Electricity Transmission (North Somerset)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:16 pm on 22nd March 2012.

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Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change 6:16 pm, 22nd March 2012

I will indeed, but the hon. Lady makes a relevant point in that when a nuclear plant is being proposed there is often strong local support, but that where transmission lines are proposed there tends to be much stronger local opposition. I think that ties in because it is all part of the security of the network that we need.

The existing electricity network will need to be substantially expanded to accommodate the new generation we require. That is particularly the case where new generation is located far from demand or where the existing infrastructure is insufficient. Developers of new generation need the reassurance that the network will be delivered in line with their project time scales so that they are able to generate electricity once their projects are completed. We should recognise that these are substantial long-term investments and that timely network delivery is crucial to these projects commencing.

My right hon. Friend referred to National Grid’s approach to engaging with local communities and its consideration of different network solutions. Before I address the issue of transmission lines in North Somerset it might be helpful for me to explain the wider approach for deciding upon new network infrastructure. Under the current regulatory framework, it is for network companies such as National Grid to submit proposals for new network infrastructure to the industry regulator, Ofgem, and the relevant planning authorities. Those proposals are based on a well-justified need case such as new generation connecting or maintaining a safe and secure network. The network companies also propose routes and types of infrastructure. In doing so they are required to make a balanced assessment of the benefits of reducing any adverse environmental and other impacts of new infrastructure against the costs and technical challenges of doing so following extensive consultation with stakeholders. Those requirements are set out in their licence obligations under the Electricity Acts to develop economic and efficient networks and to have regard to the preservation of amenity and the mitigation of the effects that their activities have on the natural beauty of the countryside.

My right hon. Friend asked about perceived regulatory constraints for network companies to propose alternative solutions. In addition to the legal requirements to consider the wider impacts of new network infrastructure, Ofgem published guidance, in March 2011, on how this should be taken into account. This clarifies that network companies are required to consider wider impacts and alternative solutions to overhead lines. In response to my right hon. Friend’s question on this point, this very much took into account the representations that the Government and National Grid had been making.

That regulatory approach is reinforced by the Government’s energy national policy statements, which set out the framework for factors to be considered when consenting an infrastructure project of national significance. I emphasise to my right hon. Friend that we have changed those national policy statements from those we inherited specifically to take more account of these matters. They make it clear that for electricity networks, cost should not be the only factor in determining the type of transmission technology used and that proper consideration should be given to other feasible means of connection, including underground and subsea cables.

Within the framework, National Grid published in September last year its new approach to building new transmission infrastructure. Using that approach, it will put greater emphasis on mitigating the visual impact of its new electricity lines, and will balance that consideration against the need to manage the impact on household bills. I hope that this more sensitive approach provides reassurance to those areas potentially affected by cables and pylons that alternatives to new overhead lines are considered very seriously. As the costs and technical difficulties vary so much from project to project, it is important that each one is assessed on a case-by-case basis to ensure that the right planning decision is taken each time. My right hon. Friend has already referred to different projects with quite different characteristics where subsea cabling has been proposed or deployed. Indeed, the recently announced project, which he mentioned, between Scotland and England is specifically to get around an onshore constraint, and therefore new ways of dealing with that had to be found.

The Government consider that the costs and benefits of undergrounding transmission lines are important issues that must be kept under review in the light of new information and evidence. That is why the Department of Energy and Climate Change arranged for an independent study, to which my right hon. Friend referred, to be carried out to give clarity on the practicality, whole-life costs and impacts of undergrounding and subsea cabling as alternatives to overhead lines. That report was published in January 2012, and its findings are generally consistent with the comparative costs that National Grid has quoted when evaluating options on current projects, including in North Somerset. The report should provide a useful reference point to inform the planning process.

My right hon. Friend identified some issues that were not being looked at, but as I hope I have explained, the Government have already put in place those other wider issues in the national policy statements.

My right hon. Friend raised the question of consultation and how the views of stakeholders on a range of impacts are taken into account. Let me reassure him that the impacts he mentioned are indeed taken into account in the decision-making process. However—I know that he will accept this—there is a balance to be struck between impacts and there is no simple formula that can be applied to produce the right decision. I know that my right hon. Friend will understand that from the decisions that he had to make as Defence Secretary.

Network companies must proactively explore new and alternative technologies to overhead lines. National Grid is currently exploring the development of gas insulated lines and it would be for it to consider whether the use of this technology was appropriate for any project. However, the issues involved with gas insulated lines are complex. For example, gas insulated lines are still an emerging technology and untested, and much more work needs to be done for longer, directly buried installations such as the Hinkley Point connection. There is currently no directly buried gas insulated circuit longer than 1 km in operation anywhere in the world.

The application for transmission infrastructure in North Somerset will be decided by the appropriate planning authorities, which may include Ministers. It would therefore be inappropriate for me to give a view on the particulars of those proposed developments.

However, I do recognise from the issues raised in the House and elsewhere that many people feel very strongly about pylons and the impact they can have on the landscape. When announcing its preferred route corridor for the Hinkley connection, National Grid reported that it had received over 8,000 responses.

Effective consultation with local communities and other interested parties is a vital part of the planning and regulatory approval process. When making proposals for new infrastructure, National Grid has to demonstrate that alternatives have been considered and why its preferred option is justified. This must show that stakeholders have been engaged effectively.

My right hon. Friend spoke in detail about his experiences with the National Grid consultation process. I think it fair to say that the new planning process requiring greater engagement with stakeholders and examination of options before submitting a planning application has been a learning process for all participants and can be significantly improved as it goes further.

I am encouraged, however, by the greater stakeholder engagement and consideration being given by National Grid to alternatives over the past year or so. This is the behaviour that the new planning and regulatory frameworks require. Having announced its preferred route corridor for the Hinkley Point connection, National Grid is considering carefully the type of technology it will use for the connection. It has stated that many people want the cables put underground, as indeed my right hon. Friend has said, or under sea, and as it continues its consultation, it expects that the final plans will include some undergrounding as well as overhead lines.

I would like to thank my right hon. Friend and Tessa Munt, who have participated in a valuable and important debate. Our challenge is to build a low-carbon economy based on an energy mix that meets our environmental targets and security of supply needs. This will require a substantial expansion in the transmission network to accommodate the required generation. Deciding where and how this infrastructure is delivered requires informed and balanced consideration of a number of factors including costs, environmental impact, and the needs of local communities and the country as a whole. The planning and regulatory approval processes for new transmission infrastructure require that stakeholders are consulted on these important decisions and their views demonstrably taken into account. This is happening now in North Somerset, where National Grid continues to undertake an extensive stakeholder engagement exercise on developing its proposals.

National Grid has expressed the desire to work with stakeholders to lessen the impact of any new infrastructure using mitigation measures such as woodland planting, placing cables underground or use of lower height pylons where appropriate. I strongly encourage those with an interest to engage with National Grid as it further develops its proposals.

This is an important issue to which I know the House will return, but I hope that I have been able to reassure my right hon. Friend that we have already been acting on the concerns that he has expressed.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.