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Hinkley Point C (Infrastructure Projects)

– in the House of Commons at 4:49 pm on 20th March 2014.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Gyimah.)

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Conservative, Romsey and Southampton North 5:00 pm, 20th March 2014

I want to thank Mr Speaker for granting this opportunity to debate the new Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, which, as I am sure hon. Members will have noticed, is somewhat remote from my Romsey and Southampton North constituency. In fact, it is more than 90 miles away. However, such a major infrastructure project, which will generate electricity and distribute it around the network, will have an impact on Romsey and Southampton North. Despite the distance, a group of residents in my constituency have valid concerns that Hinkley Point C has the potential to have a knock-on impact on the village of Nursling and, specifically, on a small group of residents who live near the local electricity substation.

Let me start by saying that I fully support the building of the new reactor at Hinkley Point and that I support an energy policy that is both affordable and diverse. The new power station is essential to keep the lights on. Along with developments in renewable energy, it will ensure that the UK’s energy needs are provided for. This is not, therefore, a speech that is anti-nuclear or anti-Hinkley Point. Neither is it a speech on energy policy.

This afternoon, I wish to give voice to my constituents’ concerns regarding the further development of an electricity substation that was built in the late 1960s and is now a potential part of National Grid’s planned infrastructure to deal with Hinkley Point when it comes online. Thus far, the planning process has denied my constituents that voice.

The Nursling substation is located in an extremely rural setting and occupies roughly a third of a 5-hectare field, the remainder of which has remained untouched since the substation was built. Outline planning permission was granted in 1963 and reserved matters were agreed in 1968. To call it a field is to do it an injustice. It is an important local amenity that enjoys a public right of way and is used by dog walkers and nature lovers from the local area. My constituents accurately call the field

“a piece of open countryside of rural character, which supports a diversity of wildlife”.

Although planning regulations might not regard it as such, that is, in my opinion, an exceptionally accurate description.

Close by sit a number of residential properties. There are two grade II listed buildings and two sites of special scientific interest, including the world-renowned River Test. There is no doubt that the field is a haven for wildlife. It includes a pond, which, along with the surrounding hedgerows, trees and grassland, provides a home for at least 12 species that are considered to be ‘protected’ under several pieces of UK and European legislation. There are slow worms, dormice, adders, water voles and the rare Cetti’s warbler, as well as other important birds and reptiles.

The field has been important in managing the recent floods, which have had a severe impact on my constituency. Recently, parts of it were under a metre of water. That is a subject of some importance, given that my constituency has been described by the Environment Agency as one of the most flood-prone areas of Hampshire. Therefore, it is perhaps not the best place to build a substation of this magnitude. Under the plans proposed by National Grid, the substation would approximately treble in size to accommodate two enormous quad boosters to deal with the electricity provided by Hinkley Point C.

My constituents maintain—and I share their concern—that, quite apart from the short-term nuisance that would be associated with the development, in the long term, the scheme has the potential to have a seriously negative impact on the surrounding area, the natural habitat and the amenity of the local residents. The footprint of the new substation will mean that the public right of way would be lost. This haven for wildlife would be concreted over to allow a dramatic increase in the size of the substation.

I share the concern of my constituents that, although the planning process underpinning the development of the actual power station at Hinkley Point has been absolutely transparent, the process for the development of what the Planning Act 2008 calls “associated developments” has not been quite so see-through in the case of Nursling.

It is apparent that the permission to develop the site, which is allowing National Grid to have an impact on the lives of local residents, remove a significant local amenity and destroy an important habitat, has been granted without those who have the most to lose having the right to be adequately consulted. That might come as a surprise to many who believe that we live in age of localism, in which those who will be most affected have the most say. However, because National Grid owns the field and has planning permissions dating back to its acquisition in the 1960s, the local planning authority has been obliged to issue a certificate of lawful permitted development because it has no choice. The residents can do nothing about it because they have no voice.

My constituents, who have produced an impressive dossier of information and data, assert that the development of the substation has avoided statutory and regulatory consent, and that the local planning authority has acted unlawfully in allowing it to go ahead. They have suggested that the decision should be judicially reviewed, on the basis that it should have been called in by the Secretary of State under the new powers granted to his office in the national planning policy framework. I will not comment on that assertion, but in an age of localism, I do not believe that a planning permission of the 1960s that was never extended over the full site should deny local residents an opportunity to register their objections, not least because the certificate of lawful permitted development means that National Grid is not obliged to do anything to ameliorate the negative impact that its development could have.

It is clear that Hinkley Point C is a development that will benefit the whole country, including my constituents. However, that of itself does not justify denying them a voice when it comes to related or secondary infrastructure projects that could have a negative impact on them.

The project was granted permission by the Secretary of State in March 2013, following a six-month consultation process that was headed up by the Planning Inspectorate and involved a panel of examining officers. There is nothing to suggest that there was anything untoward in the process by which the Secretary of State reached his decision and upon which he issued his consent order. Nor am I suggesting that the local planning authority has acted in anything other than a perfectly correct manner—I will leave others to decide whether that is the case. What is clear, however, is that for right or wrong, there has been not been an opportunity for the people of Nursling to be consulted about the impact of the additional infrastructure that is needed to distribute the power generated by Hinkley Point C, and that is unjustified.

The planning guidance associated with the 2008 Act, which was drafted specifically to deal with large infrastructure projects such Hinkley Point C, clearly lists electricity substations as the type of “associated development” for which planning permission may be granted. Indeed, the guidance states that it is

“designed to help those who intend to make an application for development consent under the Planning Act to determine how the provisions of the Planning Act in respect of associated development apply to their proposals.”

But there we have the nub of the problem—there is no application. That means that there is no opportunity for the local community to be consulted.

The field is subject to a certificate of lawful development granted in 1963, based on an outline planning permission, by an authority that no longer has planning powers. Because of that 1963 planning permission and the subsequent permitted development, the site is not part of the consultation on Hinkley Point C. In planning terms the expansion already exists, so it does not have to be part of the infrastructure consultation. It is a classic Catch-22 situation for my constituents—because there is nothing that can be done to prevent the substation from being built, there is no mechanism by which my constituents can express their view. How can it be right that a major infrastructure project affecting my constituents can go ahead without the need for National Grid to obtain any approvals for that part of it from any local or national Government Department and without any need to consult the residents affected? Does that example demonstrate that the Government need to review procedures for major infrastructure developments to ensure that the public have the right to be consulted in such cases?

I wish to raise several points with my hon. Friend the Minister this afternoon and ask him to consider some actions to prevent such a situation from happening again. First, should there be some sort of time limit for the completion of development for which full planning permission has been granted? In the field that I have mentioned, because the original substation was built in the 1960s and the entire field was included in the outline planning permission, the development is considered to have been started and concluded, but actually most of the site is untouched. A statute of limitation would mean that further development on the field could be subject to a fresh planning application.

Secondly, how is it that in a six-month planning consultation there was no possibility of this associated development being considered or consulted on? National Grid states that proposals of this type “normally” require permission from the Secretary of State, so why should planning permission dating back around 50 years allow this development to proceed without any of the usual requirements that something of this scale and magnitude would normally need? Indeed, I am not sure that the report by the panel of examining inspectors even considered that part of the development. National Grid simply did not include the development at Nursling in its application because it considered, in planning terms, that it already exists when it patently does not.

My constituents ask why the local planning authority was not obliged to screen the development, or to request a screening opinion from the Secretary of State to ascertain whether there was need for an environmental impact assessment. That is a relevant question because the land was deemed to be operational, despite the fact that it had never been used as such, which meant that an EIA was not required. That is a bizarre state of affairs. How can a rural field, full of wildlife, including protected species, within 200 yards of the protected site of special scientific interest of the River Test and untouched by development, be regarded in some way as “operational” land?

My constituents believe that the site should not have been granted a certificate of lawful permitted development, particularly given that in the borough local plan, that field had been designated as countryside for years. Needless to say, they are deeply concerned about potential risks to their health from this development, and complain that they have been give no information about how it will affect them. They feel unconsulted and ignored, denied at every turn the chance to have their voice heard. I thank Mr Speaker for this opportunity to air the concerns of my constituents, and the Minister for any response he may be able to give.

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government 5:11 pm, 20th March 2014

I congratulate my hon. Friend Caroline Nokes on securing this debate, on raising an issue that her constituents are concerned about, and on describing her efforts to resolve the situation and get some clarity. This debate has raised important issues about the planning process and how it goes ahead with community engagement. I am pleased to have the chance to respond.

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing to my attention this complex planning case in her constituency, because it gives us the chance to consider some of the issues behind it. We are always interested to hear about local experiences of the planning system, and suggestions for how the system could be improved in the future. Her comments are now on the record, as are her suggestions for ways to ensure that situations that create the kinds of problems her constituents feel they are going through cannot occur. I hope that she appreciates that I cannot comment on specific cases because of the Secretary of State’s role in the planning process, but I am more than happy to speak in general terms about the issues she raises.

Let me make it clear that the planning system—which we have greatly improved since we took office—is designed to help secure the delivery of sustainable development. A number of different processes are in place to help to secure that outcome and ensure effective engagement with local people and their accountable councils in a proportionate way. Without commenting on the specific details of this case, as I understand it, the application for a lawful development certificate was with regard to the scope of permitted development, and not to the scope of any earlier planning permission. Therefore it might be helpful if I explain the mechanisms that I think are relevant and, in particular, the scope of statutory undertakers to undertake development without the need for planning permission—commonly referred to as permitted development. I shall also consider the purpose of lawful development certificates, and the process that is followed when an application for a certificate is made.

National permitted development rights allow certain building works and changes of use to be carried out without an application. I stress, however, that those rights are typically subject to a number of conditions and limitations that control impact and protect local amenities. For example, there could be limits on the height and size of buildings. In some cases, based on the scale of existing structures, there are a number of protected geographical areas, including areas of outstanding natural beauty, and national parks, where certain permitted development rights are not available, or size limits are reduced.

I should add that even if a planning application is not needed, other consents, such as operating licences, may be required under other regimes. These rights are set out in the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995, as amended. Members may be particularly interested in part 17 of schedule 2 to the order—I know it is something they will all want to be reading when they get back home tonight. Part 17 permits a range of types of development by bodies such as statutory undertakers, carrying out their functions under statutory powers. For example, under class G of part 17, certain development is permitted for the generation, transmission or supply of electricity. However, in common with most other parts of the permitted development order, there are a range of restrictions on these rights. For example, some of the rights do not apply in a national park, an area of outstanding national beauty or a site of special scientific interest. There are a number of restrictions in relation to the height and volume of the different types of structures that can be erected, and, in some cases, electricity undertakers must seek prior approval of the design and external appearance of certain proposed buildings. These rights provide important flexibilities for statutory undertakers to undertake development quickly and effectively, given the vital role they play in delivering national infrastructure.

It is important to note that although there is no legal requirement on all statutory undertakers to carry out a public consultation for development under permitted development rights, we have it made clear in our planning guidance, which is now available online in a usable and accessible way, that public consultation may be beneficial if development is expected to have a particularly significant impact. In such instances, consultation could be initiated by either the local planning authority or the statutory undertaker. Any consultation should allow adequate time to consider representations and, if necessary, amend proposals. In some cases, where it is not clear whether proposals can be considered permitted development, it is possible to apply for a lawful development certificate for a legally binding decision from the local planning authority. This is often used if there is any ambiguity over whether the proposal is within the scope of permitted development set out in the general permitted development order I mentioned a few moments ago.

Local planning authorities can seek information from the public on applications for lawful development certificates, if they feel that it would help them reach a decision on whether a development meets these legal requirements. I stress that the purpose of lawful development certificates is to confirm what is lawfully permitted already, having regard to existing extant planning permissions and the scope for permitted development. They cannot be used to secure planning permission for a new form of development. In considering whether the proposal was permitted development, the local planning authority would have had regard to the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2011. Permitted development rights cannot be exercised without the local planning authority’s approval in a European site designated under the habitats or wild birds directive.

Clearly, where a proposal is not permitted development, a planning application, as we would expect, is required to be made for permission to carry out development. Such applications would be dealt with in the normal way by the local planning authority, including by providing the opportunity for interested parties to make their views heard. If planning permission is granted, development must take place in accordance with the permission, approved plans and any planning conditions attached to the permission. The development must be commenced within a specified time limit, or the planning permission will lapse.

If a developer subsequently seeks to modify or extend a development that has planning permission, they would need to speak to the local planning authority. Any proposed material change to the approved development, even a minor one, would require the submission of a planning application, which would of course again be subject to public consultation. If a developer constructs something different from the planning permission, including going beyond what is allowed by permitted development rights, the unauthorised development may be subject to enforcement action.

Finally, I would also like to turn briefly to the matter of Hinkley Point C in Somerset. Following extensive community engagement, the proposed nuclear power plant obtained development consent through the nationally significant infrastructure planning regime in March last year. I can confirm that the expansion of the Nursling substation did not form part of the development consent order for Hinkley Point C and it was not an associated development. There are changes in electricity generation in the south-west generally, including at Hinkley Point C, which may require changes at Nursling. As I understand it, however, the Hinkley Point C connector project, which is at pre-application stage, does not include proposals at Nursling substation.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to a debate about these important matters. Let me again thank my hon. Friend for her contribution, and for the ideas that she has advanced. I hope that we have been able to make clear, in the national planning policy framework and in our new suite of planning guidance, that development —whatever it is, and whatever it ought to be—should receive the scrutiny that it deserves, and that the public locally want to see. However, we must also ensure that the planning process does not impose unnecessary burdens that could prevent development from proceeding. We believe that we have provided a framework that strikes the right balance between protecting public amenities and controlling local impact, and allowing the development that our country needs in order to prosper in the 21st century.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.