Energy Bill [HL] — Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:42 pm on 22nd July 2015.

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Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour 1:42 pm, 22nd July 2015

My Lords, the Minister in introducing the Bill spoke forcefully about the obligations to keep the lights on and he, among others, mentioned national security. If I am allowed to digress for a moment, I get a bit worried at times about the national security implications for our energy system when so much of the ownership and expertise is passing into the hands of other nations, not least China. To return to the Bill, while obviously the new authority has got real responsibilities in this sphere, there are other obligations. There is the obligation to fulfil the objectives of the 2008 Climate Change Act. There is the necessity to protect the quality of landscapes, seascapes and other places of particular historic, cultural and character significance. Indeed, there is a need to fulfil the legal obligations—frequently underlined by Ministers of all parties and successive Governments—to protect the national parks, areas of outstanding national beauty and similar places. I, of course, take an interest in this as a patron of the Friends of the Lake District and as a vice-president of the Campaign for National Parks.

To return to the main theme of the Bill, how exactly have the Government assessed the cost of their energy policy? How have they become convinced that this will deliver at minimal cost to consumers while ensuring security of supply and meeting our climate change responsibilities and targets? What methodologies have they used to make their assessment? Have they genuinely factored in the full costs of the technologies involved, including the cost of delivering energy to the point of use and removing obsolete equipment and waste—again, if I may digress for a moment—when at times this can be an acute problem in other spheres such as nuclear waste?

What about energy efficiency? The Bill once again seems to concentrate on supply and building more infrastructure rather than reducing demand. I always think the lack of real, deep commitment on this front is well illustrated by both Houses at Westminster. We should be a model to the nation of energy responsibility and use, and this starts at the personal level. Too often when I walk through this building at a late hour in the evening, it is absolutely clear that this is not yet instinctively deep in our psychology. The amount of waste at the micro level in these buildings is still far too large. This is the responsibility of all Members across the Floor and both Houses. How can we talk to the nation unless we live by what we preach?

What of thermal heating? We have an extraordinarily laid-back, complacent approach that lacks the drive to ensure that building regulations are making the maximum possible use of this benefit. What about energy efficiency measures? Do the Government really value them? Why is neither the zero-carbon allowable solutions carbon offsetting scheme, nor the proposed 2016 increase in on-site energy efficiency standards for new homes, going ahead? How do we reconcile these points with the Government’s firm manifesto undertaking to,

“meet our climate change commitments, cutting carbon emissions as cheaply as possible, to save you money”?

As noble Lords, notably the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, have said, we have had representations from RenewableUK and from the independent renewable energy group. I was struck by those representations. Those bodies clearly believe that the Bill will penalise them in some respects and severely undermine their efforts to contribute to the Government’s declared climate change objectives. They claim that the onshore wind industry provides 190,000 jobs and is the lowest cost source of low-carbon power we have. They argue that early withdrawal of Government financial support will cut short projects on which the industry is already advanced, conceptually as well as industrially. This action they have already taken for the future is on the basis, they remind us, of assurances previously given. They ask, therefore, how the Bill can possibly encourage or enhance investment or confidence in their future work. They also see it, evidently, as a dangerous precedent for other renewable and wider energy investments. Clearly, the Minister will have to deal in his comments with those anxieties in an industry on which we are so dependent.

There are different views on the architectural and aesthetic merits of windmills. I am one of those who find them totally unacceptable in areas of outstanding natural beauty, national parks and other areas of special landscape, character or significance. Successive Governments of all persuasions, with legislation backed up by ministerial undertakings, have protected these gems from such intrusions. It would be a tragedy if the situation changed. Very quickly, we could throw away one of the most precious recreational and recreative assets in our stressed and pressurised society, and one of immense value to the travel industry.

Some argue, in support of my contention, that windmills do not anyway produce much electricity. I simply dismiss that argument—I do not agree with it at all. Collectively, they are already contributing very significantly to our essential supplies. Almost by definition, alternative energy is likely to come from an aggregate of a large number of units, each producing far less than our traditional power stations. The issue is not whether to have wind power or not; it is the comprehensive social planning that ensures that units and their supporting infrastructure are in the most suitable places, do not ruin the landscape or seascape, and do not pile all the pressure on less articulate, vociferous or influential communities. That is what we have to get right.

The convincing arguments put forward in a host of organisations representative of a wide cross-section of the public are impressive. I have mentioned some of those in which I am involved. Rather than regurgitating their arguments, I shall very briefly put to the House their own words on some of these things. They say that the Energy Bill focuses only on energy supply and misses the opportunity to include proposals to reduce energy demand. While onshore wind can make an important and greener contribution to our energy mix, we must ensure that new energy infrastructure does not damage our countryside. The provisions of the Bill that transfer the consenting of all new onshore wind farms to local planning authorities is a welcome response to local concerns about the impact of badly sited developments on landscape. Clarity is still needed about whether the planning inspectorate will be able to overturn decisions on onshore wind. The Government should support aspirations by introducing a community right of appeal against damaging proposals where a neighbourhood plan is being prepared—and not just for onshore wind or other energy infrastructure, but all types of development.

Friends of the Earth also has points to make, which are not quite the same as other agencies’, so it is worth looking at some of the things it is saying. It says that as,

“one of the cheapest forms of renewable energy, the closure of the RO for wind has the potential to increase bills for consumers, particularly if there is no new allocation round available under the CfD … Curtailing the development of onshore wind could increase the risk that the government will miss its legally binding Renewable Energy Directive targets for 2020 … The closure of the RO for wind a year early is yet more uncertainty for the industry … The closure of the RO will particularly impact on the devolved nations—as the majority of new development is due to take place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”.

Friends of the Earth suggests that,

“this is a policy for the Home Counties being imposed on other regions”,

and argues that,

“Closing the RO for wind will impact communities who may want wind power”.

These organisations do a great deal of serious work with a lot of commitment and represent the concerns of many people in this country, so I hope the Minister will treat those concerns seriously. We want a secure UK worth living in that is fit to meet the accelerating challenges of the age of climate change. This is no time for further ideological objectives; it is time for common-sense practical arrangements. I am afraid that in my old age, I have come to a firm conclusion: I believe in a mixed economy and, in believing in a mixed economy, I think there are some areas of our activity that are so important to society as a whole—not least for strategic reasons—that they will be better in the public sector than in the private sector.