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Electricity Lines: Underground Replacement

Volume 490: debated on Thursday 19 November 1987

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3.14 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have power to direct that electricity lines replacing those which were damaged in the recent hurricane should be laid underground; and if not, whether they will take power to do so.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for his courteous but brief reply. Does he not agree that this might be a splendid opportunity to benefit the environment by removing some of the electricity cables and wires which are blocking out the views of our beautiful countryside like a tangle of old knitting?

My Lords, it is too early yet to reach conclusions on the lessons to be learnt from the damage caused by the hurricane which struck the South-East of England in the early hours of 16th October. However, it is already clear that much of the damage was caused not only by falling trees, which gave rise to faults to overhead lines, but also by roots pulling up underground cables.

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether a buried cable is not less vulnerable than an overhead one from the point of view of enemy bombardment, terrorist action or future storms?

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend is right in certain respects, but installing underground cables normally costs between three and 10 times the expense of putting up overhead lines. I have here a list of eight technical reasons for not putting electricity cables underground, but I do not feel that the House will thank me for reading it out now.

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that I am not quite certain whether his answer, no, was to the first or the second part of the Question, or both? Is he aware that the Government probably do have power to give a general direction if they so desire, but they may not wish to? Does he accept that it could be more environmentally damaging, as well as a lot more expensive, to put cables underground? Does he agree that probably the correct answer is not to put underground all the cables that were brought down on that awful night of 16th October but for all the electricity boards to review their policies with regard to electricity cables which habitually fall during normal winter gales?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that question. Electricity boards are required under Section 37 of the Electricity Act 1957 to take into account any effect that their proposals might have on the natural beauty of the countryside, any flora, fauna, features of special interest, buildings or other objects. Before boards are permitted to place new overhead lines they are required to obtain consent from the Secretary of State for Energy, who before granting consent takes into account any objections received.

My Lords, does the noble Viscount agree that cost is a very big factor, in that it goes on to the consumers' electricity account in the end? That is significant and it is another reason why we should not want to put everything underground. I speak as a member of the London Electricity Board, the services of which are entirely underground and did not suffer any damage, but those cables were placed at great cost.

My Lords, I agree entirely with my noble friend. I believe that I said that the cost of installing cables underground is between three and 10 times that of overhead lines. For the higher voltages, lines can be up to 40 times more expensive.

My Lords, is there any danger to underground cables in the event of flooding or if they are broken by a digger or something of that kind?

My Lords, I should have thought that there was considerable danger from the latter.

My Lords, for those who live in wooded areas and who have regularly suffered over the years from interruptions in electricity supply, would it not be a sensible long-term policy selectively to put cables underground? I feel that here there is a question of saving money in the short term but incurring much more expenditure in the long term?

My Lords, I agree, but it will be up to the consumer to foot the bill. The House might like to know that for private lines to houses the first 60 feet laid underground is laid free of charge and the balance is paid for by the customer, the cost being a matter of negotiation with the electricity board.

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that it is claimed that it is actually harmful to health to live too close to an overhead electricity power cable and it might therefore be safer to have underground cables from a health point of view?

My Lords, it depends on which was there first, the electricity cable or the house.

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that underground lines also generate heat? They have to be cooled and damage to the environment occurs because they have to have cooling stations above the ground. That can be more harmful than overhead lines.

My Lords, that is one of the items on the list that I have not read out.