Electricity Transmission (Compensation) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:45 am on 21 April 2023.

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Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Co-Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat Peers 10:45, 21 April 2023

My Lords, this Bill addresses a perfect example of where individual rights come up against the duties and responsibilities of another organisation and an aspect of the public good. On the one hand, we have the Government seeking to achieve the transition to a net-zero energy system and the duty of National Grid to carry out its role on, over and under the ground to achieve that; that is a common good. On the other hand, we have the rights of the owners of land to enjoy whatever that land provides: an income, a home, food, enjoyment of the environment, a contribution to biodiversity, et cetera. All these things have a monetary value—and, indeed, other values too, which should not be ignored. So how do we reconcile these two demands on land?

We already have a lot of work going on to develop a national land strategy. That is important, given that we would need two sets of these islands to provide all the food, homes, infrastructure, industrial land, renewable energy, public spaces, protected biodiversity and leisure facilities that we all want. Difficult choices and balances have to be made. Add to that the need to expand and strengthen the national grid, in order to produce more renewable energy and transmit it to where it is needed so that we can exchange fossil fuels for net-zero electricity, and you have a problem.

What are the shortcomings of the existing system? As I see it, it does not provide equality of arms between small landowners and large public bodies. It also takes too long and costs too much. It currently operates at a time when the courts are overrun with a major backlog of cases. It needs to be replaced, as Dr Liam Fox said in another place, by something that is accessible, affordable, independent and enforceable. This Bill is an attempt to do that. I would also add “flexible” to take account of the changing value of land and land of different quality.

The questions that arise for me are fourfold: whether the new alternative dispute resolution system can be fairer to landowners and give them a fair crack of the whip, rebalancing the current imbalance between them and National Grid; whether the outcomes of the new system will give them justice while allowing the common good of a stronger electricity distribution system to be achieved; whether the new system can achieve that speedily and at smaller cost; and, finally, whether the system can take account of national priorities on land use. For example, we have recently been focusing—for very good reason—on the need for greater food security and energy security. Do the Government plan to start all over again with the new ADR task force or to incorporate the existing knowledge and capability? How can we be sure that the new system is designed adequately to take account of the views of the little guy—the landowners? How can we be sure that the outcome is enforceable and that the last resort of going back to the Upper Tribunal is still open to those who are not happy with the results of ADR?

If we get this right, it can contribute to the achievement of net zero. If we get it wrong, we are doomed to face more costly wrangling for years to come. Which is it?