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Electricity Transmission (Protection of Landscape)

Volume 530: debated on Tuesday 5 July 2011

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Order. Just before the hon. Lady gets under way, may I appeal to Members who are unaccountably leaving the Chamber, and not remaining to hear her, to do so quickly and quietly, so that we can afford the same courtesy to her that we would want extended to ourselves in such circumstances?

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision to require factors other than cost to be considered for schemes for the transmission of high voltage electricity where infrastructure would impact on the visual and other amenity of a landscape; to provide that in certain cases such infrastructure be installed by visually unobtrusive works; to require that public consultation be undertaken and inform the selection of the method and technology for the transmission infrastructures used; and for connected purposes.

The purpose of the Bill is simple. It seeks to update the Electricity Act 1989, which recognises the transmission of high-voltage electricity only on cables strung between transmission towers, which we all know as pylons. Concerns have been raised by thousands of people throughout the country, many of whom live in rural areas and do not have the protection afforded to those in urban or suburban communities, where power lines are automatically put underground.

People who live in towns and cities, however, often enjoy their leisure time and holidays in the countryside, and I draw attention particularly to the 26,000 people whose livelihoods are dependent on tourism in my constituency, just one of many that would be damaged beyond belief if new lines on 152 ft pylons were introduced. The Somerset levels were in contention to become the 17th world heritage site until the proposal was made.

There are such problems for rural communities all over the country, as new pylons are planned to bring new supplies of energy from whatever source, be it turbines, gas, coal, wind, nuclear or tidal. What happens when we want to install cable TV? Automatically, we dig up high streets and roads all over the place. What happens when we host the Olympics? Around the whole Olympic village, power cables have been put underground. We do not suspend blue water pipes or yellow gas pipes from transmission towers, so why do we do so for electricity power cables?

National Grid has drawn to my attention the fact that it is holding a competition on pylon design, but that is purely a diversion and certainly not the answer to the country’s questions about transmission. The county council, district councils and parish councils are all against the proposals, but all that National Grid, our monopoly supplier, does is hear; it does not listen. There are alternatives, and they are underground and undersea.

The Bill recognises several factors, including the voice of the public and the value of consultation, which should not just be done on the nod; it should be about listening, not just hearing. Consultation responses should inform the method and technology for the infrastructure used. This is also about being green. Losses during transmission are about 7% once one gets the power to the cables. It is clear that undergrounding or putting cables undersea would reduce those losses significantly.

There are health reasons why we should put cables underground. The Government continue to be very poorly advised on the adverse health effects associated with high-voltage overhead power lines. Extensive studies have established a clear correlation between increased risk of childhood leukaemia, adult leukaemia, adult brain tumours, motor neurone disease, miscarriage and Alzheimer’s disease and the electromagnetic fields associated with such lines. The risk to children and adults easily satisfies a cost-benefit analysis in favour of burying high-voltage power lines.

The UK Health Protection Agency considers only a fraction—typically less than 10%—of the available scientific evidence. Included in major studies showing increased risk of childhood leukaemia are the 2005 study by Dr Gerald Draper of Oxford university, published in the British Medical Journal, and studies in Tasmania and, particularly, in Iran, where all power lines go overground. One of the many studies showing increased risks of Alzheimer’s disease is the 2008 whole-population study by Dr Anke Huss of the university of Berne, which revealed particular risks in populations living near overhead power lines in Switzerland.

National Grid is not the National Gallery, the National Trust or the national health service, but it is a massive, monopoly, multinational provider with a primary aim—to seek the maximum return for its shareholders. We have no choice but to use this super-sized company to get our power from its source to the places where it can be distributed to us in our homes and businesses. In June 2009, National Grid’s own chief executive officer, Steve Holliday, went on the record to say that undergrounding transmission lines was a “ no-brainer”. Cost is not everything.

In October 2010, Sir Michael Pitt, the chief executive of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, requested an independent and authoritative evaluation of undergrounding. The Department of Energy and Climate Change sought the assistance of the Institution of Engineering and Technology as an independent assessor of that study by a company called KEMA. The study was to be funded by none other than National Grid. None the less, it went ahead, and the results were meant to be produced on 25 January. However, nothing happened. On 3 June, the IET issued a press release stating that KEMA had not been able to issue a report with which it was satisfied owing to a lack of data from National Grid, and so the IET could not endorse its work.

It is surely time to open up this debate—to put it right into the light and demand that all these figures be provided. I am calling for openness in deciding whether power cables should be put underground or undersea instead of overground. The costs are not an issue—we all pay them through our bills. In November 2009, National Grid admitted that the cost of undersea or undergrounding would put just 1% on our electricity bills. Siemens has produced figures showing that using gas-insulated lines would reduce the whole-life costs of underground cables to under half the costs of pylons.

I pay tribute to the work of my many colleagues across the House who are interested in this subject, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) and my hon. Friends the Members for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), for South Suffolk (Mr Yeo) and for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), as well as many others. There have been objections to pylons in Wales, Scotland, the north-east, the south-west and throughout East Anglia. I understand that there is a statement on record from Carwyn Jones, the First Minister in the Welsh Assembly Government in Cardiff, who said no to pylons too.

I also recognise the work of the many pressure groups. I am grateful to some of them for information, in particular Pylon Moor Pressure, No Moor Pylons, Save Our Valley, REVOLT, Bury Not Blight, Highlands before Pylons, North East Pylon Pressure, Montgomeryshire Against Pylons and Stour Valley Underground.

It is time to consider the impact of what we are doing to our countryside, our tourism, our health and our environment. We know the cost of everything, but this matter indicates that we might not spot the value of what we have. Changing the law would at least give us the opportunity to get it right for everyone’s sake. I am delighted to introduce this measure to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Tessa Munt, Martin Horwood, Roger Williams, Sir Robert Smith, Tim Farron, Mr Tim Yeo, Dr Thérèse Coffey, Glyn Davies, Natascha Engel, Dr Alan Whitehead, Mrs Anne McGuire and Caroline Lucas present the Bill.

Tessa Munt accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 25 November, and to be printed (Bill 215).

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Earlier, you heard a point of order from the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), which suggested that the Government had not made Parliament aware of fundamental changes in tax policy by a statement in the House. I believe that that was incorrect. I think that she was referring to the ring fence expenditure supplement for the North sea fiscal regime. I am sure you will recall, Mr Speaker, that that was presaged in the March Budget. Further to that, a very detailed written ministerial statement was issued by the Treasury this morning and was available in the House of Commons Library at 10 o’clock. Indeed, had the hon. Lady taken the trouble to look at the Order Paper, she would have found it at No. 3 on the list of today’s written ministerial statements. I just wanted to put the record straight.

We are grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for doing so. The point is on the record and is very clear.

I am grateful, Mr Speaker. In defence of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), she was referring to the fact that there was a debate on this very issue last night in the Commons and the Exchequer Secretary made no reference to the statement being due the following day.

That is noted, but procedural propriety has been observed. That is all that the Chair needs to observe.