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Hinkley C Connection Project

Volume 604: debated on Thursday 14 January 2016

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

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important local issue in the Chamber today. I should start by saying that, while I am very critical indeed of the plans for connecting Hinkley C to the national grid, my support for Hinkley C itself is unwavering. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose)—who has just done a fine job at the Dispatch Box and is leaving the Chamber—my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), who have been engaged in the battle over these pylons for many years, as have my predecessors as the Member for Wells. I also congratulate, and pay tribute to, the councils and parish councils, particularly Mark, Badgworth and Biddisham, the Allertons and Cross and Compton Bishop parish councils, which have all worked tirelessly to represent the views of their parishioners over the past seven years so that their objections can be known. Equally, I congratulate the campaign groups and the fantastic public engagement that has meant that church hall and village hall after church hall and village hall have been filled with people wanting to make very clear their views on this pylon line.

With the announcement looming, therefore, I wanted to raise today a few issues that I think are yet to be resolved. I know there are certain constraints on the Minister given that the Department acts in a quasi-judicial role in this decision, but I hope she will be able to consider the issues I raise, and talk about the technical issues even if not in specific reference to the Hinkley Connection project itself. I am also grateful for the response I have had from my noble Friend Lord Bourne to the letter I wrote to the Secretary of State last week, in which he has assured me that the representations that have been made to the Department since the conclusion of the planning inspector inquiry—and which I assume will be included—will be considered.

My remarks will fall into three areas: first, Government policy as I see it; secondly, the fact that these pylons are untested and unwanted; and thirdly the importance of visual amenity and the impact that damaging that would have on our local economy.

It is clear from the Secretary of State’s recent speech which reset the Government’s energy policy that there is enthusiasm for marine energy generation. Offshore wind is the method that has been mentioned most keenly, but I think I am right in saying that there is an excitement for the opportunities presented by tidal and wave technologies, provided that—the Minister will nod, I am sure—they do not ask for too much money in delivering them. None the less, if marine energy generation is to be a key part of the Government’s vision for the renewables sector in the future, it stands to reason, given the fantastic natural resource in the Bristol channel and the Severn estuary waiting to be harnessed by these technologies, that we might put in place a transmission infrastructure now that will service everything that might come in the future, rather than just Hinkley Point itself.

Yesterday and the day before I was with the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change on a trip to Brussels, and although the “team Juncker” banners around the place were not too welcome to these Eurosceptic eyes, our meeting with Vice-President Šefcovic, who is responsible for energy union, was very refreshing indeed. He made some very interesting points about the plans that the EU and the Governments of the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, France and Germany have for a North sea energy grid. If we are looking at putting infrastructure in place under the North sea to facilitate marine generation and interconnection between the different countries that surround the North sea, why should it be so difficult to do so in the Bristol channel and the Severn estuary?

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

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

If Vice-President Šefcovic speaks with such conviction about the opportunities for subsea interconnection and transmission in the North sea, I do not see why it should be such a leap for National Grid to become excited about it elsewhere. Indeed, National Grid shares my enthusiasm and that of the Government for marine energy generation schemes. In its “Future Energy Scenarios” document, it talks keenly about the opportunities for tidal and wave energy, and indeed for offshore wind off the south-west of England and the south Walian coast and out into the Irish sea.

There is a disparity in the timelines that National Grid has used in its submissions for this planning application. It has done a cost-benefit analysis over 30 years, as far as I can tell, yet its “Future Energy Scenarios” document clearly sets out the opportunities for tidal and wave energy generation over the next three, four, five and six decades, so that extends to 60 years. The transmission line itself will extend far beyond that, so if we apply National Grid’s own policy, there will be an opportunity to see the cost of connecting Hinkley C to the grid not just as a cost but as an investment because it aggregates the cost across all that might come in the future. Elsewhere, National Grid has been much more on the front foot with regard to undersea solutions. It has spent £1.1 billion connecting Scotland to England through the western link, which includes converter stations at either end, of the kind that it says are too expensive to construct in Somerset.

Ludicrously, National Grid also has a visual impact provision project, which is using £500 million of bill payers’ money to take down existing pylons and put the cables underground, yet this project will put up new pylons on equally sensitive landscapes. I have looked at the plans, particularly those for the Dorset area of outstanding natural beauty, and it is clear that there are pylons outside that AONB that will be removed because they can be clearly seen from within the AONB. That will also apply in the Mendips. The cables will go underground through the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare, but anyone who sweats their way up to the top of the Mendips will see pylons stretching for miles in every direction.

Then there is interconnection. I am going to be slightly cynical and suggest that National Grid’s rampant enthusiasm for interconnection—which is under the sea—compared with its utter disdain for going under the sea in the Bristol channel, might have something to do with the opportunity to raise revenue from interconnection. I sincerely hope that that is not the case, but I have an inkling that National Grid applies its enthusiasm for interconnection using undersea technologies only when there is a revenue-raising opportunity attached to it.

As far as I can see, there is also an inconsistency in the existing legislation, which needs updating. The Communications Act 2003 clearly states that when a mobile phone mast is put up anew, there is a statutory requirement for the visual amenity to be considered. In the legislation governing the siting of pylons, however, there is no such provision. We just have the out-of-date Holford rules, which I will come to in a second. What we have seen in the mobile phone industry is that, because there is a statutory requirement to consider visual amenity, there has been a very clear effort to camouflage masts. Masts have got smaller and smaller, and more is spent on where they are sited, but, as far as I can tell, National Grid has not shown the same effort.

Let me turn now to the Holford rules. Rather than going through all of them, I will draw out a couple of the key points. The Holford rules are guidelines, and it is important that we note that. The siting of pylons comes down to guidelines, but the siting of mobile phone masts comes down to legislation. Rule 1 of the Holford rules says:

“Avoid altogether, if possible, the major areas of highest amenity value”.

That includes areas of outstanding natural beauty. I have said already that I see a clear inconsistency in putting pylons underground through the AONB, but not necessarily through the land that immediately abuts it, no matter how important that might be to the overall effect of the AONB.

Rule 2 says:

“Avoid smaller areas of high amenity value, or scientific interests by deviation”.

It clearly sets out the importance of missing out sites of special scientific interest. The Somerset levels have many areas that have been so designated.

Rule 4 states:

“Choose tree and hill backgrounds in preference to sky backgrounds”.

But we are talking about the Somerset levels here; there are no hills and there are no trees. Rule 5 says:

“Prefer moderately open valleys with woods”.

The same applies.

Rule 6 says:

“In country which is flat and sparsely planted”

we should keep high voltage lines to a minimum as far as possible so as to avoid a “concentration or ‘wirescape’.” As other transmission lines are in close proximity to the new line, and the wires in the new pylons are more concentrated, that rule simply cannot apply and is another flaw in National Grid’s plans.

If the decision next week is not to our liking in Somerset, I wonder whether the Energy Bill, which will come forward shortly, might be an opportunity for my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) and I to reintroduce the amendment that he proposed to the previous Energy Bill that sought to insert in that legislation the same provision for pylons as currently exists for mobile phone masts. Will the Government consider working with us on that, as that would give us an opportunity retrospectively to use that legislation to amend the decision next week if it is not to our liking in Somerset?

I wish to talk about the T-pylon. Although National Grid is very chuffed with it, we in Somerset have real concerns about it. The Minister’s constituency is not too far from the National Grid’s test centre in Nottinghamshire. It is a beautiful part of the world. With its rolling hills, it is quintessentially rural England. This is where National Grid has tested the T-pylons. I have seen photos of them, and I have seen videos on National Grid’s website bragging about their brilliance. My observation is that the terrain looked a whole lot more hilly and a whole lot more dry than the flat, wet Somerset levels.

I am very concerned indeed about whether these pylons are ready to be employed under tension on a very wet landscape with a very high water table and where the weather will bring all sorts on pressures for them. There is also a danger that if they require additional concrete, it could affect the ability of that land to drain, and could therefore cause flooding. Equally, if it is decided that more concrete is not needed and if the sort of floods we saw in the winter of 2013-14 arrive so that the foundations of the pylons are under water for anything up to two months, will the foundations stand the test of that flood and remain solid; or are we risking leaving our newest nuclear power station without a grid connection because of the inappropriateness of the design?

The security of these pylons is another issue. Any number of terrorist organisations would delight in the opportunity to hit our infrastructure, and taking out a pylon might seem a reasonably easy way of doing so. I am sure that the lattice pylons that have been employed across our grid over many decades will be well tested in this area. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that the T-pylons have been similarly tested.

National Grid claims that the T-pylon is a wonderful concession to the people of Somerset and that we are hugely fortunate to be the first to receive it. It is a concession in National Grid’s eyes, but no one else’s. The lattice pylons that would have conveyed 420 kV of electricity would indeed have been the height of Nelson’s column—they would have been monsters. The new T-pylons, though, are still the same height as the roof of Westminster Abbey, so we are not talking about any massive improvement.

Their height is not the aspect that people least understand, though; it is their width. I wonder whether the camera operator for the Chamber has it in him to zoom out, because it needs to be understood that the width of the T-pylons is the width of the Chamber—not the floor of the Chamber, but wall to wall, from the back of the Press Gallery to the back of the Strangers Gallery. That is the size of the T-bar, plus the hanging rings on to which the wires go. Indeed, the hanging diamonds to which the transmission lines connect are about 10 metres in height. That means that if the T-bar and the hanging diamonds were to be put into this Chamber, they would fill it from floor to ceiling, from wall to wall. These are monsters, and we are seriously considering putting them across one of the most beautiful parts of this country. What is more, lattice pylons are 90% air, whereas T-pylons are solid structures. They concentrate the wirescape and are solid white pillars—exactly like wind turbines. That leads me to my final point, which is about visual amenity.

We have rightly been rejecting applications to build windfarms across the country because of the impact they would have on our landscape. Locally, in the immediate vicinity of the proposed pylon line, we have rejected applications for two small windfarms, at Pilrow and Huntspill. I applaud the Government and the planning inspector for making those decisions, but how ridiculous it is that having turned down those big white pillars, which are roughly the same size—in some cases smaller—than T-pylons, we are now seriously considering next week approving dozens of exactly the same thing, strung out over 40 miles of the Somerset countryside. It makes no sense to me. The pylons, in effect, constitute a giant windfarm. Surely the same logic should apply.

No attempt has been made to value the visual amenity of the landscape. Everything has been about the cash involved in going underground or undersea, yet the land has huge value. The view from the AONB is important, the sites of special scientific interest are important, and the landscape is valued and loved by local residents. Surely that has a value, too. More important still, and perhaps offering a more quantifiable value, is the fact that this area is the shop window not just for Somerset but for the whole south-west. I do not know whether you have ever holidayed in the south-west, Madam Deputy Speaker, but if you have, you will know that you trudge your way along the M4 corridor or down the M5 from the midlands, you queue to get through Avonmouth, and then you come up over the hill and are released into the south-west of England. The Somerset levels extend before you; Glastonbury Tor is off in the distance in the east, the sea to the west.

Every holidaymaker who goes to the south-west of England—I do not flatter myself that millions are watching this evening—will know the stretch of motorway that I am talking about, because for so many it is where their holiday in the south-west starts. The visitor economy in Somerset is worth £1.3 billion a year. The pylon line will run almost parallel with the M5 in exactly the part of the country I have been describing. As people come over the Mendips they will crest the hill, and instead of the magnificence of the Somerset levels, with the sea and Glastonbury Tor on their right and left, they will see these giant white monoliths. It would be unforgiveable to allow Somerset’s shop window to be spoiled in that way.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I know that today you have been treated to some wonderfully highbrow cultural references—Bowie and Burns. I am afraid I am going to lower the tone by quoting Sebastian the lobster from Disney’s “Little Mermaid”. You will forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, for addressing you as “darling” just for the purposes of this quote:

“Under the sea, under the sea

Darling it’s better down where it’s wetter,

Take it from me.”

Don’t just take it from me, though, Madam Deputy Speaker. Take it from my colleagues in constituencies along the pylon line, from my predecessors, and from the district councils, the parish councils and the thousands of Somerset residents who have engaged in the consultation process and made their opposition clear throughout.

Not enough consideration has been given to the strategic options that are available for other ways of transmitting power from Hinkley to the grid. Those have been resisted throughout on the basis of cost, yet there is the western link connecting Scotland and England, there is interconnection going on all over the place, and there is the visual impact provision project of the national grid taking down pylons elsewhere. The proposal has been resisted throughout on cost, yet no consideration has been given to the value of this land for other industries, most notably tourism.

Going under the sea is commonplace elsewhere, yet it has never been seriously considered for Somerset. We have turned down wind turbines on visual amenity grounds, yet we are considering dozens of solid white pillars as high as Westminster Abbey and as wide as this Chamber, and we are going to string them out across 40 miles of the most beautiful countryside in the United Kingdom.

We do not know what is in the Planning Inspectorate’s recommendation. It may well be that this, my longest speech in the Chamber, will have been in vain because good news is already on its way, but if it is not—I appreciate that the Minister can give no indication today; I would not put her on the spot and ask her to do so—I ask that if bad news could possibly be on the horizon, all the points that I have raised today and that have been raised in this place by my predecessors and my colleagues in neighbouring constituencies are looked at one last time, and that a delay in making the decision be considered while those matters are looked into. I know that we would all be delighted to come and see the Minister to discuss our concerns further.

There is precedent. I was searching hard and saw that a pylon line between Llandinam and Welshpool was refused, despite the planning inspector’s recommendation, because it would have impacted adversely on the visual amenity and on the environment, and other methods of connection did not appear to have been adequately considered.

Next week Somerset will rejoice or the decision will be reviled. Those pylons are untested, untried, unpopular and unwanted. We should be going under the sea, investing in infrastructure for the future and protecting a wonderful landscape. I hope next week to discover that the Minister agrees.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) on securing this debate on the Hinkley Point C connection project. He has spoken with enormous passion and I agree that he lives in a beautiful part of the country. He has made a powerful speech, and I know that this project is a matter of great interest to his constituency as well as to others along the proposed route of the electric line.

I know that my hon. Friend recognises that the delivery of new energy infrastructure is essential for ensuring that the lights are kept on and bills are kept low for UK businesses and domestic consumers. I am aware that energy infrastructure projects of all sorts can have real impacts on local communities. It is also the case, however, that such projects can bring real benefits, so finding the right balance between the impacts and the benefits is a key issue in decision making by the Secretary of State.

Hon. Members will be aware that consent for the proposed Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, which would have a generating capacity of 3.2 GW, 7% of the UK’s electricity demand, was granted by the Secretary of State in March 2013. EDF and CGN signed a strategic investment agreement in October 2015. EDF has confirmed that it will take a 66.5% stake in Hinkley, with CGN taking 33.5%, demonstrating a clear commitment from both parties.

Nuclear power offers clean, affordable, safe and reliable energy and is vital to the UK’s cost-effective transition to low carbon generation. Existing nuclear plants across Britain currently provide around 16% of the electricity generated in the UK, but most existing plants are due to close by 2024. The Government have therefore prepared the ground for new nuclear power stations through a package of reforms and regulatory measures that remove barriers to investment and give developers confidence. Alongside gas and renewables, new nuclear is therefore an important part of our energy mix, now and in the future.

As part of delivering new electricity generating capacity, new transmission infrastructure is also needed. Network companies, such as National Grid, submit proposals for need and funding for new network infrastructure to the industry regulator, Ofgem, and for planning consent to the relevant planning authorities. These proposals are based, through stakeholder engagement, on an assessment of requirements for existing and new generation and, of course, the costs and impacts of different connection options. Network companies seek to identify opportunities to provide savings for the consumer by giving consideration to future possible connections in an area to ensure that the most efficient overall design is delivered. In doing so, an assessment of the risk of future connections not materialising is required to avoid stranded or underutilised assets, the cost of which would ultimately be passed on to consumers.

This approach is reinforced by the Government’s national policy statements for energy, which set out the framework for factors to be considered when consenting to an infrastructure project of national significance. They make it clear that, for electricity networks, proper consideration should be given to other feasible means of connection, including underground and subsea cables. This includes costs, environmental impacts and network operability issues. The Government do not have a preference on the various network options. Instead, we expect network companies to use the most appropriate technologies available for the particular project, in line with planning and regulatory requirements.

New T-pylons have been proposed for some sections of the route. I have heard loud and clear my hon. Friend’s message that he is not a fan of T-pylons. They were developed following an international design competition held in 2011 by my Department, alongside National Grid and the Royal Institute of British Architects, to help identify a new pylon design that would meet transmission safety and reliability criteria and would also belong to the 21st century. The winning design was produced by Danish architects who have since worked with National Grid to develop and test prototypes that have informed the final design being proposed for parts of the connection.

The T-pylon is an interesting design. It is around 15 metres shorter than existing transmission lattice pylons and has the potential to reduce the impact on the landscape. I welcome this innovation as an alternative option that National Grid can use when designing overhead transmission lines in future. However, whether they are ultimately used as part of specific transmission projects, including Hinkley Point C, will be subject to both regulatory and planning approval.

The Planning Inspectorate completed its examination of the application for development consent for the Hinkley Point C electric line connection last July. The application is now with the Secretary of State for a decision. Hon. Members will understand that, as the decision is now under consideration in the Department, I cannot take part in any discussion of the pros and cons of this particular proposal.

In a previous debate in March 2012 on electricity transmission in north Somerset—before the Hinkley Point C connection application was submitted to the Planning Inspectorate—the then Energy Minister encouraged individuals and organisations with an interest in the proposal to engage with National Grid. I know that a number of hon. Members took note of that encouragement and were among the many people who made representations to the Planning Inspectorate during the examination of the Hinkley Point C connection application. Prior to examining the application, the Planning Inspectorate indicated that it would cover a broad range of topics that it considered to be of importance in assessing the potential impacts of the proposed connection. The topics on which views were to be sought included flood risk, landscape and visual effects, socioeconomic effects, traffic and transportation, and public rights of way. The inspectorate’s report was submitted to the Secretary of State on 19 October 2015, along with its recommendation on whether consent should be granted or refused. It will now be for the Secretary of State to consider her decision in the light of that report and all relevant information. She intends to announce her decision no later than 19 January 2016, which is the end of the three-month decision-making period set out in the Planning Act 2008.

Large energy infrastructure projects inevitably attract considerable interest from people who may be directly affected by the proposals, as well as people who have views on energy projects in a more generic way. In the case of Planning Act applications, it is for the Secretary of State, as decision maker, to consider all the arguments that are made for and against these projects and that are set out in the Planning Inspectorate’s report.

I sense that the Minister is moving away from a discussion of the T-pylon on to other things. Before she does, may I push her to clarify the technical issues that I raised about exactly how the T-pylon has been tested in a landscape similar to that in which it might be employed in Somerset, and the security concern I raised? Those are technical issues rather than planning issues, and one would hope that the Department already has the clarification at its disposal.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that again. As he is aware, the design has been tested and piloted, but it is absolutely the case that there will not be any compromise on any issues of safety and security—I can assure him of that. On the very specific technical points, I can write to him with further evidence. He should rest assured that whatever transmission method is used, it will be properly tested and robustly measured against all possible threats.

I assure all hon. Members that the Secretary of State’s consideration of the Hinkley Point C connection application will be rigorous and fair, taking into account all the many issues that have been raised by those who are for and against, and in the Planning Inspectorate’s report. I hope that hon. Members are reassured that concerns raised by interested parties about the Hinkley Point C electric line connection are being thoroughly considered throughout the planning process.

I thank my hon. Friend again for his constructive and thoughtful remarks. He has done the people of north Somerset proud by raising this issue in such an impassioned way. I can assure him that they and he do not have too much longer to wait for the decision.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.