I beg to move,
That this House has considered the proposed Aquind interconnector project.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I am pleased to have secured a debate on this crucial issue, which is of great importance to residents across my city of Portsmouth, as well as many other areas impacted by the Aquind interconnector project or concerned by its relationships with Government.
Since becoming the Member of Parliament for Portsmouth South, I have consistently represented the opposition of local people to this development, deemed a national infrastructure project. Many of my constituents have told me that they have been ignored by the developer and felt shut out of the planning process and, as Government get closer to making their decisions, they do not feel listened to by Ministers. That is why, in the limited time available, I wish to put on the record, first, my constituents’ concerns about the impact that the development would have on Portsmouth, its surrounding communities and its precious natural environment; and secondly, the concerns over the company’s relationship with a string of Government Ministers, some of whom are directly responsible for making decisions about whether the scheme goes ahead.
Whatever the alleged merits of the scheme may be, to ignore the overwhelmingly negative impact that it would have on Portsmouth residents, its businesses and the environment would be a dereliction of duty. I have heard from hundreds of constituents via my own survey work, through day-to-day correspondence or as a result of my engagement, alongside council planners, the local authority and community campaigners, to oppose these plans for Portsmouth and the surrounding area every step of the way. I have also summarised our concerns in submitting formal evidence to the examining authority and in raising key issues in written and oral questions in the House. I have written separately to successive Secretaries of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, on several occasions, with the views of my constituents. More recently, I launched a public petition, alongside Portsmouth’s local Stop Aquind campaign, to ensure that they are given a direct voice to share their objection to this disastrous project. Today I want to reiterate residents’ concerns, as well as those of other interested bodies in my city, such as the local authority, the university and Portsmouth’s small businesses.
The construction of the proposed interconnector would take up to seven years and would cause untold damage and disruption to people in Portsmouth, businesses and our local environment. The proposed corridor where trenching is due to take place threatens to disrupt key elements of transport infrastructure, including highways that act as vital arteries to our city. The city council believes that there will be significant disruption to residents, ranging from noise at antisocial hours to dust and loss of natural light, in a wide-ranging area from Farlington Avenue, in the north of the city, to Fort Cumberland Road, in my constituency.
That belief has certainly been reinforced by constituents whom I have spoken to. One constituent has told me:
“If this goes ahead then I’m in danger of not being able to drive out of the road I live in to commute to work. Why should I suffer”
this impact on
“my livelihood for something that most probably would never benefit my family or our community?”
“How can I look at my daughter and the future generation and say we did nothing and allowed business to come before saving our precious green spaces and protecting our ocean environment?”
I have example after example of constituents raising these points. I will happily share these with the Minister following the debate.
The congestion and disruption will inevitably have a detrimental impact on local traders, who have already endured 18 months of lost revenue and unprecedented uncertainty. I know that Aquind will also cause long-term disruption to Portsmouth’s valued open spaces, with the unmitigated loss of recreational space at Milton common and Farlington playing fields. A season or more of play could also be lost at Farlington, Baffins and the University of Portsmouth, with few alternatives in the meantime. In addition to the air pollution created by construction, there is a risk to our city’s precious wildlife at Milton common. I have raised before, during the planning process, the threat that the development poses to the Eastney and Milton allotments, which have been a lifeline for those who tend them, particularly during the pandemic. As it stands, the planning applicant has been unable to demonstrate to the people of Portsmouth any positive benefit that the project would bring to the city.
Throughout the process, there have been concerns about the transparency of the applicant and its apparent inability to disclose the information necessary to fully assess the impact of the proposed development. I am aware that changes have been made to the proposed route, but I remain concerned that more could be done to engage with those impacted by the construction and to avoid the worst of its effects.
Constituents also continue to be troubled by reports of the applicant’s previous donations to the Conservative party, and by the project company’s financial and domiciliary arrangements. In August 2020, The Times named Russian oligarch Viktor Fedotov as the ultimate owner of Aquind, but until then he had been able to remain anonymous by using a rare exemption in corporate transparency rules. The exemption can be made only if the individual successfully argues that their security is at risk. Yet sources told The Times that security and law enforcement agencies have no concerns that Mr Fedotov is at risk. If that is the case, why is Mr Fedotov so keen to hide his identity and his ownership of Aquind? Does that not concern the Minister? Will he set out what due diligence has been done on the project company and its directors?
The project’s financing is also unclear. Aquind’s annual accounts confirm that funding for the project is coming from loans from OGN Enterprises Ltd, which is based in the British Virgin Islands. Very little is known about that company, other than that it is linked to Offshore Group Newcastle, a previous venture of one of Aquind’s senior leaders, Mr Temerko, and that it collapsed into administration. We do not know where this money is coming from, who is providing it, or whether there is a complex financial structure behind the company in other secrecy jurisdictions.
Elements of the project give rise to further security concerns. Aquind plans to lay one of the largest data pipes in Europe alongside the electricity interconnector. It will hold 180 fibre-optic pairs, many of which will be available for hire by third-party clients, which could include telecoms companies, technology firms and banks. That raises similar concerns to those about the UK’s 5G network and Huawei.
In the light of the significant contribution that the project is expected to make to our national infrastructure, why have the company’s structure and finances been allowed to avoid rigorous scrutiny? Perhaps it is because Aquind has mounted a shady campaign to lobby successive Conservative Ministers behind closed doors, backed by heaps of cash. The Times reports that since 2012 the Conservative party has been given £1.6 million by Temerko or companies that he has directed, and £55,000 by Aquind since last August. That includes direct donations to a string of Tory Ministers. Just last week, the Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), recused herself from speaking on the matter during BEIS questions because the Northumberland Conservatives had received funding from one of the company’s directors.
The Times has also uncovered a string of letters and meetings between an Aquind director—a Soviet-era oligarch—and Ministers past and present in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The right hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) also recused himself from handling the issue when he was Secretary of State after it was revealed that he, too, had received a donation and had shared a table with the same Russian-born businessman at the Tory black and white ball fundraiser.
In addition, letters obtained through a freedom of information request have revealed that the current Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), stated the Government’s ongoing support for the controversial project and agreed to lobby French officials to support it on their side of the channel. He has even taken to signing off his letters with affectionate handwritten notes. One October 2019 letter said:
“Excellent to see you at conference this year!”
All that makes a total mockery of the Planning Inspectorate’s independent examination and reinforces the points that the Labour party has made about this Government’s developer’s charter, which rides roughshod over local communities and prevents them having their say about developments in their area.
Despite the Government’s unashamed downplaying of the revelations, it is the Business Secretary who will make the final decision to give the project the green light. Any suggestion that the right hon. Gentleman is able to make an impartial decision about the project is now a total fantasy. Any decision that he does make will be tainted by accusations of cronyism. Given the significance of the project to the city of Portsmouth and the country at large, we should not have to drag the truth out of Ministers kicking and screaming. As one constituent put it:
“To proceed with this project in the face of overwhelming opposition would send a message that the interests of your rich Russian donors matter more than the people of Portsmouth and local democracy”
On behalf of residents across Portsmouth, I want to place on the record our fundamental objection to the project. I want to make it crystal clear to the Secretary of State and the Minister today that the project must be rejected. In the meantime, I wish to ask the Minister some questions. Will he commit to immediately publishing all correspondence with Aquind? Will his Department conduct a further independent review of this deeply controversial project to drag the truth into public view? Beneath the cosy relationships that Ministers have with their billionaire donors are choices that affect the day-to-day lives of people in Portsmouth. They deserve total transparency from the Government and a real say in decisions about the project.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) on securing this important debate.
Great Britain currently has 6 GW of electricity interconnection with Belgium, the Netherlands, France and the island of Ireland, supporting our security of supply, keeping consumer prices low and supporting our decarbonisation goal of net zero emissions by 2050. Interconnectors widen the energy markets and thus make them more efficient, transporting electricity from where it is cheaper to higher-priced regions. That predominantly leads to imports of cheaper electricity to Great Britain, delivering benefits to consumers, but in future it will allow us to export renewable energy to the rest of continental Europe.
Interconnectors also act as a source of flexibility, helping the system rapidly respond to changes in demand and supply, which is crucial when helping integrate intermittent renewable energy sources, and reducing curtailment, thus supporting decarbonisation. A study commissioned by the Department, and published alongside the energy White Paper, illustrates the decarbonisation that could be facilitated in Great Britain and the European Union by an increased level of interconnection to 2050. Interconnectors can contribute to security of supply by providing access to a wider pool of generation. They can also currently participate in the capacity market and can be available at times of system distress. They provide additional options to system operators, helping ensure system stability and security.
The Secretary of State has three months to take his decision on receipt of the Planning Inspectorate’s report, meaning that he has to make his decision on the Aquind interconnector on or before 8 September 2021. That decision will be taken in line with Government propriety guidance. Given the Secretary of State’s quasi-judicial role in determining the application, I cannot comment on specific matters regarding the proposal as that could be seen as prejudicing the decision-making process, but I can say something about the planning process for nationally significant infrastructure projects.
I want to make it clear that the system absolutely recognises how important the views of local people are. Indeed, the hon. Member for Portsmouth South talked about the potential adverse impacts on local communities. Clearly, that would be given appropriate consideration in the planning process, and therefore also in the Secretary of State’s decision-making process. When the developer makes an application to the Planning Inspectorate, the developer has to demonstrate that it has complied with all of its consultation requirements and that it has regard to consultation responses that it has received. At the pre-application stage, the developer has to prepare that consultation strategy and must carry out a pre-application consultation with the local community, in accordance with that strategy.
The developer has to explain how the application was informed and influenced by those responses, outlining any changes that were made as a result, and provide an explanation as to why responses advising on major changes to the project were not followed out. The Planning Inspectorate will also ask relevant local authorities whether the consultation was adequate. The Planning Inspectorate will consider the local authorities’ view on the consultation before deciding whether to accept the application for examination.
The application consultation with local communities cannot be taken lightly by developers. If the application is accepted for examination, an examining authority is appointed to examine it. People with an interest in the project can then register as interested parties and will have an opportunity to make written representations on the project. There may also be open-floor hearings, as well as hearings on specific issues, where interested parties can make formal submissions to the examining agent. I understand that during the Aquind examination there were two open-floor hearings, as well as issue-specific hearings on matters including traffic, air quality and the environment.
After that examination closes, the examining authority will write a report to the Secretary of State, containing its recommendations for the project. In the case of Aquind, the Secretary of State received the examining authority’s report on 8 June. As I have said, the Secretary of State then has three months to decide whether to grant or refuse development consent. For Aquind, the Secretary of State has until 8 September to make a decision. That decision must be based solely on the planning merits of the proposal.
Although it is not possible to comment on specific projects in the planning process, the Government are supportive of interconnection generally, as a core part of our energy strategy, due to its benefits in helping to provide an electricity supply that progresses towards our net zero decarbonisation goals in a low-cost and secure way. In last year’s energy White Paper, we committed to work with Ofgem, developers and our European partners to realise at least 18 GW of interconnector capacity by 2030, which is triple the current capacity.
In conclusion, I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the residents of the proposed area that the Secretary of State will take into account both sides of the proposal. He will base his decision on the work of the Planning Inspectorate and the quasi-judicial process that he has in front of him, rather than any of the accusations that have been thrown at him to influence his decision either way.
Question put and agreed to.