The hon. Lady makes an important point. This issue is not simply about the consultation as it affects her constituency or mine: many people outside North Somerset and Somerset county will be wondering what precedent the decision on the Hinkley C transmission will set for future changes involving high-voltage lines elsewhere in the country. Many will be concerned that their options may be constrained, and that they may be railroaded into the wrong outcome on the wrong assumptions.
I shall now turn to the issue of the future of Hinkley C and where it fits into our broader energy policy. I have always been a supporter of nuclear energy on the basis that it makes a fundamental contribution to the nation’s energy security and guarantees a means of keeping the lights on if, for whatever reason, our imports of fossil fuels are interrupted. On balance, I remain very much of that view, but in light of the growing evidence of the abundance of natural gas worldwide and the massive potential for shale gas production, possibly including here in the United Kingdom, it is reasonable for us to pause and re-examine some of our energy policy assumptions. If the cost predictions we have made turn out to be wrong, and energy prices in the rest of the decade are lower than we anticipated, might there not be an unprecedented opportunity to overhaul our electricity transmission network without a significant impact on consumer prices? Indeed, consumers need to know what impact the options that are available will have on their electricity bills, so that they can make an informed decision in this debate. In other countries, notably Norway and Denmark, the decision has already been taken that any future transmission lines should be buried underground, and the development of new technology, such as gas-insulated transmission lines, offers a whole range of new possibilities.
On the Hinkley C project, we have already seen major changes to the original time scales. Initially we were told that the transmission lines had to be up and ready by 2015 for Hinkley’s operation in 2016. That has now slipped to the lines being ready in 2019 for Hinkley going live in 2021, assuming all is smooth in the Hinkley build and commissioning processes. The bottom line is that we may have more time than we thought, so why do we not use this time to pause for thought, examine all the evidence, consider all the possibilities and get it right?
Let me end by paying tribute to all those in Somerset, Suffolk and elsewhere who have campaigned with such tenacity and vision on this issue. In particular, campaign groups in Nailsea, Yatton, Backwell and Wraxall have shown extraordinary community solidarity against divide-and-rule tactics, using reason and persistence as their primary weapons. May I single out Wraxall and Failand parish council, Chris Ambrose, Hugh Pratt, Fiona Erleigh and Sue Turner, along with their respective groups, for the sterling service they have given to the community?
This coalition Government have put quality of life issues, a greener environmental agenda and long-term policy considerations at the forefront of policy making. A basic issue such as how we transmit our electricity and the considerations we give to our environment, to the well-being of future generations, to the implications for our tourist industry, the health of our people and our ability to welcome new and liberating technology can paint a vivid canvas of who we are and our ambitions for our country. The decisions we make today will have an impact for a generation or more. Technology has changed, public attitudes have changed and our priorities, not least the value we place on the physical environment around us, have changed. We now have an opportunity for public policy to change, and we should grasp that opportunity with relish.