Yesterday the hacking scandal (inevitably given the twitter hashtag #hackgate) squeezed a House of Commons debate and vote on the six draft National Policy Statements (NPSs) that deal with energy infrastructure into two hours.  All six were approved, despite amendments to the approval motions being tabled by various MPs (Caroline Lucas (Green), Dai Havard, Huw Irranca-Davies, Luciana Berger and Alan Whitehead (all Lab)).

The titles and links to the final approved versions of the statements can be found here (they have new front covers since the June versions):

The debate

The Hansard report of the debate can be found here (columns 678-718), but here is a summary.

The most repeated issue was, somewhat surprisingly, that incineration should not be treated as a renewable form of energy but should be grouped with fossil fuel electricity generation, i.e. appear in EN-2 rather than EN-3.  Given that EN-1 says there is an urgent need for all forms of energy infrastructure, this won't make a practical difference, but it exemplifies MPs' constituents' opposition to incineration locally. Dai Havard, local MP to the Brig y Cwm energy from waste project, called for larger projects to be discouraged.

Several members were worried about a new 'dash for [un carbon abated] gas' especially given nuclear power being less in favour following Fukushima, and that we were betting too much on carbon capture and storage (CCS) working.

Charles Hendry replied that 'If it were felt that consent was being given to too much higher-carbon generation capacity and therefore that environmental issues—low-carbon issues—were seen to be more important, that would be a material factor to be taken into account.'  I don't think he intended to say that the IPC or its successor should take other consents into account when making decisions, but his remark could be interpreted that way.

He also said that the first full-scale CCS plant was intended to be operational by 2015, and two other coal and one gas project were also in the pipeline.  For Labour, Huw Irranca-Davies said that the government had made more announcements about CCS than DFS had had sales, but had still not spent anything on it.

He and several other members noted that the UK had fallen from 5th to 13th in the league table of inward investment for renewables.  I have found the table on page 10 of this report (arguably the UK is 12th) and there is a little commentary headed 'United Kingdom investment plummets' on page 16.

Nuclear waste was also raised a few times, but nuclear did not dominate the debate as might have been expected.  Charles Hendry said that plans for a nuclear waste storage facility had been brought forward to 2029.

After the warm words for renewables, Glyn Davies (Con, Montgomeryshire) said he would do everything in his power to limit the desecration to his constituency from wind turbines, pylons and substations.  He still voted for the NPSs, mind. 

I detected two slight ministerial errors.  When Albert Owen asked Charles Hendry about adding wave and tidal projects to the NPSs, he said that they were not likely to exceed the 50MW threshold at present - actually it is 100MW offshore. Greg Barker in reply said that incineration was at the bottom of the waste hierarchy and was a last resort - it isn't, actually, landfill is.

The NPSs survived the approval vote comfortably - 267 votes to 14.  Of the 14 against (plus two tellers), mainly opposed to nuclear power, only the DUP was not represented:

  • Martin Caton (Lab, Gower),
  • Jeremy Corbyn (Lab, Islington North),
  • Mark Durkan (SDLP, Foyle),
  • Paul Flynn (Lab, Newport West),
  • Zac Goldsmith (Con, Richmond Park),
  • Mike Hancock (LD, Portsmouth South),
  • Kelvin Hopkins (Lab, Luton North),
  • Naomi Long (All, Belfast East),
  • Caroline Lucas (Grn, Brighton Pavilion),
  • John McDonnell (Lab, Hayes and Harlington),
  • Michael Meacher (Lab, Oldham West and Royton),
  • Dennis Skinner (Lab, Bolsover),
  • Andrew Smith (Lab, Oxford East),
  • Mike Weir (SNP, Angus),
  • Hywel Williams (PC, Arfon) and
  • Mike Wood (Lab, Batley and Spen).

Next steps

Parliamentary approval is not the final step - the government needs to declare that the NPSs are 'designated', and did so today via this written statement from Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Chris Huhne MP.  Some have called for the Parliamentary approval to be the act of designation to give it more force.

There is now a six-week period within which the NPSs or the process by which they ended up being designated can be challenged in the courts.  This period will therefore expire on 30 August.  If anyone gets wind of a challenge I would like to hear about it. The effect of designation is threefold.  First, policy in an NPS cannot be questioned when considering a subsequent application.  Perhaps most importantly, this includes the choice of eight sites for new nuclear power stations, which are now set in stone:

  • Hinkley Point in Somerset,
  • Sizewell in Suffolk,
  • Oldbury in South Gloucestershire,
  • Wylfa on Anglesey,
  • Bradwell in Essex,
  • Hartlepool on Teesside,
  • Sellafield in Cumbria and
  • Heysham in Lancashire.

Secondly, applications that conflict with designated NPSs cannot be approved, and legal applications that conform to NPSs will be approved unless their adverse impacts would outweigh their benefits. Finally, designation means that until it is wound up in April 2012, the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) will decide any applications made to it for energy infrastructure.  The timing is such, however, that only one application could be decided by it since it is the only one to be at a sufficiently advanced stage. The designation comes four days after the end of the examination stage for the first application being considered by the IPC, for an energy from waste project in Bedfordshire ('Rookery South').  I have been wondering whether that will mean that the IPC will decide the application.

The lead commissioner dealing with the application, Paul Hudson, hedged his bets in his letter thanking those who participated in the examination of the application, saying 'we will now proceed to reach our conclusion (either a decision, or a recommendation to the Secretary of State, depending on whether the relevant National Policy Statements have been designated) within 3 months'.  I think that the designation of the NPSs is sufficiently close to the end of the examination of the application to mean that the IPC will indeed decide one application during its existence, giving Paul Hudson a unique role.