HL Deb 25 February 2002 vol 631 cc1285-308

6.26 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will reconsider their decision to allow a wind farm development at Cefn Croes in mid-Wales and their intention to unblock 100 renewable energy projects in England and Wales which have been refused planning permission.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am sorry that the Minister is not present, but since I have sent him a copy of my draft speech he is not missing much.

First of all, I must declare an interest as a Vice-President o f the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales. But I make no excuse for raising this matter in this House. It is not just a Welsh question. I wish it were; and I shall argue that future such cases should be. But under arrangements following the Electricity Act 1989, a generating station that crosses the threshold of 50 megawatts installed capacity falls for decision by the DTI in London. Since it is the first case in Wales—and only the second if England is included—of a wind-powered station crossing this threshold, the procedures and the outcome will set a precedent for all future such applications, not just in Wales but in England as well.

The application which we are discussing is for 39 turbines, each twice the height of Nelson's Column, each with an installed capacity of 1.5 megawatts, to be located on the Cambrian mountains in mid-Wales. The land in question technically is owned by the Forestry Commission but is vested in the National Assembly for Wales. The area is one of great beauty and indeed was designated as a national park in the 1970s, but that was never confirmed.

This application was duly submitted to the Ceredigion County Council, and was referred to its planning officer for study. The officer in question did a thorough job. In fact, the experts in this field say that his 128-page report is the most detailed and comprehensive they have ever seen. He rightly took the advice of the Countryside Council for Wales, the statutory body with a specific remit to give advice on matters affecting the Welsh countryside. Both the CCW and the planning officer were clear on the matter. The application was, in their word, "inappropriate", and should be rejected.

Ceredigion County Council, in a very brief session, then proceeded to ignore that advice and to approve the application. No recognisable planning reason was given. Nor has any particular reason since been discovered, although allegations have surfaced in the local press of—how shall I put it?—undue activity on the part of some members of Plaid Cymru.

Be that as it may, the matter then went to the National Assembly, which found itself in a difficult position. For a start, it was the owner of the land; but it was also the properly elected guardian of the landscape. Then its agent, Forest Enterprise, had manifestly ignored the obligation imposed by Parliament on its parent, the Forestry Commission, to strike a balance between its activities and the landscape. The National Assembly therefore took the view, in the words of the First Minister, that,

"if the council grants permission it is a matter for Brian Wilson as the relevant minister in the DTI, not for us. We"—

he said,—

"collate the information."

Much to general consternation, without further ado, on 10th December 2001, the Minister announced that he, too, was ignoring the CCW's advice and would give the go-ahead to the project without public inquiry. In fact, the Department of Trade and Industry press release of that day was, as seems usual nowadays, both inaccurate and misleading.

I shall not waste your Lordships' time by rehearsing all of the inaccuracies, irritating though they are. I want to concentrate on one particular misleading number. The release states that Cefn Croes will result in savings of 150,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. If that means, in the Kyoto sense, that our CO2 emissions will be reduced by that amount, the figure cannot possibly be sustained. In fact, it is doubtful whether Cefn Croes will result in any savings at all, in the Kyoto sense. Your Lordships should bear in mind that even the Kyoto agenda has been seriously challenged by academics even in the report issued today.

The Scots, who seem to be wiser than us£or perhaps more honest—have accepted that the intention was that renewables-generated electricity would replace at least some conventionally generated electricity, but that with increased demand for energy that has not been and remains unlikely to be the case. They said that the supply companies buy green electricity while maintaining generation from conventional power stations. It is expected that all sources of energy will be taken up to meet increased demand.

But that is not the end of the matter. Given the intermittent nature of wind power, conventional backup stations must always be on standby with boilers kept at levels that allow them to be brought on-line at short notice. So not only will no conventional power station be decommissioned as a consequence of Cefn Croes or any other such installation, conventional power capacity will actually have to increase to provide the necessary stand-by as demand increases, as wind can meet that demand only intermittently. Bang goes any possible saving on CO2 emissions.

Leaving aside the inaccuracies and false claims, the DTI statement makes one important point. Referring to the new rules, the Minister said that they would make the achievement of our sustainability goals compatible with respect for the landscape and local community. At last, the landscape appears as a factor in the decision. The Minister would be wise not to sneer at those whose function it is to argue in favour of the landscape. He would also be wise to refrain from asserting that conservation bodies are against renewable energy projects if they ever come near them. All the groups that have protested most vigorously about Cefn Croes are, as far as I know, perfectly content with almost all the renewables described in the Perfomance and Innovation Unit report: biomass, combined heat and power, photovoltaics, wave and tidal power—even offshore wind, if it is really offshore. Frankly, ministerial sneering is only a cover for lack of serious argument.

So, to use the Minister's words, how is the "landscape" to be "respected"? On current evidence, certainly not by the DTI. After all, the road from Presteigne in the east to Aberystwyth in the west was chosen by the AA as one of the most scenically beautiful roads in the United Kingdom. If the Cefn Croes project goes ahead, instead of beautiful landscape there will be something resembling an industrial park. Is that what is known as respect for the landscape?

The Cambrian mountains are to Wales what the South Downs are to south-east England. The day that the Minister approves an application for 39 turbines, each twice the height of Nelson's Column, on the South Downs is the day when I will take my hat off to him and admit that he is applying his policy fairly across the United Kingdom. In the meantime—and I suspect that it may be quite a long meantime—he should follow what is after all only the logic of devolution. It is quite wrong for Whitehall bureaucrats to be allowed to determine the future face of the Welsh landscape. Let the National Assembly decide. In the interval, for goodness sake let us have some respect. At the very least, it would be quite wrong to march ahead without a public inquiry. Common decency demands no less.

6.35 p.m.

Lord Lloyd-Webber

My Lords, I should first like to make clear that my interest in this Question has nothing to with the fact that I have Lloyd in my name. The non-English bit of me is Scottish.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, has raised a most timely issue. I know a tiny bit about sustainable energy because I was involved in a campaign to prevent the construction of a wind farm in Tipperary in southern Ireland, where I have the good fortune to own a house. The wind farm was obviously to be sited on a mountain and, like the Welsh plan that we are discussing, would have been a complete visual environmental catastrophe. Research produced much the same results as did that of the noble Lord. Indeed, it was suggested that it would take 10 years for that wind farm to compensate for the harmful emissions caused by the lorries and other conventional means involved in its construction, let alone in its maintenance. That is not surprising when we consider that the Welsh turbines will replace barely 1 per cent of the nuclear power station at Anglesey.

Denmark, so far the most active supporter of wind programmes, has called a halt to projects because the turbines now have to be financed by a levy on conventional electricity. Indeed Denmark had to provide a back-up for those intermittent turbines by building a power line to obtain hydroelectric power—interestingly—from Norway. Electricity in Denmark is priced at 13p a unit, compared to 7p to 8p in Britain. It is therefore clear that wind farms are at best questionable contributors to sustainable energy.

Britain is becoming an increasingly unpleasant place to live. Americans constantly point out that London is six times less safe to visit than Manhattan. We know that it will be difficult for politicians from both sides of the House to reverse the problems so that the cities that have been our most attractive places are again perceived to be desirable places to visit, or indeed for we Brits to enjoy. So it is vital, not just in order to attract tourists but for the good of all of us, that our greatest countryside assets are wrecked only if absolutely necessary.

The Welsh mountains are among these islands' greatest natural assets. They are clearly a great tourist attraction as well as a great tonic to the spirit of every Member of the House who goes there. I reiterate that we have an absolute duty to protect our countryside, especially in the rare instances where it is visually unspoiled. A public inquiry in this case is absolutely necessary.

However, equally important is that the efficiency or otherwise of wind farms and all forms of energy production is properly and publicly discussed. For instance, if wind farms really work, should they not be sited off-shore near existing, often ageing, nuclear power stations where the infrastructure to carry the electricity to the national grid already exists? I cannot help but observe that the present Government—like those before them, I fear—seem to have shown little lead in reducing electricity consumption in, say, schools, hospitals or government buildings, for that matter. How can it be that the Energy Saving Trust is barely funded?

Finally, as far as I can discover, little government-funded research has been conducted into producing a cell that stores electricity from an intermittent source such as a wind farm if it over-produces. An across-the-board policy on energy saving is therefore even more important. The point about the electricity cell that has not been developed suggests to me that the recent support for massive wind farms has not been completely thought through.

As I said, the whole question of energy needs to be publicly and properly discussed. It would be all too easy to make a cheap spin-doctor's speech about wind farms versus nuclear electric production that would mislead and bamboozle. The public need to know the facts. Until then, it would be a disgrace if further wind farms were permitted anywhere in the British Isles. In this case, a public inquiry is the least that we can expect.

6.40 p.m.

Lord Carlile of Berriew

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, for securing this debate on a very important subject. Wales has many jewels in its crown—music, literature, language—but the greatest of all Wales's qualities and the one that moves the human spirit more than any other is, without doubt, its landscape. Ask anyone who visits Wales what they remember about the visit, and—sometimes mentioning the rain as they pass—they will speak about the beautiful landscape that they have seen all over Wales. One of the finest parts of the Welsh landscape is the wild, exposed and unguarded area in which the proposed wind farm would be situated.

In Wales. we believe that we should be empowered to decide whether we are to have such a scar on the landscape as is proposed. We do not understand why such matters have been reserved to a Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry. We have a responsible Assembly that is more than capable of deciding such issues. We suggest to the Government that this issue is just an example—an important one—of a matter from which such reservation should be removed. What should the Welsh Assembly guard, if it cannot guard the landscape that is the lifeblood of the Welsh countryside?

The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, has already spoken about the size of the towers. Simon Jenkins gave a graphic—and not, in my view, exaggerated—description of them in The Times a few days ago. He described them as being, like a Golgotha of gibbets". We already have our share of wind turbines in mid-Wales. I need go only a few miles from my home in rural Montgomeryshire. My noble friend Lord Hooson has wind turbines within a shorter distance of his home in Llanidloes. We have taken our share in mid-Wales— in Montgomeryshire and Ceredigion—of the renewable energy that should be assigned to our area.

The Government have followed a process that has been hurtful and insulting to the people of Wales. The Department of Trade and Industry has shown itself to be a department that hears but does not listen. It has shown itself to be bossy, with all the advantages of distance between the affected site and the office in London. If the matter were to be decided b) Ministers in the Welsh Assembly, with the support of the Assembly, they would have been to the site. It would be helpful if the Minister who will reply to I his debate could tell us whether he does so on the basis of knowledge gained from visiting the site.

It would also be helpful to know whether the Minister who made the decision, Brian Wilson, has taken the trouble to visit the site in Cardiganshire. We must not be told that because Mr Wilson—a nice man, for whom I have considerable respect—represents a wild and rural constituency on the west coast of Scotland, it is enough for him to say that he understands such areas. Ceredigion is different from the highlands and islands of Scotland. Above all, the landscape is different, because of its dramatic height, its unguarded aspect and its importance as part of the sculpture of Wales.

I reiterate the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, about the rejection of advice. Why has Mr Wilson rejected the advice in the detailed report from the planning officer for Ceredigion? When I was a Member of the other place, the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs held an inquiry into planning in Wales. Ceredigion council came out of it with no glory whatsoever: it has a poor record of dealing with planning issues. I am afraid that. in cases in which self-interest plays any part, it there plays too great a part. If, as would have been logical, Ceredigion council had done us the honour of providing some reasons for rejecting the advice of its planning officer, it might be more difficult to make the case that we make this evening. However, the council has given no reasons. I am told that the whole meeting took something like half an hour, and no rationale for the decision was given at the end.

The Countryside Council for Wales is the statutory adviser on the landscape. Yet, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, has already reminded the House, the firm views of the statutory adviser on the landscape on the issue were rejected. The Countryside Council for Wales is not a politician; coming from it, the term "inappropriate" is fairly strong. The Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales—of which the noble Lord is vice-chairman—represents members in Wales who are prepared to speak out about the Welsh countryside. There has been a good deal of research into the opinion of local people in Ceredigion and the surrounding communities of mid-Wales, and it is clear that there is a majority that opposes what is proposed.

Why are the Government, apparently, determined to go ahead with the proposal? I fear that it is because wind energy has become a shibboleth. The noble Lord, Lord Lloyd-Webber, has already told us that, in Denmark, wind energy has been rejected as uneconomic. There was a time when, if we discussed wind energy in mid-Wales, we were told that the Danes were the business. We were told that the Danes produced all the technology and, if we did as they did, we would have a good product, providing plenty of energy and value for money. I am not aware that the Danes have fallen behind the game on this matter; simply, they have discovered that it just does not pay.

The Government will be able to proceed on the matter with conviction—if ever—only if the people of Wales, individually and through their representatives, can attend the public inquiry that should take place. Had the council decided to reject the application, as most people expected, there would have been an inquiry. The Minister has the power to order a public inquiry. A public inquiry would not be unduly long. It would consider mainly the effect of the proposal on the landscape. The Government should do the decent thing and ensure that such an inquiry takes place, so that the matter can be considered on its merits and discussed by the people with the greatest interest in it.

6.47 p.m.

Viscount Tenby

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, on asking this important Unstarred Question tonight. I use the word "important" advisedly, because I am sure that the Minister will have noted that there is a speaker from every group in the House taking part in our mini-debate, with the possible intriguing absence of the Green Party. It is almost exactly five years since I had the pleasure of leading a debate on the subject of wind energy in this House. Although that front has been relatively quiet since then, it would appear that the lull is about to be dramatically broken, following the announcement made by the Minister shortly before Christmas.

The decision to proceed with Cefn Croes, bypassing a public inquiry in the process, and unlock a substantial number of renewable energy projects is perhaps a ministerial manifestation of what Simon Jenkins, in a splendid phrase, recently described as the "craze for wind". This has happened despite the fact, as we have just been told, that the world leader, Denmark, has recently put up the shutters on further development, simply because it is not cost-effective. It would be a great relief if the Minister were able to signal tonight that the Government would again sympathetically consider holding a public inquiry into the Cefn Croes project.

The original refusal was prompted by the decision of Ceredigion County Council, in the first instance, and the unsatisfactory nature of the Assembly's powers, in the second. Those of us who, three years ago, supported devolution have a right to expect that the people of Wales should be better served by governmental process than they have been in this case. It seems remarkable that such a major project should hang on the decision of a county council that discussed the matter only in a somewhat perfunctory way and then ignored the recommendation of its planning officer, rather than on a decision made by the National Assembly for Wales, whose input has been necessarily minimal, because of the current constitutional arrangements. Any ambiguities and irrationalities in the Assembly's role should be ironed out before another three years have passed.

Few query the important part that wind energy can play in meeting our non-fossil fuel obligations. It is heartening to see the major efforts being made to plan for offshore farms. However, on land it could result in the erection of over 3,000 large turbines, one-third of them in Wales. Even now there are some 362 smaller ones, 200 of which can be seen from the summit of Plynlimon alone. Only the southern aspect is free of them. After this decision, that aspect will be closed off as well.

After Cefn Croes, what will come next? Already there are plans for 165 400-foot turbines on the Camddwr estate near Strata Florida. It may be of some consolation to learn that that project will straddle the boundaries between Ceredigion and Powys. Perhaps Powys will act with more responsibility than Ceredigion in recommending a public inquiry.

People will say—indeed, they do say—that there is more wind in the west. To a very limited degree, and bearing in mind that the turbines function for only one-third of the time, that is the case. However, it is more a case of, "Out of sight, out of mind". There is no question about that. If anyone should query that assumption, they should think on this. As the noble Lord, Lord Williams, pointed out, imagine a proposal, say, for a wind farm only half the size of Cefn Croes on the South Downs, on the Chilterns or—I can see the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd-Webber, to whom we have listened with great interest, stirring uneasily in his place—even on Watership Down itself. There would be an instant cry from all quarters, the noise of which would reach Kyoto and back again.

Let us not for one instant ignore the powerful and understandable economic reasons which no doubt bore heavily on the minds of those who chose to recommend dispensing with a public inquiry. Those reasons have to be taken into consideration. For small farmers on whose land turbines might be sited, the rental would offer quite literally a lifeline after a decade of catastrophic losses. We can all sympathise with that and thus perhaps understand the readiness of some political parties locally to support willy-nilly any project, without bothering too much with a rational evaluation. But such an emotive response does not make it right and fails to protect the interests of generations to come. That is precisely what a public inquiry would set out to do and why it is essential to hold one on the Cefn Croes project.

Over the years, many have said to me the equivalent of, "We must have been crazy, all those years ago, to have allowed electricity distribution to be put above ground. Those grim pylons mutilating the landscape …" Do not let us make the same mistake again in an effort to jump on to a topical bandwagon which seems to be developing a momentum all its own.

6.53 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, I too should like to say how grateful I am to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, for introducing this debate on such an important and extremely urgent matter. As noble Lords have already heard, it raises some very disturbing and far-reaching questions about environmental priorities and planning procedures. I declare an indirect interest as past president of the Council for the Protection of Rural England in Herefordshire and Shropshire. We have already repulsed two attempts to install wind turbines in our part of the world and we look anxiously across the border with great sympathy for our Welsh neighbours.

Your Lordships will recall the sense of outrage felt in the whole civilised world when the Taliban government in Afghanistan, then seemingly impregnable and unassailable, wantonly destroyed the great Buddhist statues which had stood for centuries; an act of gross vandalism carried out in the name of fanatical, blinkered and bigoted religion. How could such a group of extremists set out to destroy, with mortars and dynamite, the timeless heritage of their nation?

Yet that act was not wholly dissimilar to what has been going on for some time in some of our most beautiful landscapes which form a part of our timeless heritage, especially in mid-Wales—now threatened in an extremely damaging form at Cefn Croes, not to mention the even worse horrors of the plan recently revealed by the Camddwr Trust, to which the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, has just referred. In the interests of a narrow-minded, misguided, blinkered obsession with onshore wind generation, an environmental figleaf to conceal the absence of any more rational and enlightened policies, we are in danger of ruining the remaining tracts of wild, beautiful upland country in mid-Wales—that great sweep of the Cambrian mountains from the southern fringes of Snowdonia to the Brecon Beacons. As noble Lords have already heard, it is land designated some 30 years ago by the Countryside Commission as being of national park quality, although alas that designation was not confirmed. Although the government of the day did not contest the assessment that the area's natural beauty, landscape and biodiversity were important, they asked that the area be conserved "in other ways". But that meant precisely nothing and the way remained open for applications for wind power stations which would have been automatically ruled out of order in a national park.

I declare another interest in that I am as enthusiastic as anyone about conserving the environment. I am deeply concerned about greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. I campaign as vigorously as I can for energy conservation, for a reduction in food miles, for people to get out of their cars and on to public transport, for the greening of the farming industry and the growing of energy crops, and for greatly increased research into clean energy generation, in particular solar power and the exploitation of tidal, marine and geothermal energy. But I am resolutely opposed to the myopic, cynical, short-term reliance on the so-called proven technology of onshore wind, with its hideous despoliation of the landscape, its invasion by monstrous turbines of a totally alien industrial character, with their maddening noise and relentlessly disturbing movement.

The threatened installation at Cefn Croes would ruin the only remaining unspoilt view to the south from Plynlimon. It would damage irreparably the landscape quality of the magnificent road from Aberystwyth to the Elan Valley—and all in the interests of generating, on average, not the 55 megawatts that is claimed, but rather in practice a pitiful 17.5 megawatts, intermittently and unreliably, amounting to 0.023 per cent of UK power generation.

That is not all. The appalling Camddwr project envisages 165 turbines, almost 400 feet tall, over an area eight miles by six in the glorious country between Strata Florida and Llyn Brianne, dominating both sides of the magnificent mountain road from Tregaron to Abergwesyn. Each of the proposed turbines will be significantly taller even than the tip of the flagpole on the Victoria Tower. It beggars belief and yet one cannot be sure that it will not actually happen, such is the confusion and muddle over the planning process, as other speakers have so eloquently explained to the House in the course of our debate.

The story of Cefn Croes is a sad one. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, has recounted it. The Countryside Council for Wales advised against the project, but did not ask for a public inquiry because it had been advised that it could only advise. The Welsh Assembly did not ask for an inquiry because it claimed that it could not do so if the Countryside Council for Wales had not done so. As we have heard, this wretched muddle leaves the decision with the DTI, which has received over 600 letters objecting to Cefn Croes and acknowledges a very strong balance of local opinion against the project.

We need to press the Minister to justify the extraordinary statement made by Mr Brian Wilson, the Minister in another place, to the effect that in the light of this objection, so widely expressed by so many responsible bodies and so many local people, "he is minded to approve the scheme".

The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, has already pointed out that it is easy to understand the enthusiasm of poor farmers who can generate valuable income by allowing turbines on their land. Presently it looks like untold wealth in comparison with the pitiful return to be had from farming itself. There are places where cash for turbines has made a real difference to poor people. But that is not the case here. The land on which Cefn Croes would be built is at present under the control of public land users answerable to the Welsh Assembly. There is no conceivable reason why the land should be used in this way.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, when he was a Minister at the old DETR, on at least two occasions in your Lordships' House has assured me in absolutely unambiguous terms that the Government had no intention of interfering with or altering the planning process, the integrity of which was to be maintained at all times. Talk of unlocking 100 renewable energy projects seems sinister. Will the Minister give a clear assurance that there will continue to be absolute respect for the planning process? Will he acknowledge the value of the landscape and confirm the Government's belief that it is right to protect and preserve the God-given, inspiring beauty of mid-Wales from the new threats that hang so heavily over it?

7 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, I join with the words of appreciation extended to my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel, who has done the House and the country a considerable service. I am concerned not so much with the situation in Wales but generally and with the wider implications. Above all, we must ask the Government how much they value the British landscape.

The other day, there were Questions in the House about leisure and tourism. The Government are giving considerable and welcome support to tourism. The people who own the land on which a turbine may be erected might make a little money but their neighbours will not make much from the inducement to tourists to visit affected areas.

About 15 years ago, I took part in a conference on energy in Europe. My eyebrows were raised when a Dutch academic proclaimed that Britain could be self-sufficient on wind energy. My mathematics are not terribly good but on the back of an envelope I calculated and said that it would mean a windmill every 100 yards around the British coast—and another windmill on every bit of higher or exposed land. Southeast England would not be affected so much as the North, Wales or Scotland—but we may depend more on tourism. At least we do not price ourselves out of the market, as London does.

I also examined the contribution that wind energy could make. I do not think that the country fully appreciates that wind energy is not quite so productive as some people imagine. One proposed wind farm in Yorkshire—which in my view would be a pollutant of a significant part of my county—would produce in one year as much as a Drax power station could produce in six days. Drax is the cleanest of our power stations, long since fitted with flue-gas desulphurisation.

I accept that we must be concerned about energy. I have long been involved in and eager to see much greater and more intensive use of energy conservation. I suggest an alternative to wind farms that might buy the time that the Government need to achieve more energy conservation and to make public transport more attractive—leading to far less pollution from motor vehicles, which is probably the greatest of our problems.

There are hundreds of closed collieries in this country. At many of them can be found methane—a gas 20 times more poisonous than the carbon and sulphur emissions from the power stations that cause so much anxiety. That methane is leaking slowly out in the atmosphere. It can be tapped. A few months ago, I visited one such establishment five miles from my home. It will provide as much electricity as some large wind farms. Such operations are not intrusive, with noise occurring only 50 yards or so around the small plant. The gas is available free of charge. It should be taken for health reasons. If there were a rapid expansion of methane from closed collieries, it would be unnecessary to incur the extravagance of windmills, which despoil the landscape.

The Government originally took the view that Europe would not be in favour but the European Union has made it clear that the issue is available for national determination. Nothing from Europe would prevent Britain from encouraging that development.

The effect of wind farms on tourism would be serious. They would cause lasting devastation to the landscape and arouse the loathing and detestation of most local residents.

Do the Government maintain the view that there should be environment impact assessments of all such projects? Will my noble friend the Minister give an assurance that there will be a thorough and proper environmental impact assessment of all major wind farm proposals—including retrospectively those in Wales?

During the passage of one industry Act I raised the question of opencast mining. Coalfield areas were often hostile to opencast mining because it caused nuisance, dirt and disturbance—often for long periods. Sometimes, coalfield areas were prepared to accept an opencast project if it meant that degradation and squalor would be transformed into something decent. In most cases, opencast mining caused a great deal of grief, horror and local disturbance.

Such projects went ahead because in those days the government twisted the arms of local authorities to disregard the hostility of local electors in the so-called national interest. During the passage of the Utilities Bill 2000, I asked several times for an assurance that the Government would not twist the arms of planning authorities in respect of applications for wind power development. I was given that assurance. I hope that it still stands. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response to that point and to the others that have properly been made.

7.7 p.m.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, for tabling this Unstarred Question. I confess that I am not absolutely convinced by the noble Lord's technical argument about the need to keep fossil fuel power stations running online to cover shortfalls in wind-powered generation. Electricity demand can be forecast. So can wind availability.

My noble friend Lord Lloyd-Webber questioned whether wind farms should be sighted near derelict nuclear power stations. I visited an offshore wind farm at Blyth, right next to a disused thermal power station. One difficulty with offshore wind farms is cost—but on the day I visited there was certainly not a problem with wind availability. I was impressed with that development, which did not seem unduly intrusive.

Why is wind farm development a matter for Whitehall when it should be for the people of Wales and the Welsh Assembly? Assembly Members have local knowledge. I have none at all about the beautiful roads in the middle of Wales. I accept that Westminster needs to specify overall emissions and renewables policy—especially to keep this country in line with international obligations. It may be necessary to put in place certain targets for the devolved assemblies but the actual locations of such power stations and the conditions under which they operate ought to be a matter for the Welsh Assembly. I am not absolutely convinced either of the merits of a public inquiry. One has only to remember the cost of the Heathrow Terminal 5 inquiry.

The noble Lord's Unstarred Question refers also to planning, which seems an impediment to renewable schemes. A good example is energy crops and short-rotation coppice schemes. This involves growing wood, which grows very quickly on what was formerly agricultural land. to be used in small power stations. Of course, it is carbon neutral, but there is great concern about pollution during the planning process by way of emissions, especially as regards heavy metals. If the land is currently being used for producing food, what worries mze is the fact that the heavy metals must already be getting into the food chain. Surely it would be much better if those heavy metals were entering the short rotation coppice, which is then burnt in a power station and widely distributed thereafter. I sometimes wonder whether good, renewable projects are stifled by our long-winded planning process.

In conclusion, I do not support Nimbyism, but I do agree with noble Lords who have suggested that this should be a matter for the Welsh Assembly.

7.11 p.m.

Lord Moran

My Lords, I, too, should like very much to thank the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, for raising this important matter, and for the work that he has accomplished in driving forward the work of CPRW. I must declare an interest in that I live in mid-Wales and am a member of that campaign group.

We are an overcrowded, over-populated island, but we still have some surviving fragments of wild country of which the Cambrian mountains is one example. I often drive through them on my way to meetings of the Welsh Salmon and Trout Angling Association, of which I have the honour to be president. It would be unforgivable to ruin these surviving fragments.

One of Wales's great assets is her incomparable landscape. Not long ago, an old American friend came to stay with us. One day he asked, "Do you take all this for granted?" Perhaps we do. The case of Cefn Croes is fundamentally a landscape issue. Mid-Wales is now threatened by the proliferation of increasingly enormous and obtrusive industrial structures. Those proposed for Cefn Croes are huge. I viewed Nelson's Column this afternoon and thought what twice that height would mean, repeated 39 times. Frankly, I was appalled.

Wind power produces only trivial amounts of power—a minute fraction of what is produced by a conventional power station. When the wind drops, it produces none at all; and, left alone, it would be quite uneconomic. The developers are in it for the subsidy; and the Government are providing massive subsidy. The non-fossil fuel obligation guarantees premium price sales for 15 years. We are phasing out subsidies to hard-pressed farmers, yet here we are planning to give a substantial subsidy to Enron, the chiefs of which company are now facing gaol in the United States. Surely Enron Europe is in receivership. I do not honestly know what we are doing. We are paying them to do untold damage to the Welsh countryside. Is that remotely sensible?

In December I read the press statement made by the Minister, Mr Brian Wilson, in which he said: The launch of these windfarms should mark the start of a new period of expansion for wind energy in this country … Wales is blessed with some of the finest energy rich natural sources in the world. I am confident that Government. investors and the local community will work together to ensure that these assets are utilised to help reduce the effects of climate change". Speaking specifically on Cefn Croes, the Minister said: This development will put Wales right at the forefront of the renewables expansion which I am anxious to promote throughout the UK". Then, as several speakers have mentioned, he announced that he would shortly be introducing the, new rules which will relocate renewable energy projects which have been proposed under the non fossil fuel obligation but have failed to obtain planning permission". That seems to me to be immensely worrying. When the Minister responds to the debate, I hope that he will give the House some reassurance in that respect. Mr Wilson went on to say that the new rules will unlock about "100 renewable energy projects-, which is also deeply worrying.

But what of the future? We have already been told by several speakers that the next development in the pipeline—the one proposed near Strata Florida in Wales—will be the biggest turbine cluster in Europe. It will comprise 165 turbines, each measuring up to 400 feet in height. If that is to come to fruition by overriding the planning process, it seems to me to be a matter about which we should be extremely concerned. I am sorry that the reaction by Welsh authorities has not been stronger.

Several noble Lords mentioned the bizarre decision taken by the Ceredigion council after reading the extremely valuable report produced by its planning officers. After the short debate the councillors congratulated the officers on the detail and quality of their report. One of the councillors said that he agreed with 99.9 per cent of it, apart from the recommendation! Another, councillor Evans from Plaid Cymru, said that he was voting in favour of the application only because of a three-line whip on Plaid Cymru councillors. He added that he did not wish to be thrown out of the party. It is very odd that such a discussion should have been based on party whipping.

The advice from the Countryside Council for Wales was very clear. It concluded that the development would be inappropriate because of the landscape issue. Although it does not have the power of decision on the matter, it is unfortunate that the National Assembly did not realise that it was desirable to make it clear that a public inquiry was required, which enabled the DTI to say that it had received no formal request for one. I believe that there should be a formal inquiry. It is likely that it will conclude that it would not be desirable to have such a development at Cefn Croes.

7.18 p.m.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel for initiating this debate. Unlike many other speakers, I am a fan of renewable energy. I believe that there is a need for diversification to protect our long-term supply sources, and, indeed, the type of energy. Noble Lords may recall a Cabinet Office energy review document that was published this month. On reading the document, I took it to say that 70 per cent of our energy needs by the year 2020 would be supplied by gas. It seems to me that, by then, most of that gas will be imported from such politically unstable areas as Algeria, the Middle East and Russia. We need security of supply, as well as diversity. Therefore, I support the 10 per cent government target for renewables by the year 2010. In fact, I believe that the figure should be higher.

Wind is one of the most well-developed renewable sources of energy. The costs of construction and of operation are stable, but, unlike the price of oil which fluctuated by more than three-times between 1998, 1999 and 2000, they are decreasing. I was interested in the assertion of my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel that wind energy does not reduce emissions because, he said, one always has to have a gas power station standing by. If a power station is standing by and not generating it is not emitting. That saves emissions.

There are three relevant issues to this debate. Basically, they are noise, visual impact and location. As regards noise, I had the privilege of being a member of a Select Committee of this House which visited Denmark a year or two ago. We stood under one of the biggest wind generators built at that time. It was almost inaudible. The Danish Wind Industry Association said that being just six times the rotor diameter away—if it was is meters in diameter, that would be 25 meters away—it is no noisier than a normal living room with something like 45 dBA. I believe that modern generators are extremely quiet.

We have heard a great deal in the debate about visual impact. It is very subjective. I personally believe that windmills look better than pylons, but both are unacceptable in certain locations. It is probable that the top of a mountain is one of them. There is also another aspect to building anything on top of a mountain or the South Downs. One needs access roads, which can be as wrecking to the environment as the windmills themselves.

It is true that the more windy the location the more electricity is generated and the tops of hills are windy. The Danes told us that if the wind is too strong they have to stop the windmills because they become dangerous. Therefore, I am not convinced that the top of a Welsh mountain is necessarily a particularly attractive location. I certainly agree with my noble friend Lord Williams that what should apply at Cefn Croes should also apply to the South Downs and anywhere else. There are many locations which are suitable for wind generators such as offshore and flatter areas.

It is also logical that wind should be generated as closely as possible to where it is needed. I am beginning to suspect that this matter is a re-run of what occurred in the last century when many Welsh valleys were flooded to provide water for England. Is this an idea in order to provide electricity for England by building windmills on the tops of Welsh mountains? I do not know. There are many locations in the Bristol Channel, the Thames Estuary and Merseyside which would be perfectly adequate and good for wind power to supply the big conurbations in the South. the Midlands and the North West.

I am a little suspicious that such decisions by the Minister may have been influenced by how far it is from Westminster. I can understand why Wales wants to make its own decision about where wind farms should be located. One can also then comment on whether it wants to make its own decisions about where it obtains its energy from or whether it wants to have a free of supply of energy from everywhere else and not make any other decisions.

I believe that there should be common standards. The idea of my noble friend Lord Hardy of Wath of environmental impact assessments is very important. There should be common standards for planning locations. I do not see why we cannot move towards wind power in more suburban and urban areas, including London. Why not put some on the top of Canary Wharf and make it self-sufficient? Someone might complain that they did not look nice, but I cannot quite see why we cannot have a few of them around here.

Let us set an example in the South East. We should have them on the South Downs, the Chilterns and in the Thames Estuary or wherever. Let the Government for once say, "Let's have more in England" and demonstrate that we in England can cope with them. Then let the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament themselves decide where they want them situated.

7.23 p.m.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, I rise to speak very briefly in the gap. I entirely agree with what my noble friend Lord Carlile had to say. I am now in what the late and lamented Lord Elwyn-Jones used to call "the anecdotage". As I listened to the debate an anecdote came to my mind of an incident 40 years ago when I appeared as counsel on behalf of a group called Friends of Mwnt, who were objecting to a caravan site being set up in the only bay in Wales between the Lleyn peninsula and Pembrokeshire which did not have a caravan site. It was a beautiful little bay. There is an old church there.

I was briefed by this group and was cross-examining the chairman of the local planning committee. He was a genial, honest man. I gave him rather a rough time and pointed out to him, "Look at all these bays. They all have caravan sites. Are you saying now that this beautiful little bay should or should not have a site?" He threw up his hands in despair and said, "Well, Mr Hooson, we know that all the owners of those bays have had their compensation. Mr Jones, who owns this one, is a very decent chap and we did not see why he should not have his". That is one of the great elements which has perhaps actuated the planning committee in coming to an economic conclusion on what is essentially a purely planning matter.

7.25 p.m.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, those of us who know and love mid-Wales and almost all who have spoken in this debate are right to be deeply concerned about the ministerial decision to give the go-ahead to the proposed wind farm at Cefn Croes. We are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, for concentrating our minds on that decision.

This is the first monster-sized turbine project of over 50 megawatts to be authorised by the Minister for Energy in Wales without a public inquiry. As Simon Jenkins pointed out in The Times article on 15th February, Wales now has the largest concentration of onshore turbines in Europe. As if they were not big and intrusive enough already, they are getting bigger, both in capacity and turbine height.

Almost all other schemes currently in the planning process involve larger turbines than any of the existing 14 wind power stations in Wales and so the Cefn Croes scheme will set a precedent for future mega-developments of this kind. We have already heard talk of a proposal by the Camddwr Trust for 165 wind turbines 400 feet high, straddling the heights above Strata Florida Abbey. Are environmental considerations now to be completely disregarded?

How this decision was arrived at is also causing concern. First, there was Ceredigion County Council's decision in favour of the scheme by 19 votes to three, clean contrary to the advice of its officials and in the circumstances that have been well described. That brought the scheme straight to the Minister's desk under Sections 36 and 37 of the Electricity Act 1989. The powers in those sections are devolved in Scotland but not in Wales, so Wales is at the mercy of Whitehall!

Secondly, there is what I can only call the curious role of the National Assembly, which has some responsibility, as has been said, for Forest Enterprise and the Pwllpeirian Experimental Farm which occupy much of the land where the turbines will be sited. Presumably, it is they who will be rewarded by the scheme's promoters rather than the poor farmers.

For some curious reason the Assembly did not accept the conclusion of its statutory advisers, the Countryside Council for Wales, who stated explicitly that, notwithstanding the contribution that the Cefn Croes development might make to the generation of renewable energy, it would be inappropriate because of its detrimental effect on the landscape". The Assembly did not press for a public inquiry although to be fair, its official letter to the DTI pointed out that it had had more than 200 letters requesting such an inquiry and that it was the accepted means of testing and collecting information, where the issues involved more than local considerations which was clearly the case on this occasion.

The truth is that the thrust of thinking at the DTI was to consent to the scheme without a public inquiry. That becomes apparent in the reply sent to the chairman of the Council for the Preservation of Rural Wales on 7th February this year. It is also one of the recurrent themes of the recently published Cabinet Office paper The Energy Review.Paragraph 8.38 of that document portrays the current altitude to planning. It states: A persistent theme of the review has been the problems, either experienced or perceived, that energy projects have in gaining planning permission … Problems are often the result of the different concerns of potential developers and local residents. However, if the United Kingdom is to meet environmental, social and economic objectives, then a range of new supply-and-demand-side measures will have to gain planning permission". We should note that last phrase well.

In short, there is a built-in presumption, if not an imperative, in favour of development projects that fit in with national energy policy objectives. There was no problem with Cefn Croes once planning permission had been given, and the Minister for Energy had no intention of creating one by succumbing to pressure for a public inquiry. Perhaps the distant involvement of Enron hastened his decision? I should like to know—as I am sure the House would—is it still involved?

All this begs the question of the intrinsic worth of the Government's policy and targets on renewable energy. The current target is that 5 per cent of electricity supply should come from wind-powered turbines on land and off shore. Are higher targets to be set for 2020 and beyond? Land-based wind power output at present amounts to a minuscule 0.3 per cent in the United Kingdom, so there is a long way to go before the 5 per cent target is achieved.

Indeed, the Council for the Preservation of Rural Wales estimates that some 3,000 large land turbines, 100 metres high, will be needed, more than 1,000 of them in Wales; and around 1,000 even larger turbines, 150 metres high, at sea—150 of them off the Welsh coast. I read a report of one such project today in the Liverpool Daily Post. It is preferable to a land-based wind farm because it is proposed to be five miles off shore, but it is an enormous project.

So we are engaged in a programme of monstrous proportions to achieve this somewhat pitiful 5 per cent requirement. I believe, as do many others, it is an environmental catastrophe in the making.

Why are we in this ridiculous situation of having to destroy our environmental heritage so dubiously and trivially to reduce our fossil fuel emissions? It is because, unlike the French who get 40 per cent of their power from nuclear sources, we back-tracked on our nuclear power policy and now face a diminishing nuclear contribution to our energy needs.

I am glad to see that The Energy Review recommends that the options of new investment in nuclear power and clean coal should be kept open, and to read a press report that British Nuclear Fuels and British Energy are linking up to replace ageing reactors. I hope that these options will be examined sooner rather than later, before we have totally spoilt the wilds of Wales for a ha'penny worth of tar.

7.33 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, I am glad that my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel secured the debate. I apologise for not being here for the first few minutes of his speech, but as he kindly sent me his speech I am aware of what he said.

I am aware that the announcement in December by the Minister for Energy that DTI Ministers had agreed in principle a 60-megawatt wind farm at Cefn Croes in the Cambrian Mountains, subject to the planning conditions and planning obligation being resolved, has met with deep concern among some in Wales. These are extremely difficult issues where a balanced approach is needed to increase, on the one hand, renewable energy while, on the other, protecting the countryside.

As part of their energy policy the Government have a very clear target of achieving 10 per cent renewables electricity by 2010. Of course, there are many people who think that that target is too low. This is an important step change in our future energy mix and will greatly enhance emission savings and add to the security and diversity of our energy supplies.

However, as the PI U report makes clear, to reduce the amount of carbon emissions that we are talking about, and, indeed, to increase the amount of renewable energy we will need, we have to take action on many fronts. This includes both a massive amount of conservation and a vast amount of effort on renewables. I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, that making use of methane gas from coal mines is a sensible move, but it would make a minuscule difference to the kind of targets we are talking about.

I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that opposition to an energy source by any particular group is always, in my experience, accompanied by protestations that that group is in support of every other kind of renewable energy. So those who oppose biomass are always in support of wind turbines, and vice versa.

We are not talking about producing insubstantial amounts of energy from Cefn Croes. It will supply energy to more than 40,000 homes, which is a considerable amount of energy. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, about the seriousness of the situation in regard to renewables. It has been well rehearsed in many debates in the House. It is dangerously sentimental to argue for change in this important way to protect the environment, and then to object to everything which can bring it about. I want to make it clear that we are not set on delivering our target on renewables at the expense of all other considerations—the countryside, nature conservation and the views of local people.

Developers have to work within the planning system and where decisions on large-scale developments fall to government Ministers, we shall operate within the due process. That is how the decision in principle on Cefn Croes was reached. Proposals for power stations of more than 50 megawatts are considered by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry under Section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989. The Secretary of State looks at each proposal on a case-by-case basis and makes a decision on the merits of each proposed development.

In looking at the application, she takes into account the environmental impact. She considers the views of the local community—the local planning authority, individuals and local MPs. She considers the advice of statutory bodies, such as the Environment Agency, the relevant countryside and nature conservation bodies and heritage bodies. In the case of Wales, she considers the views of the National Assembly for Wales. She obviously considers the views of the developer and she considers the views of any other party which writes to her on the application.

Should the local planning authority object to an application, the Secretary of State is obliged to arrange for a public inquiry to be held. Even if the local planning authority does not object, the Secretary of State has a discretionary power to hold a public inquiry, if it is appropriate to do so in the light of any other objections received or of any other material considerations particular to the case. I hope that your Lordships will see from this that it is a comprehensive process in which the local planning authority has a key role to play through its familiarity with the local environment and its ability to object and thereby force a public inquiry, but also a process in which the public get a chance to have their say.

In this case, there is no doubt in my mind that the process was gone through properly. We considered the views of all concerned; there was no requirement for a mandatory public inquiry; and a judgment was reached that Ministers had sufficient information to reach a decision without needing to exercise the discretionary power to call a public inquiry. I hope that noble Lords will see from this that Ministers have indeed followed the statutory process before reaching a decision. It is difficult to see grounds now that would lead Ministers to reconsider their decision or to ask for a public inquiry.

That brings me to the noble Lord's concern over the unblocking of 100 renewable projects. The Government are strongly committed to accelerating the uptake of renewables electricity in this country. We shall need to use a range of measures to achieve the target we have set of 10 per cent renewables electricity by 2010. Allowing NFFO supported projects to relocate to alternative sites for which planning permission has been given will certainly help us to move towards this target.

I can assure the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford and the noble Lord, Lord Moran, that this in no way enables those projects to override planning permission or in any way to obtain preferential planning permission in a site to which they move. It merely says that the support for them is not tied to obtaining planning permission on a particular site. Each case will he examined in the usual way by the relevant planning authorities. A corresponding arrangement for Scotland is being prepared.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, referred to the DTI press notice stating that the development will result in savings of 150,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide. He argued that this was incorrect because the energy produced by Cefn Croes will go to meet increased demand.

I do not find that a very convincing argument. The electricity generated by Cefn Croes would in all probability otherwise he generated by fossil fuels. That is the basis for the DTI's statement. It makes no sense to claim that electricity generated by Cefn Croes would go to meeting increments in demand, not existing demand. All electricity generated in substantial amounts simply goes into the Grid, whatever its source. It makes no sense to claim that the intermittent nature of windpower makes a difference. It is clear that we are dealing with a situation whereby the electricity goes into the Grid and is then dispersed; and we have no way of knowing whether it is going to replace electricity from fossil fuels or whether it is meeting extra demand. The correct question to ask is: does it provide energy that would otherwise have to be produced from fossil fuels?

Lord Carlile of Berriew

My Lords, may I respectfully drag the noble Lord back to the subject of the debate; namely, the effect on the landscape at Cefn Croes? Will he please let us into the secret of how the Secretary of State evaluated the landscape in question and the reasons for overriding the representations of many that it should not be despoiled?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I am coming to that question, but it is clearly important that the point mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, should be dealt with; namely, that this development had no value in terms of energy.

I am happy to come to the noble Lord's question. As I said, this has to be dealt with in terms of a balanced decision which takes account both of the landscape and of the considerations about producing renewable energy. In this case the county council agreed the planning application and the National Assembly for Wales, when offered the opportunity to comment on the decision, did not say that there should be a planning inquiry. It cannot, therefore, be said that the DTI rode roughshod over local views. If the alternative situation had applied—namely, if the planning officer had gone against the proposal and the county council had said that it did not want the project to go ahead—I cannot believe that anyone in this House would have said that we should have listened to the planning officer rather than to the elected body. As I said, the National Assembly for Wales was given the opportunity to comment on the matter and did not do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, asked whether Brian Wilson had visited Cefn Croes. The answer is no. However, he was fully aware of the issues of visual impact, nature conservation and protection of the countryside raised by the application. He was aware also, from photo-montages, of the nature of the landscape. In arriving at a judgment, he weighed all these considerations seriously against all the other relevant considerations.

I give the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, an assurance that a full environmental statement is required for all the windfarm applications that come to the DTI. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, that there is a great deal of misinformation about Enron's involvement in the project. It is a financial backer, and there has been some misunderstanding about the consequences of that. I want to make it clear that what matters is not the name of a particular company but that the necessary funding is available to undertake the planning obligation, such as the land management scheme decommissioning costs. Obviously, that will not be finally agreed until all parts of it are in place.

In conclusion, I hope that I have provided the noble Lord with the comfort that in reaching this decision proper weight was given to the Welsh viewpoint. Wherever such decisions are taken, a consistent and balanced view needs to be reached that takes full account of the concerns of local people. I believe that in this case that was done.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may press him further on one point. He has spoken as though the decision was made in Wales clearly, consciously, with everyone involved being aware of their rights and understanding the matter from beginning to end. I submit that in this case—because it was the first such case to be determined by the DTI—there was extraordinary confusion. I do not believe that the Minister this evening or the Minister in another place has recognised the confusion. As I said, the Countryside Council for Wales did not ask for an inquiry because it was advised that it could only advise; and the National Assembly for Wales did not ask for an inquiry, claiming that it could not do so if the Countryside Council for Wales had not done so. I do not believe that the Minister has answered the point about the confusion and taken serious account of the particular circumstances of this case.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, clearly one can always find different views on these matters. However, it does not seem to me that in this case there was any confusion about the decision of the county council on this matter. It took a clear decision. Against that, to say that it made it on the basis that it did not really understand the situation is not a very democratic approach. It was for the county council to make the decision. It made it. We had to counterbalance that in our decision, as we did the approach of the National Assembly for Wales.