Energy Powers Speech – 6 Sep 2011
Wed. September 7, 2011
Prynhawn da, Mrs Main. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I appreciate the opportunity to open this debate on the Government’s policy on devolution of energy planning powers to Wales, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I wished to give this speech in the report stage of the Localism Bill in May, when my new clause 11, relating to the transfer of powers to grant consent for electricity generating stations in Wales, was selected for debate. However, I was not called, as almost 50 amendments were selected for debate within two hours, and the guillotine prevented me from making a contribution. I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to make points today that I wished to make then.
That new clause related to schedule 13 of the Localism Bill, which scraps the Infrastructure Planning Commission, transferring its power to the Secretary of State. During my 2010 general election campaign—as my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), will be aware—I stood on a specific pledge to scrap the IPC. I am therefore delighted that Ministers in London have delivered for me to a certain degree on that point. At the time of the Planning Act 2008, my party, Plaid Cymru, along with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, opposed the creation of the IPC by the then Labour Government, as undemocratic and taking political responsibility and scrutiny away from Ministers. We therefore welcome the Government’s decision to pull the plug on the organisation. The question, as it was in those debates in 2008, is where those powers should now reside. I fear that is where the coalition Government is undermining the second half of my election pledge, and where there is clearly some convincing work left to do.
The successful referendum in Wales earlier this year showed support and an appetite for devolution among the Welsh public, with around two-thirds voting in favour. The topics included in that referendum did not come from a wider discussion on the whole issue of the devolution settlement, but were chosen by the former Labour Government and included in the Government of Wales Act 2006. The referendum was fought within the narrow confines of the 1997 settlement regarding devolved policy fields. The key point about the referendum was that the yes campaign—which secured an overwhelming victory, far beyond anything I envisaged—used parity with Scotland as its battering ram. Equality with our Celtic cousins is a powerful message in my country, and it is a very dangerous political game for those who underplay that fact.
Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He will be relieved to know that at the time of the Government of Wales Act 2006, Liberal Democrats tabled amendments to seek the devolution he seeks on energy matters.
There is another inconsistency—not just the territorial one between Scotland and Wales—which is felt by many local people. On the one hand, in TAN8, strategic areas are defined by the National Assembly, yet the ultimate planning decisions for power installations over 50 MW rest in Westminster. Many people find it difficult to grapple with that inconsistency.
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Jonathan Edwards: I am grateful for that intervention, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman takes a consistent position. I will address some of those concerns later and will allow him to intervene if he wishes to do so. I am glad to hear the thrust of his comments.
We believe that unfinished business with the devolution settlement remains, which will come as no surprise to colleagues. Polls in Wales agree with us that criminal justice and policing should be devolved, as should broadcasting and financial powers. Natural resources and energy are other areas that we believe should be devolved to the National Assembly and our own democratic institutions in Wales. That is not a new discussion point. Indeed, the first bids in relation to the devolution of powers in the area of energy and natural resources were made in 2003, and a not particularly successful working group from the Wales Office, the Welsh Government and the UK Government tried to resolve the situation. The issue was raised again in discussions on the 2007 White Paper which preceded the Planning Act 2008, which created the IPC.
The argument is largely one of common sense, to add to the points made by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams). Local planning authorities in Wales, under Welsh Government policy, currently have the power to consent to new or increased electricity generating stations up to 50 MW, but anything greater on land is dealt with currently by the IPC and—following the introduction of the Localism Bill—by the Minister in London. My key point is that in Scotland planning powers for all energy developments are fully devolved. The 50 MW limit was written into the Electricity Act 1989 and imposed on the National Assembly on its creation in 1999. The 50 MW appears to be an arbitrary figure with no real justification for its existence. It makes little sense that a generating station of 49 MW should be decided upon in Wales, but 51 MW by the IPC in London or by UK Ministers. The issue is one of consistency of approach and of planning.
Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): This matter relates to discussions we had before the general election, when the Assembly seemed to be looking at changing that level from 50 MW to 100 MW. I have a fairly open mind about these issues and, as we have just had a referendum, I am reluctant to consider a change now, which is a point that the hon. Gentleman addressed earlier. Does he feel it is 100 MW—including everything, in Pembrokeshire as well—for these power stations?
Jonathan Edwards: That would be the difference between me and some of the London parties. I would favour full sovereignty over energy powers. I will address the specific point that the hon. Gentleman raises about the 100 MW level later and will happily allow him to intervene.
The National Assembly’s research service tells us that 39% of applications have been submitted to the IPC, the body that is about to be abolished; 26% of applications are with the UK Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change; and 36% are decided by local planning authorities. Therefore, only a little more than a third of all decisions on applications to do with energy generating stations in Wales are based on planning policy devised in Wales. In my view, that is clearly unsatisfactory, as the purpose of devolution is to reflect Welsh feeling and attitudes. There is no denying that
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Wales wants to be a greener country and wants to specialise in renewables and the green economy. Indeed, sustainable development is written into the constitution of the National Assembly. However, if two thirds of planning applications are decided outside our borders and our jurisdiction, even though they may impact on us on a day-to-day basis, that is not power devolved, but power retained. I would hope that as part of the respect agenda, the UK Government would want to address that enormity.
The Plaid-Labour one Wales Government, to whom we were proud to belong, were very much in favour of transferring further powers to Wales. They were not alone, with environmental and civic organisations such as the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales and Friends of the Earth indicating their support and including it in their manifestos for this year’s National Assembly elections. The issue was raised during consideration of the Planning Act 2008, when the IPC was first created. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) tabled an amendment in Committee, but it was not moved. The Liberal Democrats then moved a similar amendment on Report.
“We have had detailed discussions, not just with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform but with the Welsh Assembly Government and the Wales Office.” —[Official Report, 2 June 2008; Vol. 476, c. 518.]
However, there is no easily available record of what those discussions entailed or what the conclusions were. I can only assume that the Labour Government in London denied their colleagues in Wales the right to have the powers I have set out.
To return to the 2008 Act, the Liberal Democrats pushed their amendment to a vote, seeking specifically to exclude Wales from the remit of the IPC. Labour voted against the amendment, and the Conservatives abstained. The Liberal Democrats, of course, voted in favour of their amendment, as did my colleagues and I. Those who voted for it included the right hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), who is now the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, and the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg), who is now the Deputy Prime Minister.
Since then, the Welsh Conservatives have published their 2011 National Assembly election manifesto, which commits them to increase the present level from 50 MW to 100 MW. Likewise, Labour in Wales supports raising the bar. Even 100 MW is an arbitrary figure, but it represents a significant improvement on the current situation, specifically in relation to renewable energy-generating developments.
There therefore seems to be cross-party agreement in Wales, and there needs to be progress on the current situation. I can only hope that the London parties’ Welsh colleagues have agreed their proposals with their bosses in London, because there seems to be a divergence between the views of the parties in Wales and what is being said down here in Westminster.
My hope is that the issue can be dealt with in the Localism Bill, and my noble Friend Lord Wigley will table amendments to it in the other place. If the Bill cannot do so, however, I hope that it will be dealt with
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by the new commission that the UK Government have announced will look into further powers for Wales over the next few years.
I would like to highlight a point that makes a mockery of the current system in my constituency. My constituency is home to TAN 8 areas. Those are specific strategic zones, which have been designated by the Welsh Government for the location of large onshore wind projects. Where there is a concentration of such developments, there will understandably be a public backlash, and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) has been vociferous in setting out his concerns about developments in his constituency.
To mitigate such concerns, councillors in Carmarthenshire have proposed that the local planning authority adopt an enhanced 2 km buffer zone between individual projects and inhabited areas, and the proposal has great support among local people. However, even if Carmarthenshire county council adopts the policy, it will apply only to developments below 50 MW. Clearly, many developments in TAN 8 areas will be above 50 MW. It is no wonder local people are confused; to be honest, I am confused myself. It is not only my constituents and me who want clarity. During a recent visit by the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs visit to Düsseldorf, we met renewables investors, who informed us that having different planning guidance was a disincentive to invest.
Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): On that point, the hon. Gentleman will be aware of the proposal for the Atlantic array, which will construct 147 turbines 15 miles off the south and west Wales coast and also have an impact on the north Devon coast. How would his plans take effect when two countries and a number of other parties have an interest in such a major offshore development?
Let me return to the new clause that I proposed to the Localism Bill. It would have included generating stations not only on Welsh dry land but in Welsh territorial waters. The intention was once again to ensure consistency between the aims of the Welsh Government and actions around the Welsh coast. Under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, consents for generating stations up to 100 MW are given by the Marine Management Organisation and, for levels above that, by the IPC. I see no reason why those powers should not be wholly transferred to the Welsh Government.
This is not an idle debate about devolving powers. A forward-thinking Welsh Government should look at the significant potential of our waters—the chance to generate clean, green energy and the economic potential that
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arises from it. The most prominent example of that would be the opportunity to develop a tidal lagoon in Swansea bay, which is usually quoted as being able to generate about 60 MW of electricity. The plan has been in the pipeline for decades, but we are still discussing how we can bring it into being. Giving the Welsh Government powers over electricity generating station consents at all levels would allow consistency of approach, add coherence to planning regulations and end the anomaly based on arbitrary figures for megawatt production.
During Third Reading of the Localism Bill, I made an intervention on the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who agreed to colleagues and me. It was a constructive session, and I thank him for the manner in which he listened to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) and by me. He has since written to me to confirm some of the points raised in that meeting on 13 June.
First, the right hon. Gentleman confirmed the disparity between energy legislation powers in Wales and Scotland. It exists because, before devolution, planning law was devolved to Scotland but not to Wales. Therefore, the energy consenting role was transferred to the Scottish Parliament on its inception, but it was not given to the National Assembly for Wales. That historical precedent suggests that with planning powers now in the hands of the Welsh Government, energy consent functions should also be transferred. Will the Government confirm that they plan to honour that precedent in the long term?
The right hon. Gentleman’s letter also confirmed that there were more recent discussions with the Welsh Government in September and October last year. At the time, the relevant Welsh Government Minister argued that renewable energy consents in Wales should be increased from 50 MW to 100 MW, a position that has since become the official Labour line and has been taken up by the new Government in Wales. It was rejected by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, who said that UK Ministers are responsible for meeting the UK’s renewable energy target and therefore best placed to take decisions on applications for larger renewable projects, and that UK Ministers are responsible for drawing up and designating national policy statements. I hope the Minister can explain why the Secretary of State has changed his mind and why he has performed a 180° turn on the position he voted for in opposition during consideration of the Planning Act 2008. I am sure the hon. Member for Ceredigion would like that clarification, as would I.
The argument seems to be that UK Ministers have decided the rules, so only they can participate in the game. That does not make for a coherent argument in a devolved United Kingdom, and it makes for even less of a coherent argument on energy, which is
an international issue. On an issue where there is agreement across the board on the need for change in Wales, I would welcome an indication from the Minister that there will be proper bilateral discussion and debate, and that would probably best take place during the proposed Welsh Calman process, which will happen in the next few years.
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if the UK and Welsh Governments wish to overcome them. To address the point raised by the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), my colleague Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas told the National Assembly in a similar debate on 6 July:
“There is no reason why there should not be a renewable policy that could be co-ordinated between the nations of the UK. It is not for the United Kingdom to keep responsibility for itself in taking actions on behalf of Wales and Scotland, but a matter on which we should work together.
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