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Electricity Supplies

Volume 446: debated on Friday 23 January 1948

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Snow.]

4.0 p.m.

I wish to draw attention to the electricity supply position in this country, which I believe to be unsatisfactory, and which should cause serious concern. There is a general impression, apparently, that the increase in the use of electricity in recent years has been due, primarily, to wartime expansion, and to inflated consumer demand since then. I believe that impression to be extremely misleading. In the eight years from 1938 to 1946, it is quite true that the electricity output in Great Britain went up by 70 per cent., but it is also true—and this is worth remembering—that in the previous eight years from 1930 to 1938 electricity production in this country went up by about 118 per cent. Therefore, it seems to me that there is nothing at all abnormal about the recent developments. In fact, electrical developments in the last eight years have been rather less than would have been anticipated under normal pre-war conditions.

I make this point because I believe it indicates lack of judgment and misunderstanding of the circumstances when the White Paper which we were discussing recently on the reduction of capital expenditure says—
"There are serious risks in this course"—
that is, the cutting down of the power station programme,
"particularly if domestic consumption continues to rise as rapidly in the last few years."
In my view there is no "if" about it. The absence of solid fuel has led to a great number of electricity consumers sampling the convenience and cleanliness of every kind of extra electrical apparatus. The housing development with which we are pushing ahead means that millions of extra electrical points are installed. Rural electrification on a much bigger and wider scale is now expected by the countryside. Most important of all, British industry still lags considerably behind industry, for instance, in the United States, in the kilowatts installed per worker. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Fuel and Power has spoken recently about electricity being too cheap. That may be so, but the danger to which I am trying to draw attention is that the electricity may soon be far too scarce.

What is, plainly and shortly, the position? It is that there is a gap of about two million kilowatts, about the capacity of eight modem large power stations, between the national electrical demand and the plant capacity available to meet it. It has been estimated that this new staggering of working hours which we have arranged would reduce that gap, if it was tested—it has not yet been properly tested because the winter has been mild—to about one million kilowatts. Therefore, in spite of the inconvenience and the upset of staggered hours of work, if there was a cold dark morning next week it would make it essential for the electrical system of this country to throw off about one million kilowatts by load shedding. I think that the Parliamentary Secretary would agree with that figure. It would be a great deal more if every horse power of superannuated plant was not being used. The use of this out-of-date plant, some of which is over 25 years old, is extremely wasteful.

The reason for the deficiency of electrical generating capacity is well known. In itself, it is no fault either of the electrical industry or of the Government. It is due to the decision taken by the Coalition Government, under the stress of war, not to proceed with normal electrical extensions. But while I agree that the Government cannot fairly be blamed for the deficiency in electrical capacity at present, if they fail to remedy that deficiency I am convinced that they will be blamed. It is estimated that in four years from now, in the winter of 1951–52, the position will be that the electrical demand in this country will be about 14,500,000 kilowatts. That means that there will be an increase in the next four years of approximately four million kilowatts. In making that estimate, I have worked on the figure, which I believe the Central Electricity Board use, of a 6 per cent. increase per annum. If anything, I think that that is a somewhat conservative estimate. Since we lack two million kilowatts at the moment and the increase in the next four years is likely to be four million kilowatts, we shall need six million kilowatts to make up the total deficiency over the next four years.

How is it proposed to make it up? What plant capacity is to be installed in the next four years? Working on the very latest White Paper revised figures, I find that the capacity to be installed during the next four years is approximately five million kilowatts. That figure allows for the inevitable overlap between years. There may be a certain contribution from the Scottish Hydro-Electric Board, but it is bound to be small. On the assumption that we do what we say we shall do, in 1951–52 we shall still lack about one million kilowatts. It may be objected that this figure does not take into account the staggering of working hours. I can only ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether he thinks that we shall still be staggering working hours in 1952.

Also, we must remember that all the installed new capacity is not necessarily available for consumer supply, because we must take from it a considerable amount for power stations auxiliaries. Even with a national grid, all electricity supplies are not completely interchangeable. I do not suggest for one moment that my sources are as reliable as the sources from which my hon. Friend can draw his figures. I am, however, fortified, and my faith in my arithmetic is strengthened, by noting that the White Paper gives for 1951–52 a gap of 824,000 kilowatts, which is not too far from my figure of one million. That is, the position. Apparently we seem to take it for granted that we shall lack one million kilowatts of electrical capacity at a date four years from now. But we must remember—and here is the rub—that these are only estimates. As yet they are only symbols on paper.

As I have tried to show, the electrical situation in this country is serious, even if we attain the target figures for new installed capacity, but, if we do not attain these target figures the situation is quite impossible. Recently, my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer congratulated the electrical industry on installing plant according to programme in 1947. According to the figures given, 482,000 kilowatts were installed against a programme estimate of 518,000, but, of course, that 518,000 was the revised target figure. I think my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will agree that the original estimate for 1947 was nearly double, and that it was one million kilowatts. In 1946, we brought into service new plant equal to 272,000 kilowatts, and, in 1947, plant equal to 518,000 kilowatts, and I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary how much of that plant brought into commission in 1947 according to reports is actually available for use. I am told that, in many cases, while the electrical equipment is ready, the boiler plant is behind schedule. On these figures which I have given for 1946 and 1947, I would like to ask my hon. Friend if he is confident that 1949 will really produce the 1,600,000 kilowatts extra expected according to the latest White Paper estimates. I hope that 1949 will show this progress because we need so much more, but I should be glad to have my hon. Friend's opinion.

I am aware, of course, that my hon. Friend cannot speak outside his Departmental terms of reference. Power station equipment in itself is the responsibility of the Ministry of Supply, and the policy of the White Paper in general is, of course, a Cabinet responsibility. I believe that the policy of pruning expenditure on power stations is a shocking error. Electricity supply is not just another consumer of steel. Like coal mining, electric power is fundamental to our national economy; we are going to be in a very queer street indeed in future years, when the sellers' market is running out, if our exporting industries are going to be handicapped by a lack of ample supplies of electricity.

I believe in the electrification of this country, and I assume, that the Minister of Fuel and Power also believes in it and that he defends that faith of his to the Cabinet. Very soon, the British Electricity Authority will be in the saddle, but, at the moment I think Lord Citrine has got only one leg over the horse, which is a purely temporary position, because the actual vesting date has not yet been announced. I hope that Lord Citrine and his new Board are going to agitate, organise and act so as to provide quickly the electrical power resources which this country cannot do without. I feel that we should have had a longer debate than this today, but I have raised briefly my own very grave doubts about our present progress with regard to the provision of new generating capacity in this country, and I should like to have from my hon. Friend an answer to the questions I have asked.

4.15 p.m.

I should like to say a few words, before the Debate concludes, to bring once more to the notice of the Parliamentary Secretary the position of electricity in rural areas, because I feel that nothing can make a greater contribution to the food supplies of this country or the general wellbeing of those who live in rural districts than the intensification of electrification in this country. What would give the people encouragement would be if the Government could tell us what precise plan they have for further electrification in this country. Only a few minutes ago we listened to the Prime Minister talking about planned economy. Could we know what is the plan for electrification in our rural areas? If the Parliamentary Secretary could tell us what it will be in two, three or five years, and that within one of these periods electricity will be brought to the farm, then at least the farmers would have something to which to look forward, and the correspondence of Members who represent agricultural districts would he considerably reduced.

I ask for some indication, and not a lot of platitudes, from the Parliamentary Secretary as to exactly what the plan is which the Government have for the elec- trification of our rural areas. I appreciate the point made by the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Mr. Palmer) when he said it was no fault of existing industry that the plans had not gone ahead during the last six years, because they had to be put into the background during our war effort. Quite apart from the position of rural areas, I appreciate the inconvenience caused to the industrial areas by the staggering of working hours due to the difficulties we are having with our electricity supplies. I have the good fortune not only to represent a constituency which is largely agricultural but one which contains a certain amount of the textile industry. I know only too well what inconvenience the staggering of hours is causing to many of my constituents. If the Minister can say anything on this point which might possibly bring hope that these conditions will not be continued beyond 1948, it will be received with interest and satisfaction by my constituents.

4.18 p.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Mr. Palmer) for raising this important matter, and also to the hon. Member for Skipton (Mr. Drayson). I should like first to deal with his point in regard to rural development. The British Electricity Authority are, of course, responsible for planned development, and it should be within the recollection of the House that it is the desire of the Government that we should provide rural areas with electric power and lighting. They are essential for the development of our agricultural programme, and one wants to see them proceed as rapidly as possible. Obviously, electrical development must be balanced and we can leave it safely with the British Electricity Authority to see that the development is planned and that the needs of the nation as a whole are looked at when plans are being made.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon has raised a very grave and very important matter. As he said, it is true that we are suffering today because in a period of total war this nation at the outset had to decide what it should do with its resources. One of the things it could not do was to proceed with the planned development of electrical power stations which were obviously necessary. It was a right decision at that time and no one could quarrel with it. It is one of those postwar problems with which we are faced. Therefore, during the war nothing of any size was done for the provision of new generating plant after 1942. There was a very small exception in the case of additional plant that was sanctioned in 1941, and we did meet the special requirements of war factories, but, by and large, that was infinitesimal compared with total requirements. A start was made in 1944, and at that stage 1,500 megawatts were released for manufacture, but, of course, licensing for manufacture did not imply that all the materials and labour and so forth were available. Therefore, a good deal of work had to be done and a good deal of plant that was really time-expired was left in use to help over that difficult period.

I am glad my hon. Friend referred to the very heavy increase in consumption. I do not think the facts are too widely known. It is interesting to see that in 1939 domestic consumption in this country was 6,000 million units, and in 1946 it had risen to 11,000 million units. That is an enormous increase.

No, but it is enormous when no contribution is made towards increasing generating capacity. On the industrial side, the consumption was 11,500 million units in 1939, and 18,000 million units in 1946. That was the size of the problem. There was a very big increase in consumption and inability to provide for it during the war years. It is true that at the end of January, 1947, there was a gap of 2,000 megawatts between the available generating plant and potential demands. The first thing to do was to meet that immediate problem of bridging the gap, and I think the House is familiar with what has taken place. The staggering of hours has been a very important factor, and I want to take this opportunity of paying a well-deserved tribute to both sides of industry, both industrialists and workers, for the way in which they have suffered very great inconvenience and, in some cases, extra costs in order to stagger the industrial load. We set out to transfer a third of the industrial load, and we were not able finally to do that; but, while we did not reach the target of transference, we estimate that the amount of load that has been transferred is between 750 and 1,000 megawatts. That is a very great contribution indeed, and it is probably the most that can be done without interfering with the continuous processes and lowering the level of production generally.

On the domestic side, the House will be aware that we have had an intensive fuel economy campaign. We are very grateful to all the organisations, local authorities and public-minded people who, in their localities and through their membership of 600 fuel economy committees in the country, have done all they can to encourage the domestic and the non-industrial users to limit their consumption, especially, of course, in the peak hours from eight until 10 o'clock in the morning and from four until six o'clock in the afternoon. On behalf of the Ministry and the Government I want to express my thanks for their efforts in that connection. Since 1st July, 1945, till 31st December, 1947, the total plant commissioned is to the extent of 817 megawatts, and I accept entirely the fact that it is a very small contribution to what is required.

Yes, Sir, that is actually in commission, in use, for producing electricity. With regard to the forward programme, which is quite important, that for 1948 is for 1,150 megawatts and for 1949 1,600 megawatts; and the cut in the investment programme does not in any way affect those levels. I think it is rather important for the country to know that, so far as electrical supplies are concerned, the cut in the investment programme does not affect 1948 or 1949. The cut comes in the years 1950 and 1951, where it was originally planned to instal 2,000 megawatts in both these years. The cuts in the investment programme reduce this 2,000 to 1,500 megawatts but, of course, as the hon. Member indicated, these are only estimates and no one can say with certainty what our general industrial development may be in the next two years. Obviously, even these figures must be subject to review and we all hope that we shall see such progress in production that all these estimates will be wider and more generous than they are at the moment.

However, these cuts are to come in the years 1950 and 1951. I accept entirely what the hon. Member said, that our deficiency will go right on until 1950 and that even in 1951–2, on these present estimates, we shall have a margin over demand of some 500 megawatts, which is really not a full safeguard such as we would like to see. Nevertheless, that margin does take us into the safety zone and in 1952–3 it should reach 890 mega-watts. I would like to say something about the progress we are making towards the programme. The hon. Member wanted an answer on this point. At present, extensions are actually in hand at 31 stations amounting to 1,635 megawatts. In addition, 21 new stations are actually under construction, representing a further 2,642 megawatts, so the House will appreciate that there is plenty of the planned programme in hand and actually under construction.

It might be as well if I clearly indicated, for the benefit of the House, the responsibility of Departments. The Ministry of Supply is responsible for plant production, organisation and placing of orders, the programme of manufacture and matching of components so as to achieve the maximum rate of completion within the capacity of the industry. The Ministry of Works is responsible for ensuring that the necessary building and civil engineering is completed in time for the plant, and in that connection the House will be glad to know that the labour force, which was roughly 3,000 a year ago, has now been built up to 9,500. I am glad to be able to say that all material shortages have been overcome, with the exception of steel. Providing, therefore, the steel problem is overcome, it should be anticipated that the plant programme can be balanced and the corresponding stations completed in time. If it is balanced, we shall hit the target if the steel is forthcoming; and one has seen great things from the steel industry and hopes that not only will the amount of steel be forthcoming but even, perhaps, some more.

It is clear that we cannot be out of our electrical supply problems before 1951–2. We shall be delayed in getting through our supply problems if, because of a lack of power today, industry has to close down. I would like to take this opportunity, therefore, of saying to the House and to the nation outside that if they want to assist the Government and the nation in providing the goods they want, they should not interrupt industry. They will best assist in that way in the next years by saving electricity because of the vital necessity of electricity for industry. If industry has to close down because of a shortage of electricity, the country will be putting off the day when our lives can be made fuller by the amount of goods made available to our people.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Half-past Four o'Clock.