HC Deb 30 October 1996 vol 284 cc563-83

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Bates.]

9.34 am
Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

I am glad to have the opportunity to raise important planning issues in Scotland relative to windfarms and telecommunications towers. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State is able to be with us. I know that he will give us the Government's view later.

If I were to declare an interest, it would be a deep love of the countryside. At one time, I was a Minister at the Scottish Office with responsibilities for the environment. I was a member of the Nature Conservancy Council and of various governing bodies that are interested in the countryside. I am not, however, involved in any pressure group.

I am concerned about the number of tele-communications towers everywhere in the countryside and the ever-increasing number of windfarms. Both types of structure are serious blots on the countryside and on the landscape generally. I believe that we require stricter controls.

It is no use the Government, who are keen on raising standards in the countryside, producing splendid glossy papers on the countryside, on our coastline, on rural improvements, on environmentally sensitive areas, on scenic areas and special protection areas, for example, if we allow unattractive pylons and generators to spread without the most careful consideration and thought.

Whatever we think of technical achievements, they do not enhance the scenic beauty of Scotland or elsewhere. I shall begin with telecommunications pylons. The masts sprout up almost anywhere without planning permission. I accept, of course, that modern technology is important. We must accept that the world has mobile telephones and other means of quick communication. I accept also that we need a first-class telecommunications system if we are to use such equipment.

Masts are permitted developments stemming from the Telecommunications Act 1984, the subsequent Scottish Office Development Department guidelines—25/85—and the general development order that was introduced in 1992.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

I accept that telecommunications masts in Scotland and elsewhere are ugly. Does my right hon. Friend include in his diatribe the equally ugly electricity pylons and poles that are used instead of taking the system underground?

Sir Hector Monro

I have not really started my diatribe. I appreciate, of course, my hon. Friend's thoughts.

If we were to begin again by taking ourselves back to 1900 instead of living in years near to the year 2000, we would think twice about the distribution of electricity by means of vast pylons, and by smaller pylons as the supply comes nearer and nearer to individual homes. There are a huge number of vast and unattractive pylons. Some were erected during the war. There are some in the valley near my old home, which were erected during the 1940s, when no one really understood what was going on in terms of planning. There is a pylon line right through the centre of the valley floor between Langholm and Hawick, which looks most unattractive. With hindsight, I am sure that we would not allow that to happen now. Much more consideration would be given to placing pylons nearer the hillside and below sight lines wherever possible.

Pylons cause great sadness to those who are interested in scenic beauty, and telegraph poles can be extremely dangerous when placed alongside roads. We know that cars frequently crash into them. If we were able to start again, I am sure that we would put many more heavy electrical cables underground.

There is no requirement to obtain permission from a planning authority before erecting telecommunications masts. I appreciate, of course, that orders and guidelines emphasise that developers must take account of the countryside and, in sensitive areas, must consult local authorities. That is in black and white. It is disappointing, however, when we see what such consultations have produced. It is time to reconsider our flexible and laissez-faire attitude to developers putting up masts wherever they want; if there is a code of practice, it is not effective.

There are masts and pylons all over the place. For obvious technical reasons, they have to be on the tops of hills or ridges, so they are extremely obtrusive; wherever one drives, one sees masts and little blocks of telecommunications structures. The masts can be 15 m high—or 50 ft, as I much prefer to use the old English terms rather than modern European jargon—and, if they are on buildings, the first 30 m is no problem, so there can be a 150 ft building plus a 50 ft tower on top, which means that a mast can be 200 ft high, without authority. That, however, is not my prime concern; I am more concerned about the free-standing towers all over the countryside.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

Only last week, I took up that very point with my hon. Friend the Minister for Construction, Planning and Energy Efficiency, because the problem is widespread and we are now being afflicted by it in Cornwall, where mobile telephone masts are popping up all over the place in exposed positions. My right hon. Friend can rest assured that he has the backing of every hon. Member who represents a rural constituency, from Land's End to John o'Groats.

Sir Hector Monro

How right my hon. Friend is. Nobody looks after the interests of Cornwall and the Cornish coastline more than he does.

The phenomenon has grown like Topsy, and I expect that my hon. Friend the Minister will say that, with hindsight, we were a little free and easy with the arrangements that we made in the 1980s and that we did not expect quite such a rash of masts. The need to provide the best possible telecommunications for the general public must be balanced against their right to retain their beautiful countryside.

There are many anomalies

I understand from a newspaper article that I can put up a flagpole with a Union flag without authority, but that I would need to have planning authority to erect a flagpole to fly my own flag. If authority is needed to put up a flagpole, why on earth is it not needed to put up a telecommunications tower? Has my hon. Friend the Minister any idea how many masts there are in Scotland? What are we doing about sharing masts? Why should not the companies get together and share masts in the interests of the beauty of the countryside? Each police constabulary has its own system, but might not the police share with the telecommunications companies?

I do not want more bureaucracy, especially in planning—I was once chairman of a planning committee, so I know what it can be like—but I think that in this instance we should have stricter control, with formal approval by each authority. I hope that when my hon. Friend winds up, he will say that the Government are concerned and will investigate the possibilities.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

We have some masts in the Ribble valley, and they are a blot on the landscape. The argument is that they are not in an area of outstanding natural beauty, but just on the fringes; but even the fringes are beautiful and there should be more sensitivity towards them. We also have masts in towns, and in one instance Vodafone totally ignored public opinion and erected a mast right next door to a housing estate; the public complained, a campaign ensued and eventually we won and the mast was taken down. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the companies have a responsibility not only to consult but to listen to the public?

Sir Hector Monro

My hon. Friend had a debate on windfarms in the summer, to which I listened with great interest, because I feel about windfarms in Scotland much as he feels about windfarms in England; he is an expert on the subject and presents tremendous first-hand evidence that the Minister will no doubt take into account.

Windfarms are far more intrusive than masts. For obvious reasons, they are often in remote parts and can be seen over a wide area; in my opinion, they are particularly unattractive. I appreciate our policy of sustainable development, which has been developed in the interests of both environment and energy, and our responsibility to Rio in terms of global warming, in the form of the Scottish renewable obligation and the non-fossil fuel obligation in England—we think up the most wonderful names for these agreements—and I do not doubt the arguments in favour of renewables, which must go hand in hand with continued reduction in fossil fuel emissions from our power stations. Perhaps the Minister will touch on the progress that we are making towards that end.

We are making progress, but I want to highlight the balance between alternative fuels and their impact on the countryside. I am not saying that there should be a total ban on windfarms, but I want stricter planning controls, greater transparency and greater attention to the views of the local people, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said.

Many alternatives are under consideration. From what happened earlier this year, wave power does not seem too promising. Solar power is useful only for individual homes, and the further north one goes in Scotland, the less sun there is and the less likely it is that it will have any practical impact on global warming. I have the highest regard for hydro power, which is most effective and can even be attractive, and we should encourage both large and small hydro schemes. We have talked before about barrages that drive generators as the tide goes in and out of great estuaries, such as the Solway barrage, which would be near my home, or the Morecambe barrage but, again, I am fairly convinced that they will not be constructed.

The Government have shown great interest in wind power, but it is financially attractive only because of the substantial subsidy available under the obligations.

Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside)

As my right hon. Friend knows, there are large hydro schemes in my constituency. Is he aware that I strongly favour increasing hydro capacity, and that those of us with experience of hydro schemes believe that they are the best way forward?

Sir Hector Monro

Indeed, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I saw a most effective and attractive scheme near Aberfeldy, which I am sure that he knows well, where the burn has been diverted through a pipe into a generator; from a few yards away, one would not even know that it was there, yet day by day it turns out sufficient megawatts to be valuable to the grid and it gives a good return to the landowner. We want to encourage hydro power wherever possible.

Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr)

My right hon. Friend probably recalls that I was the manager of a 100 MW hydro scheme, which ran for about 40 miles. When it was built in 1928–29, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of concrete were poured into one of the most beautiful parts of south-west Scotland. Does my right hon. Friend think that nowadays the environmental lobby would allow us to block glens and flood villages as happened in 1928–29? Would not the environmental disadvantage be difficult to overcome?

Sir Hector Monro

I take my hon. Friend's point about large schemes. I must not get too involved in historical matters, but I well remember the development of the Galloway power scheme, in which my hon. Friend later had a significant part to play. It was turned on in 1930 and provided the first hydro power to the whole of Dumfries-shire. As a small boy, I remember turning on the first switch in my home; until then we had used oil lamps. As a wee laddie, I thought that it was something very special to turn on the first electricity at home. That part of Galloway has been enhanced and is now very attractive, with its steps and the lochs down to Kirkcudbright—well done to everyone involved. However, I agree that were we to start again now, heaven knows what the opposition would be to despoiling the countryside.

My difficulty is accepting the small output of windfarms when it is viewed against the serious loss of amenity in the countryside. I find it impossible to accept that windfarms do anything other than destroy the countryside. In addition, there are transmission lines to the grid system. I have no argument with windfarm operators—they have seen an opportunity and are taking it—but I simply want to ensure that any further development is more carefully thought through in the future.

In the United Kingdom—I accept that the figures may be flexible—there were something like 13 wind turbines in 1991, whereas now there are 518, although the number is steadily increasing. Wind turbines are usually 100 ft high—or occasionally 200 ft high, which is as high as Nelson's column. Of course, the height of the blades must be added. I have seen windfarms in Wales, England, Scotland and Denmark and I am not surprised that the chairman of the Countryside Commission, charged with looking after the landscape in England, said: England's scenic countryside is in danger of being turner! into a wind power wilderness". My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, who is extremely active as the Minister responsible for industry in Scotland, will frequently have gone up and down the M74 and will know that in Lanarkshire, west of the M74, the hillside is covered with wind turbines. He must accept that they are especially unattractive and certainly do not enhance an area that needs all the help it can get to return to its former glory since having been a coal-mining area. I am sure that my hon. Friend will therefore appreciate what I am saying.

On an average winter's day, the United Kingdom uses about 50,000 MW, yet the 40 or so windfarms produce about 64 MW a day, so the amount of electricity generated by windfarms is a minute part of what we use and out of all proportion with the despoliation of our countryside. The largest windfarm, in Wales, has 103 pylons and produces in a year what a conventional station produces in two days. At the moment, 0.1 per cent. of our electricity comes from windfarms. If the Government's target is 10 per cent., there will need to be an enormous increase in the number of turbines, perhaps to 20,000 or 30,000. However, I appreciate that technical advances may mean that more power can be produced from fewer turbines.

I have never lived near a turbine station, but people who have and who therefore have first-hand knowledge of the problems complain not only of their unattractive appearance but of the noise of sound waves and of electromagnetic interference. Birds are also affected. We can work out the flight lines of migratory birds and perhaps avoid placing windfarms in certain locations. but pylons represent a death threat for birds. There are a great many windfarms in California and I understand that they have killed 78 eagles. I am not suggesting that the figures are similar in Scotland, but we must realise that windfarms can have a detrimental effect on the bird population. Indeed, I cannot understand why the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds does not object more strongly than it does.

Surely the increase in the number of windfarms is due to the subsidy available under the renewable energy orders. Farmers see an opportunity for alternative land use—indeed, it is profitable for them to have a windfarm on their property—but the country as a whole has to consider whether it is getting value for money from the subsidy, bearing in mind the environmental harm caused by such farms. I do not accept that there is an employment argument to be made in that respect—only very few people are required to run a windfarm.

The most important aspect is planning—is the present system adequate? Do the guidelines give preferential treatment to would-be windfarm operators at inquiries? Are they fair to objectors, who often have greater local knowledge? In my constituency, only a few decisions have had to made about windfarms. One was approved at Carsphairn in Galloway, where the farm was welcomed by the authority and local residents—so be it. However, in my home town of Langholm, the situation was very different. The application was for a station to be built on a hill very near where I lived for the first 30 or so years of my life.

The local authority and many residents—500 people signed a petition—objected as strongly as possible. They produced a very well-argued paper against the windfarm for the public inquiry. The application seemed to fail under several PPG 6 guidelines on renewable energy, yet the reporter, in what must be a subjective judgment—every reporter has to make a subjective judgment—approved the scheme. That, of course, was the Secretary of State's decision. Nothing further can be done about that. I shall not criticise the reporter; indeed, it would be improper to do so. However, I am suggesting that the system is weighted against objections because of the words "special need", which imply support for a windfarm.

The reporter can disregard the normal view, which is against sporadic building in the countryside. The reporter can go through the six or seven points in PPG 6 and tick them yes or no. I disagreed with five in this instance, but the reporter agreed—such is life. The Minister should consider whether the guidelines are fair to both sections of the community, to the objectors as well as the applicant.

The planning system should be tightened. Windfarms with 10 or more turbines have to have an environmental assessment and be reported to the Secretary of State. I would go further and suggest that all windfarms should have an environmental assessment, to be examined by the Scottish Office.

On the credit side, Dumfries and Galloway has drawn up a windfarm strategy, and I commend the idea to all local authorities. It confirms which sites could be available and which could not. Maps have been prepared, showing where it would be possible to site windfarms without objection being expressed.

My view is that more applications might be granted along the coast than would be acceptable. When one sails from Oban to Skye, what niggles is the number of caravan sites along the coastline. One sees acres and acres of white caravans all along the attractive coastline up the west coast of Scotland. If the caravans were green, it would be better, but they are white. I do not want to see serried ranks of windfarms along our coasts, just because that is where the wind happens to be strongest.

Mr. Gallie

My right hon. Friend's comments on the coastline are important because, some time ago, there was great pressure for wave-generated power stations, which would virtually wipe out the whole of the west coast if they were to provide any volume output. Has my right hon. Friend given any thought to wave-generated power and does he have any fears about it?

Sir Hector Monro

I mentioned it earlier in my speech and I know that an experiment took place in Mull or Islay.

Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)


Sir Hector Monro

Islay had a wave experiment, which may be continuing. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) will remember the ship that was launched and taken up to somewhere near Dounreay this year. It was not a success, to say the least, and we must think carefully about the output that could be achieved from wave power. We must also think about the transmission lines from wherever the wave power centre is situated. I am in favour of any alternative that we can think of, as long as it is practical and does not despoil our countryside.

I praise Dumfries and Galloway council for the efforts it has made to prepare the way for possible applications for windfarms, so that applicants can know which sites would be least obtrusive. I hope that none will be chosen, but at least the council has prepared the way and I give it credit for that.

We must not forget our tourists. They come to see our unsurpassed scenery, not regiments of wind turbines stretched across the hillside. One interesting fact from the Dumfries and Galloway study is that if every site it suggests were taken up, only 123 MW would be produced. That would be a drop in the ocean, yet visually deplorable. I welcome the positive approach by Dumfries and Galloway and suggest that many councils should follow it in the future. Councils should have a restrictive policy and councillors must make their decisions carefully.

In conclusion, I believe that we must rethink our renewable policy on windfarms. They make a small impact on global warming and we should bear it in mind that we are expecting an increased coal burn at Longannet, Cockenzie and Ferrybridge and more gas-fired stations. I am not sure that those stations are going the right way, but I do not think that windfarms will make a sufficient impact on global warming to justify the disadvantages that I have outlined in my remarks.

I live near Chapelcross and I am delighted that nuclear power comes out with a clean bill of health. It is efficient, clean and reliable and we should bear it in mind in the future. I hope that our major nuclear power stations in Scotland run effectively for a long time and I am glad that Chapelcross has had another 10 years' extension.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for industry and local government to discuss with Energy Ministers whether we have our renewable policies right, given the changes in the years since the original policy was made. Yes, we must take global warming into account, but not to the extent of ruining the countryside by producing relatively little power from many windfarms. I ask my hon. Friend to think carefully about what I have said today and perhaps he can give me some encouraging thoughts..

10.3 am

Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) on securing a debate on this important matter. It is generally known that the Liberal Democrats are in favour of the development of renewable sources of energy. Indeed, on the island of Islay in my constituency, as the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, wave energy has been researched and developed in conjunction with Queen's university, Belfast and it was the subject of an award two years ago.

The hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) mentioned the impact of hydro-electric power. Cruachan power station in my constituency is an excellent example of a station that has blended in well with the surrounding area and the environment. It is a wonderful place to visit.

Mr. Gallie

I could not agree more with the hon. Lady's comments, but I remind her that a similar scheme was considered for Loch Lomond side and environmentalists argued that down. I am sure that that scheme would have fitted into the environment in much the same way as Cruachan.

Mrs. Michie

That is a worthwhile point. Windfarms are a different matter and several applications for development have been made in my constituency of Argyll and Bute. Some are accepted and others fiercely opposed on the grounds of visual intrusion and possible noise pollution. Windfarms may not be erected in designated scenic areas, as the hon. Member—I cannot remember his constituency—said.

Mr. Nigel Evans

Ribble Valley.

Mrs. Michie

Thank you.

Mr. Evans

We won.

Mrs. Michie

We shall see what happens at the next election. On this occasion, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that in Scotland we try not to erect windfarms in areas of scenic beauty, but they are erected in areas that are very beautiful. We have areas of beauty everywhere in the highlands and islands.

Planning applications are often opposed for several reasons and I have already mentioned two. They are also often opposed because, although the initial construction may generate jobs, in the end little employment is generated, as each windfarm needs perhaps only one person to look after it. Many people feel that windfarms are of no benefit to the local population and, although they might produce much-needed income for a hard-pressed farmer, they are deeply resented when erected on the estates of absentee landlords. If windfarms were erected to supply electricity to a local village at reduced cost, folk could see some point to them, but of course that is not the case.

I ask the Minister to consider carefully the consequences when a planning decision is taken in favour of a windfarm in open defiance of local opinion. That has happened several times in Scotland. I therefore ask him to consider the proposal that responsibility for planning decisions on medium and small-sized stations should be passed to local communities and community councils with, of course, safeguards for the opinions of the local

authorities and a right of appeal. I also suggest that windfarms might be more acceptable, subject to the restrictions that I have already mentioned, if local communities could build their own turbines, using the electricity directly and linking into the grid to sell surplus power.

The right hon. Member for Dumfries said that every application should be subject to an environmental impact assessment. Some of the good companies do that already. For example, Scottish Power has produced a good environmental impact assessment document, and that is something that all applicants should have to do. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I am not convince that we need so many windfarms when, especially in the highlands and islands, we benefit from hydro power. As I understand it, we have an over-capacity for electricity in Scotland anyway.

Mr. Nigel Evans

The problem is that, given the massive explosion in the number of applications, windfarms will inevitably be sited in scenic areas of the United Kingdom. If we were to put only a small proportion of the money used to encourage wind power into energy conservation, the amount of energy saved could be greater than the output of all the wind turbines throughout the UK.

Mrs. Michie

That is a valid point. As the right hon. Member for Dumfries said, we should question whether we are getting value for money by allowing the spread of windfarms.

Telecommunications masts raise further fears about the consequences of planning decisions, especially for beautiful parts of Scotland, which depend to a certain extent on the tourist industry. Visitors go to those areas to enjoy the vistas over mountain, sea and loch. It is feared they will look like pincushions, with telecommunications masks and windfarm turbines sticking up all over the place.

I am acutely aware that we in the highlands and islands cannot live in a time warp. We must move with the times, and not get stuck, immobilised, in the past. I am determined that my area should not become a theme park dotted with interpretative centres, museums and craft shops for the benefit of visitors and those who want the highlands to be left as a wilderness.

I welcome the £46 million initiative by Highlands and Islands Enterprise to provide state-of-the-art mobile telephone coverage across the area. We need that coverage if we are to keep up, and if our businesses are to develop and flourish. National surveys have shown that mobile telephony enhances business efficiency by as much as 20 per cent. That could be worth upwards of £25 million a year to firms in the highlands and islands, and could mean the creation of a further 200 new jobs a year.

Unfortunately, however, there always seems to be a down side to new technology. That initiative will require the installation of transmission equipment at 250 locations, from Shetland to Argyll, and from the Western Isles to Moray. I make a plea to the Minister that he ensures that good planning regulations are put in place. England and Wales have a code of practice, although I do not know whether it is adhered to. The right hon. Member for Dumfries referred to masts that are more than 15 m high; although he talked in feet. Companies often erect 15 m masts and then obtain permission to heighten them by 5 m. As the mast is already there, they are told, "You might as well go ahead."

The highlands and islands are different—I hope—in that Cellnet and Vodafone have agreed with the Scottish Office to erect shared masts throughout the area. That is welcome, although other telecommunications companies, such as Orange, could erect rival masts. The case for shared masts is important, but we must consider their visual effect, and the impact that they will have on sites of special scientific interest. I do not know whether they can be camouflaged it is not possible to grow trees on the top of a ridge or a mountain to camouflage a mast. There should be full consultation on every mast that is erected.

A national computer-generated network examines those matters, but it does not consider how coverage can best be achieved with the least possible impact on the landscape. We could be in the ridiculous position of requiring several masts to cover one glen or one area. Masts should be tried and tested first, and data should be collected from areas beyond that covered by the mast. Masts that are 15 m or higher require the construction of a track leading to the mast, which also has a visual impact.

I am sure that the Minister will give serious consideration to those points. I hope that he accepts that planning consents and the impact of masts and windfarms raise real fears, and that he will consider ways of overcoming those fears.

10.15 am
Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) on obtaining this debate, and on his well-argued, well-balanced case. Few people would disagree with him.

In the early 1980s, and even before that, the groundswell of opinion that something had to be done about the problems caused by the use of fossil fuels resulted in various initiatives. Although those initiatives were welcome, it is another matter to find viable solutions that are acceptable to the vast majority. Large parts of my constituency are remote and rural, or even wild. People who live in such areas do not necessarily object to masts. Some are welcome, such as those erected by the BBC and other broadcasting companies that allow people to receive television and radio signals. However, they are not so welcome when, as the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) said, the benefits to the local community are not so clear and obvious.

Scotland depends on exports to survive. That is especially true for rural areas. It is difficult to imagine how we would survive without exporting whisky. I do not agree with those who argue that nothing needs to be done as we do not use much electricity and we produce a surplus. We must deal with the problem, because the export of electricity is an important part of Scotland's contribution to our well-being, and we all benefit from it. The trouble is that local people do not always see the obvious benefits.

My right hon. Friend was right to draw attention to the advantages of hydro power, the development of which we should encourage. There is still considerable scope in Scotland—including in my constituency—for further hydro schemes of all sizes; small and large. Some of the rivers that run into the Tay are not dammed by hydro-electric companies. Those rivers are often the source of the flood problems in the Tay valley. I would welcome some constructive thinking about hydro schemes to deal with that problem. One of the advantages of such schemes is that the water is controlled to some degree, and they could be part of a flood prevention scheme, such as I am keen to have for the whole of the Tay. A hydro scheme could solve the difficulties with the River Garry, which runs uninterrupted into the Tay, causing no end of problems further down.

My right hon. Friend rightly pointed out that we need to have another look at the way in which planning operates. His local council should be congratulated on having guidelines and policy; not all councils do, and, as he will know, when planning applications are made, all hell is often let loose. No one ever wants such structures in their back yard. Councils should have guidelines suggesting what may and may not be acceptable locally.

My right hon. Friend was also right in saying that nuclear power was reliable and safe, and did not damage the environment in any way. We in Scotland are fortunate in having nuclear power, and I wish that more had been done to promote the image of nuclear generation.

I can think of no part of my constituency in which anyone would welcome a windfarm. Anyone considering establishing a windfarm of any kind should bear it in mind that they will encounter considerable local hostility. Unless the issue can be dealt with sensitively and with some understanding of local circumstances, we shall have problems. Large parts of my constituency are deemed environmentally sensitive areas, and must be treated as such; however, vast parts of it are not deemed environmentally sensitive, although I consider them some of the most beautiful areas in Scotland.

Mr. Gallie

My hon. Friend probably heard the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) say that no planning consent should be given when it is in open defiance of local opinion. Given what he has said about his constituency, does my hon. Friend agree that that would more or less wipe out any chance of windfarms being developed in Scotland?

Mr. Walker

As my hon. Friend suggests, there is no simplistic solution. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries demonstrated, what we need is fresh thinking, along with careful attention to detail and new guidelines from the Scottish Office.

I personally think that windfarms may not be viable, because they do not generate much electricity and their environmental impact may well count against them. That does not mean, however, that we should condemn the idea out of hand; as my right hon. Friend suggested, it should be considered objectively and sensibly.

As for telecommunications masts, some rationalisation is needed. Planning and control must be encouraged. If six different companies are trying to provide a service, six separate masts will not be needed. As we know from military and other equipment, masts can carry more than one type of equipment to send and receive signals. We should think in terms of strategically placed masts that will cater for a variety of needs. That would be better than allowing groups or individuals to put up their own masts and compete with each other. Again, we need ideas and guidelines from councils.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will accept the view of Conservative Members that renewable energy needs to be considered. We welcome the measures that have been taken so far, but we feel that the time has come to review some practices and policies. There is strong evidence that some councils have been hostile to what I consider the best projects—hydro schemes. We should give more thought to the way in which we use Scotland's natural environment, much of which consists of water that runs out to the sea.

10.25 am
Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

I hesitate to trespass on what is basically a Scottish debate, but the issues that have been raised apply throughout the United Kingdom. Let me therefore take a few minutes of the House's time to ask the Minister some questions.

I am deeply grateful to the right hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) for raising a matter in which many of us from other parts of the United Kingdom take an interest. I own a small hydro-electric plant, which provided all my electricity until some years after I first came to the House. For various reasons, it became unwise for me to continue running the plant, but I hope to do so again in the future.

As the hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) pointed out, hydro is a good way of producing electricity, but it is not without its costs. The hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the difficulties that we have experienced throughout the country in regard to migratory fish. The River Awe scheme, for instance, has wiped out a certain genetic race of salmon. Although I consider hydro to be the best way of producing electricity, I think that we should exercise much more caution than has been exercised in the past.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Cannot the current technology, costly though it is, protect fish where hydro schemes are in operation?

Mr. Ross

I want to return to that point. In the end, it is the cost that counts — the economics of production of non-fossil fuel by whatever means.

Ultimately, all those matters are covered not by United Kingdom planning law but by EC directives. I am not convinced that all those directives have been applied throughout the United Kingdom, and I am certainly not very happy about the way in which they have been applied in Northern Ireland. In our experience — I hope that this is not the case in Scotland — applications for planning permission lack precision in regard to the height and size of generators, which sometimes change between the initial application and the building of masts. That causes enormous difficulties.

A universal problem is the making of the environmental assessment by the applicant. I have always felt that such assessments should be made by planning authorities or Government rather than by individuals, who will sometimes be trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. People throughout the country are unhappy about the present position.

Another problem in various parts of the country is that machine blades can reflect and interfere with television reception. There is also the safety aspect; machines keep shedding blades all over the world, and the only way of avoiding damage is to site the machines in remote but prominent areas. I hope that that will be taken into account in Scotland.

The aspect of wind power and the like that really concerns me, however, is the cost of production. What makes hydro schemes so attractive is that the fuel costs nothing. I believe that the old method of costing was to set up a 2.5 per cent. sinking fund. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) pointed out, there are now ways of protecting fish, albeit costly.

I believe that it is now claimed that coal can produce electricity at a cost of about 3p per unit. The cost of non-fossil fuels, especially wind power, is a great deal higher at 8p or 9p.

Wind production of electricity depends upon wind speed, so it is intermittent. The machines operate within only a relatively narrow range of wind speeds. For example, in my part of Northern Ireland on Monday there was a raging gale in the morning, by lunchtime the weather was calm, but by 7 pm there was another raging gale. I understand that the grid has some difficulty dealing with such changes in production, as it switches on and off.

The contracts in Northern Ireland—I should be grateful if the Minister would enlighten us on the position in Scotland—stipulate that non-fossil fuel electricity has to be paid for regardless of whether or not it is used. How much of the production is actually used?

The Minister will be pleased to hear that the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the other place and the producers intend to ensure that in Northern Ireland, from next April, people will be able to buy non-fossil fuel production to boil a kettle—but they will have to pay extra for it. They will have to pay the going rate. I cannot understand why anyone would want to pay extra for electricity, but the Minister's noble Friend told me in a letter that people would be willing to do so. Will that policy apply also in Scotland and elsewhere?

Like most people, initially I was starry-eyed about the prospect of cheap power. However, the more I have thought about it, the more convinced I have become that the Government did not think through all the consequences on entering into obligations before putting their name to a piece of paper that ties us in the way it does.

10.31 am
Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr)

I shall be brief, to allow sufficient time for the replies. The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) was right to emphasise that we are debating a United Kingdom issue. Indeed, Scottish Power is currently considering providing small, low-input windfarms in Northern Ireland. It is also considering providing an interconnector between Scotland and Northern Ireland. That has created problems relating to the requirement for transmission line runs in Scotland. A factor that we must take on board when considering windfarms is that people do not like transmission lines. If windfarms are scattered around the country, overhead transmission lines will be required. They are not popular and are environmentally disadvantageous.

Hon. Members have referred to telecommunications. One of the great benefits of privatisation is that companies have been allowed to operate in both the generation and telecommunications sectors. That has resulted in towers carrying both facilities—an environmentally welcome development. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) referred to the problems with overhead transmission and distribution lines. In fact, urban areas are lucky because most cables in our cities are buried under roads and pavements. However, there is an environmental consequence as those roads and pavements need to be dug up, which causes aggravation. Any thought of a major national grid buried beneath the ground is unrealistic because the cost would wipe the country out of the commercial market. There are also environmental arguments against burying cables across the country.

I am only too well aware of the problems, especially heat, caused by windfarms. Back in 1980, when I was a district councillor, one of the first planning matters I dealt with in my ward was the application by the South of Scotland Electricity Board to build a windfarm—one wind generator—in the village of Fairlie, right next to the nuclear power station at Hunterston. The message from the community council was loud and clear, "We don't mind Hunterston C, but we don't want a noisy contraption in our village." That says a great deal about windfarms.

I went to Wales recently and saw what was at that time the largest windfarm in Europe. It is part-owned by Scottish Power. It has 104 wind generators, but generates only a measly 30 MW. Those people who, in the past, have argued for windfarms as being environmentally friendly are now the very people who are objecting to further farms because of the problems, especially noise, that they create.

Of course, matters have moved on and Scotland is to have 0.6 MW generators rather than the current 0.3 MW generators. The new generators are much quieter and more acceptable, but they are still a visual blot on the landscape. I sympathise with the view of the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) that local opinion must be taken into account. However, it cuts across the idea of environmentally friendly, renewable sources—something that meets the aspirations of every environmentalist.

I strongly support the view of my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) on nuclear generation—compact sites and large-volume output. Indeed, a 2,000 MW site is quite feasible in a small area. Only one main transmission run is required and the emissions from nuclear power stations are virtually zero. There are no real problems.

Let us consider the transmission problems in Scotland arising from the installation of power sites. Currently, we transmit some 1,800 MW of power across our border to the south. There are plans to increase that to 2,200 MW. I appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister to speak to his colleagues south of the border, to try to get early planning authority in North Yorkshire to upgrade the national grid crossover to 2,200 MW. After all, Scottish generation is environmentally friendly generation. It uses fossil fuel based on low-sulphur coal. That is environmentally friendly. Scotland can produce what is required without contaminating our atmosphere to the extent that happens with generation south of the border.

That brings me back to the comments made by the hon. Member for East Londonderry about the United Kingdom aspect. We are indeed talking about the United Kingdom and we should try to take advantage of systems across the country. I could say a great deal more, but I recognise that I must leave time for the replies.

10.37 am
Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

I shall be brief to allow the Minister time to reply.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), who has been absolutely loyal to the Monro doctrine—that the environment counts very much. I know that he has taken part in every environmental debate in this House, certainly since I have been here. On issues such as national parks, his voice and his wisdom have been very welcome. I agree with the points that he made in opening the debate.

The issue is to embrace technological change without scarring our environment. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that currently there is a laissez-faire attitude to the erection of masts and pylons. I am sure that we could get together and co-operate in looking at these matters.

I accept that we all want to supply cheap, non-polluting and infinitely renewable energy and I agree that some areas in Scotland are ideal for windfarms. However, people in Cornwall, Cumbria, mid-Wales, Yorkshire and Scotland are divided between support for cleaner power and opposition to what they see as a desecration of their landscape.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to power generation. Currently, barely 1.5 per cent. of our power needs are met by renewable energy, compared with 25 or 26 per cent. —almost 50 per cent. in Scotland—met by nuclear energy. The remainder comes from traditional fossil fuels, mainly coal and gas. Wind power must be seen in that context.

There is an argument used by the advocates of wind power that local people come to accept turbines. A recent study by Exeter university found that in Cornwall opposition to an early windfarm at Delabole declined after several years. Even so, environment and conservation groups admit that the windfarm issue has divided their supporters. The debate is fractious and we have to accept that it always will be.

The key, as the right hon. Member for Dumfries said, is that wind energy generation should not be unsightly, either when functioning or after the end of the life of a windfarm. Efforts have been made to that end in Scotland, but, in December 1994, 30 projects were awarded contracts under the first order made within the Scottish renewables obligation, commonly referred to as SRO-1.

To identify planning and environmental issues associated with the development of windfarms and other alternative energy sources, an assessment of potential renewable energy resources in Scotland was published in December 1993. The assessment was carried out by Scottish Hydro-Electric, Scottish Power, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Scottish Office, Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, with support from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.They put the issue of renewable energy in the context of the planning system, but I shall not read out the relevant chapters of their report. The report contains good guidelines, but there is a softness about them. At the end of the day, we need more firmness, especially in the planning system. The right hon. Member for Dumfries asked whether the system was being fair to objectors; I do not think that it is, but I will cover that point when talking about telecommunications masts.

In respect of telecommunications masts, planning controls in Scotland are similar, but not identical, to those in England and Wales. Scottish Office guidance to local authorities on planning and telecommunications has been set out in the Scottish Office Development Department's circular 25/85. Under the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (Scotland) Order 1992, telecommunications companies have similar powers for the installation of apparatus as they have in England and Wales. The same height restriction of 15 m applies for masts to fall within permitted development and normally express planning permission must be sought for masts higher than that. However, the prior approval procedure for permitted development rights for masts less than 15 m does not apply in Scotland. I hope that the Minister will turn his attention to that point.

On any mast, microwave antennas may not exceed 1.3 m in any dimension and no more than 10 antennas are allowed on any mast. The order defines microwave as that part of the radio spectrum above 1,000 MHz". That would seem to create an anomaly in respect of mobile telephone masts, because Cellnet and Vodafone networks operate at frequencies below 1,000 MHz, whereas Orange and One 2 One operate at frequencies above 1,000 MHz. In other words, it would appear that Cellnet and Vodafone masts would not be described as microwave antennas and their supporting structures under the order, whereas Orange and One 2 One's would. If Vodafone's and Cellnet's masts were not defined as microwave antennas, there would apparently be no restrictions on their use within conservation and national scenic areas. The Minister should look at that issue, because there would be great concern if masts were to be erected in such areas.

I asked the House of Commons Library to research the issue. The Scottish Office told the Library that it was unaware of any difference in the planning controls on different operators and that it was unaware of the issue ever having been raised. If this is the first time that it has been raised, I should be grateful if the Minister would give it his attention, but I do not expect an immediate response.

On the more general issue of planning control and mast development, I am aware that the four network operators met officials of the Scottish Office about three weeks ago. The Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland has expressed its concern. Scotland's four main mobile telephone operators want to install hundreds more transmitters before 2000, many in some of Scotland's most scenic areas. The APRS says that, every week, two or three new radio masts are erected by operators using "permitted development rights" that allow them to build structures up to 15 m in height without needing planning permission.

I shall give the Minister an example. According to the APRS, an installation erected by Orange on Bonartie hill, near Loch Leven in Kinross-shire, "glows and shimmers" when the light catches its steel framework, totally dominating the surrounding landscape. That issue falls within the guidelines, but it is causing great concern among local people.

Scotland already has between 400 and 500 sites, but the operators want almost to double that number so as to extend their coverage throughout rural areas that have not previously been reached. The spur for that is their desire to exploit the Scottish mobile telephone market—we have no objection to that, but we must remember that Scotland has lagged behind the rest of the United Kingdom—helped by the licence requirement that demands 95 per cent. coverage of the UK. According to a Cellnet spokesman, that will mean that By 2000 some 12 million people will have mobiles, double the existing number, and Scotland is one of our big target areas. In short, an existing problem will become worse in future and all of us have a duty to turn our attention to it.

The highlands and islands concept with Vodafone and Cellnet has already been mentioned. I do not object to the project because it is a positive development, but the right hon. Member for Dumfries and others will be concerned about the A9 corridor and how development will proceed there, especially because it is an area of scenic beauty that attracts tourists. We do not want our landscape to be scarred, so we have a joint interest in the issue, as this debate has illustrated.

The Orange representative, Richard Rumbelow, said that the company already had 180 sites in Scotland, mainly in the central belt, but was looking to add another 100 by 1998. Strutt and Parker, the land agent, has arranged 22 leases this year-double last year's tally-and is working on a further 20 sites in Scotland. The company says that smaller structures command rents of about £3,000 a year, with masts above 15 m earning £4,000 a year, so farmers and others have a commercial interest in the matter. Nevertheless, such development must be controlled.

The possibility of sharing masts is important. I hope that that will be done in the highlands and islands project. Highlands and islands spokespersons have said that, on technological grounds, sharing is not possible in many cases, but I hope that efforts will be made to encourage the practice.

The key issue is the scope given to operators by permitted development rights. The fact is that, if a company wants to build a mast on the summit of Ben Nevis, planning authorities can complain, but have few powers to do anything about it provided that the mast is less than 15 m high. Planners' only sanction is an article 4 order, under which they can forbid development in specified areas. However, according to a highlands and islands planner, Bill Hepburn, who is currently compiling guidelines for councillors: that legislation is extremely difficult to enact". He adds: I suspect that planning authorities will not actually be able to make it stick.> It is therefore important that, in discussions with mobile telephone operators and rural and other interests, a framework is developed to cover that issue.

I want to give the Minister one last example. When Aberdeenshire council prevented Vodafone from hiding a large mast inside the Tower of Johnston on the Garvock hill overlooking the Mearns in Kincardineshire—I think that that is in the Minister's constituency—and secured protection for the monument, Vodafone simply went ahead and built a much more obvious 12 m mast only 150 yd away. The intentions of the local authority were thwarted in that case as they have been in others.

I agree that we have to reconcile environmental protection with technological innovation and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Dumfries on raising this subject today so that the issues can be examined. Fruitful discussions should proceed so that we can come to a joint agreement for the future.

10.48 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. George Kynoch)

I, too, would like to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) on securing this important debate, which has given hon. Members a good opportunity to have a sensible discussion about an issue of great importance. I should also like to echo the recognition given to the significant work that my right hon. Friend did for many years when he was Minister responsible for the environment at the Scottish Office, when he ensured that planning guidelines were drawn up tightly to ensure a sensible balance between development and protection of the environment. I hope that I can try to convince my right hon. Friend and others that we can achieve that balance within those guidelines and our robust planning procedures and controls.

My right hon. Friend referred to the impact on the environment of wind turbines and telecommunications towers. I know that my right hon. Friend will understand, and I trust that other hon. Members will also understand, that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on any specific cases that are currently before the Secretary of State because that could be prejudicial to any future consideration of those proposals.

The Government have put in place a robust and comprehensive planning policy framework to secure sound planning decisions on renewable energy development proposals. That framework consists of a clear policy of careful siting of all renewable energy developments, appropriately strengthened in the case of wind-generated types. The extension of the legislation on environmental assessment has ensured the systematic evaluation of relevant proposals. To ensure a consistent and effective application of the policy at local level, the notification procedures have been reinforced to cover all wind power developments that the planning authority is minded to approve.

Firm foundations are set in national planning policy guideline 6 which was published in August 1994 following wide-ranging consultation with environmental, industry and community groups. NPPG 6 focuses on those renewable energy technologies that are likely to attract support under the Scottish renewables obligation, to which the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) referred, and on projects connecting with the electricity distribution system. I should like to add that the principles of those guidelines and the environmental regulations should be applied to smaller projects for on-site use.

Much of the framework applies to all forms of renewable energy-related development, but significant policy has also been set down on wind-generated energy.

Our policy requires all proposals for renewable energy-related developments to be given careful consideration, to ensure that the localised environmental impacts are acceptable before consent can be given. We consider that to be essential in the interests of Scotland's natural heritage. It is also part of our commitment to sustainable development.

It almost goes without saying that those areas protected by international and national designations are scrupulously cared for within the policy framework in NPPG 6. I know that my right hon. Friend is only too well aware of that. We recognise, however, that outwith those international and nationally safeguarded areas, planning authorities may wish to identify, with appropriate justification in their development plans, other environmentally significant areas. Of course, the degree of outright protection that such areas will require will not normally be as high as that given to national or international designations, but potential developments in such areas still require careful consideration. I would therefore encourage hon. Members and those concerned about particularly important or sensitive areas within their locality to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the planning process to raise them with their planning authorities. The means exist at local level to highlight the special features that could be at risk if inappropriate development was permitted.

My right hon. Friend referred to the work done by Dumfries and Galloway council, which I welcome. Reference was made to the Government's guidelines on such work and, indeed, paragraph 66 of NPPG 6 contains the guideline that structure plans should include policies that express the regional council's strategy for renewable energy developments.

I acknowledge the reservations expressed by my right hon. Friend and other hon. Members about environmental assessment. I know that, for some time, he has been a firm advocate of tightening the controls on such assessments. My right hon. Friend called for the lowering of the indicative criteria threshold for formal environmental assessment set out in the Scottish Office Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Department's circular, 26/1994, from 10 wind generators to zero. I am not sure whether one could contemplate going that far, but I am happy to undertake to consider seriously my right hon. Friend's argument. I would like to discuss it further with colleagues at the Scottish Office Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Department and other Departments.

On notification direction, hon. Members will be aware that the Scottish planning system operates under the general principle that decisions should be taken at the most local administrative level unless there are strong reasons for taking them at a higher one. While the Secretary of State maintains that approach to renewable energy-related development because of the possible visual impact of windfarms on the Scottish landscape, he requires to be notified by the planning authority of any application where it is minded to approve a proposal for one or more wind generators. That provides him with the opportunity to consider if the individual case raises issues of national significance and to decide to call it in for his own determination. That practice will continue to ensure that the Secretary of State is able to monitor carefully all proposals for wind turbines and in particular their potential environmental impact. I understand the issues raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries, but I hope that he can rest assured that his comments will be carefully considered and taken into account in the future.

I share the concerns expressed by my right hon. Friend and others about the potential environmental harm that can be caused as a result of a spread of telecommunications networks. I represent a predominantly rural constituency, so I am well aware of the sensitivities involved. I am determined to ensure that the environmental impact of such developments is minimised. As with wind generator projects, however, it is important to take a balanced view.

It might be helpful if I described the regulatory background relating to the erection of telecommunications towers. The telecommunications code system operators are licensed by the Department of Trade and Industry under the Telecommunications Act 1984. Their licences set target dates by which the operator must be able to provide services to a certain percentage of the United Kingdom population, and the operators are given powers to help them do that. They have the right to install apparatus on land with the occupier's agreement, as well as compulsory purchase powers and the power to carry out work and install apparatus in streets. But obligations are placed on operators. They are required, for example, to remove redundant apparatus and they must follow prescribed procedures in removing apparatus to allow public utilities to carry out street works.

Those licences also contain important conditions designed to protect the amenity. For example, before installing any apparatus above ground, operators must notify the planning authority and allow time for it to raise objections before installing the apparatus. That notification must include details of any other proposed apparatus in the authority's area to allow the authority to take an overview of the proposals. It has 28 days in which to raise concerns and to request changes to appearance, landscape and siting. The operator is expected to attempt to respond positively.

Tighter rules also apply in relation to designated areas such as sites of special scientific interest or of natural heritage. There are also strict rules on the way operators design their networks and implement them. For example, they are required to keep the number of items of apparatus to the minimum practicable, allowing for estimated growth in demand. They are also obliged to protect the visual amenity of properties in proximity to their apparatus as far as practicable.

Much has been said about the general permitted development order, which allows operators to erect free-standing masts up to 15 m in height without the need to seek planning consent. I stress that they still have to notify the local authority. I am particularly concerned from experience in my constituency and elsewhere that many of those structures are crude, and although they may be less than 15 m high, they can still constitute significant structures on the landscape. I am looking to the industry to meet its environmental obligations under the terms of its licences. I do not wish to hinder developments that are generally beneficial, but it is important to reach environmentally acceptable solutions. I am therefore considering whether the permitted development right provisions might be tightened to provide better control in relation to substantial structures of less than 15 m in height. In addition, we have embarked on reviewing the operation of the safeguards that I have mentioned.

Earlier this month I instigated a meeting between officials and representatives of the leading telecommunications code system operators. I am sure that that meeting will be the first of a few. I intend that there shall be discussions with the industry to try to ensure a balance between allowing the significant technological development and communications improvements that were mentioned by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) and the interests of rural communities, the impact on the environment and the other aspects that have been raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and by other hon. Members.

In this useful debate, an important subject has been covered. I apologise to hon. Members for not having the time to reply to every issue, but I hope that I have given some reassurance.

Back to