Those who read the title of this debate might be tempted to think that it deals with a localised issue of interest only in North Somerset or the county of Somerset. That would be a major mistake. The issues at stake in this project are likely to be replicated across many other parts of the country, and the principles involved are universally applicable.
At the moment, there are some 22,000 high-voltage pylons carrying 7,000 km of overhead lines across England and Wales. National Grid, the monopoly provider of transmission infrastructure, is planning to build nearly 480 km of new overhead power lines at a cost of some £14 billion. That became an issue in our part of the west country in the autumn of 2009, when National Grid began what it termed a consultation on the installation of a new feed line with 400 kV of electricity to connect the proposed new Hinkley C nuclear power station to the national supply network at Avonmouth, a distance of some 57 km. The most direct route between the two points lies across a body of water, yet the debate centred entirely around a land route that would involve overhead transmission and new pylons. The concerns of local residents about the new 400 kV lines—the current lines carry about 132 kV—were exacerbated when they discovered that the new pylons would be around 150 feet high, and very much bulkier in design, thereby creating greater environmental impact. I will return to the question “When is a consultation not a consultation?” later.
Our experience has been mirrored by colleagues in other parts of the country, notably in Suffolk, and I would like to thank them publicly for the support that they have given us throughout our campaign. One of the biggest problems that we have faced has been the perceived inconsistency in National Grid’s arguments and in the figures it has provided. At a packed meeting in Nailsea in my constituency before the last general election, residents were first told that to lay the cables under the sea was not technically feasible. Then, when they challenged National Grid with the fact that it already owned three undersea cables, they were told that it would be too expensive.
We now have a further complication, in the welcome announcement by the Government of the south-west as the first marine energy park, which will utilise—guess what—undersea cabling. We are still unclear as to why sub-sea links of similar length should be suitable for Europe, for the New York-New Jersey link and for the Scotland-Wirral link, but not for us. National Grid and Scottish Power Transmission even put out a press release stating that
“the companies are working together to deliver a major project to build a 400 km high voltage circuit which will run predominantly under the sea from Scotland to England. The new circuit will enable the transfer of large volumes of energy from Scotland directly to England and Wales through subsea cables, bypassing the constraints of the existing transmission system.”