Onshore wind generating stations in England and Wales

Energy Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 2 February 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change) 9:25, 2 February 2016

I beg to move amendment 16, in clause 79, page 46, line 43, at end insert—

‘(2) Within six months from the date of this Act coming into force, the Secretary of State shall report to Parliament on the impact of this section and any other policy changes to the renewable energy sector with regards to how they affect the United Kingdom’s ability to comply with the 2020 EU renewable target.

(3) The report in subsection (2) must include an estimate of the cost to the taxpayer should the UK not comply with the 2020 EU renewable target.”

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to report within six months of this Act coming into force on how changes to renewable energy policy (including the changes stipulated in section 79 of the Act) have affected the UK’s ability to comply with the 2020 EU renewable target.

The clause and the amendment present two issues concerning wind generation. The clause under part 5 concerns wind power and I am sure there will be further debates about the wider issues later today.

Clause 79 amends section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989 and removes the obligation to secure consent to construct, extend or operate an onshore wind farm in England and Wales with a capacity greater than 50 MW. The previous arrangement meant that local planning authorities were effectively countermanded by the Secretary of State in the case of larger wind farms, by reference to a section 36 agreement, which is required to allow an onshore wind farm to operate in England and Wales.

By stripping out that countermanding, the clause means that in principle the final requirement for permission for wind generation at local level lies with the local planning authority. We discussed on Second Reading the desirability of that provision for the future of onshore wind and the idea that the local planning authority should have the final say in those application because it would reflect the wishes of the local population—assuming that the authority had taken proper soundings of local interests and thoughts regarding an application.

That exemplifies the principle on which the House agreed on Second Reading: that this would be a welcome change and give clarification of the future direction of onshore wind applications in England and Wales. We discussed whether the Opposition really meant that, and indeed it was emphasised by the shadow Secretary of State that we welcomed the proposed arrangements. I will not rehearse those arguments this morning other than to say that, in principle, the arrangements outlined in the clause are welcome, but I will look at the detail of the clause.

The provision does not stop at removing section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989. The explanatory notes outline the intention for the arrangements in the clause to be

“combined with secondary legislation to be made by Government to amend the Planning Act 2008.”

That is when some very small alarm bells start ringing in my head, because if clause 79 is to be taken at face value and it is simply about removing section 36 of the Electricity Act, it appears to me that, by default, the power to decide resides with the local planning committee. That is something on which we all agree. If, however, the intention is to undertake further secondary legislation to further amend the Planning Act 2008, not through the Minister’s Department but, I would imagine, through the Department for Communities and Local Government, would that take away from that planning authority any power to make those decisions?

Discussions undoubtedly went on between Departments in the run-up to the Bill’s introduction about how various clauses would be interpreted and implemented across Departments. I do not know whether the Minister discussed with the Department for Communities and Local Government what that intention to undertake secondary legislation might look like in practice. Would this secondary legislation detract from the need to apply for planning permission under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, or would that Act be amended in any way by that secondary legislation? In short, would there be any resiling from the idea that local government in the shape of planning committees really would have the final say?

I say that because there is form in this area. The Minister will recall that in the previous Parliament, notwithstanding section 36 arrangements, the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government had what could best be described as a penchant for calling in applications, sitting on them, so to speak—we are referring here to the previous Secretary of State—and then deciding them through the machinery of his Department, sometimes at very great length; indeed, sometimes the applications were not determined at all. If that machinery is to be either strengthened or reintroduced at the DCLG through the secondary legislation mentioned in the clause, that would clearly be the overthrow of what is set out in the clause. Certainly, what I considered to be our happy agreement on Second Reading that we could safely park onshore permissions with the planning committee of local authorities could effectively be subverted by another means.

I would be very unhappy if that were to be the outcome. I am sure that the Minister would be too, because both she and the Secretary of State were vocal in stating that the simple outcome, which is the determination of onshore wind applications by planning authorities, would be the way forward. Will the Minister clarify for me the intention regarding that secondary legislation in relation to the Planning Act 2008? I am sure that I will hear a clear explanation of how that might work because the Minister has thought about this very carefully and has an arrangement that she can set out for us this morning. I see that she is already receiving what I am sure will be very useful information.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris Conservative, Daventry 9:45, 2 February 2016

Will the hon. Gentleman take the opportunity to make it clear that he still supports local communities having a full say in such proposals?

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change)

Yes indeed. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who takes a close interest in these matters, will have taken from my words this morning that I am seeking clarity on how pure the Government’s intention is in that regard. Not only is it the Opposition’s position that local communities should have the final say on onshore wind applications, but I am seeking to ensure that that principle, on which I think he and I agree, is not in any way diluted, diverted or subverted by other legislation that may come along to get round that principle.

Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris Conservative, Daventry

I am sure we will come later to the commitment in the Conservative party’s manifesto. To save much debate, there is a second part to that commitment:

“As a result we will end any new public subsidy for them and change the law so that local people have the final say on wind farm applications.”

Although I understand that we are going to have a debate about the subsidy bit, I assume that the hon. Gentleman will be in complete agreement with that last bit, about local people having the final say on wind farm applications.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change)

Yes, indeed, and on that second part, one could say that the clause, taken by itself and at face value, actually discharges that manifesto commitment. My question is: does it really? Does it really, taking into account the arrangements that might arise across Government to ensure that that manifesto commitment is carried out and not subverted? Does it really, taking into account how the DCLG would handle an application? Does it really, taking into account the announced intention that there will be further amendments to the Planning Act 2008 which may impinge on the Town and Country Planning Act where those applications are concerned? Among other things, in pursuit of this manifesto commitment, what assurances has DECC received from the DCLG that the process will be straightforward, simple and final for those local planning authorities?

My understanding is that under the proposed arrangements, an onshore wind farm applicant would simply apply for planning permission for an onshore wind farm, with all the caveats that apply to planning permission, all the arrangements and considerations that apply at a local level; then local planning officers may recommend to the local planning committee that planning permission be given and councillors on that planning authority may then agree with the planning officers that there are no technical objections and they want the scheme to go ahead. We have to recognise that local councillors may not necessarily always agree with what their officers say and may well reflect other issues marginally outside the exact terms of planning; nevertheless, by that particular arrangement, they may insert into that planning decision the central idea that the community really wants that particular development.

That applies not only to wind farms but to a number of developments where planning applications to some extent represent a two-stage process of looking at the technical issues and the not exactly political but local issues related to those technical issues. If that process is carried out properly and stops there, that discharges the Conservatives’ obligation in terms of their manifesto commitment on future onshore wind applications. If, however, changes are to be made to the obligation itself, either through new powers for the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to call in, on an enhanced basis, schemes that otherwise would be subject to only that process, or through constraints placed in secondary legislation on how the process is undertaken, that should cause the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change—the key proponent of this particular manifesto commitment being placed into law—to worry a little bit.

The Minister does not look worried, so I am confident that she will be able to put my mind to rest on what other Departments have in store for this Bill. Perhaps she will assure us today that her understanding of what the process will consist of once the clause has been put into law is identical to mine. We can then continue to agree happily across the Committee about the status of this piece of legislation.

The Opposition would like amendment 16 to be made because we believe that for every action, there is the potential for an equal and opposite action that needs to be understood and taken into account in future activity. Later, we will discuss at greater length actions recently undertaken by the Government on various matters relating to the progress of renewable energy. The foreshortening of the period in which the renewables obligation is available for wind farms is just one such action. A number of other actions call into question the Government’s trajectory as far as renewable deployment is concerned.

The question that the amendment attempts to address is: how do those actions relate to the position in 2020? That will be a reckoning point for the European Union renewables target, and a very real reckoning point for the UK because the UK has signed up willingly and enthusiastically to the EU renewables target. The overall target is set within the EU; each country is provided with its own target to reach within that overall goal; and each country sets sub-targets for various sectors of renewable activity—for example, electricity or heat provided from renewables and renewable transport fuels and activity. Together, those three areas make up a country’s target and in theory would discharge the obligation that a country had entered into on the overall EU target.

It is not just a question of the UK setting a target.

“The target sets a legally binding obligation on HMG to deliver” in this instance

“15% of the UK’s final energy consumption across electricity, heat and transport from renewable sources in 2020, with a binding sub-target for 10% of transport fuels to be from renewable sources in 2020.

Beyond a flat rate of renewables for each member state, the effort share for meeting the EU-wide 20% target was based on GDP. As a result of this, and the fact that the UK started from a very low base of renewables deployment” the Government’s

“target requires amongst the most significant annual growth in renewables deployment (16% average annual growth from 2011 to 2020) of any member state.

The absence of a credible plan to meet the target carries the risk of successful judicial review, and failing to meet the overall target in 2020 could lead to on-going fines imposed by the EU Court of Justice (which could take into account avoided costs) until the UK reaches the target level.”

I have been reading from a letter from the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to other Departments on 29 October 2015 which sets out why the UK is failing at the moment to make progress towards its target and what could be the consequence of that. As the letter sets out, the consequence could be successful judicial review at EU level of what the UK has done about reaching its renewables target and the possible imposition of substantial fines by the European Court of Justice for failing to reach that target by not taking proper action to make sure that it could be reached.

The letter, from which I will not read further, makes it clear that while the UK is on course to make progress towards its target, what is likely to happen at present, prior to the Bill going through, is that there could be a shortfall against the UK’s 2020 target of around 50 TWh or 3.5 percentage points—that is, instead of 15%, 11% or 12%—when we get to 2020. That is to say that the UK is on target not to meet its target, and that may be compounded by the changes in the last few months in the arrangements concerning the renewables obligation, changes to the climate change levy and other changes that have come on stream, as a result of which we are further back on the baseline as far as meeting those targets is concerned than is reflected in the Secretary of State’s letter or review of the horizon over the summer of 2015. It is important that we have clear sight of what that means over the next period in relation to the Bill and to the wider platform of the UK’s obligations.

If by 2020 we are facing fines greater than the amount we might have spent to avoid those fines, we will be in a pretty poor position. However, we do not know what the two look like: we do not know the relative risk of failure to meet the target incurring greater costs than might have been incurred in avoiding that failure through measures, either administrative or legislative, to ensure that the target was met. We will be in the dark over the next few years as far as Europe is concerned. I am sure all hon. Members would welcome us not being in the dark about our future in Europe.

The amendment would require a report to Parliament on the impact of the clause—not only changes in renewable obligations regarding onshore wind but a wider canvas of the effect of measures on the UK’s ability to comply with the UK 2020 renewable energy target. There should also be an estimate of the cost to the taxpayer should the UK not comply with that target and, by implication, a comparison of the two positions. That is a sensible safety check that ought to be carried out on this and future legislation. I hope the Minister will agree.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change 10:00, 2 February 2016

The hon. Gentleman made two points, the first on the manifesto commitment. I want to reassure him completely. As my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry pointed out, we set out a clear commitment in our manifesto to give local people the final say on wind farm applications.

“When determining planning applications for wind energy development involving one or more wind turbines, local planning authorities should only grant planning permission if: the development site is in an area identified as suitable for wind energy development in a local or neighbourhood plan; and following consultation, it can be demonstrated that the planning impacts identified by affected local communities have been fully addressed and therefore the proposal has their backing.”—[Official Report, 18 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 9WS.]

That is taken from the written ministerial statement from the Department for Communities and Local Government on changes to planning rules. The new planning tests reflect the Government view that wind turbines should get the go-ahead only when local people have said that they want them, and where.

To reply to the hon. Gentleman’s specific points on amendments to legislation, in order to achieve our goal of giving local communities the final say, we have to amend the Planning Act 2008 and the Electricity Act 1989 to put decision making into the town and country planning regime. The planning order that is laid does no more than that. Secondary legislation makes no change to the town and country planning regime; it merely removes matters from the Planning Act 2008. I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that it is absolutely our intention to give local communities the final say on wind farm developments.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising his second point. The purpose of amendment 16 is to require the Secretary of State to report within six months after the Bill comes into force on how changes to renewable energy policy, including the changes stipulated in clause 79, have affected the UK’s ability to comply with the 2020 EU renewable target. The Government are already obliged to report on our progress towards decarbonisation of energy supply, the development of renewables and the development of energy efficiency. As the hon. Gentleman may be aware, we last reported our progress under the EU renewable energy directive on 21 January 2016, just under two weeks ago. The report says clearly that we surpassed the target for 2013 and 2014, with an average 6.3% of final energy consumption coming from renewable sources against a target of 5.4%. Renewable contributions to energy generation are increasing across heat, electricity and transport. Heat from renewable sources increased by 4.6% during 2014, a record 19.1% of electricity generation came from renewables in 2014 and the use of renewable biofuels for transport rose by 14% during 2014.

As well as the report of 21 January, we regularly publish statistics on energy use in a number of other publications. “Energy Trends” provides a quarterly update, the “Digest of United Kingdom Energy Statistics” is published annually, and statistics on greenhouse gas emissions, solar PV deployment, renewable heat incentive take-up and renewables obligation certificates and generation are published monthly. The 2013 electricity market reform delivery plan set out our ambition of achieving at least 30% of electricity from renewables in 2020. The hon. Gentleman will know that we are on course to achieve that, with renewables representing almost 20% of generation in 2014. I hope that I have reassured the hon. Gentleman. There are a lot of reports, and I am happy to send him details of each if it would be helpful to him.

I would like specifically to address the premise underlying the amendment, which concerns the impact of clause 79 on renewables deployment. The Government’s impact assessment has shown that we anticipate no foreseeable change in deployment rates arising from the implementation of clause 79. The clause simply sets out our plans to localise decision making for new onshore wind and not to change any of the support framework around onshore wind.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset

I welcome local decision making for onshore wind. Will my hon. Friend confirm, for the benefit of my understanding if not that of anybody else on the Committee, that the clause means that applicants will no longer have the right to appeal a refusal to the planning inspectorate? Will she also confirm that it in no way removes an applicant’s right, if refused, to challenge the decision through the courts via a judicial review if the applicant feels that the local planning authority has erred in law or process?

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change

I can confirm that the appeals process will remain, but the changes to the Planning Act 2008 mean that the consideration around local involvement and local acceptance will be stronger than in the past. The intention is that local people will have the final say, and any appeal will take that intention into account.

To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test, our review suggests that six months after implementation would be too soon to show any change. Planning applications, as he knows, generally take much longer than that. To report on the impact of deployment rates for onshore wind within such a short period after the legislation comes into effect would place an additional burden on local planning authorities to provide the necessary figures. We have been clear in our policy intent that we wish to reduce future burdens and red tape in relation to decision making for new onshore wind farms. To require local planning authorities to report on consent rates for new onshore windfarms would absolutely go against this, and may even be seen as an effort by the centre to exert influence over the local decision-making process.

We already regularly report on many energy statistics. I would be very happy to provide further information on this to hon. Members. It is not the Government’s intent to add further reporting burdens. On this basis, I hope the hon. Member for Southampton, Test will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change) 10:15, 2 February 2016

I am at a slight disadvantage because at the conclusion of my previous comments I handed the copy of the Secretary of State’s letter to the Hansard writers for their perusal, so I do not have it in front of me. [Interruption.] Thank you, I do now have it and, by the way, Hansard will get this back in a moment. In her letter, the Secretary of State makes some further comments on her position on the UK’s trajectory towards the 2020 targets. She states that essentially the Department has a public position and private position. She writes:

“Publically we are clear that the UK continues to make progress to meet the target.”

However, she is clear that privately, that is not the case. The figures set out in her letter indicate that what is stated publicly is not, shall we say, untrue, but a shaving of the completeness of information that might otherwise enable people to make an independent decision on where we are. There appears to be a difference between what is acknowledged privately to be the case in the Department and what is stated publicly on the progress of the trajectory.

That important point needs to have a substantial light shone on it. It is true, as the Minister states, that the Department has published various figures relating to progress, but I wonder whether they are in the realm of the statement made publicly that the UK continues to make progress to meet the target, or privately that we are clear that we are not making progress to meet the target. As suggested here, a report would clear up that issue and could be an important accurate fix on our progress.

I do not expect the Minister to comment on the exact syntax and grammar that the Secretary of State may have used in her correspondence, but there is a point at issue as to the clarity with which progress towards the target may be made and whether there would be further issues to be considered if they were properly in the public domain and related to the question of what costs might be otherwise be sustained in the future. I hope the Minister will give further clarification on that point. With that, I hand my letter back to the Clerk.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the UK is making progress towards the 2020 renewables target of 15%, and that in the latest report we have surpassed our interim targets for 2013 and 2014 with an average of 6.3% of final energy consumption coming from renewable sources over the two years against a target of 5.4%. The hon. Gentleman quotes from a letter that I do not have in front of me, so I hope that he has not given his version of what it says. I can tell him that the UK is committed to meeting our legally binding targets and that we are making progress towards those targets.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change)

I do not wish to press the amendment to a vote, but I hope that the points about transparency on this issue will be taken on board. Indeed, should the Minister wish me to retrieve the letter a further time—[Interruption.] There we are. I am sure that she can have a look at it for herself. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 79 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 80