I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would bear with me, since I want to make a number of points, and time is short.
Last year, 2,154 GW hours were exported from Cockenzie down the interconnector to England and Wales—so far, so good. To use Cockenzie to its real potential, however, access is also needed to markets in Northern Ireland and—hopefully—the Republic of Ireland. An interconnector between the electricity systems of Scotland and Northern Ireland would be good news for the Scottish electricity and coal industries, and very good news for consumers on the island of Ireland.
The two parts of Ireland are the only parts of the European Union that do not have access to electricity supplies from other countries. I know from contacts with people in the Republic—through the British-Irish parliamentary body—and hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland constituencies that they would welcome access to competitively priced electricity from Scotland.
Scottish Power and Northern Ireland Electricity have worked up detailed proposals for an undersea interconnector, which have been considered in great detail at public inquiries in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Both inquiries led to recommendations that the project should go ahead with overhead pylons carrying 275 KV lines from Coylton in Ayrshire to the coast, and an undersea cable to connect it to the system in Northern Ireland.
A written answer from the Minister that I received only yesterday confirmed:
considered that undergrounding of any part of the proposed line was unnecessary.
I am very well aware that electricity transmission pylons are detrimental to any landscape; we have plenty of them in East Lothian. I clearly remember the public inquiry into the Torness pylon lines, which was very controversial. The original proposal was to take the lines by the easiest route along the foot of the Lammermuir hills, but the inquiry proposed a less obtrusive alternative route between the hills, and it was accepted by the reporter and the Secretary of State at the time.
A suggestion that all the visible stretches of the lines should be laid underground at massive expense would not have been taken seriously. If that was now on offer, I would be truly delighted if sections of the cable at Johnscleugh, Mayshiel and Humbie were put underground, but I do not honestly think that that is realistic. The pylons are a sacrifice that we had to make for the benefit of the wider Scottish and national economies.
Today, the Secretary of State for Scotland seems to be playing by different rules. I do not criticise people in South Ayrshire for seeking to minimise the impact of that important development on their landscape, except that I must say that some of them seem to have slightly short memories. It is not all that long since coal and electricity were important elements in their local economy, too. The reporter at the inquiry considered those representations, and he concluded that the Scottish-Irish electricity interconnector should go ahead.