Amendment 120

Environment Bill - Report (4th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 9:30 pm on 15th September 2021.

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Baroness McIntosh of Pickering:

Moved by Baroness McIntosh of Pickering

120: After Clause 136, insert the following new Clause—“Assessment of cumulative impact of offshore windfarms(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations provide that, before planning permission is granted for the construction of an offshore windfarm, an independent assessment must have been undertaken on the cumulative impact of the construction of such windfarms on—(a) the environment,(b) marine life, and(c) the countryside,both onshore and offshore.(2) Regulations under this section are subject to the affirmative procedure.” Member’s explanatory statementAn assessment of the cumulative impact is intended to ensure that any potential damage to the environment will be strictly controlled and limited.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to bring forward on Report a revised amendment to that which I moved in Committee. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate it and look forward to my noble friend’s reply. I am asking that the department provides regulations before planning permission is granted for the construction of an offshore wind farm, and that an independent assessment must have been undertaken on the cumulative impact of the construction of such wind farms on the environment, marine life and countryside, both onshore and offshore.

Since we debated this in Committee, there have been a number of developments. I pay tribute to the Government for the research they have commissioned, in the form of a new database aiming to avoid an economic impact assessment for offshore wind. I hope there might still be an opportunity for doing such an environmental impact assessment where necessary, but I understand that Defra is working with the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, alongside BEIS and other interested parties, with the aim of supporting the knowledge base for the sustainable development of new offshore wind farms. The remit is quite limited at the moment, and I understand that they will be looking mostly at establishing the impact of noise generated from disposal of unexploded ordnance and on applying biodiversity net gain offshore.

Will this research be extended to cover areas, for example, that have been identified by the recent report of the Fisheries Committee in the European Parliament? This said about the construction of offshore wind turbines:

“Underwater sound has been shown to have an effect, mainly on fish and marine mammals and mainly during the construction phase.”

The report also states:

“Impacts from permanent, continuous electromagnetic fields could change the behaviour of electro sensitive species”.

I have no doubt that the reason a number of sea mammals, such as whales, are banking on our shores is because of the impact not just of the construction phase but of the perpetual noise of the operation of these wind turbines. I hope that the Government will extend the research to approach that.

The point was backed up by the evidence that we heard in the EU Environment Sub-Committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. One of the witnesses, Helen Quayle, who is the policy officer of the RSPB, stated that

“we urgently need a new approach to offshore wind, how we deploy this technology”.

While I welcome the research, it is very limited at the moment, and I urge my noble friend and his department to extend its basis.

I was delighted that my noble friend acknowledged, in response to an Oral Question in June, that there is a tension between different uses such as fishing and shipping in the same marine environment in which these now extensive wind farms are operating. I invite him to set out how he and the department expect to resolve that tension before we see even more wind farms being introduced. For example, is my noble friend aware that the US Government have looked into an estimate that offshore wind projects could displace some of their commercial fisheries by as much as 25%? I understand that the US Administration are studying plans to pay and compensate the fishing industry for losses incurred from the planned expansion of offshore wind developments. Given the importance of the fisheries industry to Scotland and other parts of the UK such as Yorkshire and the south-west of England, to what extent will the Government consider compensation to be justified? My noble friend has accepted that, particularly as regards inshore fisheries and wind farms, there is a notable tension already.

I would like to ask my noble friend about pylons, which is why I inserted the words “onshore and offshore” into the amendment. Pylons will have to be constructed, as I understand, to transmit the electricity generated by offshore wind farms into the national grid. I had some experience of this as the MP for the Vale of York, when we had one line of pylons. That did not have anything to do with offshore wind farms; it was just for generating electricity in the north-east and introducing it via Yorkshire into the national grid. There was a big campaign entitled REVOLT, rebelling against extra overheard pylons. We were told that, if the second line of pylons was introduced, the first would be dismantled, but a second line was introduced that sat alongside and a few metres away from the first, so people in north Yorkshire were understandably not best pleased. Will my noble friend consider whether the wires transmitting electricity to the national grid could be sent underground, rather than by overhead line transmission? It would also mean that less electricity was lost through transmission, which would make economic and environmental sense.

I would like to ask my noble friend, as I have not had the opportunity to do so to date, what the Government’s plan is for dismantling and decommissioning wind turbines. I am not aware that any information on this is in the public domain. Given the large numbers of offshore wind farms and the difficulty of placing them and embedding them in the seabed, it is potentially a problem that will escalate. Will my noble friend be able to share that information on the costs of decommissioning with us this evening, or, if not, will he write to me?

I very much look forward to hearing my noble friend’s response to these genuine concerns. I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise much of the work that was done in the EU Environment Sub-Committee at that time and update it.

Photo of Lord Khan of Burnley Lord Khan of Burnley Opposition Whip (Lords) 9:45 pm, 15th September 2021

My Lords, I will speak briefly to the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering. This amendment discusses the control and limiting of any potential damage to the environment by the construction of wind farms.

The UK is a global leader in offshore wind, with that energy source powering millions of homes across the country. It is also an area that the Government have identified for growth, with the world’s largest wind farm under construction off the north-east coast. Wind farms form an important part of our energy mix. We have heard concerns voiced about their impacts on the environment, including the potential disruption to ecosystems. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, mentioned an important point: that the construction of offshore wind farms has meant a loss of 25% of fisheries. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to that point as well.

However, one can only assume that the construction of offshore wind farms must have had an impact assessment, and that it must have been done with some diligence—obviously, before the big announcement made by the Prime Minister when he launched the UK’s huge wind farm venture initiative and compared the UK’s wind farms to Saudi Arabian oil. I hope that the Minister is able to explain the work being undertaken by the department and reassure the noble Baroness on the construction of offshore wind farms.

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank noble Lords for their contributions to the debate. This is an extremely important issue and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, is right to raise it. In delivering net zero, it is crucial that environmental protections are maintained. I can assure her that existing planning processes are designed to ensure thorough consideration of cumulative effects prior to consenting. The need to consider cumulative effects in planning and decision-making is already set out in planning policy, in particular in the energy national policy statement, the marine policy statement, the habitats regulations assessment process and the infrastructure planning regulations of 2017, which cover the environmental impact assessment.

The regulatory framework also includes independent scrutiny by statutory nature conservation bodies—for example, Natural England. These regulatory frameworks ensure comprehensive identification and assessment of all significant environmental impacts, including the cumulative effects of the project, whether these be to the marine or terrestrial environment.

We have also brought forward amendments to the biodiversity net gain provisions in the Bill, extending the policy to terrestrial nationally significant infrastructure projects. As the noble Baroness will know, we have included provisions within the amendments to extend net gain to the marine environment once we have established the appropriate approach.

The noble Baroness asked a number of specific questions. The first was again in relation to the tension between inshore fisheries and offshore wind farms. Defra is working closely with Natural England, Cefas and the Marine Management Organisation to try to better understand the tensions and then consider the appropriate solutions. We have recently commissioned work looking at opportunities for co-location and are considering examples of good practice, such as the work done in Grimsby that enables fisheries and offshore wind farm operators to work well together. This also pays dividends for the marine environment, reducing the cumulative impacts of both.

The noble Baroness mentioned the example of the US Administration, who are currently considering a compensation scheme for the fishing industry as a result of losses incurred from the expansion of offshore wind developments. In the UK, offshore wind farm developers already pay disruption compensation to fishers temporarily displaced from their grounds by offshore wind construction. Members of the Defra programmes on offshore wind-enabling actions and marine planning are meeting US Administration officials and BEIS on Monday 20 September to discuss approaches to managing the deployment of offshore wind to minimise disturbance to the marine environment and other sea users.

The noble Baroness is right that onshore pylons are unsightly and, no doubt, not environmentally friendly. Electricity from offshore wind farms is transmitted to land, as she knows, via subsea cables. The offshore transmission network review, which was led by BEIS and Ofgem, is working to increase the co-ordination of offshore transmission to reduce the overall amount of new onshore infrastructure needed to meet the Government’s offshore wind targets.

Finally, the noble Baroness asked about decommissioning. Decommissioning is considered in the consenting process for offshore wind. In addition, Defra is discussing future options for decommissioning with developers who have programmes currently going through the consenting process. Some arrays may be repowered; however, other legacy infrastructure has been colonised and now provides important biodiversity benefits. We are working with the industry to understand how decommissioning can be delivered to maximise the gains while removing any unnecessary and avoidable pressures from the marine environment.

I hope that answers the questions that the noble Baroness asked and she feels sufficiently reassured to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Khan, for his remarks, and I am especially grateful to my noble friend the Minister for his reassurance on these points. He certainly put my mind at rest on many of them. I am not sure that the idea of colonising wind turbines on wind farms sounds very appealing, but he has satisfied me. It is helpful to know of the meeting on 20 September. I would be grateful if my noble friend could update us in that regard. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 120 withdrawn.

Amendment 121 not moved.