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National Grid (Montgomeryshire)

Volume 592: debated on Wednesday 4 February 2015

It is always a great pleasure to serve under your fair chairmanship, Sir Roger. I am sure today will be exactly the same. I normally try to be a fairly relaxed and laid-back speaker in the House of Commons, and I like to be consensual in my general approach and debating style. I think that that is probably the most effective way for someone to get what they want, but since 2005 there has been one issue on which I have had great difficulty remaining calm whenever I have addressed it. It involves the industrialisation and destruction of the wondrous part of Wales where I have always lived and which is the subject of today’s debate. I want to speak about the mid-Wales connection project and the behaviour of National Grid in forcing it on the people I represent.

I have divided my speech into four sections. First, I will outline the general background to provide context. It will be necessary to make passing reference to a conjoined public inquiry into five wind farms that will have an impact on my constituency. A planning inspector’s report is being considered by the Department of Energy and Climate Change. To reassure the Minister, I respect her position and totally accept that she will not be able to make any comment on planning issues that could eventually land on her desk for decision. Today’s debate is about the mid-Wales connection project. It is a linked proposal being taken forward by National Grid, and I need to refer to the wind farms public inquiry only to create context.

Secondly, I will describe how National Grid has behaved in Montgomeryshire and north Shropshire, which has shocked me. I believe fellow MPs, the Minister and the public will also be shocked to learn about the tactics that this massive leviathan of an industrial complex and its agents have used to force their will on the local population. Thirdly, I will refer to what I consider to be the outrageous way in which National Grid has sought to influence the planning system using its power and money, which all seems to be entirely within the law. One issue I will raise, and to which I hope the Minister will respond, is whether that unparalleled power to influence planning applications, before and as they are being decided, should be reconsidered.

Fourthly, I will comment on the impact that the behaviour of National Grid, widely perceived by the public to be close to Government and thought by many to be a part of Government, has on the public’s faith and confidence in the democratic process. To finish, I will press the Minister to call on National Grid to suspend the mid-Wales connection project, at least until there are approved wind farms to be connected by it.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and neighbour for the persistent and dogged way in which he has championed this issue to protect his beautiful constituency and his constituents’ views. National Grid could not find, if it tried, a location to generate electricity that was further from its existing network. As a result of the construction, huge swathes of Shropshire will be carpeted over with pylons to connect the electricity to the grid, and that is completely unacceptable.

I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for his support.

First, to give the context, the rumpus began in 2005 when the Welsh Government announced in their infamous technical advice note 8 that Montgomeryshire—it spilled over into Radnorshire and Ceredigion—was to be transformed into a wind farm landscape. Although I had always been sceptical about the balance of benefit associated with onshore wind, I had not been a vociferous opponent until then. I had not thought the odd wind farm development would lead to the complete desecration of the mid-Wales landscape. It was the astonishing scale of development that flowed from the Welsh Government announcement that shocked me, and the subtle dishonesty with which it was presented. In 2005, Montgomeryshire was already blessed with more turbines than anywhere else in Wales, and the capacity to transfer new generated power to the grid was almost exhausted. To fulfil the Welsh Government’s new policy, a new dedicated 400 kV cable would have to be built, connecting the onshore wind farms to the national grid around 40 miles away.

In 2005, I was an Opposition spokesman on this policy area in the National Assembly for Wales, and I soon understood the scale of what was being proposed. Inevitably, whatever the announced target was, the capacity of the dedicated line would be filled. The cost of it—it was probably approaching £1 billion—was such that it could not possibly be allowed to become a stranded asset. Already there are about 20 applications at varying stages of readiness for new wind farms in and around my constituency. In summary, that means 500 new turbines on top of what we have now, a 19 acre substation and a 50 km, 400 kV power line on steel towers connecting to the existing grid in north Shropshire via the beautiful Vyrnwy valley. It is desecration of landscape on a mind-blowing scale. Not surprisingly, that has outraged much of the local population.

I used the word “dishonesty” to describe the position of the Welsh Government in 2005, and I did not use it casually. When I led a group of concerned Montgomeryshire residents to Cardiff Bay to express our views on the steps of the Senedd, the First Minister, Carwyn Jones, and the Minister for Environment and Sustainable Development, John Griffiths, stated publicly in response that the national grid line would not be needed to fulfil their policies. That was untrue, and the First Minister has subsequently changed his position, very quietly. Mind you, there were getting on for 2,000 of us who travelled on a seven-hour round trip on 38 buses to make our point. I have lived in Montgomeryshire all my life, and I have never known the people of mid-Wales to be so angry.

My second point is on the behaviour of National Grid. The position is that it has been contracted by wind farm development companies to build a 400 kV line. Over the past three or four years, National Grid has sought to force the line on a reluctant population and has totally failed to engage with the people of Montgomeryshire. Yes, it has produced glossy leaflets and yes, it has arranged hundreds of local meetings, but it has never listened to anyone. It never had any intention of listening. National Grid is programmed not to listen but to cajole, to persuade and then to enforce its proposals by whatever means possible.

The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about National Grid and its status. I am a member of the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, and we have raised that very issue. National Grid has a monopoly, and legislation has given it extra powers to be the systems operator. It decides which generation goes ahead, as well as having the grid connections. Does he agree—I hope that the Minister will take this on board, and I hope to make an intervention during her response—that we need to have proper consultation? The regulator, Ofgem, needs the responsibility and the remit to be the champion for communities, to ensure that this—

I thank the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) for raising that point, which I intend to raise, because it is hugely important.

Over the past year or so, I have had countless frightened constituents ring me, terrified by the bailiffs employed to enforce the National Grid’s will by the agents, Bruton Knowles, who are based in Birmingham. One constituent rang me recently to say that bailiffs had entered his property without permission, using profane language and frightening his wife and children, who fled to a back room. The police were involved. Another constituent, who lives in an isolated property, rang me to say that eight men from National Grid suddenly appeared on her drive. She sent her children upstairs, locked all the doors and rang her husband, who was at work, and my office. She was terrified. An 85-year-old constituent was advised by her friends to co-operate, because of concerns about her personal welfare.

At one meeting I attended, National Grid had brought along a Gene Hunt lookalike as an enforcer to stand in the background. Police officers were also there, as they have been throughout the supposed consultation exercise. I received an e-mail two days ago from the son of an 83-year-old constituent. He had had to come home to protect his frightened father, who had encountered two strange men emerging from behind his garage, uninvited and unknown. I could go on, but I have made the point.

I am also told that National Grid has failed to share information with the local highways department. There has been non-stop lack of openness and transparency. It is all laughably described as consultation, but it is nothing more than outright bullying, using size and money to crush a local population.

I have listened to many passionate speeches by my hon. Friend. From what he is saying, is it any wonder that members of the public have lost confidence in institutions such as National Grid? They have even lost confidence in MPs and Assembly Members because of this kind of story.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. That is the fourth point that I will be making in my speech, but for now I come to my third point.

The whole basis of National Grid’s approach has been to create an assumption that its proposals and all the consequent wind farms are inevitable. The spin has been, “You can’t stop us, so you might as well help us and make the best of it. There is no point in protesting, it’s inevitable.” Up to November more than £15 million had been spent on the project. It is a blatant attempt to influence the planning process.

I was chairman of a planning authority for seven years. I knew that I could never be influenced or seen to be influenced before a decision was taken. I was also part of the planning appeals process in the National Assembly for Wales when I was an AM. Again, I knew the importance of avoiding any perception of influence when dealing with planning applications. That is why I fully respect the Minister’s position today. Yet here we have National Grid spending £15 million to portray another 500 turbines in mid-Wales—probably 20 or so per wind farm application—as an inevitability, before any applications are decided. That is blatant pressure on the planning system.

Recently, the chief executive of Ofgem, Dermot Nolan, giving evidence to the Energy and Climate Change Committee, questioned the position of National Grid and spoke of the need for a more independent body to develop the network. At present, National Grid has a huge financial interest in expanding the network—it expands its influence—and all the costs involved are transferred to the consumer by one means or another.

The whole mid-Wales connection project is financial madness. I have never known anything so financially crazy. There has been no value for money assessment whatever, although from the perspective of National Grid, that does not matter, because the consumer will pay. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that unusually dominant position of National Grid. It seems to me, as it does to Dermot Nolan, that there is a conflict of interest and a strong case for separating the roles of transmission operator and network expansion. I must add that I am shocked that Sir Peter Gershon, the chairman of National Grid and a man of great standing, would put his reputation on the line defending what must be becoming a huge financial and totally illogical embarrassment.

My final point this morning is specific to mid-Wales and north Shropshire, but more generally relates to the confidence that the population of Britain have in the democratic process. We have seen reduced engagement with the democratic process, in particular by young people, but National Grid has been granted the power to act beyond any democratic control, spitting in the face of public opinion. Any localism agenda has been thrown out of the window and, in my view, National Grid is acting contrary to any sort of human decency.

I hope that the Minister will consider asking National Grid to scrap such a crazy project or, at the very least, to suspend it until planning permission is in place for wind farms that might need a connection.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) on securing the debate. The need for and impact of electricity network infrastructure is an important and sensitive issue. I will, if I may, deal with that issue in principle, then come on to his specific questions, to which I will seek answers from my Department, if I cannot give them in the Chamber.

I welcome the opportunity to explain the need to upgrade the electricity network, and to clarify the approach to deciding where and how new infrastructure is delivered, and how that relates to my hon. Friend’s concerns about the impacts that onshore wind developments and associated networks can have on local communities. The Government are clear that onshore wind farms and the associated network connections must be appropriately sited, and that local communities should be properly engaged. The coalition Government are committed to meeting the UK’s climate change targets, maintaining energy security—with the appropriate siting, as I said—and delivering economic growth. Achieving those objectives represents a significant challenge.

The UK is increasingly dependent on fossil fuel imports, leaving us more exposed to risks from rising global demand, limitations on production, supply constraints and price volatility. At the same time, we expect to lose around a quarter of our electricity generation capacity by 2020, as old or more polluting generation plant closes. That is why we need a mix of energy for the future, comprising nuclear, fossil fuels with carbon capture, and a major roll-out of renewables. As well as onshore wind, we want to see expansions in offshore wind, solar power and sustainable bioenergy. The Government have set the framework for delivering the appropriate energy mix through, for example, electricity market reform.

Turning to onshore wind, which is the driver for National Grid activities in Montgomeryshire, we set out in the renewables roadmap and in the electricity market reform delivery plan our ambition for 11 to 13 GW of onshore wind by 2020. That must be appropriately sited. We are clear that local communities must be properly engaged and see real benefits from hosting wind farms. A declaration on community benefits from onshore wind has been signed by developers in Wales to ensure a consistent and transparent approach to the way in which they engage with communities. Wales is already seeing community benefit funds of £5,000 per megawatt per year. The Welsh Government have developed a community benefit register to ensure greater transparency and probity. It means that everyone will be able to see and track the impact of benefits to communities and to the wider economy.

In order to accommodate the new generation, we require such sources as onshore wind, but also others such as nuclear and offshore wind, and the existing electricity network will need to be expanded.

In Cumbria, on a number of occasions I have dealt with National Grid staff on new nuclear build. I have always found them to be extremely professional. When I have wanted them to do special consultations with farmers, for example, they have always done so.

It is reassuring to hear of the hon. Gentleman’s experience in Cumbria, although that has clearly not been the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire. I will suggest some possible remedies as I make progress.

I have every sympathy with the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), because of my constituents. Eight thousand people replied to a consultation, decrying what National Grid proposed, but it has been utterly high-handed in dismissing such concerns, and completely ignored the possibility of the power connections and the line being put underground or undersea. Technology develops, but National Grid has ignored it completely, much to the distress of my constituents. There are probably many similarities with the situation described by the hon. Gentleman.

I am not familiar with the particular example given by the hon. Lady, but I hope that the Planning Inspectorate would review the consultation process as part of its consideration. That is part of the inspectorate’s legal obligation.

I was discussing the need to upgrade infrastructure to accommodate renewables, which in part explains why National Grid is going ahead in Montgomeryshire and why the hon. Lady had her experience. Developers of new generation, however, 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 those projects are completed. We should recognise that such generation projects are substantial long-term investments, and timely network delivery is crucial to their viability.

Before I address National Grid’s activity in Montgomeryshire, it might be helpful to explain the wider approach to deciding on 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. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire made some interesting points about Ofgem’s potential concerns, and referred specifically to conversations with its chief executive. I assure him that I will follow up on this debate by writing to Mr Nolan to establish whether the formal position has moved, and will come back to my hon. Friend on that. Under the current set-up, proposals are based on a well-justified need case—say, the connection of new generation, or the maintenance of a safe and secure network—but it is important to us that Ofgem feels confident of the proposals.

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. The requirements are set out in their licence obligations under the Electricity Act 1989: they must develop economic and efficient networks, and have regard to the preservation of amenity and the mitigation of the effects that their activities could have on the natural beauty of the countryside. The 1989 Act also stipulates that network companies must provide connection offers when requested to do so by developers.

I agree with the wider strategy that the Minister has outlined, but on the specific issue of defined and suggested routes in the consultation, communities are frustrated by the fact that the suggested route always goes ahead with only fine amendments. Will she encourage National Grid and Ofgem to have some sort of community involvement or appeals mechanism? When the preferred route goes ahead, communities fear that their words and deeds are not taken on board.

I appreciate the sentiment expressed by the hon. Gentleman. His point is valid, and if the experience of hon. Members present is that the current consultation process is not sufficient, I will follow up on it. Some progress has been made: Ofgem has recently published information for stakeholders on how their views should be taken into account. That information clarifies that network companies are required to consider wider impacts and alternative solutions to overhead lines, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt).

On the point that I made earlier about how far the site in Montgomeryshire is from the national grid, are the Government doing any work to look at the grid and evaluate how projects can be initiated closer to it, rather than so far away? Some sort of strategic work must be under way on that.

As I said earlier, National Grid is looking at the process as part of the preparation for potential new generation through wind farms. It has reviewed where the grid will be required, and then has to take its proposals to the Planning Inspectorate. The whole process is overseen by Ofgem. Obviously, my hon. Friend will be aware that although my Government have a policy role in encouraging the development of renewable energy and ensuring that it can be accessed, we do not interfere with planning, which is a very sensitive issue.

The important point made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) was about the attitude of National Grid, which I experienced when a pipeline was being laid to take liquefied natural gas from Milford Haven to Gloucestershire. National Grid took no notice whatever of representations about the integrity of rivers and spawning areas—it was incredible. I think it is that attitude that gets people’s anger up.

Where there are particular examples, I urge hon. Members to write to me, and I will write to Ofgem. It sounds to me like there might be particular examples; that does not necessarily mean that the whole system is flawed, but it might mean that particular examples of insensitivity require some sort of redress. I will happily look into that for the hon. Gentleman.

I am grateful to the Minister for her generosity in giving way. Will she write to me on two specific points? First, there is the business of a “willingness to pay” study, which I believe has been carried out in Essex or Suffolk but not in other areas. That study has proven that, given the chance, people want new pylons and other infrastructure to be put underground. That should be done for existing pylons as well.

Secondly, the Government’s legislation says that there should be a social and environmental impact assessment. At no point have I or other Members been given any clarity on exactly what that entails. If the Minister could write to me to explain how that is implemented, that would be most kind.

I would be delighted to write to the hon. Lady and will take up the two points that she has raised. She is of course correct that it is possible to bury the cables; the cost is approximately 10 times as much, but that is obviously part of the consideration.

The regulatory approach to which I was referring and that is overseen by Ofgem is reinforced by the Government’s national energy policy statements. They set out the framework for factors to be considered when consenting to an infrastructure project of national significance. They make clear that for electricity networks, cost should not be the only factor in determining the type of network technology used, and that there should be proper consideration given to other feasible means of connection, including undersea cables.

Within the framework, National Grid, the transmission network owner in England and Wales, published a new approach to building new transmission infrastructure. Using that approach, National Grid puts greater emphasis on mitigating the environmental and visual impact of its new electricity lines, while balancing other considerations, such as the need to manage the effect on costs, which are of course ultimately funded through consumer energy bills. I hope that that balanced approach provides reassurance to hon. Members who are concerned about network infrastructure that alternatives are being considered.

Since the costs and technical difficulties vary so much from project to project, it is important that each one is assessed case by case. The Government consider the costs and benefits of undergrounding electricity lines to be important issues, which is why the Department of Energy and Climate Change supported an independent study—I think that it is the one to which the hon. Member for Wells referred—to give clarity on the practicality, whole-life costs and impacts of undergrounding and subsea cabling as alternatives to overhead lines. The report was published in January 2012, and its findings are generally consistent with the comparative costs that National Grid has quoted.

The potential need for and development of transmission network infrastructure in Montgomeryshire is the reason behind National Grid’s activities in the area. The application for the proposed new electricity network infrastructure to connect the proposed wind farms in mid-Wales has yet to be submitted to the Planning Inspectorate. After examination, any application would be decided by the appropriate planning authorities and Ministers, so it is not appropriate for me to give a view on the particulars of the project—as my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire has observed—or indeed on the proposed wind farms in mid-Wales, which have been subject to a public inquiry. However, I recognise that many people feel very strongly about overhead lines and other network infrastructure, and the possible effect on the landscape. In introducing the debate, my hon. Friend spoke passionately about the beauty of the landscape and the wonders of mid-Wales. He has been a champion of maintaining the landscape as it is, and we will take that on board.

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 must demonstrate that alternatives were considered and why the preferred option is justified. It must also demonstrate that stakeholders have been engaged. At the root of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire is his concern that, although safeguards exist and there are many levels of requirements for consultations, those consultations are either not taking place or not taking place satisfactorily. By law, the redress for that is through the Planning Inspectorate, which will look at the consultation process as part of the planning application. If it is not good enough, the planning application could be refused, because the request for planning permission requires a good consultation. My hon. Friend has made his points very clearly today, but I urge him to make them to the Planning Inspectorate as well at the appropriate time.

My hon. Friend spoke passionately about his constituency and mid-Wales in general. We have heard specific concerns about National Grid, but we believe that, overall, it is regulated carefully and diligently. Nevertheless, if hon. Members have specific concerns about incidents, they should write to me and I will certainly look into them. I urge all Members to continue to protect their constituencies as they have done, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire on leading this debate and being so assiduous in protecting his constituency.

Sitting suspended.