 and 3a, but not 3b.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham for her comments on the plans between Norwich and Tilbury. I am unable to comment on the case directly, but I know that she has met numerous Ministers. She is a brilliant campaigner and champion for her constituents in Essex. If she is struggling to get further meetings, I will help to arrange them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned rooftop solar. We have recently consulted on changes to permitted development rights for both domestic and non-domestic ground and rooftop solar; further details will be announced in due course. I note her questions and points about solar tracking, and the clarity that she has provided. She is well informed—I certainly was not aware of some of the challenges. At this stage, I am not aware of planned changes to solar tracking, but I will ask the planning Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud and to hear the case in respect of companies such Bee Solar and how the rules could evolve with the technology.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon for her work in establishing the all-party parliamentary group for the Celtic sea. I cannot give her the assurance that she seeks today, but I will ask my officials to meet her and her councillors to discuss what she has mentioned and help them to assess the energy system in local plans.

On the points made about planning resourcing, the reason why the planning Minister is not here today is that she is upstairs in a Committee on a statutory instrument that will increase planning fees by 35% for major applications and 25% in other cases. I hope that that goes some way to addressing the points made by the hon. Member for Bath.

I thank hon. Members again; I hope I have left enough time for my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud to respond.

I thank everybody for their contributions. In the examples of local projects in North Devon, Cornwall, Essex and Lincolnshire, the scale of things to do will make the Minister’s hair stand on end, but I am also very clear that this does not all lie at the Government’s door; local authorities can play a huge role in delivering these projects, being more transparent, responding to constituents and being the front door to getting things done. With the confusion that is reigning, we need some clarity and it probably needs to come from the Government and from people like the LGA. I thank everyone again and I thank you for your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered planning considerations for renewable energy providers.