There are very many good reasons to vote Conservative in the general election, and that is one of them.
The issue of onshore wind farms has infuriated rural communities the length and breadth of Britain and provoked much debate in the House. Like so many other issues, it is yet another on which I fundamentally disagree with our coalition partners. The arguments against onshore wind are well rehearsed—and they are not what this debate is about—but they should not be dismissed as mere nimbyism, as they go so much deeper. Case studies suggest that wind turbines have an adverse impact on property values, and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has written to the Government on that point. The institution is clear that the Government need to provide evidence that house prices are not directly affected by nearby wind turbines.
A growing body of evidence also suggests that wind turbines have an adverse impact on health and that ETSU-R-97, which regulates noise produced by turbines, is not fit for purpose. I assumed that that was a European Union directive, but unfortunately it is not. Still, it is the sort of thing that would come out of Europe, if it had the opportunity. I know that the Department of Energy and Climate Change is looking into the issue of amplitude modulation at present, though it needs to get a move on, as I am planning to abolish the Department on
Resentment in many rural communities is growing. My right hon. Friend Sir Greg Knight mentioned Yorkshire, but Northamptonshire in particular has been hit hard by wind farm proposals in the past few years. Indeed, the Watford Gap—the place where some believe the north meets the south—is perhaps one of the best examples of where the impact that wind turbines are having on our national scenery is visible. The sea of wind turbines has created a semi-industrialised vista, with no regard for local views or for the landscape desecration they cause. Thankfully, people in the area have been well represented in fighting against those monstrosities, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Chris Heaton-Harris, not only for all that he has done to highlight this issue locally, but for galvanising support in this place to bring about real national policy change.
We saw a high-profile battle in Northamptonshire over the Barnwell manor wind farm proposal, which, if approved, would have had a ruinous impact on the historic Lyveden New Bield, which the National Trust describes in these terms:
“Set in the heart of rural Northamptonshire, Lyveden is a remarkable survivor of the Elizabethan age. Begun by Sir Thomas Tresham to symbolise his Catholic faith, Lyveden remains incomplete and virtually unaltered since work stopped on his death in 1605. Discover the mysterious garden lodge and explore the Elizabethan garden with its spiral mounts, terracing and canals. Wander through the new orchard, containing many old varieties of apples and pears, or explore the Lyveden Way, a circular path through beautiful meadows, wooodland and villages.”
With its Elizabethan architectural quirks, accompanied by the tranquillity of rural east Northamptonshire, this really is a beautiful spot and absolutely not somewhere for wind farms.
I pay tribute to East Northamptonshire council, led ably by Steven North, along with Councillor Sylvia Hughes, the ward member representing Lyveden New Bield, for their personal efforts to ensure that the local authority courageously battled against these plans. The development had been approved by the Planning Inspectorate on appeal after the council initially refused planning permission. At that stage, it would have been easy for the council to say, “Well, it’s one of those things. It’s been overruled by the Planning Inspectorate”, but it fought on. Working closely with the National Trust and English Heritage, the council opposed the development every step of the way, and finally High Court proceedings quashed the Planning Inspectorate’s approval. To erect a wind farm on the site would have been an utter travesty, and it is staggering that local people, along with their local authority and the organisations mentioned, had to go to such lengths to stave off this threat.
With all that in mind—I am in no doubt that these frustrations are mirrored in communities up and down the country—is it surprising that people have had enough? That said, credit where credit is due: Conservative Ministers have sought to tighten planning controls to give local communities greater power over deciding these matters and, I hope, to give them more protection against unwanted wind farm plans. In July 2013, Ministers unveiled planning practice guidance for renewable and low-carbon energy that was replaced in March 2014 by updated guidance. The aim was to make it clear that the need for renewable energy did not automatically override environmental protections and local communities’ planning concerns, while ensuring that sufficient weight was given to landscape and visual impact concerns. It also included guidance on how local planning authorities should assess impacts such as noise, safety, interference with electromagnetic transmissions, ecology, heritage, shadow flicker, energy output and cumulative landscape and visual impacts.
One of my constituents and a keen member of my listening campaign, Brian Skittrall, is working hard to ensure that the north Northamptonshire joint core strategy provides the greatest possible protection against unwanted wind turbine developments. Along with Tom Pursglove, the excellent Conservative candidate for Corby, I am working hard to support Brian’s efforts, and I very much hope that common sense will prevail and that those responsible for the document will adopt his recommendation.
The protections are in the national policy, but it is important that they are fully represented in local planning policy documents. I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has taken an even greater interest in these matters by calling in a considerable number of wind turbine applications and ensuring that the Planning Inspectorate gives sufficient weight to guidance. I have strong views on the Planning Inspectorate, but those are for another day, and perhaps even a future private Member’s Bill.
While that is welcome, it addresses only part of the problem. For example, turbines often do not work and require regular carbon back-up. They also drive up households’ and small businesses’ energy bills, pushing many into fuel poverty.