10 Minute Rule Bill (Onshore Wind Turbines - Proximity of Habitation)

House of Commons Chamber

I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to specify the minimum distances permissible between onshore wind turbines of certain dimensions and the nearest habitation; and for connected purposes.

When Oscar Wilde wrote that
“Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative”,
he obviously had not anticipated the controversy that onshore wind farms would generate. Bearing that in mind, I hope that any hon. Member planning to oppose this Bill will listen carefully to what I am about to say, and not base any remarks that they may have planned on false assumptions. In that spirit, at the outset I must make it clear that this is a bipartisan proposal: the sponsors of this Bill therefore reflect the political balance of the House, with more Government than official Opposition supporters. However, it does not, as far as I am aware, represent the official position of any major party—but obviously I hope that that may change.
Secondly, at this late stage in the Session the Bill has no chance of becoming law. I introduce it simply to stimulate an important debate. Thirdly, the Bill is deliberately modest in scope, and deals simply with the minimum distances that wind turbines should be away from houses. It has a simple purpose. Settling the issue would help local communities, planning authorities and, paradoxically, the wind energy industry itself.

At the heart of our politics we should place the ethic of reciprocity—the idea that everyone has a right to just treatment, and a responsibility to ensure justice for others. Put more simply, that means “Do as you would be done by”. Sometimes, of course, we have to balance the different rights of competing groups. For example, a new high-speed rail line will be fought by communities close to its route, whatever the wider benefits that it brings. It is then that politicians have to choose.
A visit to the home of two of my constituents in the small settlement of Sheriffs Lench in the vale of Evesham started the process that led me to this Bill. When I saw just how close to their home ScottishPower Renewables plans to put a 125-metre wind turbine, as part of a larger wind farm plan for the area, I realised that I would not like that done to me. The turbines proposed are among the largest ever constructed in England. They will be half as high again as Big Ben and only a little lower than the London Eye—and in the open countryside that is huge. It is roughly equivalent to a 40-storey building.

In the case of this wind farm, the closest of those massive structures would be only 508 metres from the nearest home, with many more homes about 600 metres from a turbine. That is too close. I ask myself whether the wider social good is served by building such enormous renewable energy sources so close to the homes of hundreds of my constituents, or whether the sacrifice being asked of them, and the damage to be done to a beautiful part of the vale of Evesham, is too great.

I also noted that the turbines in Worcestershire would not be allowed in a similar location in Germany, or in large areas of Spain and Italy. Denmark is one of the most successful countries in the development of onshore wind power—and I understand that if Danish rules applied, the turbines in my constituency could be built, but many householders would become liable for compensation for loss of property value. England and Wales stand apart from the developing pattern of regulation of onshore wind on mainland Europe. Indeed, in Scotland, too, guidelines specifying what is acceptable are already in place.

I concluded that the disadvantages of the wind farm proposed for my constituency outweigh the likely benefits. If I felt that way, I had to do something, and the Bill that I am asking leave to present today is that something. My Bill has extraordinary levels of support around the country. Communities from the west country to Cumbria, from Gloucestershire to Derbyshire, from County Durham to East Anglia, and of course from Worcestershire, have bombarded me, and their own MPs, with emails.
I emphasise that the Bill is not a covert attack on any renewable energy technology, nor does it have its roots in any doubts about the causes and consequences of global warming. I am convinced by the consensus that human activity has at least added significantly to the scale of climate change, and has been the major driver of it. In any event, even the most sceptical critic of the climate change consensus would have to admit that the world’s fossil fuels are running out, and that they are coming from increasingly unstable areas of the globe.

In the short run, there is probably enough reliable gas to see us through, if we build enough gas storage in the UK. Investment in new nuclear power can also make a big contribution to keeping the lights on over the slightly longer term. However, diversity is the key to our energy security, and that diverse generating portfolio must include a significant proportion of renewable sources. The UK is extraordinarily well placed to exploit other renewable technologies, as well as wind, such as the power of the oceans—tidal, wave and tidal flow, for example. In my view, we have foolishly underestimated the role that solar-thermal technology can play in providing hot water in homes, and we are late in introducing smart meters to reduce demand.

We must now invest in every available renewable technology and see which will work best for us in the future. That includes onshore wind turbines, but only in the right places. If other technologies can help us to meet our challenging renewable energy targets, and if wind power itself is still the subject of innovation—with smaller, more powerful, less visually intrusive turbines in development—it is right that we take, in the short term at least, a precautionary approach to the siting of onshore wind turbines very close to homes in England and Wales.
There are different concerns about wind farms. Noise, especially low-frequency noise, the flicker effect and the resulting health implications are just some of those concerns. I have been impressed by the personal accounts of such concerns in many of the hundreds of e-mails that I have received. However, although the science may not yet be settled on those matters, the visual intrusion of wind turbines is a matter of objective fact. It is that visual intrusion that my deliberately narrow Bill seeks primarily to address.

My Bill would specify minimum distances between turbines of certain dimensions and the nearest house. I propose that there should be no specific restriction on turbines below 25 metres in height, while wind turbines up to 50 metres high should not be located closer than half a mile to a home. Larger wind turbines up to 100 metres high should be at least a mile away, and the largest—those above 100 metres—should be at least one and a half miles from any home. There would be an important exception where the residents of homes within the buffer zone agreed to the construction of the turbines. They might do so because they stood to gain financially from the construction—something that the industry should look at more carefully—because they had received compensation for loss of amenity or the reduced value of their homes, or simply because they supported the application.
I agree that the figures that I have proposed are arbitrary, but all rules are to some extent arbitrary. Why not have a speed limit of 75 mph on motorways? Why have different ages for the legal purchase of different products or for beginning certain activities as young people grow up? We have to draw the line somewhere, and the limits that I have set out are where I propose the line should be drawn for wind turbines. I am a traditionalist, hence the use of miles. However, I would happily accept an amendment to make the distances 1 km, 1.5 km and 2 km respectively, if that is the price of making progress. [ Interruption. ] I apologise to my right hon. and hon. Friends.

However, my Bill would also make possible a different approach, which is used in some European countries and which some hon. Members might prefer. That would mean specifying set-back distances from turbines in proportion to their total height. In other words, the distance from the base of the turbine to the nearest home should be at least a fixed multiple of the height of the turbine to the tip of the blades. The distance would then depend on the multiple. The 125-metre turbines proposed for my constituency would have to be set back 16 times their height to achieve a separation of 2 km, while a smaller 100-metre turbine, using the same multiple, would be set back 1.6 km. A smaller multiple would produce smaller distances.

I am clear that there must be a reasonable space between such giants and local communities. That is the simple, and I hope uncontroversial, purpose behind my Bill. It would add to planning law, not detract from it, and all the other tests and protections, whether they relate to noise, environmental impact or sites of special scientific interest and so on, would remain in place, so we would not see a wind farm on top of the Malverns, or Bredon hill in Worcestershire, for example.
I have heard the simplistic objection that my Bill is intended to kill onshore wind development in England. That argument is an Aunt Sally, and is simply untrue. Indeed, by being much clearer about an important aspect of planning requirements, my Bill would enable developers to bring forward proposals for more appropriate locations with much greater confidence. My Bill would mean that arguments about distance and local acceptability could be dealt with more objectively and speedily by local planning authorities. Currently, only around a quarter of all onshore wind farm applications succeed. That proportion could increase significantly if there were clear guidelines.

My Bill is designed to help communities that feel threatened and powerless in the face of intrusive planning applications, but it would also speed up the planning process for well-sited wind farms. The Bill should help householders and communities, local authorities—which currently lack adequate guidance on wind turbine locations—and the wind farm industry to pursue the right sites. My Bill represents an opportunity to stimulate, and more importantly to resolve, an important debate. I commend it to the House.

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