George Freeman calls for proper connection plan to support offshore wind farms

11th March 2019

George Freeman leads a Parliamentary debate on the importance of listening to local communities when planning the connectivity and substations needed to support offshore wind farms. He calls for a proper connection plan instead of the chaotic free for all that results in major cables and substations being brought onshore, with consequent major environmental and planning implications.

In the immortal words spoken by my Whip each evening, may I ask colleagues please to stay for the Adjournment? It is a great privilege to be able to rise to speak in this House on behalf of our constituents, and it is no less a privilege for me to do so tonight for one of my smaller villages, the village of Necton. Until tonight, the village was famous for being mentioned in the Domesday Book, where it appears as “Nechetuna”, the name meaning town or settlement by neck of land; for All Saints church, in the benefice of Necton; and for a magnificent 14th-century grade II listed tomb, which is reputed to be that of the Countess of Warwick. As of this year, Necton becomes famous for something else: being the home of the world’s largest concentration of substation infrastructure for the transmission of offshore-generated electricity to connect to the grid.

Tonight, I want to use the privilege of speaking in the House for Necton to raise some important issues about the lack of proper strategic planning to deal with the bringing onshore of the infrastructure necessary for connection. That links to the statement that we have just had, because the slogan that has fuelled the Brexit revolution was: “Take back control.” For what have we taken back control—to be overrun by unaccountable quangos, or to act on behalf of the people whom we are here to serve?

Northern Ireland meets the east of England.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that tidal energy is not being used to its full potential? The power that tidal turbines can bring to my constituency—in Strangford lough, in particular—proves beyond doubt that substantial amounts of energy could be harnessed and diverted, and further consideration should be given to perfecting the offshore and renewable energy sources in our constituencies. We think we could do more with it, as he has done.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. Had I been in charge of energy policy at the relevant time, I would have doubled nuclear capacity when we could have got it cheap and invested more in long-term research on a whole range of renewables, including tidal. But we are where we are, and tonight my constituency faces the enormous challenge of hosting this national infrastructure.

I want to make it clear that I am a strong supporter of renewable energy. Indeed, if the wind is to be used, I would rather it were used offshore than onshore. Investment in offshore wind in East Anglia is phenomenal, and it will generate a large number of jobs. Much more importantly, it will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and dramatically accelerate our work on climate change; it will lessen our dependence on energy from Russia and the middle east; and it is generally a very good thing. I do not want anything I say to be taken as in any way against the offshore wind generation revolution.

East Anglia is now the global hub of offshore renewable energy, and many of the points I am raising tonight impact on Norfolk as well as Suffolk. I am delighted to be joined tonight by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), and to have the support of the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) and the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal is here on the Front Bench, muted by virtue of her high office but present and supportive as ever—with a thumbs up for the camera.

I want to raise three questions tonight. First, what strategic options have not really been debated properly in Norfolk, Suffolk or East Anglia, and have the Government looked, or required the relevant agencies—in this case, National Grid—to look properly at those options and do a proper cost-benefit assessment and environmental impact assessment? Secondly, what guidance and provisions cover small communities such as Necton when they have to host national infrastructure on the scale that we are talking about? When I talk about a substation, I am not talking about something the size of a container that hums in the rain behind a hedge; these are the size of Wembley stadium, and I shall have two of them outside one village. Thirdly, what can a community that is being asked to carry that kind of infrastructure expect in the way of proper consultation and community benefit?

The offshore wind sector deal, which was launched by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth in Lowestoft and Yarmouth last Thursday, provides for the Government and the industry to work together to maximise the benefits of offshore wind to the UK and to regions such as East Anglia. The sector deal makes specific reference to the need to ensure that the impact of onshore transmission is acceptable to local communities such as Necton. Does my hon. Friend agree that this provides the framework for the Government, the industry, National Grid, the Crown estates, councils and MPs to work together to put in place a sustainable solution to the problems that he is quite rightly highlighting?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that excellent point, and I hope that the Minister will pick up on it in her closing comments. He has pointed to something very important.

The key question that is being asked in our part of the world is: if we are to host this incredible investment—there is up to £50 billion of investment already in the pipeline; I have two wind farms connecting through my constituency and there are 10 more coming—what voice should the people of Norfolk and their elected representatives have in shaping the way in which that infrastructure is connected? At the moment, it looks very much like a free for all. Each wind farm applies for its own cabling and its own substation, with the result that we waste energy, we waste huge amounts of land and we massively increase the environmental impact. This leaves Norfolk powered by renewable energy but disempowered when it comes to the democracy of those decisions and without any benefit. In our part of the world—I say this as a supporter of renewable energy—it is beginning to feel as though the applicants are using the national significant infrastructure planning regulations to bypass and circumvent the need for any meaningful conversations at all. This explains why I have had such strong support from other colleagues in the area.

I have taken an interest in this, and I have been a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department, so I was quite surprised that I first heard about the scale of this infrastructure in my role as a constituency MP, when I was confronted by the application for the Dudgeon wind farm. At the time, the proposal was to put it close to Necton. I did not particularly have problem with that, but I did have a problem with the siting. It was proposed to put it on the top of a hill in an area of natural beauty with environmental protections. Anyone who had actually been to that area would have said that it was a daft place to put a substation. With the active co-operation of the then applicant company, we sat down with the parish councils and were able to agree that it should be put in the low-lying land next to the village of Necton.

A few years later, in 2013, it became clear that the Vanguard and the Boreas wind farm applications were coming, and that they would need another substation. That was my first surprise, because I felt that the first substation would have been big enough for all those wind farms. However, it turns out that each wind farm will have one. The process of consultation, led by Vattenfall, has led to increasing levels of concern not just for me but for the local community. Throughout all the consultation phases, no one is actually listening to the voices of the people on the ground. We have ended up with this enormous structure placed on top of the hill, visible to five villages and raising all sorts of environmental impacts, including light pollution and impact on the landscape. This has happened in the teeth of a howl from the local community. They do not mind having a substation, but could it not have been put out of sight in the low-lying land next to the previous substation? You could not have made this up.

What has been shocking in this process is the absolute lack of interest from the applicant in the voice of local community representatives, from the parish council to councillors to the MP, because it seems to have been led to believe that it is able to circumvent that local representation under the nationally significant infrastructure planning rules.

The more than one looks into the process by which we have ended up here, the clearer it has become that there has been no proper consideration of the strategic options for taking this scale of energy offshore. Indeed, a number of people in both Norfolk and Suffolk have suggested at various points that it would be rather more efficient to have an offshore ring main to collect the electricity and then have it brought onshore at one or two points with a major substation, instead of requiring each individual wind farm to have its own cabling and substation. You might think that a sensible proposal, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I see you nodding, which is encouraging—neutral though you are—but at no point in the past three, four, five, six or seven years has there been a strategic discussion in Norfolk or Suffolk to which the elected representatives at council or parliamentary level could contribute.

It appears that the National Grid has merrily gone through the national planning process and has responded to applications, but we are in danger of having hugely unnecessary levels of cabling and substation infrastructure, all of which involve high-security installations that represent something of an energy security challenge to the UK in these dangerous times. To illustrate that point, the two wind farms coming to my constituency are responsible for 2,500 acres of land over which 115 km of cabling will run, and reasonably sophisticated local projections have shown if that the cabling was unified for just those two, it could be reduced by 80 km, but there seems to be no basis upon which that conversation could be had. Therefore, what consideration has been made of such options? If there has been none, what consideration should be made of not only the cost and benefit, but the environmental implications? I know that the Minister, as a passionate activist and campaigning Minister, takes such matters seriously.

In the event that little villages such as Necton end up carrying major substation infrastructure—hopefully on the right site—what benefit should such communities expect? It has always seemed fair that if a village should host a wind turbine, for example, it should benefit in a small way locally. Where a village takes a massive piece of national infrastructure, perhaps the benefit might be proportionate. The people of Necton would be happy if something flowed back into the village by way of some community facility. Given the scale of the infrastructure, that could be perhaps come as a transport upgrade to the dangerous junction with the A47. Normally, I would relish sitting down with the applicant to try to broker something sensible, but the way that the regulations appear to have been drafted means that there is a no conversation to be had, which seems wrong.

It is late at night, and I have made my points, so I will invite the Minister to reply. However, I close by saying that the applicant should not be able to plead that because this is national infrastructure—although understandably that may bypass the minutiae and the eddies and currents of the local planning system—then somehow the voice of the local community and elected representatives should be cut out. That is important not just for Necton and Mid Norfolk, but for trust in our planning system and for the sense that this energy revolution will work for everybody’s benefit. At the moment, however, it looks horribly like it will be for the benefit of a few energy companies and very few people in our part of the world, so I welcome the Minister’s interest in this matter both offline and in her comments now.

Some might say that it is drawing the short straw to do a late Adjournment on such an important evening, but this debate on an incredibly important topic is far from it. It is also extremely timely, because it was only last week that we launched the offshore wind sector deal. I was lucky enough to fly over part of the developing East Anglia ONE wind farm and then to track the entire cable array back to the substation, and I should add that I offset the emissions.

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) on securing the debate and allowing me the chance to think a little more about the subject, and perhaps to give him some reassurance. I also thank the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who is here with me. She is unable to participate, but she has concerns about the proposal in Friston.

It is great to see my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) who, along with his constituents, made me and many others so very welcome last week. It is good to hear the value of the offshore wind sector deal to the community in Lowestoft, in addition to all the exciting opportunities for the fishing industry, about which he has been very clear.

The Norfolk and Suffolk coast is becoming a centre for low-carbon energy generation, which is an exciting prospect that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk points out, comes with some concerns. One of the reasons for wanting to focus on offshore wind is that it avoids the landscape impairment of giant wind turbines, which can be controversial from a planning point of view and can yield a lot less power. People describe offshore wind as better quality wind, as it blows 55% of the time in the North sea, compared with only 30% of the time onshore.

It is astonishing that we can build 197 wind turbines on one offshore farm, which would be very difficult to achieve onshore. That is why the sector deal states that we intend to triple generation from offshore wind over the next 11 years. We think offshore wind will contribute about 30% of our total energy consumption in 2030, at which point 70% of our energy consumption will be from low-carbon sources. Offshore wind will create thousands of jobs: 6,000 or so in the Lowestoft-Yarmouth area, and 27,000 across the UK. We think offshore wind can also help us capture about £3 billion of export opportunities, which is fantastic.

I emphasise that we have the largest market for offshore wind in the world, which is one of the reasons we have been so successful in decarbonising. Of course, in order to bring the power back, we have to join it to the grid at some point, which gets to the heart of my hon. Friend’s speech. We want to make sure that, as we develop this resource, we continue to bring communities with us—offshore wind should not be imposed on them.

We have to be clear that the two things to which my hon. Friend alluded, community involvement in planning and the integration of connection infrastructure, will be adequately addressed. Most of the proposed applications in Suffolk and Norfolk are at the pre-application stage, but the applications for Hornsea Project Three and Norfolk Vanguard are currently undergoing examination, and I understand my hon. Friend has been eloquent in his written and oral representations to the examiners on those projects.

My hon. Friend will understand that the final decision on applications for nationally significant infrastructure projects, including onshore connections, is made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, so I am unable to comment on the specific merits of those particular applications, but I emphasise that NSIP projects stress the importance of pre-application consultation. Developers have to prepare a consultation strategy, and they have to carry out a pre-application consultation with the local community in line with their plan. When they finally make their application, the report must show that they have addressed any concerns raised in the plan.

Of course, the Planning Inspectorate writes to local authorities to ask whether a plan is adequate. If the application is accepted, local people can, of course, continue to make their views known on the proposals. I understand that, in the case of the Suffolk proposals, the Planning Inspectorate is considering what measures it may be able to put in place to limit the need for local people to make the same points over and again. The inspectorate can basically build up a body of evidence and deliver on that. Within the current framework of the planning system, the message to developers is clear: they must consult local communities and ensure that they give serious consideration to their concerns before any decision can be made by the Secretary of State.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk pointed out, the system may have been inadequate when we had several connections coming onshore. As we continue to build up this resource, we could be dealing with dozens of applications and, in many ways, he represents the optimum point. We have the best resources for offshore wind in the world in the North sea, particularly in the southern North sea, because it is shallow and the wind blows a lot of the time. So we have historically had a point-to-point connection, and that has been a basis on which planning applications have been considered. A series of spokes have brought power onshore. That power is then taken some considerable distance inland in order to connect with the national grid and because the pathway of the cabling has to respect boundaries—it is a process of negotiation—the cables often do not go straight like motorways, but instead follow crooked pathways.

This point-to-point approach is considered to have represented a saving for consumers, with an estimate being at least a £700 million saving so far having been delivered by this connection. Of course, we are still in the infancy of developing these wind farms, so it is right that as the sector matures we consider the potential to connect adjacent projects offshore, linking them up as a ring main, as my hon. Friend said. The developers recognise that this is an important opportunity, as we could be bringing onshore one connection, perhaps a larger oversized connection, that brings in the power of many other wind farms across different development portfolios. Of course, we can also explore the possibility of interconnection with mainland Europe. Some exciting proposals have been made to have interconnectors that run through the middle of some very large wind developments going forward.

The system operator has a key role to play in determining this, working out the way to implement those projects and considering a charging regime for them. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney has obviously read the sector deal with great interest, because as he said it contains a specific work strand to explore the way the connections are planned and developed. I want to emphasise how very exciting the sector deal is; for the first time, we have the developers and the supply chain in this extremely important industry working together, thinking about the opportunities and the need for co-working. In this space, there is a real appetite to sort this out and have a plan for the future.

As we develop those plans, my door is of course open to my hon. Friends who represent these important constituencies, and indeed to others who may wish to comment on this. It would be helpful to have scrutiny by the representatives sent to this place. It is clear that our approach needs to evolve if we are to maximise the potential that this fantastic resource delivers to provide us with low-carbon energy at the best value for consumers. I would like to finish by saying two things. The first is a big thank you to the local communities who are going through these processes right now, as they are really helping us to deliver a world-leading energy system. If we get this right, it will have far less of an imprint on the landscape than building the equivalent in terms of onshore scale.

I am grateful to the Minister for agreeing to meet me and other MPs. I particularly wanted to mention the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who, although happy with the current proposals, shares our view that we need a different proposal going forward. In the remaining moments, will she tackle the issue of what should be the approach for the benefit of a local community carrying national infrastructure? The people of Necton are feeling as though they are going to carry this and receive nothing. Is there any guidance or Government thinking to say that a community should benefit?

If I may, I will take that point away, because my hon. Friend does raise an important question. Obviously, it is similar to others that have come up in respect of energy developments. Perhaps he and I can agree to meet to discuss that a little further. It is right that we make sure that the local communities who host these connections feel that it is worth their while to do so and that they have a minimal physical and environmental impact from allowing these connections to come through their precious space.

I wanted to say two other things. The first is that I am disappointed that we did not manage to work the pedlar of Swaffham into our remarks tonight, as we did so many years ago—perhaps we will be able to try again next time. Lastly, a very appropriate reason for having this debate is that the green heart hero awards were held in our wonderful House of Commons this evening. I am proud to wear my heart, and it was wonderful to see so many people, ranging from babies a few weeks old to people in their later years, absolutely committed, with full enthusiasm, to the sort of low-carbon future that we want to deliver. This is such a timely opportunity to talk about how we deliver that in a way that intelligently uses the grid and minimises the impact on the communities affected.

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I am not currently an MP, as Parliament has been dissolved until after the General Election on 12th December 2019.

You can contact me on george@georgefreeman.co.uk.

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