§ Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)
I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate elements of the role of the Department of Trade and Industry in the planning consents process for renewable energy in Wales. I shall concentrate on the application of section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989, having proposed a Bill to amend that Act that is scheduled for Second Reading on Friday, and on a new DTI consultation on a proposed consents process for offshore wind or water driven generating stations in England and Wales.
I shall briefly explain how the planning process in Wales has changed and how the role of the DTI is different for renewable energy in Wales. Since its establishment, the National Assembly has become the primary body responsible for planning in Wales. Local authorities implement planning policy through powers provided in secondary legislation introduced by the National Assembly.
The Assembly is responsible for the overall guidelines. It requires local authorities to formulate unitary development plans that take into account the need to meet our renewables obligations in Wales, which are similar to those in England and to Kyoto and Government targets. The Assembly can call in planning issues and deals with appeals against planning decisions, although in effect they are dealt with by the planning inspectorate.
All those processes take into account representations from third parties as well as those from the developer and the local planning authority. Clearly the Assembly is now the strategic planning authority for Wales: it takes the national view, sets national priorities and guidelines for Wales and lets local authorities deal with purely local matters. It is important to recognise that the planning system in Wales is designed to serve communities in Wales, not protect private interests.
I understand that renewable developments, and especially renewable energy, in Wales are still guided by the planning guidelines of November 1996, which were introduced under the old Welsh Office. Local planning authorities are required to recognise the need for renewable energy and consider what contribution may be made to meeting such demand locally, regionally and nationally.
Wind farms, especially larger scale ones, involve an anomaly. Applications for those with a generating capacity of less than 50 MW are still dealt with by the local planning authority. The Assembly may call in such planning applications if it so wishes, and it seems to want to do so often. However, applications for schemes with a generating capacity in excess of 50 MW are still dealt with under section 36 of the 1989 Act, by the Department of Trade and Industry. That is clearly an anomaly in the planning system in Wales: the National Assembly is usually the strategic authority, but in cases of larger wind-scale developments, it is the DTI. That may be considered a rather unimportant anomaly, which will arise only occasionally. However, it has now arisen in my constituency.
The Cefn Croes application for a wind farm in Ceredigion, near Ponterwyd, is the largest application that has so far been submitted in England and Wales. It 106WH will have a combined capacity of some 58 MW or 59 MW. I believe that the application will be the first in Wales since devolution to be decided by the Minister at the DTI. I am not sure whether any of a similar size have been decided in England: the fact that it will be the largest in England and Wales suggests not.
An environmental impact assessment has already been made in relation to the planning application in Cefn Croes. Tremendous concern and unhappiness has been expressed locally about the fact that the DTI, not the National Assembly for Wales, will take the final decision on the application. If the local authority were to object to the application, even though it is not the deciding authority, that objection would automatically trigger a public inquiry by the DTI. An objection by another statutory consultee—such as the Countryside Council for Wales—could lead to a public inquiry if the DTI felt that that was fit.
I want the Minister to appreciate the great unease about the application in my constituency. As he might expect, I support such applications, although I reserve my judgment on the planning grounds of this one, because we have not yet seen the full details. Unease exists about the visual intrusion of such a large wind farm, the environmental impact and the need to balance national requirements and local contributions.
Ceredigion is probably one of the most advanced constituencies in terms of renewable energy in England and Wales. It produces more than 50 per cent. of its energy from renewable sources, including the Rheidol hydro-electric scheme. More than 30 per cent. of our energy comes from wind farms. Many would say that we contribute enough already and should not contribute more. I want to see Welsh needs taken into account: if that means that Ceredigion contributes a little more, that is all to the good. However, that contribution should be decided at the Welsh level. The current problem is that the DTI has the decision.
What will be the Minister's response? Will he take into account UK targets and needs, Welsh targets and needs or local targets and needs, which we have met several times over? That is one difficulty with section 36 of the 1989 Act, which my private Member's Bill would amend. I shall return to that matter, but I want to move on to the proposed consultation—
§ Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)
The hon. Gentleman represents one of the most beautiful parts of the United Kingdom, and he right to say that Ceredigion already contributes more than its fair share in terms of renewable energy. Is not the important point that we listen carefully to the interests of local people? Clearly, wind power has an enormous contribution to make to renewable energy. However, the environmental impact of physical intrusion, environmental damage, noise and flicker—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton)
Order. The hon. Gentleman is getting carried away. He is making a speech, not an intervention. He should bring it to an end quickly.
§ Mr. Thomas
I agree substantially with the hon. Gentleman, but the issue of visual intrusion is 107WH subjective. The environmental impact, however, is of utmost importance, as are the environmental benefits of the proposal. That is the difficult balancing act that must be performed. I would prefer the decision to be taken at the Welsh level by the National Assembly, in which the hon. Gentleman's party has an influence, not by the DTI in Westminster. That is the crucial point of my argument.
On the proposed consultation, which the DTI has produced for future offshore wind or water driven electricity stations in England and Wales, the surprising aspect of the proposal is that the DTI wants to go further. It is not content to decide, under section 36, on applications for projects of more than 50 MW. It now wants to decide on applications for projects in Wales of more than 1 MW. It would therefore be even more involved in the renewable energy debate in Wales.
The statement in the consultation paper is bold and bald—that a new process will be introduced in spring 2001 in line with the Government's aim of stimulating early development of a significant capacity in offshore wind farms. I do not know whether the Minister has an announcement to make on the matter. Rumours are rife that the first of those offshore wind farm developments will be announced shortly. Can to Minister comment on whether that development will be in Wales?
The fact that the consultation purports to include the National Assembly for Wales is a joke. It has yet to discuss the matter and the only consultation for Wales is a covering letter to the DTI's consultation. There has been a welcome move by the DTI to publish the consultation paper in Welsh as well as English, which acknowledges that aspect.
The DTI proposes to make all offshore wind and water powered generation subject to section 36 consents. Overall, the idea behind that proposal is very acceptable. There are two European directives that must be met when addressing renewable needs in Wales, and the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) referred to that obliquely. One directive is about environmental impact assessments and the other is the habitats directive. Currently, the proposals are not met fully by the consents process. I can see why that is the case.
However, there is an alternative way to meet the obligations, which does not involve a devolution clawback. As the Minister is a strong supporter of devolution, I hope that he will listen to my arguments and think again about his Deparment's proposals. Currently, applications of at least 50 MW must be decided under section 36. The proposal is that all applications of at least 1 MW will be decided by the DTI. How will the National Assembly for Wales meet Wales's strategic needs?
It is important to remember that the matter will not change the number of applications, or the number of hoops that developers must go through. The paper makes it clear that the system does not change the number of separate consents that art required. Instead, it should clarify matters with a developer at an earlier stage in the process, and make that process more streamlined and transparent. That is wonderful for civil servants and represents a wonderful piece of administrative tidying up, but it does not make the process in Wales more democratic If Cefn Croes is anything to go by, more local planning authorities in 108WH Wales are likely to feel even more aggrieved that decisions have been taken away from Wales. They will appeal to the DTI for further public inquiries, so the Minister may have to deal with several dozen inquiries.
I do not know whether the Minister's Department was one of those that found the Wales Office to be only fair in its dealings between Westminster and Cardiff. I do not know whether that is a reason why his civil servants wished to take the power and tidy up the administration of the matters, and whether there is a lack of trust about potential actions of the National Assembly. I ask the Minister to reject his Department's proposals. Although there is not a written protocol between the Wales Office and Government Departments, we are waiting for a better understanding of how there will be legislative changes between Westminster and Cardiff.
The proposal document makes no mention of how a local planning authority will oppose the consents. Will it trigger a public inquiry, and how will the DTI deal with such inquiries?
A further worrying aspect of the proposals is the enticement in the document for developers to deal directly with the DTI about the offshore wind farm and thus bypass what I hoped would be a National Assembly responsibility. However, the onshore aspects of the offshore development, such as an onshore station that takes electricity from an offshore generator, would also bypass a local authority. The consultation document suggests:The developer might however choose to seek deemed planning permission for the sub-station or other onshore development from DTI via section 90 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, at the same time as applying for consent under section 36…rather than submitting a separate application directly to the local planning authority.It is not clear whether that would also be true in Wales because much of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 is devolved to the National Assembly for Wales, or whether we are seeing one or two devolution clawbacks. I am worried that there has been too much administrative tidying up for the convenience of civil servants, and insufficient democratic accountability for the convenience and transparency of local decision making.
I shall give the Minister an alternative arrangement that meets his Department's objectives and would allow the National Assembly for Wales to develop its full potential as the strategic planning body in Wales and have the overview of renewable energy in Wales. First, we should rip up the document. Secondly, section 36 consents must be given over to the National Assembly for Wales to allow the hon. Gentleman to wash his hands of the need to decide the larger generating station consents at Whitehall level. As the National Assembly is already dealing with the habitats directive and European impact assessment directives through its secondary legislation in other contexts, surely it can deal with them in the context of large scale and offshore developments, too. There would, of course, need to be strong liaison between the Department and the Assembly. However, the document is not the way forward.
In my constituency, as well as the Cefn Croes applications, there are two special conservation areas to which the habitats directive applies offshore from 109WH Ceredigion. One is Cardigan bay. The other is the special area of conservation known as Penllyn ar Sarnau, which includes the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley). It reaches down to the northern part of my constituency. Cardigan bay is a special area and any offshore developments in that area may be opposed in a similar way that oil exploration has been opposed in the past. If any development is to happen in that area, I want it to be decided at a Welsh level as much as possible, not by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.
The Minister has been one of the most ardent advocates of devolution in Wales and many of us are grateful for the way in which he has taken his party forward for devolution. He is the last person who would behave like a colonial governor in Wales, deciding matters for Wales from the Department of Trade and Industry. The recent overnight decision by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to allow the planting of three genetically modified crop sites in Wales with no consultation with Members of the National Assembly, no consultation with local Members of Parliament and no consultation with spokespeople in this House who have responsibility for their parties' environmental portfolios—I include myself in that group—has put in disarray the National Assembly's proposals for a GM-free environment in Wales. That is what happens when London decides such issues. I am sure that the Minister does not want to be party to such decision making. I invite him to reject the document and to propose a new set of planning consents that works with the National Assembly and will give more power to the National Assembly rather than taking power away from it.
§ The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mr. Peter Hain)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) on securing the debate and welcome his interest and expertise in renewable energy, which is welcome in the House. As we tackle climate change, that is of crucial importance. I am aware that he tabled a private Member's Bill on 28 March proposing that the Electricity Act 1989 be amended, so that the National Assembly for Wales can handle the granting of section 36 consents for power stations in Wales.
The hon. Gentleman has raised directly with the Prime Minister his worry about the proposed onshore wind farm in his constituency at Cefn Croes. I agree that Cardigan bay is beautiful. If Neath had a bay of equivalent beauty, I might be a rival. It is unquestionably beautiful and no one would want to see it harmed or injured. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am a strong believer in devolution. By background and temperament, no one in the House is less likely to behave as a colonial governor than I. The last such person to do so was the current Leader of the Opposition and it is good that he is no longer in that position.
110WH I am an enthusiast for renewable energy, Mr. Winterton, as is the Prime Minister whose recent—
§ Mr. Hain
I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is a very worthy title for you, in particular.
The Prime Minister is also an enthusiast for renewable energy. His recent speech covered the better use of energy by business, the development of low carbon technologies, our renewables obligation—which is a powerful driver—programmes to cut emissions in the transport sector and the promotion of much greater energy efficiency in the domestic sector. The hon. Member for Ceredigion asked about imminent announcements. I am pleased to inform the House that we expect the Crown Estate Commissioners to announce the results of the first offshore wind farm site pre-qualification round tomorrow. They will give the names of wind farm developers who have successfully obtained site leases on the sea bed for the development of offshore wind farms right around Britain, including Wales. That marks a major step forward for renewables, and is very important news. The response to the Crown Estate's competition for site leases has been very positive. Tomorrow's announcement will represent a significant addition to our renewables capacity. Developers are responding to the Government's green signal, which I waist to make loud and clear.
Planning policy for England and Wales gives local planning authorities guidance on a range of issues that affect the siting of all renewable energy projects. The key issue for local authorities, when assessing applications for planning permission—including all the examples that the hon. Gentleman gave—is to take account of renewable energy projects' impact on the local environment and their wider contribution to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.
Last year, the Government announced a more strategic approach to planning for renewable energy in England, from regional level downwards. Under that, regions are to carry out, or update, assessments for renewables, from which regional targets for renewables generation can be agreed. The point of such studies is to achieve local consensus on the siting of future renewable energy projects. No specific separate targets have yet been drafted for Wales, but an assessment of the potential for renewable energy developments in Wales has been undertaken. That report is currently being finalised. Once studies are complete, the Department will publish a British overview, taking into account the assumptions made in individual studies.
To make successful progress, we need to get local stakeholders signed up and make a realistic assessment of the capacity for each part of Britain, including Wales, to generate electricity from renewable sources instead of simply imposing the United Kingdom target at regional level—or, in the case of Wales, at national level. I favour a bottom-up approach, which I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome. The recent announcement on locational flexibility for the non-fossil fuel obligation will also free up projects that have failed to secure planning consent for the sites in their original NFFO applications. That will boost renewables further.
111WH We must all work together. The hon. Gentleman put his points in a rather simplistic fashion, if I may say so. Any decision, on any location, taken by the local planning authority, the National Assembly for Wales, or the Department of Trade and Industry will take account of all relevant factors. Those will vary in each case, but will include Government policy, or, in Wales, Assembly guidance, together with published planning guidance, covering not only energy, but the countryside, nature conservation, local plans, environmental assessments and the views expressed on an application. There is no prospect, especially under the current Minister, of the interests of Wales, or any part of Wales, being ignored. There will be full loca1 consultation and consultation with the Assembly.
I am aware of the application concerning Cefn Croes, but because of the quasi-judicial role of DTI Ministers in determining the application, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on its merits or drawbacks. I understand that it has aroused strong feelings, but opinion is divided. We have received more than 200 written objections, but also more than 80 letters of support. We are currently awaiting the views of the local planning authority, Ceredig on county council, the Ministry of Defence—it is a tactical training area—and the National Assembly for Wales. No decision will be made until those have been taken into account. Until the Secretary of State receives that advice, he cannot take a decision on the application or call a public inquiry.
When considering applications for power stations over 50 MW, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, under section 36 of the 1989 Act, examines proposals on a case-by-case basis, taking a decision on the merits of each. He takes into account environmental impact and the views of the local community, local planning authority, individuals and local MPs. He considers the advice of statutory bodies such as the Environment Agency, the relevant countryside and nature conservation bodies, heritage bodies and, in the case of Wales, the National Assembly for Wales. Clearly, he considers the views of the developer and of any party who writes to him about the application.
In answer to one of the hon. Gentleman's questions, if the local planning authority objects to an application, the Secretary of State is obliged to arrange a public inquiry. Even if the local authority does not object, the Secretary of State has the discretionary power to hold a public inquiry if deemed appropriate in the light of any other objections and/or any other material considerations particular to the case.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that this is a comprehensive process in which the local planning authority has a key role to play—from its familiarity with the local environment to its ability to object and thereby force a public inquiry—and through which the public can have their say. The hon. Gentleman referred to our recently launched consultation exercise on the consents process for offshore wind farms. It proposed that, instead of the current fragmented system, the DTI act as a one-stop shop, receiving, and co-ordinating the administration of, proposals for offshore wind farms in England and Wales. It also proposed that the DTI become, in effect, the planning authority for smaller offshore wind 112WH farms—those at or below 50 MW—given that, in general, the local planning regime does not extend offshore.
However, with my specific encouragement the National Assembly for Wales is conducting its own consultation on the proposal, including the translation into Welsh to which the hon. Gentleman referred, which will ensure that Welsh interests are taken fully into account. The Assembly will also seek views on the role that it might play in the consents process for applications in Welsh territorial waters. Responses are sought by 23 April, and I shall consider carefully all the views expressed, including those of the hon. Gentleman should he wish to write to me.
Reflecting the combined electricity grid and market in England and Wales, the DTI currently determines any planning application for a power station of more than 50 MW. That is not an anomaly. There is an integrated market for electricity and distribution across England and Wales, and Wales benefits from that. If there were some form of Offa's dyke in terms of electricity supply, Wales would be very vulnerable. I hope that all hon. Members can see the clear advantages of a single planning authority that allows strategic decisions to be taken across the entire electricity market. One cannot consider electricity generation, supply and distribution in a nationalistic way—if I may put that to the hon. Gentleman—but I will listen carefully to any views expressed by the Assembly. In the meantime, I am determined to work closely with it. I have been in touch with its Environment Minister, Sue Essex, about the specific issue of offshore wind farm consents, and I have listened to her arguments about process and procedure, to which I am personally sympathetic.
The way to move forward together successfully was clearly demonstrated during the stricter consents policy. Despite a general presumption against further gas-fired power stations, recognition was given to the particular circumstances surrounding two projects in Wales: Baglan energy park in south Wales and Rhosgoch in Anglesey. The decision on Baglan bay recognised the importance of General Electric's advanced gas-fired power station technology, and the difficult employment circumstances in the Neath-Port Talbot area. The decision on Rhosgoch recognised both an energy policy benefit and the particular circumstances prevailing in Anglesey.
The Government are therefore listening to Wales, and Wales has benefited. We will continue to work closely with the Assembly on applications for wind farms in Wales, whether onshore or offshore. I should point out, however, that that is a general statement and does not refer to any application or to many of the arguments that the hon. Gentleman has advanced. As a fellow enthusiast for renewables, I am sure that he will agree with me on that point.
There is another contagious disease spreading throughout Britain at the moment: an attitude of nimbyism towards applications for offshore, onshore or almost any kind of renewable generation in one's own back yard. People are in favour of clean energy and green energy, and are enormously in favour of renewables, but seem to have a blind spot when such proposals come anywhere near them. People in Wales and elsewhere have to confront that stark truth. Most people do not want a nuclear power station in their back 113WH yard and are not enthusiastic about having coal-fired or gas-fired generators there either. The alternative is renewable energy. It is important to support wind farms in Wales and elsewhere—although not on the basis that they can spread anywhere that they choose, with every development given the green light. We intend to accelerate the development of renewables.