Neil Parish MP speaks in SW Wind Farm Debate

Neil Parish MP spoke in a Westminster Hall debate on planning policy and wind turbines in the South West. Neil Parish expressed his concerns the drive to build large-scale wind farms should not be at the expense of our natural environment and the communities they affect.

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) for securing the debate, because it is very important that we discuss this issue. We have had changes to the planning policy, but I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. and learned Friend that it is still not strong enough.

People who come to Devon to live, and the vast majority of people in Devon who are indigenous, do not wish to have the whole of their countryside—all the rolling hills of Devon—covered with wind turbines. If both the residents of Devon and those coming to the county thought that wind turbines were the answer to our electricity and energy needs for the future, perhaps they would accept them a great deal more than they do.

One point that I want to make is that, even in one of the windiest spots, if such a spot can be found, very often wind turbines work only for some 30% or 35% of the time. Therefore, the intrusion into the countryside and the amount of energy that they produce just do not stack up. Also, on a very cold, frosty morning, when we all have our fires on and we need the maximum amount of energy, what will happen? Nothing will come from the turbines. On a very windy day, the turbines have to be stopped because they may rattle and come off the end of their—I do not know the technical term, so I will call it their “stalk”, for want of a better expression.

We also have to wake up to the fact that what is happening in Devon, Cornwall and across much of the west country is that, because wind turbines are so lucrative in the form of grant and subsidy, all sorts of companies are just using a scattergun approach. They say, “Let’s try this authority. Let’s try Mid Devon, let’s try Torridge and West Devon, let’s try East Devon. Let’s just see if we can get those applications through.” And because the planning system is not strong enough to protect our countryside, those applications are coming through.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting argument, saying that wind turbines are not effective at generating electricity, but are effective at accruing subsidy. Does he accept that it is only through generating electricity that the developers of wind turbines attract any subsidy and that it is because wind turbines in the south-west of England generated 20 TWh last year that any subsidy was paid to them at all?

Neil Parish: My argument is about whether such an amount in subsidy—basically, from those who pay energy bills—is warranted to produce that amount of electricity, and whether that electricity was produced during a valuable time of day or not. The thing is that that process can be controlled only when the wind is blowing.

Comparing wind with nuclear power, it is apparent that nuclear produces a base load all the time. Yes, I admit freely that that is quite highly subsidised, but there is a base load that can be used at all times of the day, when it is needed. Wind turbines do not achieve this. I assure hon. Members that I can be pretty certain that, if I did a straw poll in my constituency, the majority of people there would far rather have a nuclear power station than the rolling Devon hills covered in wind turbines.

It is interesting to note that Hinkley Point in Somerset will take up some 165 acres and will produce 7% of the UK’s energy needs. To achieve the same energy output, 6,000 wind turbines would need to be built on 250,000 acres of land. That is the difference and what we are up against. This is why people are so fed up with those turbines appearing everywhere.

I suspect that the planning Minister will reassure us that the Department is coming forward with tougher rules all the time. The rules have to be much tougher. Local authorities often turn down planning applications for wind turbines, but they are often granted on appeal. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon makes a good point; all the time this planning process is going on, there is a blight on people’s lives. That is apparent.

This is an opportune moment to look at wind turbines and the planning system. Let us look again at the economics of wind turbines. If I thought that this was a free market approach and the answer to our energy needs, that would be one thing, but it is not, is it? Without huge subsidy, the turbines would never, ever stack up. It was not rocket science to work out that subsidising green energy and piling that on to energy bills, driving them up between 8% and 12%, would put more people into fuel poverty, so I do not know why this was not thought of; it is fairly logical.

Nigel Adams (Selby and Ainsty) (Con): Does my hon. Friend share my concern that it is obscene, looking at the Government’s own figures on renewables subsidy under the levy control framework, that, by 2020, 58% of all subsidy will be allocated to wind projects?

Neil Parish: My hon. Friend is right. If that figure of 58% by 2020 is correct—I have no reason to doubt him—it is a concern, because we are told so often that we need a basket of green energy that is not targeted just towards wind.

Another green energy that is much more acceptable to Devon is the biodigester, which uses waste from farms and food waste and creates energy all the time. It works not on the nuclear process, but generates gas and electricity throughout the whole day and, therefore, again contributes to a base load in electric supply.

One bone of contention with the whole system is that wind turbines do not produce electricity for a sufficient length of time to make them necessary in our most beautiful countryside.

In my constituency, we had an application at Bampton Down farm for 20 wind turbines, 22 metres high, in a prominent position on Bampton Down, above the Exe valley. This is the highest land south of Exmoor and east of Dartmoor in Devon and it goes down to semi-permanent pasture land. That application has, at the moment, been withdrawn and I hope it stays withdrawn and disappears. But is the planning policy in place strong enough to stop that coming back and will it be strong enough to stop the application being awarded on appeal?

At Blatchworthy farm, an application for nine wind turbines was withdrawn, but for how long? At Highlands farm, there was an application for one wind turbine, with a height of 34.2 metres; again, that was withdrawn, partly after local objections from Hemyock parish council. An application at Plainfield farm in Withleigh for one 100kW wind turbine with a maximum height of some metres was withdrawn. At Rifton farm there was an application, which is still going on, for a turbine with a maximum height of 77 metres. At Sydenham farm, one wind turbine has been rejected

Planning applications are happening all the time in my constituency. Planning policy needs to be so much stronger, so that people know that, under the process, there can be local objections and that they can, along with the local and district councils, put a case together and be certain that they will be able to reject large turbines in prominent positions. Turbines need to be in an area where there is maximum wind, even though they will still be working only some 30% or 35% of the time. They will always be in the most prominent spots. We are a Government that looks to the countryside and to rural areas for support, but we are not providing protection for those areas as far as wind turbines are concerned.

Some people refer to wind turbines as windmills, but they certainly are not. Three or four turbines would probably require nearly half an acre to an acre of concrete in the ground. I can assure hon. Members that a mast some 180 metres high would need an awful lot of concrete to keep it in the ground. Infrastructure, including roads, is also needed to allow access to the turbines, to service them. They are not the fluffy wind turbines and windmills that they are sometimes portrayed to be.

Mel Stride: My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. On the visual impact of turbines, I do not want to get into a bragging war about who has the largest turbines, but those that he mentioned were probably no higher than 60 or 70 metres. Those that are likely to be built now in the Den Brook valley will be 120 metres high; that is almost the height of St Paul’s cathedral. Whether they are smaller turbines up on hill ridges, which are obviously visible, or turbines down in valleys, they are often of such a magnitude that they are visible for miles around.

My hon. Friend knows that Devon’s tourist industry is valued at about £1 billion a year. There will be huge, cumulative detrimental impact on that business if we continue to despoil our landscape in this way.

Neil Parish: My hon. Friend talks about a mast that is 120 metres high; in real money that is 400 feet, which is a huge height. People must remember that it will be seen for miles. Turbines will be put in prominent positions to catch the wind in the first place and they go 200, 300 or 400 feet up in the air, so they can be seen. They cause huge detriment to the visual aspect of the countryside, to the people living there and, as my hon. Friend says, to the people coming to visit Devon, Cornwall and the west country. Believe it or not, people do not come to the west country to see wind turbines; they come to the countryside to see the great landscapes and, dare I say it, the lambs, sheep and cattle in the fields, along with our beautiful rivers. People do not come to see massive wind turbines that are being built in the countryside not because of the economics but because they are over-subsidised.

The Minister cannot be held responsible for the over-subsidy of wind turbines, which is not in his Department’s portfolio, but the Government should consider the over-subsidy more closely because I am certain that if we killed the economics of wind turbines, we would kill the applications, irrespective of planning. The Minister might not be able to answer that today, but it needs to be passed down the line.

Nigel Adams: I support microgeneration: a single turbine in a farm or business that provides power to that business, with any spare capacity being sold to the grid. We are now seeing more and more single turbine applications that are not microgenerating; they are clearly just cash cows. Would my hon. Friend support a moratorium on single turbine applications that neither provide power locally nor microgenerate for a farm or business?

Neil Parish: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point because speculative single turbine applications, especially for very large wind turbines of some 300 or 400 feet in height, are the ones that particularly need to be stopped. Some of the smaller wind turbines that generate for small businesses, farms or communities are acceptable. The other problem, and the Minister may be able to talk about this, is that such wind turbine applications are not linked to local communities. If a local community thinks it could benefit from a wind turbine, despite all my rhetoric this afternoon, people might find them a little more acceptable, but they are foisted upon communities that receive no benefit from them. All a community sees is a vast wind turbine restricting its view.

The flight paths of birds are also affected. One application in my constituency, for instance, is very close to a wood that has a lot of buzzards. Such applications can have a hugely detrimental effect. If I were a bird, I would not want to get caught in a wind turbine. We have to take all those things into consideration.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon for securing this debate, and I look forward to what the Minister has to tell us.

Hansard source (Citation: HC Deb, 12 March 2014, c148WH)