Electricity Transmission (North Somerset)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:01 pm on 22nd March 2012.

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Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Conservative, North Somerset 6:01 pm, 22nd March 2012

That is indeed correct, but one of the problems we have had, as I mentioned, is that what we are told one day can be diametrically opposed to what we are told the next week. That has resulted in the local population’s loss of confidence in their dealings with National Grid.

There have been huge variations in the costs and estimates of alternatives. National Grid originally estimated that undergrounding power lines would cost between 10 and 20 times more than overhead lines. That does not fit with the evidence produced by groups such as the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England or even with National Grid’s own experience in London or Oxfordshire.

Some clarity was achieved earlier this year with the report from the Institution of Engineering and Technology and Parsons Brinckerhoff. That was a useful contribution to the public debate—well constructed, informative and indicative of the approach that National Grid should have taken from the outset if a meaningful public debate were genuinely sought. It provides better costings for the alternative technologies, and shows that the price differentials are much less than the public were originally led to believe.

However, the report’s remit relates purely to the tightly defined engineering costs. It does not take into account any analysis of the aesthetic, human or environmental impacts of the proposed new overhead lines. It scarcely covers the AC sub-sea option and does not give an equivalent level of detail for gas-insulated transmission lines as for overhead lines and underground cables. It does not sufficiently take into account whole life costs, or the public’s willingness to pay for undergrounding new and existing electricity transmission lines.

National Grid commissioned Brunswick to look into the public’s willingness to pay for these changes, and the research revealed widespread public ignorance about the percentage of an electricity bill that is attributable to transmission. Most consumers thought that about 10% of their bills as opposed to the actual figure of about 4% related to transmission. Ofgem commissioned further research from London Economics to look at the same data, and we currently await the results of research commissioned by National Grid from Accent.

Throughout the process, National Grid has told us that it is constrained in the actions it can take by Ofgem. My first question to the Minister, then, is: what representations, if any, has National Grid made to the Government, outlining concerns about these restrictions; and what freedoms from those constraints have been requested? What can the Government do to free National Grid from the perceived and well used excuse that it must use the “least-cost option”?

Meanwhile, back in North Somerset, many of the changes originally ruled out as impossible magically became part of the agenda for discussion, following public pressure. The 50-metre pylons, which caused such outrage, might be reduced to the current height by altering the design, although we have subsequently learned that that is limited by the ability of the new pylons to allow transmission lines to bend through more than 3°. We have been told that the 18 lines can be reduced to 12, and that the existing Western Power distribution—the pylons we currently have—might be removed to make way for the new pylons, rather than running in parallel as we were originally told had to be the case.

Other concessions, such as the burying of cables for environmentally sensitive areas and places of greater housing density, have been brought forward. That is particularly important in relation to housing in the west of Nailsea, where those who bought housing close to the existing 132 kV lines might find themselves with housing blight and unknown health implications. I wonder how many National Grid executives or shareholders would choose to have their homes, or send their children to school, under the new 400 kV cables.

Let me return to the question of when a consultation is not a consultation. From the outset, it was the belief of residents in my constituency—particularly in Nailsea, Backwell, Yatton and the surrounding villages—that the alternatives represented were not real alternatives at all. We were offered a Hobson’s choice: we could either accept a transmission line that kept close to the current one, running around the western border of the town of Nailsea, or have another line that would totally destroy a nearby valley and produce widespread planning blight. To the great credit of the local community, nobody bought into the divide-and-rule tactics. To us, a consultation is not about the means of execution, but about whether we wish to be executed or not.

In this particular case, how do the Government define a consultation? Surely, all the aspects of all the schemes ought to be considered—their costs, advantages and drawbacks, whole-life characteristics, environmental impacts, potential health impacts and social costs, not least housing blight. What weight will ultimately be given to the consultation and the views of those affected? If 90% objected to these proposals, would they go ahead in any case? If so, why bother? If not, what level of public disquiet would be required to produce a change of policy? Under the proposed changes to planning law, how will the population be able to be satisfied that its voice has been heard in policy formulation? How can we be guaranteed transparency?