Energy Bill [HL] - Commons Amendments

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 12th April 2016.

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Photo of Lord Grantchester Lord Grantchester Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 7:00 pm, 12th April 2016

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 7AB, tabled in my name. The Energy Bill started in your Lordships’ House shortly after the generally unexpected Conservative majority in the general election last year. It focuses primarily on the setting-up of the Oil and Gas Authority. Into the Bill, the new Conservative Government thrust two new clauses on onshore wind, closing down early, to a date of 18 June, the renewables obligation. Hurriedly, the Government agreed to consider exceptions, as grace periods, to allow schemes to complete as they had travelled a long way through the development stage, in good faith and at considerable cost.

While understanding that the Government have to draw a new line somewhere to give effect to this measure, your Lordships’ House was not content that sufficient logic had been applied and passed the Bill to the Commons with these two clauses omitted from it. These clauses now return to your Lordships’ House but without material amendment having being made in the Commons to these grace period proposals.

Amendment 7AB proposes a logical, consistent, clear, honest and fair extension to the exceptions agreed by the Government. The wider onshore wind industry has come to a consensus and supports this single, narrow extension to the existing renewables grace period criteria. The proposed change is for projects that have achieved democratic local consent for their development at a planning committee on or before 18 June 2015 but received Section 75 in Scotland and Section 106 in England and Wales agreement after that date. At present they are excluded.

This cannot be said to be against Conservative Party policy. It is widely considered that a decision made by a democratically elected local planning committee embodies the principle of giving local people the final say. To deny this extension is to deny and prevent local people having the final say on wind farm applications.

The publication of a resolution to grant permission is considered by both developers and local authorities to be a procedural step and that planning permission is to follow—in effect, agreement is all but made. The industry is not aware of any commercial project that received local community consent at planning committee and was not awarded a written decision because of a failure to complete a Section 75/106 agreement. Continuing to proceed on the basis that planning consent is secured, developers have greater sunk costs at this stage. Formal notice is expected because a resolution by a planning committee is a real and substantial commitment.

The lack of logic in the Government’s position arises from the concession they have granted to projects refused permission at 18 June but subsequently agreed on appeal. Projects refused on 18 June, although overturned, can quality, whereas resolved agreements on 18 June and subsequently fulfilled cannot. This is a bizarre interpretation. The legal advice that the industry has received categorically states that there is as much “legal right” to a planning permission resolved at local level as there is to a permission subsequently granted on appeal following a refusal by a planning committee. As I have said, the Government are content to allow these successful appeals to proceed.

Grace period concessions for anomalies and complexities around the criteria should allow for projects which have local consent but missed the cut-off date due to the time needed for a planning authority to complete a Section 75/106 agreement and issue a decision notice. It would comply with Conservative policy that locally approved wind farms be enabled to go ahead.

To allow this concession will not open—I will not say floodgates—a gale of projects coming forward. I understand the industry has put forward a list of projects that received resolution for approval but where formal permission was issued after 18 June. The list totals seven projects—six in Scotland and one in England. This totals just under 90 megawatts. To put this into context, 90 megawatts would power 50,000 households—a mere fifth of 1% of more than 26 million households and about 1% of the present onshore wind capacity of over 8,500 megawatts. Surely the Minister cannot contend this to be a major concession.

As to the amendments tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, he has worked tirelessly on trying to get a fair outcome for projects started in good faith by people who have committed substantial time and assets to bring forward onshore wind developments—which, after all, will be the least-cost technology providing low-carbon power. He has worked extensively, engaging with industry and the Government, to get a resolution that does the decent thing by these developers.

This measure closing down the renewable obligation has been one of the many taken by this Government that has done severe damage to investor confidence and led to a Commons departmental committee issuing a report on investor confidence in the UK energy sector.

I do not doubt that the amendments the noble and learned Lord has tabled are thought through with good intentions. However, I have targeted this side of the House’s focus specifically on the very minimum that could be considered reasonable, given that onshore wind developments are likely to be coming to an end in any case. His Amendment 7X, in part, supports my case. Yes, we want to be fair where we can, considering that the provision can be said to be in the Conservative Party manifesto, and the Commons has expressed its decision. We ask the Government to think again on the small measure I propose, at the very least, and show some consistency

I thank my noble friend Lord Hain for bringing this situation and his amendment to the attention of the House today. It allows me to underline just how destructive the Government’s arbitrary cut-off date of projects has been. A great amount of uncertainty now exists throughout the renewables sector and I urge the Minister and his department to open a dialogue with their Welsh counterparts to resolve this anomaly as quickly as possible.

I turn now to the amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock and supported by my noble friend Lady Liddell and others. My noble friend’s Amendment 7Y, in part, also supports the case that I have made. Unfortunately, he includes other provisions that go beyond the small, narrow extension to the Government’s concessions. The fact that six of the seven projects arising from this extension are in Scotland shows the importance of wind power for jobs and enterprise there. He has identified the effect on schemes locally in Scotland in his remarks. It is unfortunate that the Government have brought back the renewables obligation scheme to be solely under the reserve of the Westminster Parliament by withdrawing it from being a devolved matter.

From the amendments that have come forward, I consider it reasonable to press ahead with the amendments that I propose.