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Electricity Transmission (North Somerset)

Volume 542: debated on Thursday 22 March 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stephen Crabb.)

Those who read the title of this debate might be tempted to think that it deals with a localised issue of interest only in North Somerset or the county of Somerset. That would be a major mistake. The issues at stake in this project are likely to be replicated across many other parts of the country, and the principles involved are universally applicable.

At the moment, there are some 22,000 high-voltage pylons carrying 7,000 km of overhead lines across England and Wales. National Grid, the monopoly provider of transmission infrastructure, is planning to build nearly 480 km of new overhead power lines at a cost of some £14 billion. That became an issue in our part of the west country in the autumn of 2009, when National Grid began what it termed a consultation on the installation of a new feed line with 400 kV of electricity to connect the proposed new Hinkley C nuclear power station to the national supply network at Avonmouth, a distance of some 57 km. The most direct route between the two points lies across a body of water, yet the debate centred entirely around a land route that would involve overhead transmission and new pylons. The concerns of local residents about the new 400 kV lines—the current lines carry about 132 kV—were exacerbated when they discovered that the new pylons would be around 150 feet high, and very much bulkier in design, thereby creating greater environmental impact. I will return to the question “When is a consultation not a consultation?” later.

Our experience has been mirrored by colleagues in other parts of the country, notably in Suffolk, and I would like to thank them publicly for the support that they have given us throughout our campaign. One of the biggest problems that we have faced has been the perceived inconsistency in National Grid’s arguments and in the figures it has provided. At a packed meeting in Nailsea in my constituency before the last general election, residents were first told that to lay the cables under the sea was not technically feasible. Then, when they challenged National Grid with the fact that it already owned three undersea cables, they were told that it would be too expensive.

We now have a further complication, in the welcome announcement by the Government of the south-west as the first marine energy park, which will utilise—guess what—undersea cabling. We are still unclear as to why subsea links of similar length should be suitable for Europe, for the New York-New Jersey link and for the Scotland-Wirral link, but not for us. National Grid and Scottish Power Transmission even put out a press release stating that

“the companies are working together to deliver a major project to build a 400 km high voltage circuit which will run predominantly under the sea from Scotland to England. The new circuit will enable the transfer of large volumes of energy from Scotland directly to England and Wales through subsea cables, bypassing the constraints of the existing transmission system.”

Is it not also the case that Steve Holliday, the chief executive of the National Grid, said in June 2009 that putting cables under the sea was a “no brainer”?

That is indeed correct, but one of the problems we have had, as I mentioned, is that what we are told one day can be diametrically opposed to what we are told the next week. That has resulted in the local population’s loss of confidence in their dealings with National Grid.

There have been huge variations in the costs and estimates of alternatives. National Grid originally estimated that undergrounding power lines would cost between 10 and 20 times more than overhead lines. That does not fit with the evidence produced by groups such as the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England or even with National Grid’s own experience in London or Oxfordshire.

Some clarity was achieved earlier this year with the report from the Institution of Engineering and Technology and Parsons Brinckerhoff. That was a useful contribution to the public debate—well constructed, informative and indicative of the approach that National Grid should have taken from the outset if a meaningful public debate were genuinely sought. It provides better costings for the alternative technologies, and shows that the price differentials are much less than the public were originally led to believe.

However, the report’s remit relates purely to the tightly defined engineering costs. It does not take into account any analysis of the aesthetic, human or environmental impacts of the proposed new overhead lines. It scarcely covers the AC subsea option and does not give an equivalent level of detail for gas-insulated transmission lines as for overhead lines and underground cables. It does not sufficiently take into account whole life costs, or the public’s willingness to pay for undergrounding new and existing electricity transmission lines.

National Grid commissioned Brunswick to look into the public’s willingness to pay for these changes, and the research revealed widespread public ignorance about the percentage of an electricity bill that is attributable to transmission. Most consumers thought that about 10% of their bills as opposed to the actual figure of about 4% related to transmission. Ofgem commissioned further research from London Economics to look at the same data, and we currently await the results of research commissioned by National Grid from Accent.

Throughout the process, National Grid has told us that it is constrained in the actions it can take by Ofgem. My first question to the Minister, then, is: what representations, if any, has National Grid made to the Government, outlining concerns about these restrictions; and what freedoms from those constraints have been requested? What can the Government do to free National Grid from the perceived and well used excuse that it must use the “least-cost option”?

Meanwhile, back in North Somerset, many of the changes originally ruled out as impossible magically became part of the agenda for discussion, following public pressure. The 50-metre pylons, which caused such outrage, might be reduced to the current height by altering the design, although we have subsequently learned that that is limited by the ability of the new pylons to allow transmission lines to bend through more than 3°. We have been told that the 18 lines can be reduced to 12, and that the existing Western Power distribution—the pylons we currently have—might be removed to make way for the new pylons, rather than running in parallel as we were originally told had to be the case.

Other concessions, such as the burying of cables for environmentally sensitive areas and places of greater housing density, have been brought forward. That is particularly important in relation to housing in the west of Nailsea, where those who bought housing close to the existing 132 kV lines might find themselves with housing blight and unknown health implications. I wonder how many National Grid executives or shareholders would choose to have their homes, or send their children to school, under the new 400 kV cables.

Let me return to the question of when a consultation is not a consultation. From the outset, it was the belief of residents in my constituency—particularly in Nailsea, Backwell, Yatton and the surrounding villages—that the alternatives represented were not real alternatives at all. We were offered a Hobson’s choice: we could either accept a transmission line that kept close to the current one, running around the western border of the town of Nailsea, or have another line that would totally destroy a nearby valley and produce widespread planning blight. To the great credit of the local community, nobody bought into the divide-and-rule tactics. To us, a consultation is not about the means of execution, but about whether we wish to be executed or not.

In this particular case, how do the Government define a consultation? Surely, all the aspects of all the schemes ought to be considered—their costs, advantages and drawbacks, whole-life characteristics, environmental impacts, potential health impacts and social costs, not least housing blight. What weight will ultimately be given to the consultation and the views of those affected? If 90% objected to these proposals, would they go ahead in any case? If so, why bother? If not, what level of public disquiet would be required to produce a change of policy? Under the proposed changes to planning law, how will the population be able to be satisfied that its voice has been heard in policy formulation? How can we be guaranteed transparency?

I wish to place on record that both Somerset county council and Sedgemoor district council believe that the consultation was deeply inadequate. There were more than 4,000 responses to the consultation from members of the local community—constituents of mine and of the right hon. Gentleman—which is far more responses than National Grid has received in any past consultation.

The hon. Lady makes an important point. This issue is not simply about the consultation as it affects her constituency or mine: many people outside North Somerset and Somerset county will be wondering what precedent the decision on the Hinkley C transmission will set for future changes involving high-voltage lines elsewhere in the country. Many will be concerned that their options may be constrained, and that they may be railroaded into the wrong outcome on the wrong assumptions.

I shall now turn to the issue of the future of Hinkley C and where it fits into our broader energy policy. I have always been a supporter of nuclear energy on the basis that it makes a fundamental contribution to the nation’s energy security and guarantees a means of keeping the lights on if, for whatever reason, our imports of fossil fuels are interrupted. On balance, I remain very much of that view, but in light of the growing evidence of the abundance of natural gas worldwide and the massive potential for shale gas production, possibly including here in the United Kingdom, it is reasonable for us to pause and re-examine some of our energy policy assumptions. If the cost predictions we have made turn out to be wrong, and energy prices in the rest of the decade are lower than we anticipated, might there not be an unprecedented opportunity to overhaul our electricity transmission network without a significant impact on consumer prices? Indeed, consumers need to know what impact the options that are available will have on their electricity bills, so that they can make an informed decision in this debate. In other countries, notably Norway and Denmark, the decision has already been taken that any future transmission lines should be buried underground, and the development of new technology, such as gas-insulated transmission lines, offers a whole range of new possibilities.

On the Hinkley C project, we have already seen major changes to the original time scales. Initially we were told that the transmission lines had to be up and ready by 2015 for Hinkley’s operation in 2016. That has now slipped to the lines being ready in 2019 for Hinkley going live in 2021, assuming all is smooth in the Hinkley build and commissioning processes. The bottom line is that we may have more time than we thought, so why do we not use this time to pause for thought, examine all the evidence, consider all the possibilities and get it right?

Let me end by paying tribute to all those in Somerset, Suffolk and elsewhere who have campaigned with such tenacity and vision on this issue. In particular, campaign groups in Nailsea, Yatton, Backwell and Wraxall have shown extraordinary community solidarity against divide-and-rule tactics, using reason and persistence as their primary weapons. May I single out Wraxall and Failand parish council, Chris Ambrose, Hugh Pratt, Fiona Erleigh and Sue Turner, along with their respective groups, for the sterling service they have given to the community?

This coalition Government have put quality of life issues, a greener environmental agenda and long-term policy considerations at the forefront of policy making. A basic issue such as how we transmit our electricity and the considerations we give to our environment, to the well-being of future generations, to the implications for our tourist industry, the health of our people and our ability to welcome new and liberating technology can paint a vivid canvas of who we are and our ambitions for our country. The decisions we make today will have an impact for a generation or more. Technology has changed, public attitudes have changed and our priorities, not least the value we place on the physical environment around us, have changed. We now have an opportunity for public policy to change, and we should grasp that opportunity with relish.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) for securing a debate on this important issue. I am grateful that he has done so. I agree with him that the need for, and impact of, electricity transmission infrastructure is, inevitably, a complex and sensitive issue. So I welcome the opportunity to explain the need for upgrading the existing transmission network, and to clarify the approach to deciding where and how new infrastructure is delivered and how this relates to North Somerset, in particular. I hope that I can also reassure him that many of the changes he has been calling for are already being put in place by this Government.

The Government are committed to meeting the UK’s climate change targets and maintaining energy security. Achieving those combined objectives represents a major challenge. The United Kingdom is increasingly dependent on fossil fuel imports, leaving us much more exposed to risks from rising global demand, limitations on production, supply constraints and price volatility. At the same time, we expect to lose about a quarter of our existing electricity generation capacity by 2020, as old or more polluting generating plant closes.

My right hon. Friend rightly referred to the future costs of energy, and that is certainly an important consideration, however security of supply and reducing the carbon impact of generation are also important factors. That is why we need a mix of energy going forward. It is not for the Government to prescribe how much of each generation source is required, but we are setting the framework for delivering the appropriate energy mix through, for example, our proposals for electricity market reform.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s support for nuclear generation. I wish to take the opportunity to reiterate its vital role in securing our energy future—we want it to be part of the future energy mix. The UK has everything to gain from being the No. 1 destination to invest in new nuclear. Nuclear is the cheapest low-carbon source of electricity around, so it keeps bills down and the lights on.

I will give way in a moment, but I want to respond to a further point raised by my right hon. Friend about the potential golden age for gas with shale gas emerging. For the United Kingdom, most of that gas would need to be imported, as our own resources decline. So we, too, need to look at how we can harness our own low-carbon electricity resources, such as nuclear and renewables. Putting off building new generation has got us into the mess we are in, where the previous Government identified that the lights could be going out around the end of this decade. We cannot afford to delay any longer in securing the investment in new capacity.

It is very kind of the Minister to give way. I am on record as being a little more resistant to nuclear power, mainly because of my concerns about the waste. I think that a number of community benefits could be put in place by companies such as EDF. They would be of much more significance to the community. Undergrounding or putting cables under the sea might be examples of that. I accept completely that I am not going to be able to stop Hinkley all on my own, but that is my point.

Order. The hon. Lady has gone very wide of the issue of electricity transmission into its generation. Perhaps the Minister could respond on the transmission question only.

I will indeed, but the hon. Lady makes a relevant point in that when a nuclear plant is being proposed there is often strong local support, but that where transmission lines are proposed there tends to be much stronger local opposition. I think that ties in because it is all part of the security of the network that we need.

The existing electricity network will need to be substantially expanded to accommodate the new generation we require. That is particularly the case where new generation is located far from demand or where the existing infrastructure is insufficient. Developers of new generation need the reassurance that the network will be delivered in line with their project time scales so that they are able to generate electricity once their projects are completed. We should recognise that these are substantial long-term investments and that timely network delivery is crucial to these projects commencing.

My right hon. Friend referred to National Grid’s approach to engaging with local communities and its consideration of different network solutions. Before I address the issue of transmission lines in North Somerset it might be helpful for me to explain the wider approach for deciding upon new network infrastructure. Under the current regulatory framework, it is for network companies such as National Grid to submit proposals for new network infrastructure to the industry regulator, Ofgem, and the relevant planning authorities. Those proposals are based on a well-justified need case such as new generation connecting or maintaining a safe and secure network. The network companies also propose routes and types of infrastructure. In doing so they are required to make a balanced assessment of the benefits of reducing any adverse environmental and other impacts of new infrastructure against the costs and technical challenges of doing so following extensive consultation with stakeholders. Those requirements are set out in their licence obligations under the Electricity Acts to develop economic and efficient networks and to have regard to the preservation of amenity and the mitigation of the effects that their activities have on the natural beauty of the countryside.

My right hon. Friend asked about perceived regulatory constraints for network companies to propose alternative solutions. In addition to the legal requirements to consider the wider impacts of new network infrastructure, Ofgem published guidance, in March 2011, on how this should be taken into account. This clarifies that network companies are required to consider wider impacts and alternative solutions to overhead lines. In response to my right hon. Friend’s question on this point, this very much took into account the representations that the Government and National Grid had been making.

That regulatory approach is reinforced by the Government’s energy national policy statements, which set out the framework for factors to be considered when consenting to an infrastructure project of national significance. I emphasise to my right hon. Friend that we have changed those national policy statements from those we inherited specifically to take more account of these matters. They make it clear that for electricity networks, cost should not be the only factor in determining the type of transmission technology used and that proper consideration should be given to other feasible means of connection, including underground and subsea cables.

Within the framework, National Grid published in September last year its new approach to building new transmission infrastructure. Using that approach, it will put greater emphasis on mitigating the visual impact of its new electricity lines, and will balance that consideration against the need to manage the impact on household bills. I hope that this more sensitive approach provides reassurance to those areas potentially affected by cables and pylons that alternatives to new overhead lines are considered very seriously. As the costs and technical difficulties vary so much from project to project, it is important that each one is assessed on a case-by-case basis to ensure that the right planning decision is taken each time. My right hon. Friend has already referred to different projects with quite different characteristics where subsea cabling has been proposed or deployed. Indeed, the recently announced project, which he mentioned, between Scotland and England is specifically to get around an onshore constraint, and therefore new ways of dealing with that had to be found.

The Government consider that the costs and benefits of undergrounding transmission lines are important issues that must be kept under review in the light of new information and evidence. That is why the Department of Energy and Climate Change arranged for an independent study, to which my right hon. Friend referred, to be carried out to give clarity on the practicality, whole-life costs and impacts of undergrounding and subsea cabling as alternatives to overhead lines. That report was published in January 2012, and its findings are generally consistent with the comparative costs that National Grid has quoted when evaluating options on current projects, including in North Somerset. The report should provide a useful reference point to inform the planning process.

My right hon. Friend identified some issues that were not being looked at, but as I hope I have explained, the Government have already put in place those other wider issues in the national policy statements.

My right hon. Friend raised the question of consultation and how the views of stakeholders on a range of impacts are taken into account. Let me reassure him that the impacts he mentioned are indeed taken into account in the decision-making process. However—I know that he will accept this—there is a balance to be struck between impacts and there is no simple formula that can be applied to produce the right decision. I know that my right hon. Friend will understand that from the decisions that he had to make as Defence Secretary.

Network companies must proactively explore new and alternative technologies to overhead lines. National Grid is currently exploring the development of gas insulated lines and it would be for it to consider whether the use of this technology was appropriate for any project. However, the issues involved with gas insulated lines are complex. For example, gas insulated lines are still an emerging technology and untested, and much more work needs to be done for longer, directly buried installations such as the Hinkley Point connection. There is currently no directly buried gas insulated circuit longer than 1 km in operation anywhere in the world.

The application for transmission infrastructure in North Somerset will be decided by the appropriate planning authorities, which may include Ministers. It would therefore be inappropriate for me to give a view on the particulars of those proposed developments. However, I do recognise from the issues raised in the House and elsewhere that many people feel very strongly about pylons and the impact they can have on the landscape. When announcing its preferred route corridor for the Hinkley connection, National Grid reported that it had received over 8,000 responses.

Effective consultation with local communities and other interested parties is a vital part of the planning and regulatory approval process. When making proposals for new infrastructure, National Grid has to demonstrate that alternatives have been considered and why its preferred option is justified. This must show that stakeholders have been engaged effectively.

My right hon. Friend spoke in detail about his experiences with the National Grid consultation process. I think it fair to say that the new planning process requiring greater engagement with stakeholders and examination of options before submitting a planning application has been a learning process for all participants and can be significantly improved as it goes further.

I am encouraged, however, by the greater stakeholder engagement and consideration being given by National Grid to alternatives over the past year or so. This is the behaviour that the new planning and regulatory frameworks require. Having announced its preferred route corridor for the Hinkley Point connection, National Grid is considering carefully the type of technology it will use for the connection. It has stated that many people want the cables put underground, as indeed my right hon. Friend has said, or under sea, and as it continues its consultation, it expects that the final plans will include some undergrounding as well as overhead lines.

I would like to thank my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt), who have participated in a valuable and important debate. Our challenge is to build a low-carbon economy based on an energy mix that meets our environmental targets and security of supply needs. This will require a substantial expansion in the transmission network to accommodate the required generation. Deciding where and how this infrastructure is delivered requires informed and balanced consideration of a number of factors including costs, environmental impact, and the needs of local communities and the country as a whole. The planning and regulatory approval processes for new transmission infrastructure require that stakeholders are consulted on these important decisions and their views demonstrably taken into account. This is happening now in North Somerset, where National Grid continues to undertake an extensive stakeholder engagement exercise on developing its proposals.

National Grid has expressed the desire to work with stakeholders to lessen the impact of any new infrastructure using mitigation measures such as woodland planting, placing cables underground or use of lower height pylons where appropriate. I strongly encourage those with an interest to engage with National Grid as it further develops its proposals.

This is an important issue to which I know the House will return, but I hope that I have been able to reassure my right hon. Friend that we have already been acting on the concerns that he has expressed.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.