9. Plaid Cymru Debate: Planning policy for new power lines

– in the Senedd at on 12 June 2024.

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(Translated)

The following amendments have been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Jane Hutt, and amendment 2 in the name of Darren Millar.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 5:40, 12 June 2024

(Translated)

Welcome back. The next item is the Plaid Cymru debate: planning policy for new power lines. I call on Adam Price to move the motion.

(Translated)

Motion NDM8605 Heledd Fychan

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Recognises the preferred position of the Welsh Government that new power lines should be placed underground where possible.

2. Believes that wherever physically possible the undergrounding of new power lines shall be undertaken by way of cable ploughing in preference to open trenching.

3. Calls on the Welsh Government to update Planning Policy Wales paragraph 5.7.9:

a) to remove the existing caveat: ‘however it is recognised that a balanced view must be taken against costs which would render otherwise acceptable projects unviable’; and

b) so that the undergrounding of new infrastructure for conveying electricity shall be an absolute rather than a preferred position, the policy should state: ‘New power lines should be laid underground.’

(Translated)

Motion moved.

Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Plaid Cymru 5:41, 12 June 2024

Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd. This motion aims to make it mandatory for all new electricity distribution lines in Wales to be placed underground rather than conveyed through overhead lines. The Welsh Government's current policy, as set out it in 'Planning Policy Wales', is that new power lines, where possible, should be laid underground. It goes on to say:

'However, it is recognised that a balanced view must be taken against costs which could render otherwise acceptable projects unviable.'

This caveat has been the catalyst for a rash of proposals for long-range pylon lines traversing large swathes of our country—in my own constituency's case, along both the Towy and the Teifi valleys. That in itself is evidence that the current policy is not working. The second piece of evidence is the lack of undergrounding currently, despite that being the Government's stated preference. In an answer to a recent written question by Cefin Campbell, asking if the Government can give specific examples where electricity lines have been undergrounded, the answer was that the Welsh Government is not aware of any specific examples of electric cable undergrounding at this time. As long as the caveat exists, developers will always exploit it and build pylons as their preferred option. So, we need to remove the caveat and mandate undergrounding, following the example of other European countries. Since 2008, for example, all new 132 kV power lines in Denmark have been laid underground, and it has reaped the benefits of a more rapid path to decarbonisation, as public opposition to renewables has been much more muted as a result.

So, apart from helping us decarbonise faster, why else should we in Wales follow Denmark's example? The most obvious reason is that underground cables do not despoil the landscape of some of the most cherished and environmentally sensitive areas of our country. The sheer volume of e-mails that Members will have had in support of this motion is testament to the extent this passionate conviction is shared by our fellow citizens. But there are other benefits too. Underground cables are more reliable, with reduced power outages improving grid resilience, because they are less susceptible to weather-related disruptions such as storms and high winds—a phenomenon that will become more important in future as climate change-induced extreme weather increases. Underground cables have lower maintenance costs, because they're protected from the elements, and require fewer repairs, and they are often more energy efficient as they can have lower transmission losses due to better thermal management.

The major argument against underground cabling—that it is prohibitively more costly in construction—no longer holds true because of major innovations in cable technology and in construction methods, and my colleague Cefin Campbell will refer in greater detail to trenchless cable ploughing, in which Wales and Carmarthenshire is a technology leader, in his concluding remarks.

It's welcome that the Government has announced a review in this area, and maybe that is in itself a recognition that the policy needs to be changed. But if we want to prevent the kind of mass pylonisation that much of our country is currently facing, then we can't afford to wait for the outcome of that review. We have to act now, which is why I hope Members across the Senedd will support the motion and reject the Government amendment.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 5:45, 12 June 2024

(Translated)

I have selected the two amendments to the motion. I call on the Cabinet Secretary for Housing, Local Government and Planning to move formally amendment 1, tabled in the name of Jane Hutt.

(Translated)

Amendment 1—Jane Hutt

Delete all after point 1 and replace with:

2. Believes that wherever physically possible the undergrounding of new power lines shall be undertaken in ways which reduce adverse environmental impacts.

(Translated)

Amendment 1 moved.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour

(Translated)

And I call on Mark Isherwood to move amendment 2, tabled in the name of Darren Millar.

(Translated)

Amendment 2—Darren Millar

Add as new point at end of motion:

Calls on the Welsh Government to ensure that, in accordance with the precautionary principle, proposals for the undergrounding of new power lines should require health impact assessments when their proximity to dwellings raises serious future health concerns.

(Translated)

Amendment 2 moved.

Photo of Mark Isherwood Mark Isherwood Conservative 5:45, 12 June 2024

Diolch. Undergrounding cables providing electrical power or telecommunications, rather than hanging them on poles or towers, helps improve system reliability and to reduce the risks of outages during high winds, thunderstorms, heavy snow or ice storms. Undergrounding also helps in wildfire prevention. An added benefit is the aesthetic quality of the landscape without the power lines. Although undergrounding can increase the capital cost of electric power transmission and distribution, it decreases operating costs over the lifetime of the cables. Further, calculations by developers that the cost of undergrounding is around twice that of overhead lines ignores the costs of decommissioning that must take place—millions at the expense of UK electricity bill payers after 30 years—whereas there are no decommissioning costs with undergrounding.

Although there are also other related issues to consider, such as topography and geology, we must also consider the impact on local communities. For example, representatives of the community in Cefn Meiriadog, St Asaph, told me last year, and I quote, 'There are decisions being made distant from north Wales directly affecting north Wales communities disproportionately. They appear to be disjointed, with poor or non-existent cumulative effects management, led by companies making very large profits with scant regard for affected communities other than the obligatory in-person events and promised community benefit funds.'

The Welsh Conservative position is that there needs to be a reform of related planning policies in Wales. 'Planning Policy Wales' clearly states that cables should be undergrounded, but developers often say it's not financially viable. However, all these developments should be designed in the first instance to comply with 'Planning Policy Wales'. Welsh Ministers therefore need to be stronger in following their own guidance, rather than allowing arguments of cost to justify circumvention of these planning policies. To facilitate this and to deliver better focused, proactive engagement with energy companies, the related wording in 'Planning Policy Wales' clearly needs to be toughened up.

We will therefore be supporting this motion, whilst also proposing an additional amendment calling on the Welsh Government to ensure that, in accordance with the precautionary principle, proposals for the undergrounding of new power lines should require health impact assessments where their proximity to dwellings raises serious future health concerns. This reflects a real concern highlighted by affected communities and raised, for example, by an MRI radiographer who has worked extensively in oncology when an energy company proposed underground cables as close as 3m from their home. Referring to the potential health impacts associated with the long-term exposure to electric and magnetic fields around the underground cables, they stated that the precautionary principle must be applied where there is published scientific research showing persistent association between cable routes and increased health risks. Notwithstanding that, we support the motion.

Photo of Siân Gwenllian Siân Gwenllian Plaid Cymru 5:48, 12 June 2024

(Translated)

Thank you very much, Dirprwy Lywydd. Ten years ago, the National Grid had the intention of installing a corridor of pylons across Ynys Môn and over the Menai Straits. There was a strong campaign by local people, led by Plaid Cymru, and, in the end, the grid had to accept that it would need to lay the electricity cables under the Menai Straits for the plan to proceed in order to avoid significant damage to the iconic landscape, but they did want to continue with pylons across the island itself. The grid's plan has now been shelved, but it became very clear to me then, back in 2014, that significant changes were needed to 'Planning Policy Wales'. There's no doubt that we need to accelerate the path towards renewable energy, and, to do that, we must have the support of communities, and laying cables under the sea or under the ground is a way of alleviating concerns about the erosion of local landscapes. 

As we've heard, at present, paragraph 5.7.9 of 'Planning Policy Wales' contains a caveat that allows cost considerations to outweigh the benefits of installing power lines underground. This, essentially, allows financial concerns to take precedence over environmental, social and aesthetic factors. As a result, we often see large numbers of pylons above our heads, which disrupt our landscapes and detract from the natural beauty of Wales. Plaid Cymru believes that this is a fundamental weakness in our planning policy that needs to be remedied urgently. So, that's why our motion today argues for the removal of this cost-related caveat, ensuring that our infrastructure policies are guided by a commitment to environmental stewardship and community well-being, rather than narrow financial calculations.

By removing this caveat, we can prioritise the long-term benefits of underground power lines. This change would align our planning policy with our wider environmental goals and ensure that we do not sacrifice our landscapes for short-term financial savings. The initial costs of undergrounding would lead to long-term savings, with less maintenance and less disruption to supply. Overhead lines are vulnerable to weather-related damage, which leads to significant repair costs very often and also results in power outages. Underground cables, on the other hand, are much more durable and require less maintenance.

In conclusion, therefore, it is essential that paragraph 5.7.9 of 'Planning Policy Wales' is changed to ensure that our infrastructure policies are aligned with our environmental and social values. By removing the cost-based caveat, we can prioritise the long-term benefits of underground power lines, we can protect our landscapes, and, vitally, we can gain the public support needed to achieve our climate goals. So, Plaid Cymru encourages all Members to support this motion and take a decisive step towards a more sustainable and visually appealing future for Wales.

Photo of Russell George Russell George Conservative 5:52, 12 June 2024

One month after I was elected to this Senedd in 2011, we saw one of the largest protests ever on the steps of this Senedd. I think perhaps it was trumped by the farming protest earlier this year, but one of the largest all the same. That protest was about two things: one the over-proliferation of windfarms in one location, and the other about the plans for a 400 kV transmission line thundering through the hills and landscapes of mid Wales. Now, that campaign saw the proposals not proceed, thankfully, but, as others have alluded to, there are other projects going forward in other parts of Wales. In my own constituency, we have plans for large lattice pylons of 132 kV overhead cables now planned to go through the beautiful landscapes of mid Wales again.

Now, my constituents—and I think I speak for people right across Wales in these relevant areas—are not opposed to renewable energy schemes. Far from it; they want to see clean energy produced and near to their homes. What they're concerned about is the infrastructure that can come with those schemes. Now, there are, of course, issues around the over-proliferation of windfarms, and schemes need to be located in appropriate sites, but that, I think, is a debate for another day. We now need to see power lines underground to protect our landscapes and to support appropriate renewable energy projects as well.

The need to change 'Planning Policy Wales' in this regard is an issue that I have raised with the past First Minister, the current First Minister, and also with the Cabinet Secretary Julie James in her various job titles and roles as well. I was very happy to support also James Evans's calls when he brought forward a debate around this issue in April. Now, when I raise this issue with Welsh Government Ministers, the response I receive is this—this is from the Record of Proceedings when I raised it with the former First Minister—

'The Welsh Government's policy is that there should be underground, not overground, transmission.'

That's the perfect answer. That's the answer I wanted to receive, but, of course, the reality is that that's not the position of 'Planning Policy Wales'. 'Planning Policy Wales' goes on to issue those caveats about cost and taking a balanced view et cetera. 'Planning Policy Wales' is in urgent need of review and update and, certainly, a rapid review needs to be taken in terms of the advantages of alternative network technologies, some of which Adam Price and others have referred to. And yes, of course developers will resist, won't they, they'll tell us and give us all the reasons why they can't underground, because that's where there's an advantage to them, financially. But that's their lazy get-out reply, I would suggest.

The motion before us today sets out the appropriate amendment that's needed to 'Planning Policy Wales' and I thank Plaid for their well-worded motion today. The motion sets out, of course, that undergrounding of new infrastructure should be—. The motion sets out that the undergrounding of new infrastructure shall be absolute—

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 5:56, 12 June 2024

Russell, you need to conclude now.

Photo of Russell George Russell George Conservative

—rather than a preferred position, and new power lines should be laid underground. So, I fully and passionately support this motion today and I hope that Welsh Government Ministers will also support the motion as tabled.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour

(Translated)

I call on the Cabinet Secretary for Housing, Local Government and Planning, Julie James.

Photo of Julie James Julie James Labour

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I just want to say that I don't think we're miles apart on this motion at all. The original motion and the Welsh Government's position are not worlds apart at all. We have a preference for undergrounding electricity cables as well. The only real difference in this motion today is that we differ on whether it's appropriate to mandate all cables to be underground where possible. I'm sorry to be pedantic about it a little bit, but we've just spent many millions of pounds restoring peatland in various parts of Wales; it would be possible to put them underground through that, but I'd be very upset about it and I suspect that you would too.

Photo of Carolyn Thomas Carolyn Thomas Labour

Sorry, I thought I was down to speak and I obviously wasn't, so there's been a mistake. But Plantlife Cymru have also been doing some great work and they've been concerned, working with the National Grid, about a very rare fungus that is on the endangered list—the globally endangered list, in fact—and they were really concerned about undergrounding cabling there. So, it's not just peatland, it's this fungus and also wildflower meadows as well. We've got some really ancient grasslands and, again, we need to look at those as well when we're undergrounding. So, I'm hoping that that will be taken on board as well.

Photo of Julie James Julie James Labour 5:58, 12 June 2024

Thank you, Carolyn. So, I am very happy—and I've had a conversation with Adam Price a number of times—to look at how we can make sure that a lot more of our cabling goes underground. But there is—. I'm sorry to be pedantic, but the 'where possible' is a problem in the motion, because it is physically possible to do it in places where I think we'd all agree we don't want. In fact, what we're doing—and my colleague Jeremy Miles has a group looking at this very proactively, and it's following on a conversation, Adam, that you and I had during the infrastructure Bill—. I'm very keen to work out the prime routes for undergrounding of major transmission lines and agree them as a sort of pre-agreement, really. We have got a pro—I can't speak—proliferation of pre-planning consultations going on, which are definitely upsetting communities and so on. My colleague here, Huw Irranca-Davies, has a very large number of windfarms and pylons in his area, so it's common across Wales. So, I have no philosophical problem with this motion, but I just think the wording is problematic, so our motion changes it. But I just want to be really clear with the Senedd today that I have no fundamental problem with most of the points made—[Interruption.] Certainly.

Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Plaid Cymru 5:59, 12 June 2024

Just to be absolutely clear what you're saying, are you saying that the Government's view now is that the caveat that is currently in 'Planning Policy Wales', which says that if undergrounding makes that project financially unviable then it's okay to use overhead lines—? Do you agree with us, then, and others who have spoken, that that caveat now needs to be taken out of 'Planning Policy Wales'?

Photo of Julie James Julie James Labour

I don't want to agree to that as an absolute, but I understand the point you're making and I think we do need to tighten up what we mean by 'unaffordable' in a very big way.

My colleague Jeremy Miles—I think the Senedd has already heard—has an independent advisory group set up, and it's following on from my having been in the energy portfolio myself, and they've recently attended a demonstration of the cable ploughing, which I think you know about, and I think you actually drew it to our attention in the first place. So, we want to work out a way to put the wording in place that allows the energy projects to go through but which mandates undergrounding at a large number of the projects, other than in routes where we think it would be environmentally damaging in the way that Carolyn Thomas pointed out. But, actually, I think there are some more fundamentals than that. I think, if you look at a map of Wales and the topography on it, there aren't that many routes where you could take major infrastructure, so I'll be working will my colleague Jeremy Miles to agree those routes and then to find the best way of doing it. So, I think there'll a slightly different way, not against the philosophy of your motion, but a different way to come to that agreement.

I don't disagree at all that communities don't want to live under high-voltage electricity pylons—of course they don't. Many of them do, though—many in Huw's constituency do, many in the Deputy Presiding Officer's constituency do. So, we also have to look at some of the historic things about how we can change some of that infrastructure as it comes up for renewal. So, I'm not disagreeing with the fundamental principles you've put forward here. I don't like the wording—I'm not mincing my words about that; I don't like the wording as set out—but I think there is something that we can work on, where the Senedd—. There's clearly a consensus across the Chamber that more undergrounding in appropriate places is necessary, but we need to let the independent advisory group that my colleague is in charge of do its work. We will absolutely be updating 'Planning Policy Wales' as a result of that, and we need to work with the renewable energy companies to make sure that we have a more coherent picture for Wales of where the energy is and how the transmission works. 

Deputy Presiding Officer, just to complete that picture—[Interruption.] Certainly, Carolyn.

Photo of Carolyn Thomas Carolyn Thomas Labour 6:02, 12 June 2024

Will you work with the environmental bodies as well, such as Plantlife Cymru? Thank you.

Photo of Julie James Julie James Labour

I was just coming on to that. Yes, absolutely. So, absolutely, we will work with all of the stakeholders, including all the environmental bodies, and with our farmers, landowners and everybody else, but, actually, the most important stakeholder is the national grid. I know that my colleague Jeremy Miles has taken on the conversations that I was having, absolutely, with them, and we need to make sure that the very high-voltage transmission lines for the national grid itself, which are very much needed in mid Wales in particular, because you know that the electricity supply in mid Wales is not what we'd like it to be, are done in the best possible way—[Interruption.] Certainly, go on.

Photo of Russell George Russell George Conservative

You were talking there about the plans that National Grid have and Bute Energy have. They're not about strengthening the network in mid Wales, as perhaps you've alluded to; they're about taking the power out, and perhaps that's one of the issues that needs to be addressed as well.

Photo of Julie James Julie James Labour

So, that's why we're working—. Exactly that, Russell. That's why we're working with the National Grid, so that what we don't have is an unbroken pipeline that transverses it, but actually has a pipeline that delivers the electricity necessary for those communities to have the kind of electrical heating, EV charging points and all the things that we know are really struggling in parts of Wales. So, the transmission network has to be set up in order to deliver the energy to those communities, as well as take it through there, and there are not very many routes that are viable for that. My colleague Jeremy Miles has picked up those conversations, and the First Minister's been involved in that as well; you've just recently had the meeting. So, we're very keen to make sure that we get the best possible solution to deliver the energy to the communities that need it, but, frankly, without putting the old-school technology in place, and to make sure that we get the most up-to-date twenty-first century technology. And, of course, 'Planning Policy Wales' will be updated to reflect that. We're very keen to do that. I'm afraid I can't support the motion as it's worded today, but I want to be really clear that the Government is absolutely in the same place on the philosophy of that motion. Our motion just amends it, so that we can have more time to think about it, but I want to work with Members right across the Chamber to make sure, together with my colleague the economy Minister, the FM and everybody else in the Government, that we get the best result in terms of undergrounding. Diolch.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 6:04, 12 June 2024

(Translated)

I call on Cefin Campbell to reply to the debate.

Photo of Cefin Campbell Cefin Campbell Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

Thank you very much, Dirprwy Lywydd, and thank you to everyone whose contributed to this important debate. Thank you to Adam for opening the debate, and I will be addressing the points that he raised in a few moments. I'd like to thank Mark Isherwood.

Photo of Cefin Campbell Cefin Campbell Plaid Cymru

Mark, thank you very much for arguing that undergrounding improves the system reliability and the aesthetic quality of the landscape, which many other speakers have supported as well. We will be supporting your amendment as well.

Photo of Cefin Campbell Cefin Campbell Plaid Cymru 6:05, 12 June 2024

(Translated)

Siân Gwenllian talked about mitigating the impact of blighting communities. I agree with her entirely on that, and that we perhaps put financial arguments over and above concerns around the landscape. That is something that Russell George mentioned.

Photo of Cefin Campbell Cefin Campbell Plaid Cymru

Russell, you spoke about history repeating itself from 2011, when you came to the Senedd first of all, and that you're now facing a similar campaign again in your constituency.

Gweinidog—or Cabinet Secretary, rather—I'm heartened to hear that you're not opposed in principle to the motion that we put forward, and that you're not against the philosophy. I think your problem is with the wording, so that's something we can certainly work on together with you.

In terms of the peatland areas, obviously any undergrounding would be sensitive to that challenge, but so would pylons as well. So, it's not a matter of either/or on that issue; it's a matter of both being very, very sensitive to peatland areas. I'm also, maybe, not convinced that the argument for sacrificing our beautiful landscape on the altar of profit and costs isn't taken into account more clearly by you as a Government.

So, going back to where Adam started off—

Photo of Cefin Campbell Cefin Campbell Plaid Cymru 6:06, 12 June 2024

(Translated)

—we've all had a number of e-mails recently showing the strength of feeling and concern among communities the length and breadth of Wales on pylons. In Mid and West Wales, from Llandovery to Llanddewi Brefi, friom Llandrindod to Llandyfaelog, the call is the same: we must underground these cables. In doing so, we as a Senedd will be taking a strong stance to protect the natural beauty and the ecology of our unique landscapes. 

As was highlighted by Adam Price, the current Government policy continues to be deficient, allowing this important principle to be disregarded because of financial considerations.

Photo of Cefin Campbell Cefin Campbell Plaid Cymru 6:07, 12 June 2024

A few months ago, I attended a demonstration by ATP Cable Plough of Pencader, a world-leading company. It's clear that advancements in cable-ploughing technology have made undergrounding more feasible and cost-effective than ever before. This method allows for the installation of underground cables with minimal surface destruction, reducing both environmental impact and project costs. Furthermore, the long-term economic benefits of undergrounding are substantial, as we've already heard. This is crucial as we anticipate a near tripling of electricity demand by 2050. Investing in robust and reliable infrastructure now will save us from higher costs and greater disruptions in the future.

Now, I declare an interest. I live in the Tywi valley, a place of outstanding natural beauty, with ancient hill forts, castles built by Welsh princes, historic buildings and the meandering River Tywi. Now, every time I walk to Garn Goch near Bethlehem, I look down at the breathtaking views around me and I'm reminded of a line by the poet John Ruskin:

'Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty'.

Now, this unspoiled scenery is so treasured by the people living in these communities and enjoyed by the thousands who visit every year. Now, if we believe God created this beautiful Earth, then no man or woman has the right to violate it. I am clear in my conviction that the extra cost of undergrounding cables is a very small price to pay for the preservation of this unique landscape not only in Carmarthenshire, but in all parts of Wales.

Photo of Cefin Campbell Cefin Campbell Plaid Cymru 6:09, 12 June 2024

(Translated)

To close, this motion reflects our commitment to innovative solutions to ensure a sustainable future.

Photo of Cefin Campbell Cefin Campbell Plaid Cymru

And this is the final paragraph: Plaid Cymru believes that undergrounding is not just desirable, but essential. We must move beyond outdated practices and embrace policies that reflect our commitment to environmental stewardship and community well-being. I urge the Welsh Government to step forward, to step up and commit to a future where our infrastructure enhances rather than detracts from the beauty and integrity of Wales. To paraphrase Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day, the ultimate test of our conscience and judgment may be our willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations, whose words of thanks will not be heard. Diolch.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 6:10, 12 June 2024

(Translated)

The proposal is to agree the motion without amendment. Does any Member object? [Objection.] There are objections. We will therefore defer voting under this item until voting time. 

(Translated)

Voting deferred until voting time.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 6:10, 12 June 2024

(Translated)

And that brings us to voting time. Unless three Members wish for the bell to be rung, I will move immediately to voting time.