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

Part of Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 9 February 2006.

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Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:30, 9 February 2006

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.