Onshore Wind Turbines (Proximity of Habitation)
Peter Luff (Mid Worcestershire, Conservative)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to specify the minimum distances permissible between onshore wind turbines of certain dimensions and the nearest habitation;
and for connected purposes.
When Oscar Wilde wrote that
"Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative",
he obviously had not anticipated the controversy that onshore wind farms would generate. Bearing that in mind, I hope that any hon. Member planning to oppose this Bill will listen carefully to what I am about to say, and not base any remarks that they may have planned on false assumptions. In that spirit, at the outset I must make it clear that this is a bipartisan proposal: the sponsors of this Bill therefore reflect the political balance of the House, with more Government than official Opposition supporters. However, it does not, as far as I am aware, represent the official position of any major party-but obviously I hope that that may change.
Secondly, at this late stage in the Session the Bill has no chance of becoming law. I introduce it simply to stimulate an important debate. Thirdly, the Bill is deliberately modest in scope, and deals simply with the minimum distances that wind turbines should be away from houses. It has a simple purpose. Settling the issue would help local communities, planning authorities and, paradoxically, the wind energy industry itself.
At the heart of our politics we should place the ethic of reciprocity-the idea that everyone has a right to just treatment, and a responsibility to ensure justice for others. Put more simply, that means "Do as you would be done by". Sometimes, of course, we have to balance the different rights of competing groups. For example, a new high-speed rail line will be fought by communities close to its route, whatever the wider benefits that it brings. It is then that politicians have to choose.
A visit to the home of two of my constituents in the small settlement of Sheriffs Lench in the vale of Evesham started the process that led me to this Bill. When I saw just how close to their home ScottishPower Renewables plans to put a 125-metre wind turbine, as part of a larger wind farm plan for the area, I realised that I would not like that done to me. The turbines proposed are among the largest ever constructed in England. They will be half as high again as Big Ben and only a little lower than the London Eye-and in the open countryside that is huge. It is roughly equivalent to a 40-storey building.
In the case of this wind farm, the closest of those massive structures would be only 508 metres from the nearest home, with many more homes about 600 metres from a turbine. That is too close. I ask myself whether the wider social good is served by building such enormous renewable energy sources so close to the homes of hundreds of my constituents, or whether the sacrifice being asked of them, and the damage to be done to a beautiful part of the vale of Evesham, is too great.
I also noted that the turbines in Worcestershire would not be allowed in a similar location in Germany, or in large areas of Spain and Italy. Denmark is one of the most successful countries in the development of onshore wind power-and I understand that if Danish rules applied, the turbines in my constituency could be built, but many householders would become liable for compensation for loss of property value. England and Wales stand apart from the developing pattern of regulation of onshore wind on mainland Europe. Indeed, in Scotland, too, guidelines specifying what is acceptable are already in place.
I concluded that the disadvantages of the wind farm proposed for my constituency outweigh the likely benefits. If I felt that way, I had to do something, and the Bill that I am asking leave to present today is that something. My Bill has extraordinary levels of support around the country. Communities from the west country to Cumbria, from Gloucestershire to Derbyshire, from County Durham to East Anglia, and of course from Worcestershire, have bombarded me, and their own MPs, with e-mails.
I emphasise that the Bill is not a covert attack on any renewable energy technology, nor does it have its roots in any doubts about the causes and consequences of global warming. I am convinced by the consensus that human activity has at least added significantly to the scale of climate change, and has been the major driver of it. In any event, even the most sceptical critic of the climate change consensus would have to admit that the world's fossil fuels are running out, and that they are coming from increasingly unstable areas of the globe.
In the short run, there is probably enough reliable gas to see us through, if we build enough gas storage in the UK. Investment in new nuclear power can also make a big contribution to keeping the lights on over the slightly longer term. However, diversity is the key to our energy security, and that diverse generating portfolio must include a significant proportion of renewable sources. The UK is extraordinarily well placed to exploit other renewable technologies, as well as wind, such as the power of the oceans-tidal, wave and tidal flow, for example. In my view, we have foolishly underestimated the role that solar-thermal technology can play in providing hot water in homes, and we are late in introducing smart meters to reduce demand.
We must now invest in every available renewable technology and see which will work best for us in the future. That includes onshore wind turbines, but only in the right places. If other technologies can help us to meet our challenging renewable energy targets, and if wind power itself is still the subject of innovation-with smaller, more powerful, less visually intrusive turbines in development-it is right that we take, in the short term at least, a precautionary approach to the siting of onshore wind turbines very close to homes in England and Wales.
There are different concerns about wind farms. Noise, especially low-frequency noise, the flicker effect and the resulting health implications are just some of those concerns. I have been impressed by the personal accounts of such concerns in many of the hundreds of e-mails that I have received. However, although the science may not yet be settled on those matters, the visual intrusion of wind turbines is a matter of objective fact. It is that visual intrusion that my deliberately narrow Bill seeks primarily to address.
My Bill would specify minimum distances between turbines of certain dimensions and the nearest house. I propose that there should be no specific restriction on turbines below 25 metres in height, while wind turbines up to 50 metres high should not be located closer than half a mile to a home. Larger wind turbines up to 100 metres high should be at least a mile away, and the largest-those above 100 metres-should be at least one and a half miles from any home. There would be an important exception where the residents of homes within the buffer zone agreed to the construction of the turbines. They might do so because they stood to gain financially from the construction-something that the industry should look at more carefully-because they had received compensation for loss of amenity or the reduced value of their homes, or simply because they supported the application.
I agree that the figures that I have proposed are arbitrary, but all rules are to some extent arbitrary. Why not have a speed limit of 75 mph on motorways? Why have different ages for the legal purchase of different products or for beginning certain activities as young people grow up? We have to draw the line somewhere, and the limits that I have set out are where I propose the line should be drawn for wind turbines. I am a traditionalist, hence the use of miles. However, I would happily accept an amendment to make the distances 1 km, 1.5 km and 2 km respectively, if that is the price of making progress. [ Interruption. ] I apologise to my right hon. and hon. Friends.
However, my Bill would also make possible a different approach, which is used in some European countries and which some hon. Members might prefer. That would mean specifying set-back distances from turbines in proportion to their total height. In other words, the distance from the base of the turbine to the nearest home should be at least a fixed multiple of the height of the turbine to the tip of the blades. The distance would then depend on the multiple. The 125-metre turbines proposed for my constituency would have to be set back 16 times their height to achieve a separation of 2 km, while a smaller 100-metre turbine, using the same multiple, would be set back 1.6 km. A smaller multiple would produce smaller distances.
I am clear that there must be a reasonable space between such giants and local communities. That is the simple and, I hope, uncontroversial, purpose behind my Bill. It would add to planning law, not detract from it, and all the other tests and protections, whether they relate to noise, environmental impact or sites of special scientific interest and so on, would remain in place, so we would not see a wind farm on top of the Malverns, or Bredon hill in Worcestershire, for example.
I have heard the simplistic objection that my Bill is intended to kill onshore wind development in England. That argument is an Aunt Sally, and is simply untrue. Indeed, by being much clearer about an important aspect of planning requirements, my Bill would enable developers to bring forward proposals for more appropriate locations with much greater confidence. My Bill would mean that arguments about distance and local acceptability could be dealt with more objectively and speedily by local planning authorities. Currently, only around a quarter of all onshore wind farm applications succeed. That proportion could increase significantly if there were clear guidelines.
My Bill is designed to help communities that feel threatened and powerless in the face of intrusive planning applications, but it would also speed up the planning process for well-sited wind farms. The Bill should help householders and communities, local authorities-which currently lack adequate guidance on wind turbine locations-and the wind farm industry to pursue the right sites. My Bill represents an opportunity to stimulate, and more importantly to resolve, an important debate. I commend it to the House.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham, Liberal Democrat)
I oppose the Bill, although I should make it clear that I do so in a personal capacity as an environmentalist, not as a spokesman for my party- [ Interruption ]-as is the requirement with ten-minute Bills.
Although it looks at first sight like traditional Conservative opposition to wind power, the Bill that Peter Luff proposes would in fact achieve the perverse result of increasing the pressure on rural areas, including areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks, to accept wind turbines that local people oppose. It is a Bill that would harm the prospects for wind energy in many places where it is supported by local people, and it would deepen the undermining of democratic local planning procedures. In the end, local people should decide. We in this place should not commit our usual error of creating inflexible and-in the hon. Gentleman's own words-arbitrary rules that will do more harm than good.
Let me illustrate the problem with an example that is literally close to home. Cheltenham's first wind turbine is likely to be placed in Springfield park, in the Springbank area of my constituency. Planning permission is being applied for. It will not be big-a bit less than 18 metres tall, to the tip of the highest blade. It will generate 9,500 kWh of electricity a year, and save more than 4 tonnes of CO2 emissions a year. Perhaps more importantly, it will follow the good example of Danish wind energy by being owned by a community organisation, the Hesters Way Neighbourhood Project. The project was set up to support regeneration in one of the least well-off parts of Cheltenham, and the wind turbine will shave the best part of £1,000 a year off its electricity bill, allowing it to spend more money on its other work in the community.
The turbine will be safe and virtually silent, with no noisy gearbox. It also has a rather striking design. I concede that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but in general, I think that most wind turbines are rather graceful, and easily more attractive than the average pylon. The Springbank wind turbine has so far encountered very little opposition, but whether it receives community support should surely be a matter for the people of Springbank and their elected representatives. We should not contemplate a Bill that would rule out the project at a stroke-
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham, Liberal Democrat)
It would, because it would impose on planning law-not on planning guidance, local area partnerships or local area policy-a rule that that turbine should not be allowed, because it is about 60 metres from the nearest dwelling. That is well inside the hon. Gentleman's proposed limit for a small turbine of 800 metres-I have translated that-away from any dwelling. So the Bill would kill that project.
Our local and national carbon emissions reduction goals would remain intact, however. Our carbon budgets, newly agreed in the Climate Change Act 2008, which was supported by those on the Conservative Front Bench, would still be there. If the Bill were to cut off wind turbine projects such as the one for Springfield park, and doubtless many others all over the country that were anywhere near people's houses, that would increase the pressure on rural areas. Where would we put the displaced wind power if we wanted to maintain the contribution of wind power to achieving our renewables targets?
No part of Springfield park is less than 800 metres from a dwelling; in fact, I think that we would be pushed to find any part of my constituency that is. The only part that might achieve that condition would be in the Cotswolds area of outstanding natural beauty, where even I would hesitate to support a wind turbine. But those are exactly the kinds of areas that would qualify for approval if the Bill were ever to see the light of day.
I can cite many examples of local Liberal Democrats supporting wind power, from Leeds to Lewes, from Cornwall to the Orkneys, and from Cheltenham to Islington, but I would never lecture local Liberal Democrats, who know their area best, on whether they should support every proposed wind turbine everywhere. I am sure that many hon. Members could cite examples of insensitive energy companies trying to push through wind turbines in inappropriate locations. However, I can see the supporters of such companies rubbing their hands with glee if the Bill became law. "Surely local campaigners shouldn't be allowed to get away with opposition to this wind farm," they would argue. "After all, it complies with the Onshore Wind Turbines (Proximity of Habitation) Act 2010, which was promoted by the Member for Mid-Worcestershire in his attempt to, as he put it, settle the matter." Ironically, the hon. Gentleman's name could end up being used in planning inquiries more in support of insensitive wind power applications than against them.
Why does the hon. Gentleman think that these inflexible distance limits are required? In his speech, he was rather vague. He spoke again and again about visual intrusion. Unlike him, however, I do not think that that is an objective fact; it is subjective and it ought to be up for discussion by local people. He also mentioned flicker, but that is a very short-range phenomenon. It is not even an issue in Springfield park, where the turbine will be only 60 metres from people's houses.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned health issues, but the NHS website quotes Dr. Neil Todd, who has researched the health impacts of wind turbines and can find nothing to object to. On the website stoplenchwickwindfarm.org.uk, the hon. Gentleman is quoted as saying:
"It is my limited intention to raise the aesthetic and environmental concerns associated with large wind turbines".
He goes on to say, as he has just told the House:
"I happen to be a keen exponent of alternative and renewable energy sources"-
except, presumably, in his own constituency-
"but feel strongly that onshore wind farms are only appropriate where their visual and environmental impact on open countryside is acceptable."
However, we have yet to hear what these environmental concerns are. How do they reduce with distance? On this, the website and the hon. Gentleman are absolutely silent.
All the environmental organisations that I know, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, support the appropriate use of wind power. When they have voiced concerns-as the RSPB has done-they have not, so far as I know, objected to any proximity to human habitation. Rather, they have objected to the possible impact on sensitive wildlife habitats and natural environments. Human beings, of course, can speak for themselves. Is that not really the point?
The hon. Gentleman has tried to find a way to placate the growing trend of opposition to wind power. If he means what he says about local people being able to overturn the restrictions that the Bill would impose, it will probably have no impact whatever, in which case it is purely symbolic, sending a message. On the hon. Gentleman's behalf, whatever his good intentions, it sends a clear message of opposition to wind power-our most promising form of renewable energy.
The message that I, and many other hon. Members opposed to this Bill, such as my hon. Friend Simon Hughes, Dr. Whitehead and many others, want to send is one of support for clean renewable energy, support for wind power when it is appropriate and well supported, and support for local people who know best what is right for their area, and do not want inflexible and arbitrary rules imposed on them from on high.
I oppose this Bill, but I am pleased to say that it is very unlikely ever to succeed, so I shall not trouble the House by pressing for a Division.
Question put (
That Peter Luff, Sir Alan Beith, Mr. Michael Clapham, Mr. Geoffrey Cox, David Davis, Natascha Engel, Mr. Mike Hall, David Maclean, Lembit Öpik, Ms Dari Taylor, Phil Wilson and Mr. Anthony Wright present the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on