New Clause 14 - Parish councils: power to set up local energy schemes

Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 9 February 2006.

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‘(1)Subject to this section a parish council (or community council in Wales) may establish or assist in the establishment of a local energy scheme.

(2)If a parish council (or community council in Wales) is satisfied that a local energy scheme would—

(a)assist with the purposes of this Act,

(b)help promote local employment,

(c)generate economic activity within its area, or

(d)in any other way encourage or assist with measures to reverse community decline,

then that council may establish or assist in the establishment of a local energy scheme.

(3)Two or more such councils may jointly establish or assist in the establishment of a local energy scheme.

(4)In this section a local energy scheme is a scheme which—

(a)improves energy efficiency, or generates sustainable energy primarily for consumption, in the area or areas of the council or councils concerned; and

(b)is situated in the area or areas of the council or councils concerned.’.—[Gregory Barker.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 15—Clarification of power to promote well-being—

‘(1)Section 2 of the Local Government Act 2000 (c. 22) (promotion of well-being) is amended as follows.

(2)After subsection (6) insert—

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

New clause 14 would give an enabling power bringing 10,000 parish councils into the national efforts to reduce climate change and to alleviate fuel poverty. We need their efforts and their local knowledge. As a sponsor of the Local Communities Sustainability Bill in 2003, and as one of the cross-party advisers to that campaign, I feel strongly about the issue. We need to mobilise an army of opinion throughout the country, and parish councils are the linchpins of rural and suburban communities.

I emphasise that we must unleash the local knowledge of thousands of councils. Here at Westminster, we cannot possibly know everything that they may wish to do. That is the beauty of the new clause: it would confer enabling powers to bring forth new ideas and fresh thinking based on the local circumstances and particular needs of individual communities throughout the country, empowering local people. It would involve communities everywhere.

I emphasise, too, that nearly 700 such councils signed up for the Local Communities Sustainability Bill. Almost all the public meetings on that Bill were   attended by 100 to 400 people. During those meetings in towns and villages throughout the country, local energy was invariably one of the first topics. People are interested in what they can do locally. They worry about climate change, absolutely, but there is also a sense of powerlessness among the public at large. The clause is designed specifically to address that, enabling people—individuals, families, communities, neighbours—to get involved and to feel that there is something that they can do.

Let me inform the Committee about some of the initiatives that could result from this enabling clause. The Sustainable Energy Partnership very helpfully did a phone-around of some parish councillors. I do not pretend that the list is comprehensive or that it should be seen as a rigorous survey; it is just a selection of a few ideas that have been suggested by parish councillors who are supporters.

One suggestion was to appoint a microgeneration or local energy officer to promote and work with area power companies. Obviously that is something that most parish councils would not be able to do on their own, but they could co-operate in informal networks to do it on an appropriate scale. In appropriate parts of the country, certainly in Scotland, there could be hydro-site surveys to find the best areas for local companies and community schemes. There could also be wind power surveys to find the best areas for local companies and community schemes. If there is going to be an extension of onshore wind power, it has to be with community consent. It has to be at the instigation, and with the co-operation of, local people; not, as has sadly happened in certain very notable cases, over their heads, giving the renewables energy movement a bad name. Local buy-in to wind power is important and parish councils are an ideal way to facilitate it.

Other ideas include promoting biomass to, and with, local farmers; small kick-start grants for microgeneration; installing trainer schemes for local young people; opportunities for parish councils to receive information on public-private partnership schemes; and opportunities to endorse local energy and energy efficiency schemes, with leaflets and advertising. It is so much more effective if there is local buy-in to those promotions, rather than if people receive standard, centrally distributed information from Whitehall.

Further suggestions include competitions for suppliers, such as “Give us the best deal, and we’ll promote your product in return for a discount on equipment.” Companies could be persuaded to take opportunities to deal with fuel poverty, by using innovative technology. There could be bulk purchase opportunities, particularly in relation to energy efficiency and microgeneration, to get discounts and resell what can often be quite prohibitively expensive technologies to individual householders.

Not all parish councillors have an officer, but there could be someone—the clerk perhaps—who could volunteer to attend the Home Energy Conservation   Act 1995 regional forums to disseminate latest best practice and innovation in the all-important area of energy conservation. Inter-parish energy forums could be established to bring together and promote good ideas and best practice, so that people can learn from the practical experiences of other communities who have tackled the problem. That would underline the whole notion that we are all in this together.

There is a host of good ideas that the new clause could help to make happen. Why is it so important? I shall not labour the point but I shall give one reason. Not so long ago, the Prime Minister told the House of Commons that as regards the Government’s manifesto commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent. by 2010, based on 1990 levels, on current policies:

“Instead of a 20per cent. reduction, we will achieve one of 14per cent.”—[Official Report, 8 December 2004; Vol. 428, c. 1161-62.]

By January of this year, however, the Government’s energy review announced that, on current policies:

“Our latest projections suggest that the UK will have reduced CO2 emissions to around 10 per cent. below 1990 levels by 2010.”

In other words, the target is falling, and we are going backwards, not forwards. So it is clear that a lot more needs to be done and that the Government in Westminster and Whitehall do not have all the answers. We need to mobilise the parish councils and involve the rest of the nation. The problem of climate change cannot be tackled in Westminster alone, so let us take the campaign local. I urge the Committee to support the new clause. It will involve up to 10,000 new councillors in striving towards an objective that we all wish to see achieved.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Chief Whip (Commons), Liberal Democrat Chief Whip 2:30, 9 February 2006

Again, I rise to support the hon. Gentleman’s new clause. Many opportunities are best taken at grass-roots level, and the parish level of government in England certainly provides the democratic involvement that can lead to the engagement of the local community and its ownership of a scheme that is promoted by the parish. It is not even top-down from parish level; it is more a question of the parish being a suitable vehicle to harness local willingness to take this type of action forward.

I hope that the Bill’s promoter and the Government will look kindly on this very modest addition to the Bill, which provides a useful enabling power for the lowest democratic level in England and will clearly be of value and benefit in some very specific cases. I hope that it will also create a fashion for engaging in sustainability and environmental improvements.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I would now like to speak to new clause 15. Its aim is to clarify the well-being powers of local authorities under section 2 of the Local Government Act 2000 in relation to measures to alleviate climate change, which might not be covered by the present legal power.

There is complete unanimity on the objectives of the new clause—that the wide well-being powers for local authorities under section 2 of the Local Government Act 2000 should enable action on climate change. There is strong and good Government guidance to that effect, so there is clearly no division there; we are   all as one. However, I am advised that the law might not allow such action. Section 2(1) gives councils the power to do anything that will achieve any of the following:

“the promotion or improvement of the economic well-being of their area ... the promotion or improvement of the social well-being of their area ... the promotion or improvement of the environmental well-being of their area.”

Section 2(2) clarifies that, saying that powers may be used for

“the whole or any part of a local authority’s area, or ... all or any persons resident or present in a local authority’s area”.

Everybody expects that to cover schemes to alleviate climate change, but there is some evidence that it might not.

For example, let us suppose that a local authority decides to back a small wind farm that will reduce CO2 emissions. It is sited skilfully and with the consent of the local community, so there is no local opposition, and planning issues are properly dealt with. It might be a private or a community scheme, as envisaged under clause 9 of the Bill. The council wants to use its resources—people and perhaps even money—to help to get the scheme going, and thinks that that can be done under section 2 of the Local Government Act 2000. Government guidance says that it can do that, but does the law?

The proposed scheme will not promote or improve the economic well-being of anybody in the area, because there will be no local jobs—the supplying company will just arrive, install the turbine and leave. It will not necessarily promote or improve the social well-being of any people living in the area, as the resulting energy will simply be sent through the national grid, and it might not promote or improve the environmental well-being of any people in the area because the CO2 reduction, crucial as it is, does not of itself do that. It is true that it could play a tiny part in reducing the chance of flooding or bad weather in 20 to 50 years’ time, but it may not improve the environment of the people living there now as the law requires. Even the most ardent champion of renewable power would baulk at suggesting that. I ask hon. Members to imagine that CO2 has been reduced in their area by such a scheme—that is terrific, and indeed, vital—but I ask them how it benefits them and their neighbours now.

CO2 reduction is vital, but it may not, of itself, benefit the residents of the area now. The well-being power under section 2 of the 2002 Act may not apply and that is absurd. No one wants that; it was never the intention, but, believe it or not, some local councillors have been told by legal officers that the well-being power may not extend to initiatives that only, or exclusively, reduce CO2. In this litigious age, the law needs clarification to give certainty to local legal advisers.

I hope that the Minister will back the new clause, which would achieve what we all want. I hope it will offer clarity and encourage local councils who are on the brink of taking action, but who were tipped back by the measure towards not taking action. I offer the new clause as a genuine way to remove any legal doubt that may exist in some quarters.

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister for energy, Department of Trade and Industry

This has been an interesting and useful debate and I have listened with great interest to hon. Members’ remarks. We have much sympathy with the intentions of new clause 14. Parish councils, especially the larger ones, rather like town councils, may well have a role to play in setting up local energy schemes. I am enthusiastic about enabling the community to play a role in respect of climate change.

I have a feeling that some of the anoraks in the micropower sector—I am not suggesting that there are any—

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister for energy, Department of Trade and Industry

I do not think it stops rain. I might develop a joke about parish heat pump politics, but I will leave it at that.

I was interested in the range of possibilities under the community energy heading in which parish councils could get involved, and particularly intrigued by the idea of inter-parish energy forums. Perhaps on Report, an hon. Member will table an amendment, which we may not accept, that people can only walk or ride their bicycles to the inter-parish energy forums. We need consistency in what we are doing.

We should not lose sight of the fact that parish and town councils vary enormously in size, activities and circumstances. The main source of a parish council’s income is its precept on the district or unitary council. They are not, however, subject to the constraints on principal authorities through financial measures such as capping. The powers of well-being in the Local Government Act 2000 do not apply to them.

Parish councils could rely on the powers they have under section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972 to set up local energy schemes, which is a general power to spend where expenditure is in the interests of, and will bring direct benefit to, the area. The power is limited to spending locally and there are some legitimate doubts over the scope of it. In principle, we think the power that the new clause would introduce could be useful, and would enable parish councils to take part in setting up local energy schemes.

We have some concerns about the scope of the limited power that local councils have in that respect and we need to explore the issues further. I undertake to consider them in greater depth with the intention of tabling a Government clause at a later stage. In the light of my comments, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be persuaded to ask leave to withdraw the new clause.

New clause 15 proposes an amendment to the Local Government Act 2000 to clarify the fact that the powers given to principal authorities to promote or improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of their areas also enable them to take action to alleviate climate change. The intention is well founded; if we are to succeed in reducing the emission of the harmful greenhouse gases that are causing climate   change, we need to take action at all levels, not just in the international arena or in nation states, but at the most local of levels.

Local authorities are taking action. Bracknell Forest borough council is a good example; it has used well-being powers to provide a financial guarantee, enabling the go-ahead for the use of sustainable energy in its town centre regeneration. I am advised that a number of London boroughs have used the powers to work with an organisation called Smart Moves Ltd—it sounds like it might be advising the Conservative party at the moment, but I do not know whether it extends that far—in the setting up of CityCarClub, which helps to reduce car use, thereby reducing pollution, congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. Local authorities are therefore already using well-being powers to tackle climate change, which is why I believe the proposed clarification to be unnecessary. The new clause may also cast doubt on the breadth of the power to promote or improve well-being, by signalling that it is not as wide as indicated by the statutory guidance. We believe that it is likely to cause more confusion than clarity.

The Government were required by the Local Government Act 2000 to produce statutory guidance on the exercise of the well-being powers, which is useful in this debate. The guidance followed consultation with local government representatives, and was launched in March 2001. Before exercising the powers, principal authorities must have regard to the statutory guidance. Paragraph 6 sets out a broad range of the powers and states:

“Authorities will also wish to consider how the new power can help them to contribute locally to shared national priorities, such as action to combat climate change.”

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:45, 9 February 2006

I am listening carefully to the Minister. Is he aware of any councillors or councils whose legal officers have told them about the guidance? If not, is that because there have not been any cases of such advice being given, or because his officials are unaware of them? If it is the latter, will he examine whether the point is being made?

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister for energy, Department of Trade and Industry

I understand—I use that word because I am not an ODPM Minister; I am taking advice from the Minister and colleagues in that Department—that there has been confusion over the interpretation of the well-being powers. We should therefore undertake to seek to clarify the issue. It is more about information and education than taking a new power.

The well-being powers are part of a wider framework that includes the duty to produce a community strategy. Such strategies promote or improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of their area, and contribute to sustainable development in the UK. The statutory guidance, which is called “Preparing community strategies,” reinforces the message that combating climate change falls well within the scope of the powers.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test

In addition to seeking information on whether local authorities have received legal advice in the way that the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) suggests, will my hon. Friend consider strengthening and redirecting the statutory guidance towards local authorities, so that that point is emphasised? Will he suggest that to the Minister responsible at the ODPM?

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister for energy, Department of Trade and Industry

The best thing that I can do is ensure that my hon. Friend’s remarks are brought to the attention of the Minister responsible and the ODPM. That has already happened, as it were, and they will reflect on his suggestion.

The Government’s two pieces of statutory guidance on the framework for improving the well-being of communities make it absolutely clear that local authorities can use their power of well-being and community strategies to combat climate change. I understand that some local authorities have received legal advice. This is complex because it will depend on the action being proposed. Adding the suggested wording would not make anything legal that was not legal before. If an action to combat climate change is currently illegal, the new clause will not change that. The legal advice to which I think the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle was referring may have been about the specifics of what would be legal or illegal rather than a general statement about well-being.

I give this undertaking on behalf of my colleague in the ODPM. We will reflect on what has been a useful debate. At the moment, there is nothing to stop the kind of projects that the hon. Gentleman described. I understand that there is confusion. There is an issue here about further clarification, although not in terms of statute. We are talking about better communication of powers. Indeed, I hope there would be some encouragement that parish councils will use these powers. I was wondering about parish meetings, but that is perhaps going too far. We all have a vested interest in combating climate change. I will have to oppose new clause 15 if it comes to a vote. In principle, we agree to new clause 14 and are looking at that.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful for the Minister’s comments about new clause 15. There is undoubtedly no difference between us in the intention here. It is simply about the practical implementation of the law on the ground. As is patently obvious, I am not a lawyer and the Minister has recourse to the advice of a great many experts. I am grateful for his acknowledgment that there is a real problem in implementation.

It may be that it is simply a misunderstanding for which the solution could be a robust restating of the statutory position. If we can solve the problem, even if it is only a small one, without recourse to primary legislation, that is a good thing. I am all in favour of not using the law when it is not necessary. If the Minister could write to the Committee once he has had a chance to confer with the ODPM, that would be very welcome and would help to reassure us that this will not simply be one of those issues that starts with good intentions, but loses momentum as the Committee   disappears. Having made the point and found agreement across the Committee, I do not intend to press new clause 15.

I was greatly heartened by the Minister’s comments about new clause 14. If he and his officials have thoughts on how the provisions to empower those 10,000 parish and town councils may be better drafted, I will welcome that. As a champion of localism, I recognise that the effort to bring all those local committees into the battle against climate change will be much easier if it has the authority of a Government-drafted amendment rather than an Opposition amendment. In the interest of consensus and constructive cross-party politics, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.