Orders of the Day — Power Lines (North Yorkshire)

– in the House of Commons at 11:28 pm on 29th April 1991.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wood.]

Photo of William Hague William Hague , Richmond (Yorks) 11:42 pm, 29th April 1991

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter of considerable concern to many of my constituents. I refer to the construction of overhead power lines in my constituency and neighbouring areas. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy, who is present to respond, to my hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt), who will say a few words when I have said mine, and to others from neighbouring constituencies who are here to listen to the debate, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) and for York (Mr. Gregory), and, for some reason, my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden).

Photo of Mr Gerald Bowden Mr Gerald Bowden , Dulwich

For old time's sake.

Photo of William Hague William Hague , Richmond (Yorks)

My hon. Friend is here for old time's sake.

The immediate cause of the public disquiet and anger in my constituency is the proposal by the National Grid Company to construct new transmission lines running from Lackenby in Cleveland to Picton in north Yorkshire, and then south to Shipton near York. The proposals have been brought forward by the National Grid Company because of its obligations to link to the national system a new gas-fired power station at the ICI Wilton complex on Teesside, which received planning permission last November and is now under construction.

The power station project is an imaginative enterprise, undertaken privately, and I make no criticism of it. Equally, the National Grid Company is only discharging the duties that Parliament has laid upon it. The cause of our difficulty, and the reason for the debate, is that the construction of the power station and the lines to serve it have been treated for planning purposes as two separate events, with the result that the power station received planning permission without any apparent consideration being given to the environmental impact of the subsequent construction of 60 miles of pylons across a fine rural landscape.

My argument is that such disconnected procedures are an inadequate way to make such decisions, that it would be in the interests of the nation and of the National Grid Company to adopt better procedures, and that the failure to take account of the impact on north Yorkshire means that the Secretary of State must be especially vigilant and stringent in the environmental standards that he applies to the forthcoming application to build power lines across north Yorkshire.

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway , Ryedale

The power lines will go through my hon. Friend's constituency and a considerable distance through mine. As well as the far-reaching consultations about this matter—that the National Grid Company, to its credit, has promised—should we not consider the need to lay power cable lines across the north of England, and why there was no public consultation about that when planning consent was granted for the power station in Cleveland?

Photo of William Hague William Hague , Richmond (Yorks)

My hon. Friend makes a valid point, on which I shall touch later. I thank him for his intervention and support.

To make an analogy to what has happened on a more human scale, it is as if I were to propose to my hon. Friend the Minister that I should build a house on a plot adjacent to his home. The plot is well screened and out of site, he believes that I will be a good neighbour, he raises no objection, planning permission is duly given and I start to build my house. Then I say to him, "By the way, I need a driveway and the only place I can put it is through your front garden, because no one else will agree to have it." Surely he cannot object to my driveway. Everyone knows that a house has to have access. Well, everyone knows that a power station has to be linked to the national grid, but it was only after planning permission had been given that it became apparent in my constituency that a £2 million project would be needed and that most of it would pass down the vale of York.

The report of the chief planning officer of North Yorkshire county council, to be considered by the council planning committee tomorrow, states the problem clearly, saying: the County Council now finds itself in the position of having to react to proposals for major new environmentally intrusive transmission facilities running across a large section of the country, put forward as a direct result of an earlier decision over which it had no influence. Clearly, it is most unsatisfactory that permission for such a major expansion of power facilities can be granted without all the implications, including those for adjoining areas, being considered. Members may feel that this is a national issue of principle. Well might it think so.

The European Community directive on environmental assessment of 1985, under article 3 and annexe III, requires an environmental impact assessment to identify, describe and assess the direct, indirect and secondary effects of a project on the environment. That information has to be submitted to the competent authority—in this case the Secretary of State—before a decision on consent is taken. In this case, it clearly was not.

The Council for the Protection of Rural England has already written to the European Commission to point out the inconsistency between the EC directive, which says that a project should be considered in the round, and the evident policy in this country, which is to consider each bit piecemeal—a process which makes it difficult to object to the next relevant piece.

My hon. Friend the Minister might think that my constituents are just having an attack of NIMBY—not in my backyard. They are, of course, as entitled to be nimbies as anyone else, especially as they go to great lengths to preserve the highly attractive appearance of the outstanding countryside in which they live. However, this case raises wider issues. What if, to take an extreme case, new power stations were built in the north of Scotland or, if we want to be really extreme, in the Orkneys or Shetlands? Would the National Grid Company have to link them to the national network? What if there had been no gap between the two Yorkshire national parks, and the proposed lines had to run through a national park, without the Secretary of State having considered that fact when giving planning permission for a new station? That is an utterly inadequate way to make decisions of such importance in a country that is so crowded and so sensitive to the need to preserve its most magnificent countryside.

We shall be doing the electricity industry no favours if we allow decisions to be made in such a way. Future power stations will encounter greater public opposition if the wider environmental consequences are not clarified, and a bad name will be given to the privatisation of the industry, which in every other respect I, for one—along with my hon. Friends who are present tonight—emphatically support.

Clearly, in this case, the damage has now partly been done. The National Grid Company must connect the station to the grid, and provide for the distribution of the electricity that it will generate. I stress that the company's officials are discharging their own responsibilities with considerable care, and are taking pains to consult local people about the precise routes to be taken. My quarrel is not with them, but with the procedures that have put them in such a position.

The Department of Energy now has two specific responsibilities to the residents of north Yorkshire, which it must fulfil before it gives approval to any proposed power lines—a procedure that is much more likely to require public inquiries as a result of what has happened. First, it should be absolutely sure before it gives approval that the new lines are needed—this relates to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale—and that the intended capacity to transmit from north to south is really necessary. Secondly, it should insist that the environmental impact of the power lines is minimised by every possible means.

Let me expand on each of these points. First, there is much suspicion that the proposed power lines will have a capacity far beyond that required to cater for the one new power station so far approved. Up to four additional power stations in the seaside area are now mooted in some quarters. The national grid might sensibly argue that we must provide for possible future transmissions, but do we really want so many additional power stations in the north of England when the excess of demand is in the south?

Some local researchers believe that the national grid could cope with the output of the one power station so far approved by upgrading only the more northerly of two lines linking Lackenby with the rest of the grid. Of two proposed 400 kV lines, the Salt Holme to Norton line is much shorter, will run on the same route as the existing 275 kV line and will have much less environmental impact than the proposed 400 kV line from Lackenby to Picton and thence to Shipton, which will run through outstanding open countryside.

No one should think that, however this more southerly route is drawn up, its environmental consequences will be anything other than severe. As the county planning officer puts it: There would be major environmental consequences arising from all route options, due both to the intrusive nature of the transmission facilities themselves and to the sensitivity of the whole area through which they must pass. It is impossible to screen the 'supergrid' and there is limited scope for mitigating measures. Difficulties are considered to be especially acute in the section east of Northallerton and Thirsk where all options either pass very close to the boundary of the North York Moors National Park or would need to traverse the open exposed Bullamoor ridge or the relatively unspoilt Cod beck and Sigston Valley. None of the options are considered to be acceptable in this vicinity. That is the report that the county council will consider tomorrow morning.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister realises that all the route options for the Picton to Shipton line run almost along the edge of the North York Moors national park. It has recently been proposed that the so-called east coast motorway should also run through that area. The people who live there are, not surprisingly, beginning to feel fed up with being regarded as a natural highway for everything that wants to move between north and south, especially as their area is only marginally less attractive, or perhaps no less attractive, than the national park area, which starts at the top of the hill. It is time that we got away from the notion that everything that is just inside a national park is sacrosanct, while everything just outside it is fair game for motorways and pylons. We are in danger of creating a severe penalty for living just outside a national park, in which case I shall soon be asking for an Adjournment debate on expanding the boundaries of the national parks.

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway , Ryedale

It is the same with the green belts.

Photo of William Hague William Hague , Richmond (Yorks)

It is indeed.

That aside, let us assume that my hon. Friend the Minister feels, as I do, that the environmental consequences of what has been agreed to will be serious. Let us also assume that, having investigated to the full the need for the additional lines on the route through north Yorkshire, he finds that they are definitely necessary. Let us assume further that he considers shorter routes across the national park itself to be unacceptable. I am sure that they would be unacceptable to my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale. I hope that at the end of all these deliberations he will do his utmost to ensure that every possible step is taken to minimise the impact on my constituents and their environment.

The proposed pylons have a design life of 80 years. We are talking about something with which our grandchildren—even mine—will have to live. I should not like to be in the shoes of the electricity industry if it is discovered 10 years from now that electro-magnetic fields from power lines have a serious effect on human health. I should not like to be in the shoes of the Department of Energy if it is discovered five years from now that there is a cheap and efficient way to place lengthy power lines underground.

National Grid officials are very wary—perhaps they are right to be—of suggestions that parts of the lines should go underground. They warn of the cost, the digging up of a great deal of land and of the difficulties of maintaining lines that have been buried. Other people, who also know a great deal about the industry, particularly Professor Scott who lives in our area, have advised me that this need no longer be the case, or that soon it need no longer be the case, and that recent technological developments being pioneered on the continent make substantial lengths of underground power lines a realistic possibility. I do not have the information or the expertise to evaluate such claims, but I hope that my hon. Friend's Department is aware of these developments and that, if not, it will take the trouble to find out about them.

Failing that possibility, I am also given to understand that new and shorter pylons are being developed, designed with the same work load in mind but 11m shorter than the current standard 440kV pylon. Other ideas involve more slender steel poles that I understand could be produced in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South. Perhaps a combination of all these methods could be used in north Yorkshire to minimise the damage to our landscape—a landscape that is enjoyed each year not only by tens of thousands of local people but by an even greater number of visitors.

I shall send to my hon. Friend the Minister some of the deeply troubled letters that I have received from constituents—from the owner of a well-used private airfield near the village of Bagley, where the operation of aircraft may become severely restricted or impossible, to the owner of a herd of pedigree holstein-friesians, who is likely to have 400kV lines running through the middle of his farm, and to a large number of members of the public who simply appreciate the countryside around them.

It is not good enough that the decision on these matters should have been reduced to recognising a virtual fait accompli because of inadequate and unsatisfactory planning procedures. My constituents have a legitimate grievance, and it must be addressed tonight.

Photo of Mr Richard Holt Mr Richard Holt , Langbaurgh 11:57 pm, 29th April 1991

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks. (Mr. Hague) for allowing me a few moments of his precious Adjournment debate. As the power lines projected by National Grid go through my constituency before they reach my hon. Friend's, I am glad to have this opportunity to speak in the debate.

A few years ago the Environment Select Committee, of which I am a member, looked into the question of the acid rain produced by power stations. When worthy, decent and nice people built them all those years ago, they felt, quite rightly, that if the chimneys were high enough they would have no detrimental effect. Modern technology has proved that that is not true. That is why a great deal of money is now being spent on providing power station filters and making them cleaner. As yet, there is no evidence one way or the other that electro-magnetic force from the power lines has any detrimental effect on human health. However, these will be bigger and stronger power lines than those that were used in the past.

I cannot help but feel that it may not be too long before we discover that there are detrimental effects. Everybody will then throw up their hands in horror and say, "Why on earth didn't somebody look into this and think about it at the right time?"

Most of my constituents would opt for the proposal that the power lines should be placed underground. I am told that there are technical reasons why that does not affect the electro-magnetic field. That may be. Nevertheless, it is the option that we ought to be considering for the future. As my hon. Friend said, these power lines are built not just for now but for a long way into the future. As yet it has not been proved that such powerful cables are needed.

I am told that it may be technically difficult to put everything underground, yet we have electricity from France which travels not merely underground but under the sea. We have the technical capacity, but we do not have the will. I am told that there is no will to do that because it would prove too expensive—it would be 16 or 20 times dearer. That depends on the accountant. The accountant could spread the capital expenditure over 60 years instead of the proposed 40 years, or even longer if the life of the equipment is 80 years. Why should our part of the north-east bear the entire burden of the national grid? Why should the rest of the country not pay for some of it? The on-costs over 80 years for every unit of current would be about 0·000001p. That would not materially affect people's bills around the country.

I agree with my hon. Friend about planning applications. Had we known about the present problems, we might have suggested that instead of building the power station on ICI's ground—because of a quirk of this place, ICI can award itself planning permission under an obscure 1948 Act—we should run the gas in pipelines down to the midlands where the electricity was required. The power stations could have been built there instead of spoiling the beautiful north Yovkshire moors and dales in my constituency.

Our constituents in the north-east have nuclear power stations and four or five applications for additional toxic waste burners; now we have another burden to bear. It is unnecessary. The power lines could go underground. The cost factor does not enter into the argument. If it is feasible to bring electricity from France under the sea, it must be feasible to run it under the ground. I am told that it would make some of the ground sterile. Perhaps it would, but I am sure that local people would prefer that.

Why do not sewers run on the surface? We bury them because they are unsightly. They do not need to be on the surface and they can provide an adequate service underground. The same could apply to power lines if there was a will.

There is great resistance to the proposals, and the Government would be well advised to listen to those of us who have spoken from the Conservative Back Benches tonight. We are speaking as friends. We do not want to get into a fight with the Government or National Grid. We want to work something out. We do not believe the arguments that we need the power lines to provide sufficient capacity for the future or that they could not be buried. The arguments about costs do not hold water.

I am grateful for the opportunity to add a few comments to the debate. I look forward to my hon. Friend's reply. I can tell him that it does not represent the beginning and end of the story; it is merely the opening shots.

Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory , Wells 12:02 am, 29th April 1991

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) on securing the debate and on the forceful and effective way in which he has represented the concerns of his constituents. I know the part of the world that he represents. I used to live in north Yorkshire, so I am aware of the beauty of some of the scenery to which he has referred.

The background to the debate is set by the statutory responsibilities of the National Grid Company. It has obligations under the Electricity Act 1989 through its transmission licence, first, to offer terms for connection within 90 days to prospective connections to the grid, and if such terms are accepted NGC must provide connections to its system. Secondly, it must carry out any necessary extension or reinforcement work resulting from that connection.

My hon. Friend referred to the transmission links for the ICI-Enron Teesside plant. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has not received an application from the National Grid Company for consent to construct or reconstruct overhead power lines in north Yorkshire. Consent was granted in December for two short stretches of 275 kV overhead line, linking the new Enron scheme with the Lackenby sub-station. Those are the only two lines solely related to the Enron project. The National Grid Company is planning further line reinforcements in the area, which have been the main subject of this evening's debate.

It would be helpful if I mentioned general procedures. If and when applications for overhead line work in north Yorkshire are received, they will be fully and carefully considered by my Department. The regulations enable my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to call for an environmental statement to be submitted. The National Grid Company has undertaken to provide an environmental statement for all major new transmission lines. The project must be advertised and a period allowed for representations to my right hon. Friend.

If any of the relevant planning authorities objects to the proposal and its objections cannot be met by modifying it, my right hon. Friend is obliged to arrange a public inquiry. Even if the relevant planning authorities do not object, my right hon. Friend may still arrange a public inquiry in the light of other objections received. He will decide that on the individual merits of the case.

My right hon. Friend—my hon. Friend; I am anticipating events—the Member for Richmond and my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) asked whether a transmission application should be considered when consent for a new power station is granted. The Electricity and Pipelines (Assessment of Environmental Effects) Regulations 1990, which implement the relevant EC directive, provide that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State shall not grant consent under section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989 unless he has first taken environmental information into consideration. Environmental information in this context means the environmental statement submitted by the applicant and any representations made about the likely effects of the proposed development.

Teesside Power's environmental statement referred to the need for a link with, and uprating of, the grid, but those matters were not its responsibility and it could not be expected to provide detailed information on them.

The National Grid Company's programme of strengthening the grid in the north—this is an important point in answer to my hon. Friends—is not solely to meet the needs of Teesside power station but to meet other neeeds such as the upgrading of the Anglo-Scottish interconnector.

It would not have been appropriate, therefore, for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to have required Teesside Power to provide environmental information that only another developer—the National Grid Company—could provide. When applications for new transmission lines through north Yorkshire are made, an environmental statement will be provided and the environmental assessment procedure, as required by the regulations, will be carried out.

It must be borne in mind that delay in considering power station applications is contrary to the Government's expressed intention of reaching timely decisions. If all applications had to take into account all the possible considerations and consequences, no decision could be timely. It is therefore appropriate for applications to be considered on individual merit if and when they are made.

My hon. Friends referred to the speed with which the line may have to be constructed. The grid system must adapt to meet developments. Now that the National Grid Company is in the private sector, I hope that it will respond in a businesslike way to opportunities and its statutory responsibilities. I assure my hon. Friends that adequate time remains for all proper procedures to be carried out. The National Grid Company's statutory responsibilities to the community and the environment in developing line routes is in no way diminished. There is also the safeguard that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will pick up any points of concern when considering applications.

My hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) asked about undergrounding lines. As he is aware, undergrounding lines is generally considerably more expensive than constructing lines overhead. I disagree with his statement that this is not an important matter. Undergrounding lines can cost between 10 and 15 times as much as constructing the equivalent length of overhead line, which must be an important consideration. It also takes longer and it is more expensive to locate and rectify faults if they involve underground cable.

It should not be thought that undergrounding lines in rural areas is necessarily without environmental impact. No development is permitted over a cable once it is laid. The necessary trench work, particularly at sensitive ecological and archaeological sites, is not without its environmental problems.

My hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh also mentioned health effects. Of course the Government know about them, but at present they have not been proven. We have an open mind about any possible health risks. Further work is proceeding to find out the effects, but at present we can reach no conclusion and there is no good reason for not proceeding with strengthening the grid system.

I take my hon. Friend's points seriously. The National Grid Company is still formulating its proposals and consulting. I shall ensure that my hon. Friends' comments are drawn to its attention. When the company applies to my Department, I shall ensure that they are immediately informed.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past Twelve o'clock