National Grid: Pylons — [Mrs Pauline Latham in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 12:30 pm on 2 May 2024.

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Photo of Matt Warman Matt Warman Conservative, Boston and Skegness 12:30, 2 May 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered pylons and upgrades to the national grid.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for awarding this debate on the great grid upgrade.

To begin, it is a busy day in politics, as we know, so a number of colleagues have asked me to mention their work for them and to share the concerns that many of us have about the approach that National Grid is taking and about proposals, unnecessary in many cases, to cover the landscape of some of the most beautiful parts of the country in pylons, which will cause permanent damage to the local economy and landscape. Specifically, my neighbour, my right hon. Friend Victoria Atkins, my right hon. Friend Craig Williams, and my hon. Friends the Members for Waveney (Peter Aldous), for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson), for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) and for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) have all done huge amounts of work. Without wishing to put words in their mouth, all share at least some of the concerns that I will mention.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for being present to respond on behalf of the Government, but I hope that he will take our concerns back to the policy Minister, the Minister for Energy Security and Net Zero, my hon. Friend Justin Tomlinson. I am sure that the Minister will be grateful for another meeting with our group on this important matter.

My constituents are angry with National Grid and at the proposals to rewire the national grid in such a way as to use Lincolnshire as, frankly, a dumping ground for infrastructure that could be done better and differently. The proposal for a line from Grimsby to Walpole is to have pylons across the country for many tens of kilometres, rather than having it underground or, even better, offshore. The proposal is unwelcome enough in itself, but National Grid tells us that constraints Government have put on it mean it is required to use pylons, rather than underground or offshore. National Grid also says, however, that the new eastern green link is only viable when it is largely offshore.

What angers my constituents about the proposal, and angers many of the constituents represented by colleagues present in the Chamber, is not simply a desire to see the local economy and the local landscape preserved from the blight of pylons; it is an anger at what feels like an incoherent strategy by National Grid. That is within a framework set by Government, which is why I am grateful that we have the Minister here to talk about it from a Government perspective.

We should also acknowledge that the way in which National Grid has behaved has not delivered the kind of transparency to make constituents feel that this is a meaningful consultation on proposals that will not be temporary, although pylons are nominally temporary. The pylons will be with us for many years to come, and they will cost many millions of pounds, from an approach that I believe is fundamentally short-sighted.

The longer-term view of that very necessary rewiring of the national grid will not benefit from an approach that does not take into consideration what we are seeking to achieve with projects such as Grimsby to Walpole and many others, and projects such as the eastern green link bringing power down from Scotland to the south and the east midlands. We should be seeking a more coherent approach that looks at what rewiring the grid successfully for the long term will deliver.

In my conversations with National Grid about whether we use direct current or alternating current, pylons, or offshore or onshore, what is clear is that it has a legitimate desire—proposed by and originating from Government—to get this done quickly. That is the right thing to do, given that we see the grid coming under very different strains from those for which it was designed. Now, rather than bringing power out from a spine down the middle of the country, we are bringing power in from offshore. That requires a different approach, but the different approach is so fundamental that surely we cannot do it in this piecemeal way that involves a number of multibillion-pound schemes that, where they have been reviewed, for instance in Essex—I am sure that my hon. Friend Sir Bernard Jenkin will talk about this as well—it has been decided that they could be done better and more coherently.

I have spoken to many hundreds of my constituents in public meetings, in email and on social media over many months, and their anger is not simply about the desire to talk about the landscape. It is about the desire to see proper use of taxpayers’ money, and that should always be our top priority.

I want to talk about three of the key issues that my constituents raise above all else. Primarily, this is about food security. Lincolnshire is one of the most productive parts of our agricultural economy. Whether we are talking about the blight of pylons or the blight of underground cabling, which should be taken much more seriously, it is vital that we consider how much land will be taken out of production by the proposals. There is the pretence that underground cabling can be remediated and then we can go back to fully productive land, but that is a project for a number of years and the land is never, as any farmer will tell us, quite the same again. That is why we come back to an offshore approach being our first choice, but food security is a vital issue either way.

Constituents are deeply concerned in an area where the two industries that matter most are first agriculture, and second tourism. We know that many businesses have built their entire livelihoods, and have bolstered the local economy by providing jobs, in areas that, although they may not technically be designated as areas of outstanding natural beauty and so on, are ones where that economy is built on the landscape in which people come and stay on holiday, in which people come and spend wonderful months of the year.

The approach that National Grid is taking, set by Government, does not consider food security in that way. It does not consider the economic impact of what is being proposed. Thirdly, as I said at the beginning, it does not consider what we could do if we began not with a blank piece of paper but with a coherent approach that asks, “What are we seeking to achieve?”, with a number of different projects.

The reason why we have a good number of people in Westminster Hall today for an election day debate, and several people saying that they would like to be here as well, is that there is real evidence up and down the country that National Grid is not delivering the strategic approach that it should be and it is not being tasked by Government to consider all the most important issues. Those are food security, economic impact and the coherent strategy that we all need to see. It is no wonder that constituents are angry when they see food security ignored, economic impact ignored and value for taxpayer money ignored.

We can see that there are other approaches. Whether we are talking about, as I mentioned earlier, an approach that uses DC cabling rather than something else, which has been found in some situations to be cheaper, or whatever, we should be looking at all the options in pursuit of a coherent approach that is value for money for taxpayers.

I want to end with two final points. The first is that National Grid has been holding a number of consultations across Lincolnshire on the Grimsby to Walpole project—it has been holding consultations across the country on its other projects—and one of the things that it asks is, “How can we mitigate the impact of pylons?” I have not yet met a single constituent who has said to me, “I don’t like these 50-metre pylons, but I would be okay with a 40-metre one.” That is not meaningful mitigation, and I think it is disingenuous to pretend that the project, in its current terms, would not have a huge impact. I ask the Government to consider whether that approach has been coherent and consistent, and whether there is a case for pausing the current set of conflicting projects and looking again at how we can make them work in a way that is better value for taxpayers and better for the grid in the long term. That is my ask.

It would be reprehensible of me not to point out that the Labour approach is explicitly pro-pylons. The shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves has said that pylons are the future. If we wanted a demonstration of how little Labour understands rural Britain and the needs of the future of the electricity grid, there we have it.

Photo of Nia Griffith Nia Griffith Shadow Minister (International Trade), Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

On that point, the hon. Gentleman may want to note that the Welsh Labour Government have opened a review and are instructing an independent advisory body to look into the potential of underground cabling. I gently point out to the hon. Gentleman that we have a far more comprehensive view of issues on this side and he might like to acknowledge that.

Photo of Matt Warman Matt Warman Conservative, Boston and Skegness

That could be the first occasion when a Conservative is being asked to refer positively to Labour-run Wales. On this occasion, however, I am delighted to do so. I would certainly welcome at the very least a review of the process and a review of Labour policy, which is, as I have said, explicitly pro-pylons. Perhaps we can have unanimity across the House that we should look again at whether pylons are the right way forward and the possible role of underground cabling. I should add that that is a rare endorsement—if an endorsement at all—of Labour-run Wales.

To conclude, I simply say this: my constituents are angry. I have never had more emails or more packed public meetings on any other issue. They do not deny that there is a real need to upgrade the grid for the future, but they want to see value for money for taxpayers, landscapes not unnecessarily blighted and an approach that acknowledges that the economic impact and the impact on food security should be the Government’s coherent and top priority.

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, the subject of which is of huge concern to many constituents across the whole of eastern England, including East Anglia. Does he share my concern that if National Grid is to bring our constituents with it, it should be clear, open and transparent? I have had an instance in my constituency where National Grid brought a presentation to a village hall suggesting that a certain route was a fait accompli when it plainly was not. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need more clarity and more transparency?

Photo of Matt Warman Matt Warman Conservative, Boston and Skegness

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that we need more clarity and transparency from National Grid. It is right that too many of my constituents and, by the sounds of it, my hon. Friend’s constituents feel that this is a fait accompli. The consultations are supposed to be meaningful if they are to preserve any kind of democratic consent, and we all need to encourage National Grid to deliver that kind of transparency, in particular on the costings of the different options. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.

To conclude, I want simply to reiterate my previous point: we should think about food security, economic impact and what is best for the taxpayer when it comes to a necessary rewiring of the grid. I implore the Minister to take the message back loud and clear to the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, Claire Coutinho, because that is what is in the interest of the constituents of all hon. Members here today.

Photo of Pauline Latham Pauline Latham Conservative, Mid Derbyshire

Due to the number of speakers, I will have to reduce the limit for speeches to four and a half minutes. If hon. Members wish to be called in the debate, I remind them that they should bob, which they are doing. Also, as my hearing is not brilliant, please can hon. Members face the front and not turn to other hon. Members when they respond?

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 12:44, 2 May 2024

Thank you for calling me to speak, Mrs Latham.

The demand for electricity is expected to grow so much that by 2050 we could be using twice or nearly three times as much electricity as we use today. More and more of our energy is now generated by offshore wind farms and solar, which means that significant new infrastructure is required to connect the vast amount of cleaner energy from where it is generated to homes and businesses across the country. We have ambitious targets for more offshore wind development in the coming decades, but the grid is simply not ready for it.

National Grid has recognised the urgent need for investment, but its great grid upgrade must also confront the challenge of safeguarding our natural environment and consider the views of local people. The recently published UK Government state of nature report confirmed catastrophic landscape degradation and loss of wildlife. Britain is now acknowledged to be the most nature-depleted country in Europe and one of the most damaged in the world, so it is imperative that alongside the modernisation of our national grid, we prioritise the protection and preservation of our natural surroundings and indeed the amenities of our local communities. It is also vital that new energy initiatives bring tangible benefits to the communities in which they are located.

Since 2013, National Grid has had the benefit of strategic landscape guidance from an independent panel of national stakeholders selected by the regulator, Ofgem. The independent chair of that panel throughout the time since then has been Professor Chris Baines, whom I have met on a number of occasions. His views are really inspirational. His visual impact programme emphasised the importance of reducing the visual impact of overhead power lines in some of the most sensitive landscapes across England and Wales. Through a process of close consultation with communities, technical experts and special interest groups, National Grid and its contractors have successfully carried out major landscape engineering work and landscape restoration in several highly protected and varied landscapes. However, that is not the case throughout England and Wales, which is what we really need to point out here today. There is advice and there are protections, but even though the national grid needs to be expanded rapidly, National Grid should listen to experts such as Professor Baines.

Since I do not have much time left, I will also express my concerns about what National Grid is saying about the costs of onshore and onshore connections. I will share some of the thoughts of another group I have met: Suffolk Energy Action Solutions. In its paper, “Britain's Winning Solution”, it presents the idea that an offshore grid could pool energy offshore and use subsea cables to transport energy closer to demand, coming onshore at brownfield sites that can become energy superhubs. The group says that this plan would eventually negate the need for 50% of onshore infrastructure, namely the substations and interconnectors that criss-cross the country.

Carrying energy closer to demand would also help to mitigate the significant costs associated with network capacity issues. The cost to consumers, which has already been mentioned in this debate, from wind power oversupply and the need for curtailment payments was estimated to be £806 million in 2020, and National Grid expects that figure to increase to £2.5 billion per annum by 2025.

This type of offshore solution has already worked abroad, with Belgium and Denmark building more of their transmission network infrastructure offshore by creating offshore hubs and taking cabling onshore at brownfield sites. The UK should at least consider this option. National Grid claims that it would be more expensive, which might be true in the short term, but we must consider that this integrated approach to connecting offshore projects would significantly reduce the physical infrastructure needed to connect offshore wind farms to the grid.

Also, in our transition to net zero, it is vital that we take people with us. If we continue the confrontational approach that we have heard about, we will not get to net zero in 2050. We will not achieve that target if we alienate our communities. I urge the Government to look very carefully at the solutions that I have outlined and I also urge National Grid to listen very carefully to what has been said in this debate today.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal 12:48, 2 May 2024

It is a pleasure to serve in this debate under you, Mrs Latham. I congratulate my hon. Friend Matt Warman on securing it and the Backbench Business Committee on granting it. Given the number of speakers that we have here in Westminster Hall compared with the number of speakers for the business in the main Chamber today, I wish we were in the main Chamber. However, we have to make the most of the opportunity that we have.

The Minister here today heard a 35-minute speech from me on 19 March, and although I appreciate that he is not the policy Minister, being a Government Whip is really important. In many ways, Whips can reflect the views and feelings of the House on critical issues such as the one we are debating today, and I know that he is very astute at doing that.

It is vital that we have a reliable grid, given the amount of renewable energy that this Conservative Government have the ambition and plans to deliver. Whether it is wind, interconnectors or solar, infrastructure needs to be in the right place, and not necessarily just where it is cheapest for the developer. Ofgem and others have a role in terms of energy bills, but we are talking about long-term infrastructure, so a sensible approach that ensures that it is fit for purpose is vital. As far as I am concerned, infrastructure needs to be closer to where the demand will be.

Sizewell C’s construction is already starting, so this is not a case of “not in my back yard.” In fact, there is already plenty of energy in my part of the world, including from wind farms and similar things. The problem is that, given the amount of infrastructure that will be required, we are talking about going on to greenfield sites, and complicated areas of cabling. I admit that no new pylons are currently planned in my constituency, but I know that colleagues such as my hon. Friends the Members for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) and for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) have been working hard on the issue for their constituents.

If we were to update the technology, we could reduce the infrastructure, as Wera Hobhouse mentioned. Suffolk Energy Action Solutions and Saxmundham Against Needless Destruction, the groups involved in Friston and the surrounding areas, have done extensive research, including on what we could do about high-voltage direct current and the offshore platforms, which is what the Belgians and Dutch do. The offshore coordination support scheme should not go ahead with that plan. The reason I say that is that I do not believe that Sea Link will be needed if we ensure that the connections go into established brownfield sites—the Isle of Grain, potentially Tilbury and potentially even Bradwell. My right hon. Friend Sir John Whittingdale hopes to get a nuclear power station at Bradwell with other technology in the near future, so it has already been designated and set aside for that sort of connection. If we were to innovate and use more recent technology than what has been costed so far, we would come up with a much smarter proposal that reflected the concerns of our constituents. That is why I now want a moratorium on any new connections until we have the strategic spatial plan, which is due next year. That should also have security considerations added to it.

We must also have full transparency, including the publication by the national energy system operator of its assessments and independent reviews, with comparisons with current plans. We should recognise that the economics are such that, at the moment, the sums seem only to include the development; they do not include the Government actually paying people not to put electricity into the network. When we combine that with our starting to get more high-voltage DC—not AC—onshore through the cabling, we come up with a cost-neutral proposal.

The proposed increase in pylons does not directly affect my constituency, because we already have them, but we do not need the level of infrastructure that we once did. That is a 20th-century approach to a 21st-century issue. That is why I want to ensure that the residents of Friston and elsewhere are listened to.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Independent, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr 12:53, 2 May 2024

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mrs Latham. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate Matt Warman on securing the debate. He has succeeded where I failed, but I am grateful to be able to contribute to the debate, which he led so ably.

There is no time to fall into poetic prose to describe the beauty of my constituency, but it is known as the garden of Wales—the Minister will just have to take my word for how beautiful Carmarthenshire is. I accept climate change realities, I accept the need to increase energy security, I accept the need to improve electricity distribution in our communities, especially in rural areas, and I accept the findings of the Winser report: that we are going to need a whole lot of new infrastructure to meet those challenges. I am not coming from a position of political denial.

I am facing huge upheaval in my constituency, however, because there are now four distribution and transmission routes being proposed for Carmarthenshire. In Roman times, all roads led to Rome; in west Wales, all pylons lead to Llandyfaelog, where new national grid infra- structure is being built. That is in the south of my constituency, which will be joining the new Llanelli constituency following the boundary review. That is a planning matter for Carmarthenshire County Council. All those councillors waving placards against pylon development in Carmarthenshire at the moment must use their leverage during the planning process to try and secure some of the objectives we have in mind. If they just bend the knee during the planning process, I am afraid that the backlash in the wards of Carmarthenshire will be strong. I echo the comments from the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness on the anger in our communities at the proposals.

The lines that I face are: the 132 kV Green GEN Cymru route along the Towy valley, linking an energy generation site in Powys down to southern Carmarthenshire; another Green GEN route originating in Ceredigion, going through Teifi valley and down to southern Carmarthenshire; a 132 kV National Grid Electricity Distribution proposed route along the Cothi valley; and a 400 kV National Grid route linking north and south Wales.

National Grid Electricity Distribution is the recognised distribution network operator for my part of the world. However, Green GEN Cymru is in the final stages of a licence application with Ofgem to become an independent distribution network operator. When I met the umbrella organisation for the IDNOs about a year ago and explained what Green GEN Cymru were proposing, they thought I was mad. The reality is that Ofgem are on the verge of approving an application licence for Green GEN Cymru, and there is huge concern locally about the whole process. There has been a lack of engagement by Ofgem. It is something that we are really going to have to look at. I have had no opportunity to express my concerns to Ofgem in a face-to-face meeting.

The 132 kV lines now come under Welsh Government responsibility. They used to be the responsibility of the UK Government. I had an experience with a previous line 12 years ago, which was dealt with by the UK National Infrastructure Commission. The route was undergrounded along the floor of the Towy valley following that process. I am glad that the Welsh Government are undertaking a study into new techniques, and into cable ploughing in particular.

The argument for pylons is that undergrounding is far more expensive, but the new cable ploughing technology is extremely impressive. It can be used to plough about a kilometre of line a day, and it is far cheaper than traditional undergrounding. The undergrounding analysis is based on a Parsons Brinckerhoff and Institute of Engineering and Technology report that was completed in 2012. The technology is there. I should say that the largest company in Europe happens to be based in my constituency, in Pencader.

I am asking UK Government Ministers to engage with the work of the Welsh Government and ensure that the Welsh Government have the resources to undertake that work. It could solve a lot of problems for the UK Government in the future.

Photo of Virginia Crosbie Virginia Crosbie Conservative, Ynys Môn 12:57, 2 May 2024

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I thank my hon. Friend Matt Warman and the Backbench Business Committee for enabling this debate.

I am speaking in this important debate to give a voice to many of my Ynys Môn constituents, such as Jonathan Dean, who are concerned about the impact of pylons on Ynys Môn and the Welsh countryside. They are also concerned about the impact on two of our most important sectors: agriculture and food security, and tourism. It is important that the planning process takes into account the impact of infrastructure on the environment and the unique characteristics and vistas of Wales. It is important we have a plan, that we have joined-up thinking, and that we have transparency.

It will come as no surprise that I rise to speak to the challenge of our future energy supply. After all, Ynys Môn, Môn Mam Cymru—the mother of Wales—is an energy island ready and waiting to be powered back to life. We have wind, wave, tidal, solar, hydrogen and nuclear projects. We have £4.8m from the UK Government for the Holyhead hydrogen hub. Morlais, the wave project, has benefited from the UK Government ringfencing marine energy in the contract for differences allocation round. Ynys Môn’s potential to supply cheap, clean power to cut household bills and strengthen our energy security is being held up by slow upgrades to the national grid.

There are enough low-carbon energy projects planned, such as the Wylfa nuclear site, to meet peak electricity demand nine times over. However, the grid is not being built and reinforced fast enough for developers to connect to it. Some projects are having to wait until 2038 to connect to the system, despite being ready to go.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

Does the hon. Lady acknowledge that, really, this means that developers will go away from the UK and invest in other countries? That is a big concern for investment in renewables in the UK.

Photo of Virginia Crosbie Virginia Crosbie Conservative, Ynys Môn

I absolutely welcome that debate and how important it is to have developers investing in this sector. I also welcome the action that the Government are taking. Last year’s connections action plan will cut the time that it takes for low-carbon projects to connect to the electricity grid. The Chancellor also announced plans for a strategic spatial energy plan in the autumn statement to set out what energy infrastructure needs to be built, where and when.

Closer to home, I am proud that this Conservative Government grasped the nettle and committed £160 million, through Great British Nuclear, to secure the Wylfa site on Ynys Môn. If successful, that project could create 9,000 construction jobs and 900 long-term jobs, and provide a source of clean, reliable energy for decades to come.

I urge the Minister to finalise the new national policy statement for nuclear to speed up the approval process and announce the outcome of the small modular reactor competition as soon as possible. SMRs have the potential to cut the costs of nuclear, diversify our energy mix and generate steady, clean power. We must not let this opportunity pass us by.

It is also thanks to this Conservative Government’s leadership that we have seen the creation of the new £26 million Anglesey freeport. With spades in the ground at Prosperity Park, the Anglesey freeport is expected to create 13,000 new jobs and generate £1 billion of investment across the island and north Wales. Celtic freeport in south Wales and Teesside freeport show the potential of freeports to boost our manufacturing base for new renewable technologies. Last year, we saw the power of this net zero economy, with £74 billion in gross value added to the economy as a whole and more than 765,000 people employed. The people of Anglesey are ready and waiting to play their part.

Building on that model, I would like to see the Government target a new wave of business rates reliefs at areas with low-carbon industries that need to invest in skills training. That could create thriving enterprise hubs across the country like the one at Menai Science Park—M-SParc—and unleash a new generation of skilled workers ready to power Britain.

But, of course, our new power generators and the jobs that they bring with them will be rendered redundant if we do not have the grid connections in place to put them to use. Where new transmission lines are needed to deliver the wind power of the Irish sea, or Ynys Môn’s new nuclear site at Wylfa, it is important that developers engage with local communities and ensure that they are properly compensated for the disruption that the construction will cause. To achieve that, the Government should extend and mandate community benefits for transmission and generation.

Last year, the Chancellor committed to giving communities that host transmission infrastructure discounts on their electricity bills of up to £10,000. That package also included extra benefits that could be transformational for some communities, with schools and village halls refurbished, educational bursaries created and improvements made to local healthcare provision. That is a sound investment for developers and bill payers alike. By building out the grid, we can make the whole system more efficient and reduce the waste of constraint payments, in which renewable generators are paid to switch off when the system cannot cope. That could save a staggering £1 billion a year and help in the push to decarbonise our electricity supply by 2035.

By increasing the capacity of the national grid in a way that takes into account the beauty of our countryside —especially of places such as Ynys Môn—we can realise Ynys Môn’s promise as the mother of Wales, supplying clean, home-grown power to our United Kingdom. I now call on the Government to give us the tools that we need to do the job.

Photo of Nia Griffith Nia Griffith Shadow Minister (International Trade), Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 1:03, 2 May 2024

I congratulate Matt Warman on securing this debate. We on the Labour Benches certainly want to see an effective and speedy transition to renewables so that we can slash energy bills, cut emissions and make progress on the way to net zero—which is so vital to stem global warming—and, of course, increase our energy security by not being reliant on imported gas.

We in Wales have fantastic resources, be that for onshore and offshore wind, rooftop solar or a range of marine technologies, and we want to see them used. It was very disappointing to see the UK Government’s failure last year to get any bids for offshore wind because they failed to listen to the industry. As has been noted by Welsh Government Ministers and hon. Members on the Welsh Affairs Committee, significant investment is needed in the national grid infrastructure to get the electricity from where it is generated to the areas of dense population and industry.

There is huge concern that enormous pylon projects will spoil areas of considerable natural beauty and take up space on agricultural land. As Jonathan Edwards mentioned, the Towy valley is a prime site currently under consideration for routes for grid projects, and we are very keen to see underground cabling considered. As he said, part of the area will be coming into the Llanelli constituency after the boundary changes.

Undergrounding is perfectly possible, whether for big projects such as the gas pipe coming across west Wales, or, as I have seen, the use of a mole plough that can pull a plastic water pipe across a field to protect the pipe and stop the water supply freezing. A much more sophisticated version of the plough is available that can use the same technique for underground cabling, and we want that to be considered.

I pay tribute to my Labour colleagues, Martha O’Neil in Caerfyrddin and Jackie Jones in Ceredigion, for listening to residents’ concerns about pylons and taking them up with Welsh Government Ministers. I draw attention to the fact that in ministerial answers, Welsh Government Ministers have stated a preference for underground cabling where practical.

Of course, cost is an issue, and we need much more up-to-date information. The electricity transmission costing study dates from 2012, and the “Lifetime Costs Report” by Western Power dates from 2014. It is very important, as the Institute of Engineering and Technology has done, to look at the whole picture: the operation, the maintenance and the energy losses, and things such as storm damage where overground infrastructure is much more vulnerable than underground. An awful lot more work needs to be done in that area.

I am pleased that just a fortnight ago in the Welsh Senedd, Jeremy Miles, our new Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Energy and Welsh Language, explained that the Welsh Government will establish an independent advisory group on the future electricity grid for Wales. The group will seek to build an understanding of the possible approaches and alternatives to delivering electricity transmission infrastructure across Wales, including the role of pylons and underground cabling.

In conclusion, yes, we want to see a roll-out of renewables, but we want to take our communities with us, and there are ways in which we can do both. We want to ensure that we do these things in a practicable way, and that we have horses for courses in appropriate places to get the very best of our natural resources in the most compatible way with our community needs.

Photo of James Wild James Wild Conservative, North West Norfolk 1:07, 2 May 2024

I congratulate my hon. Friend Matt Warman on bringing this important debate to the House. I am speaking on behalf of my North West Norfolk constituents who would be adversely affected by the Grimsby to Walpole link, and by the eastern green link proposals for two offshore projects as part of the great grid upgrade. “Great for whom?” is the question that many of my constituents have.

Under the proposals, 90 miles of a new, high-voltage electricity transmission line would be constructed along with new substations, including at Walpole in my constituency, near to the existing substation. It would consist of a 50-metre-high pylon every 300 metres or so. That is half the height of the Elizabeth Tower and getting on for the height of Ely cathedral. In addition, National Grid is consulting on two new offshore electricity infrastructure projects, eastern green links 3 and 4, which are primarily subsea links bringing electricity from Scotland to England.

As we increase generation from renewables, there needs to be investment to connect those sources to homes and businesses. The issue, though, is how we do that in a way that minimises the impact on local people, our countryside and our communities. Three options for the Grimsby to Walpole scheme were considered—two onshore and one subsea. The subsea option looked at a Norfolk or a Lincolnshire landfall. There are undoubtedly challenges about a Norfolk landfall, given the number of designated sites in my area, with fewer issues for a Lincolnshire solution. They need to be assessed carefully. However, as in other areas, the default for National Grid has been to rule out such options without proper consideration, despite the fact that pursuing them would lessen the visual impact, the environmental effect and disruption to communities. That needs to be revisited as the process continues.

Having discounted the subsea option, National Grid is proposing nearly 100 miles of new pylons. Many constituents have raised strong concerns and objections to the preferred route, including the damaging visual impact that the pylons would have on our beautiful landscapes. Much of the land on the proposed route is grade 1 arable land. When we are looking to improve food security, taking that out of use goes against the Government’s intention.

Pylons and substations cause noise and disturbance for local communities. The proposed area could also affect many protected sites, including the Wash, one of the most important sites in Europe. Indeed, the Government have applied for UNESCO world heritage status for the east Atlantic flyway for migratory birds, including through Norfolk and Lincolnshire, which would be threatened by current plans.

When I met local councillors, parish councillors and parishioners, they were concerned about the location and the impact of a new large substation. They have also asked what assessment has been made of upgrading the existing pylon infrastructure. Of course, that would need reinforcement of the pylons that are there, but that would be less intrusive and more cost-effective. Considering improvements to existing lines is a requirement of the national planning policy statement, so that also needs to be addressed ahead of the next consultation.

In contrast to the Grimsby-Walpole plan, the eastern green links are for subsea cables, with landing points on the Lincolnshire coastline. They would then run underground for 80 miles to the proposed converter stations and a new transmission station in Walpole in west Norfolk—yes, underground. If the underground cable is a preferred option for that project, why not for the transmission line scheme? What scope is there for the proposed Grimsby-Walpole link to be integrated into that? Again, that needs to be looked at further.

On consultation, eight weeks is wholly inadequate, given the amount of documentation published and the length of time that National Grid has been working on this. To be polite, there has been a lack of a co-ordinated approach, but the two schemes could work better together, so we need a much more transparent process.

There are major concerns across west Norfolk about the proposals. People are rightly opposed to the damaging impact on our communities, countryside and farmland. The plans cannot be the final answer; they must be changed.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 1:11, 2 May 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I congratulate Matt Warman on securing the debate; it was my pleasure to support him in applying for it.

I suspect that I speak largely for my friend, Dave Doogan, when I say that Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks, the power company, has not covered itself in glory in the north of Scotland, or indeed, in Scotland in general. There is a feeling of hopelessness among my constituents—believe you me, it is a very hot issue. I have in my hands just some of the emails I am getting. Big, big meetings are being held in places such as Helmsdale, with 200 people turning up. That is very unusual for people who do not normally come out on a winter’s evening and are usually quite peaceable about things. So this is a bit of a mess.

When we say to SSEN, “What do you propose with this?”, it says, “Well, it’s pylons—of course it is pylons,” and they produce all their maps. We say, “What about offshore or undergrounding?”, and it says, “Actually, it’s the Government and we are going down the pylons route.” That makes us feel as though we are sleepwalking into something that we just do not want at all.

In the north of Scotland, SSEN is already going to put one subsea cable down the length of the east coast of Scotland, or much of that coast. If it is putting down one cable, why can it not simultaneously lay two more? Why does it not use one vessel to put the whole lot offshore? Again and again, when we talk about undergrounding, the response is, “Goodness me, too expensive. Dear, oh dear, oh dear.” But we know about the Welsh example and examples in other parts of the world where it is done.

As others have said, this is a strategic decision for the UK. It will be about electricity for many decades to come, so we want to get it right. It has been put to me that it is a lot easier to fix something underground. If there is a blip in an underground cable, it can be found easily, but fixing a cable on a mighty high pylon in the teeth of a highland gale is not desperately funny.

I wish that people did not feel helpless and could be taken along with the project. People are reasonable, but right now, there is a feeling of hopelessness: “We don’t like it and nobody is listening to what we say.” But there is a let-out. Planning powers are devolved to the Scottish Government. To give an example, the Scottish Government have been up front about this for a number of years and said, “If there is any proposal to have a new nuclear power station built in Scotland, we’ll call it in and refuse it under planning powers.” My point is to implore the Scottish Government to realise and understand how controversial this proposal is, and to say, “Wait a minute. Under planning powers, we’re going to call it in and we’re going to look at it.” I believe that could be done.

By curious coincidence, a debate is happening right now, simultaneously, in the Scottish Parliament—it is a complete coincidence. I hope and pray that the MSPs who speak in the debate will go for that pause. If that courageous decision were taken to pause this and say, “Hang on, can we look again at this?”, I believe that that would help our friends and colleagues in other parts of the United Kingdom. But somebody has to take the initiative on this, because otherwise we are just sleepwalking. When we do that, people lose faith, and if that happens—no matter what party we are—it is dangerous for democracy.

This is a strategic decision for the future. We must take people with us, and I take great comfort from the fact that I think we are all singing off the same sheet. I look forward with great interest to what the Minister has to say, and I also look forward with great interest to hear what the Scottish Government have to say.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on National Policy Statements, Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on National Policy Statements, Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government, Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government 1:16, 2 May 2024

I chair a group of Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk MPs, some 15 of us, known as OffSET, the Offshore Electricity-grid Taskforce. We are campaigning for an offshore electricity transmission system in place of what National Grid now calls Norwich to Tilbury, to which my right hon. Friend Dr Coffey referred. I also join in the congratulations to my hon. Friend Matt Warman on securing this debate.

We in OffSET share our objective with ESNP—Essex Suffolk Norfolk Pylons, which is the citizens’ campaign against pylons—and we are backed by a petition of 32,000 people and growing, across the three counties. We all want the same: to make the best use of wind power from the North Sea, maximising the use of green electricity in the UK at acceptable cost, by providing new capacity to get offshore wind electricity and onshore solar to consumers in London. The more we have studied the proposals, the clearer it has become that the present Norwich-to-Tilbury plan will not meet those objectives. In fact, they are against the UK national interest and should not be approved by Ofgem.

I say that with no sense of blame for anyone involved. I think that the Minister, his predecessors, DESNZ officials, National Grid Electricity Transmission, National Grid ESO—Electricity System Operator—and Ofgem are all doing their best. The very fact that we now have a concept called “holistic network design”, however, underlines the shortcomings of the piecemeal approach driven by the old regulatory regime, which has given rise to the proposal.

We are delighted that the Government initiated the offshore co-ordination support scheme to fund studies into alternatives to the original National Grid proposal. That resulted in the “ESO East Anglia Network Study”, containing an evaluation of 10 further options for amending or improving Norwich to Tilbury. The shortage of time may preclude going back to the drawing board and starting a new offshore design from scratch, but Norwich to Tilbury is already discredited, and undeliverable without substantial revision.

ESO’s modelling still finds that the majority of proposed network designs, including all plausible options, fail to transmit the power from where it is generated to the high-demand areas and in particular to the constrained area of north London. The Government—I have written to the Minister about this—must insist that National Grid ESO conducts further modelling to resolve the northern boundary constraints into London. Option 5b in ESO study’s mentions a possible link between Tilbury and Isle of Grain, which might resolve the problem, but it is the very option that ESO has not yet modelled. Without that, Norwich to Tilbury cannot possibly be justified, and we have the data to prove it.

Under all plausible scenarios, interconnectors would export that clean electricity to Europe for 80% of the time at a loss to the UK, in order to avoid making constraint payments to the wind farms. That cannot possibly justify the 60 million pylons across our landscapes. That is the main reason why I oppose the new inter- connector with Germany called Tarchon, which would join a new National Grid East Anglian connection node near Ardleigh in my constituency. Ironically, that connection causes so much of the environmental damage. It requires the Norwich-to-Tilbury project to divert to the east of Colchester by crossing the Dedham Vale special landscape area and then to double back to the west, parallel to the line of the A12. Even undergrounding high-voltage AC cables is hugely disruptive to the landscape and its archaeology.

Tarchon would not proceed without an Ofgem-approved cap and floor agreement. Ofgem’s press release stated:

“Interconnectors can make energy supply cleaner, cheaper and more secure”,

but none of those three claims applies to Tarchon. The ESO report found that Tarchon will not increase UK electricity security even in the most extreme case and will not help us to achieve net zero. In fact, our exports reduce Germany’s carbon emissions but put ours up, because we continue to rely on fossil fuels to keep the lights on in London.

It gets worse: ESO’s analysis of the system constraints concludes that power will be exported even when overall UK prices are high. The constrained northern boundary into London means that Tarchon is expected to export power 80% of the time, regardless of domestic prices.

What about the cost to UK electricity bill payers? Tarchon will cost £5 billion, underwritten by electricity bill payers, and at least £7 billion in returns to the largely foreign investors will be protected. We cannot allow it to proceed. The fact that high-voltage direct current undergrounding has emerged as a viable option means that the Government should pause the great national grid upgrade. In Germany, HVDC is the default option—

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media & Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Housing, Communities & Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (The Constitution and Welsh Affairs) 1:21, 2 May 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I, too, congratulate Matt Warman on securing this very important debate. Like other colleagues, I want to voice and relay the concerns of many of my constituents across Ceredigion about the proposed new pylon line, which my hon. Friend Jonathan Edwards referred to.

The communities raising these concerns are not blind to the urgent need to address climate change and decarbonise our economy. Indeed, the Welsh Government’s “Energy Generation in Wales: 2022” report, which was published last October, details the equivalent percentage of local electricity consumption met by local renewable electricity generation for each county in Wales. For Ceredigion, 118% of our local electricity consumption in 2022 was met by local renewable electricity generation. The communities voicing concerns about the impact of new pylon infrastructure on the environment and the potential devaluation of their properties are not doing so from a point of ignorance and are not denying the urgent need to contribute to our decarbonisation efforts. Indeed, the communities along Ceredigion’s coastline and interior valleys have long made a contribution to these decarbonisation efforts, and will continue to do so.

At the heart of this debate is the idea of a just transition that balances the concerns of communities with the need for new infrastructure. Although definitions of a just transition differ, my understanding of the concept is that it is about seeking to bring about fairer outcomes from the transition to net zero by maximising the benefits of climate action and minimising the negative impacts on communities. We have already heard that a failure to ensure a just transition exacerbates inequalities, affects support for action to address climate change and biodiversity loss, and leads to legal challenges. Ultimately, it can impact policy implementation.

This is a difficult balance to strike, or at least it was in the past—I am very pleased to say to the Minister that a solution has been found to make things a lot easier. My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr mentioned a new technique called cable ploughing. We all agree that the national grid urgently needs upgrading and strengthening, but it is disappointing that the Government have thus far failed to consider the benefits and advantages of cable ploughing techniques by an innovative company based in my hon. Friend’s constituency in Pencader, further down the Teifi valley from some of the communities that have been impacted by this pylon line. It has been innovative in using spider ploughing machines to advance the way that cable ploughing techniques can install these transmission cables, and it drastically reduces the cost and time taken to complete the infrastructure upgrade.

In the past, the Government have argued that undergrounding is too expensive, but this new technique shows that it can be done much quicker, at a much lower cost, with a reduced impact on the local environment. It is worth emphasising the comparison between this cable ploughing technique and the erection of pylons. One pylon company said that it might take the best part of four months to install and equip a single pylon tower. We can compare that with the fact that ATP, the company in my hon. Friend’s constituency, averaged, when working on the Seagreen project, 1.45 km of cable installation per day. That means opening, installing and closing with just one cable ploughing machine, and with minimal environmental impact, such that the land was returned to the owner the following day. Cable ploughing could be a means of balancing the need for new electricity infrastructure with the importance of minimising not only financial costs but unnecessary environmental impact and community opposition.

The UK Government have repeatedly been asked to commission an up-to-date study to take into account these new techniques and a cost comparison with traditional pylon infrastructure. My ask for the Minister today is simply this: could he please agree to do so?

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings 1:25, 2 May 2024

My hon. Friend Matt Warman has done the House a service by bringing forward this matter for our consideration. I want, in the time available, to speak about three things: utility, beauty and legitimacy.

T. S. Eliot said:

“Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important.”

Such people invariably use utility to justify their claim: “This must be done. There are no other options. There is no choice. This is necessary.” But the truth is that very often there are competing necessities. Certainly, it is necessary to think strategically about a grid fit for the future. I try, as a matter of a mix of good taste and good judgment, to resist the arguments of Liberal Democrats, but Jamie Stone is frequently irresistible, and today Wera Hobhouse made an excellent point about the relationship between supply and demand. This is too rarely considered, and because it has not been considered enough—I first encountered the argument when I was the Energy Minister —transmission and distribution costs have grown and grown, so that they are now roughly 15% of every electricity bill. We do need a grid that works; that is a necessity. But there are other necessities too. In terms of utility, let us just think about the point that my hon. Friend James Wild made about sites of special scientific interest on the Wash —a unique habitat for migrating birds. Is that really compatible with 87 miles of 50-metre-high pylons? Of course it is not. That is a competing necessity.

Let me say a word about beauty. Those who do not know the fens will not necessarily appreciate the glory of the open landscape and the big skies that are justly celebrated. They have never been filled by tall structures, apart from churches—of course, churches are about God, in a way that pylons could never be. Let us not fill those big skies and destroy that precious, unique landscape in this way. It would be a crime, in my judgment, to do so. Let us believe in the beauty of the fens and the glory of our countryside—our green and pleasant land—and defend it. I hope that that is what my hon. Friend the Minister will do when he winds up this debate. National Grid does not seem concerned about that and, when challenged on cost—because cost-effectiveness is of course important—it frequently insists that no other option is viable, yet the Germans are looking at just such another option.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

I will give way to the hon. Lady, given that I was so nice about her earlier.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

I will be very quick. Should National Grid not recognise that all these objections actually increase the costs, because the timelines get much longer, and that is usually where the costs increase dramatically?

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

Absolutely, and as Lincolnshire County Council has pointed out, National Grid’s calculations underestimate the compensation that would be paid, the damage to the environment—all the other additional costs that are associated with putting pylons on land, but that will be avoided if cables are put under the ocean. That is what I gather the Welsh Government are now considering, and it is what the Germans have already taken as their default position. And yet we are told that pylons are the future. My goodness, when that was said, I could not help but laugh—without meaning to be impertinent in any way, Mrs Latham—because they are anything but the future. Surely that is yesterday’s approach to tomorrow’s problems.

Let us glory in beauty, in the way that the planning system now increasingly does. The new national planning policy framework, I am delighted to say, states:

“Planning policies and decisions should contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment by…recognising the intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside, and the wider benefits from natural capital and ecosystem services”.

Furthermore, when I asked the then Minister of State at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my right hon. and learned Friend Lucy Frazer, about the fens in particular, she said:

“Special consideration will…be given to preserving the landscapes of, for example, the Somerset levels, Romney Marsh and the magnificent fens of Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk.”—[Official Report, 13 December 2022;
Vol. 724, c. 1013.]

That is precisely what we want.

The third thing that I said I would speak about is legitimacy. I have a petition, initiated in my constituency and beyond, which has already attracted 1,200 signatures against the pylon proposals. Popular consent is essential if we are to get the support that we need for an energy policy that works. People do not want this. It is not necessary, it can be avoided and we expect the Minister to do just that, in the name of the people, of utility, of beauty and of legitimacy.

Photo of Dave Doogan Dave Doogan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy Security and Net Zero) 1:30, 2 May 2024

It is nice to see you in the Chair, Mrs Latham. I offer a great many thanks to Matt Warman for securing this important debate. It is clear that elected Members are consistent in their approach to the situation, no matter the colour of their rosette. I will seek as far as possible not to be too political in my observations, and I hope that I succeed in that ambition.

My constituents, like many others, are frustrated with the opacity of the dynamic The network owner and operators in the north of Scotland is Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks—the corresponding body in England and Wales is National Grid—and the process of holding it to account is extremely frustrating. With some legitimacy, SSEN will say, “We have been tasked by the ESO to deliver this much energy down this corridor with this price envelope and by this time,” and when we crunch those numbers, we end up with pylons. If we speak to the ESO about that frustration, it says, “Oh, no, we are technology agnostic. We do not care how SSEN deliver that system—that is up to them—as long as it is consistent with our delivery schedules.” That is a clear disconnect from the outset.

The ESO has been guilty of gross complacency in anticipating that when delivering this level of civil engineering across sensitive parts of this island—we are talking purely about GB, rather than UK—people locally will say, “That’s okay. I don’t mind pylons. Just throw them up wherever you like and we will all get on with it.” That is not acceptable or legitimate, and that is distinct from the ambition to decarbonise our electricity system and the ambitions of net zero.

There is no debate about the need to transmit the electricity from where it is generated to where it is required, but it is about how we do that. We have heard a whole range of compelling arguments this afternoon about why we should look at alternative solutions, and I will touch on some of the difficulty that my constituents in Angus face around that dynamic. These are very exercised, intelligent and experienced people saying no to the prospect of pylons going through the northern opening of the big Strath—Strathmore. I am not sure if hon. Members are familiar with Angus. We have heard about the garden of Wales, and I can assure everyone that Angus is the garden of Scotland. Strathmore is not designated to be an area of outstanding natural beauty, but I assure everyone that it is beautiful, outstanding and natural.

We already have a 275 kV line coming down the Strath. We have a prospect under the ESO’s holistic network design of an additional 400 kV pylon line coming down the Strath. We now learn that under the TCSNP, which is nothing to do with my party—apparently it is a strategic network plan, but it is not very strategic, if you ask me—there is an additional 400 kV line to come down the Strath. It is not realistic or fair to think that people will say, “Oh well, that’s okay. We accept that three towering lines of pylons must come down one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland.” It is not fair to constituents across GB who are similarly affected, and it is not fair to our collective ambition to decarbonise our energy system. Undoubtedly, because of the complacency of the ESO—goodness knows what Ofgem was doing throughout all this—there will be planning appeals, delays and public inquiries. Where does that leave our ambitions for net zero?

For context, Scotland generates 11.4 GW from wind—we are probably delivering against that today. We are connected to England, where the market largely is, by a 6 GW interconnector, so we can see the scale of the gap we are talking about. The wind generation capacity that has been developed in Scotland by both the Scottish and the UK Governments did not happen overnight; it has happened over two decades. It is therefore a fairly ignominious position for the UK Government to find themselves in, where there is such a chronic mismatch between transmission capacity and generating capacity. That is important, because the roll-out of the network is a firefight. It has not been done in a planned and strategic manner, with proper stakeholder engagement and management. It is being rushed through, in relative terms, overnight because the situation is critical.

We heard from Dr Coffey about the need to pay generators curtailment fees because we cannot get their energy on to the network, but that is only half the story. We are not factoring in the cost of switching on gas to replace the energy we need from wind but that we cannot get to the market because of constraints on the network. Then, when we start to look at the gross effect of that cost build-up, we open the door to looking at more expensive infrastructure other than pylons and still having a sound business case. That is the ambition of constituents in Angus and in many other places as well.

Undergrounding and, in particular, offshoring need to be looked at, for interconnectors going from Scotland to England, where the population centres are towards the south. Offshoring should be the default position until we can make a robust argument against such an ambition, for which the challenges are manifold. In Angus, we have the very start of where seed potatoes can be grown. It is a tremendously important cash crop for Scotland, which cannot really be grown elsewhere in GB. However, crops are literally blighted by potato cyst nematode, which goes from farm to farm. What, therefore, happens when all the construction vehicles are going from farm to farm in my part of the world and in other places in the north of Scotland? It is not acceptable.

I listened with care to Jamie Stone and I accept as an actual matter of fact the role of the Scottish Government in planning and their ability to make a decision. Let us not, however, try and saddle the Scottish Government with the burden of the impact on communities. They are just as keen as the UK Government to see network capacity developed, but, unlike the UK Government and their agencies, they are not mandating how it should be developed. They will take a role under planning law—I am sure I do not need to explain that planning is quasi-judicial and a decision is not made on the basis of how someone is feeling one day—and transact that consistent with policy in Scotland. However, this is not a challenge of the Scottish Government’s creation. Energy is a reserved matter for the UK Government and the UK Parliament, so the genesis of the challenge remains here at Westminster.

I want to underline that my constituents, and I am sure the constituents of everyone in this room, are talking about their need and their ambitions to see something more innovative and more realistic, consistent with their ambitions and the natural environment. A discussion is needed about cost-benefit analysis where the cost is not simply financial; it is about the cost to society, the cost to communities and the cost to the environment. That all needs to be factored in as well. It must also be understood that the infrastructure is disaggregated across 40 million billpayers and then, again, across many decades of return on capital invested by the infrastructure. It will last for many decades. When we are therefore initially confronted with a figure that is £1 billion, £2 billion, £3 billion or possibly £4 billion more expensive than option A, we have to look at what that means in terms of an actual cost to an actual billpayer per year. I am not satisfied that that type of analysis has been done.

My constituents, along with right hon. and hon. Members in this debate, are frustrated that they have neither the cost of the pylon route to come through their part of this island, nor a comparative analysis of what the undergrounding or subsea solution would be, other than that it would be expensive. That kind of nebulous nonsense does not wash with people. They will have to have some further detail on that.

Mrs Latham, I have no shortage of respect and admiration for Mark Fletcher, but I am very disappointed that there is no Minister from the Department present to hear this debate. I trust—in fact, I am sure—that we will get a sturdy and robust response from the Minister here today, but it is a pity it was not one from the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero.

Photo of Pauline Latham Pauline Latham Conservative, Mid Derbyshire

For future reference, my name is pronounced “Layth-am”, not “Lath-am”.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero) 1:40, 2 May 2024

I will make sure to pronounce your name “Layth-am”, and not otherwise, Mrs Latham. And, given my experience in previous debates, I will make sure that I face you when speaking this afternoon.

I congratulate Matt Warman on obtaining this Backbench Business debate. It has been very interesting, and has enabled us to set out the exquisite dilemma in terms of the relationship between the imperatives of grid strengthening and grid development, and managing our processes in such a way as to ensure that everything we are doing for the net zero imperative can be connected and organised so that we get the benefit of the renewable change for the future. That undoubtedly means—and this is a very basic reality check—that we cannot do without a huge extension and development of our grids, both onshore and offshore, in order to bring about that future benefit.

In addition, it is estimated that we will consume or demand something like 64% more electricity—possibly even more than that, as the Minister points out—across our country by 2035. That all has to be supplied, delivered and landed. Among other things, as Virginia Crosbie pointed out, we first have to make sure that the new power we are producing—onshore, offshore, new nuclear, offshore wind, floating wind, or whatever it may be—gets connected up so that it can deliver the additional electricity.

Secondly, we also have to make sure that the new power can get where it needs to go. As other hon. Members have mentioned, we have a huge crisis in our country at the moment, namely a failure to deliver power from where it is landed to where it is needed. We have a tremendous constraint problem in the delivery of power across the country, particularly north-south. Constraining power that is landed when it should be flowing down the cables to where it is needed will potentially be a huge waste of resource for the future.

I have said that this is a serious dilemma, when we consider the current proposals to make progress on this particular issue—as it happens, there is a new publication called, “Beyond 2030: A national blueprint for a decarbonised electricity system in Great Britain.” It was published about a month ago by the Energy System Operator, which of course is not the national grid; it is the system operator, which will become the National Energy System Operator very shortly. This publication is part of the strategic planning arrangement for the future.

We can see from that “blueprint” that most of what will be wanted past 2030 is offshore. The bootstraps that have been mentioned, in terms of dealing with constraint issues, are all offshore. I lay some blame at the Government’s door for the arrangements for landing offshore wind energy in the future. Unlike the point-to-point arrangements in the past for offshore wind, the future arrangements will deal with nodal collection out to sea and therefore the energy will be landed at many fewer points.

Many hon. Members have asked whether those arrangements should be largely at sea, and the answer is, “Yes, they will be largely at sea, and quite right, too.” That is what we need to ensure we keep our eye on, in planning for the future. To go back to the dilemma, however, that arrangement cannot be the case everywhere; we cannot simply manage a system of new cabling where it all goes out to sea, it is not landed and not transported across the country.

The problem that we all have to solve is where those things are not out at sea and have to be on land—a pretty limited number of the proposals in the “Beyond 2030” report are on land—and how we can do that in the best way to ensure, as hon. Members have already said this afternoon, we take the public with us and are united in recognising why we need those particular things to happen and why they are being done.

I am very interested in the observations today about how we can ameliorate what we put across land when we recognise that there is an imperative for us to do so, taking into account all the other things that are already being done offshore. First, that means—this is actually in the gift of Government right now—that we change the arrangements whereby undergrounding is always considered to be a much more costly operation, simply because the full effect is not taken into account, as Wera Hobhouse mentioned. That full effect is the overall strategic effect of undergrounding as opposed to building pylons in onshore arrangements.

If we had a different way of measuring that full effect through our permissioning systems, we would go a long way towards making undergrounding a much better proposition for onshore arrangements. Indeed, as Ben Lake said, the interesting new developments in cable ploughing and other technology can substantially reduce the cost of undergrounding in the future.

There are several ways, including demand-side measures, to establish whether we actually need quite the length of cabling that we think we will need in the future, and there are ways in which we can make that imperative much more palatable to our population. What is not on the table is doing nothing about cable extensions because, as I have said, that would just take us back to the dilemma of the imperative—we have got to get on with cable extensions and very quickly if we are to deliver our green revolution.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I have heard SSEN ask on several occasions, “Well, what can we do for the community to make things more acceptable?” That type of proposed deal strikes me as unacceptable. I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees that just offering something to a community will not really sort the problem at all. “You take the pylons, and we’ll do this and do that”—I bet that we have all experienced that type of exchange.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. The idea of bunging people a few pounds to make something that is a problem less of a problem is not really a long-term strategy. Instead, we need to gain first understanding and secondly consent for what we continue to do overground, and indeed to try to integrate that with what we do at sea, to ensure we have maximised those arrangements. That will allow us to say that we have got our grid together so that it can face the demands that will be placed on it, and that we have done so in a way that allows our country to work well for the future. This afternoon, I hope the Minister will concentrate his thoughts on how we do that together.

Photo of Mark Fletcher Mark Fletcher Assistant Whip 1:50, 2 May 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I must apologise that the Minister responsible, my hon. Friend Justin Tomlinson, was unable to be here today, as he is otherwise engaged. I congratulate my hon. Friend Matt Warman on securing this debate. As I listened to some of the contributions, I did regret that the Minister responsible did not leave me his hard hat. Indeed, since I was told yesterday that I would be responding to this debate, my right hon. Friends the Members for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) and for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams) and my hon. Friend James Cartlidge have all contacted me about this issue, so I have some idea of the pressures that come with this role. I can see that this is a particularly difficult issue for many constituents.

An expanded electricity network is critical to lowering consumer bills, securing our energy supply, delivering green growth and skilled jobs and decarbonising our electricity system, but it must be delivered strategically and sensitively, in a way that considers and mitigates the impacts on communities and on our treasured landscapes. I thank all hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions today. We all recognise that this is an important subject for our communities. My colleagues and I are clear that community voices must be heard in our transformation of the electricity system. As the Prime Minister has made clear, we are making the change to net zero in a way that supports communities and families. That is true for new electricity infrastructure, and the organisations responsible for the planning and delivery of that infrastructure are working to deliver on that.

This country is undergoing an energy revolution, which has reducing consumer costs, respecting environmental and community considerations and protecting national security at its core. Members will be under no illusion that in order to bring new home-grown electricity on to the system, we must expand the electricity network considerably, rewiring from where new generation is being built, in our wind-rich seas and new coastal nuclear sites, and connecting it to areas of demand. We anticipate that we will need to meet double the current level of demand by 2050, and we will need an efficient, high-tech system to transport that power to drive our country forward.

The Government are leading efforts to speed up this network expansion to connect new generation and demand when and where it is needed. We are acutely mindful of the potential visual impacts of electricity transmission infrastructure on communities, particularly overhead lines. The reinforcement of the network to transport this low-carbon electricity is being delivered through a balance of methods, including making upgrades to existing infrastructure, such as offshore and undersea power cables. The use of undergrounding is the starting presumption in nationally designated areas—national parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty—to protect those landscapes.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

Given what I said about the agreement the Government made to protect flat lands such as the fens in relation to onshore wind, which involves much lower structures, will the Government, on the grounds of consistency, add the fens to the list the Minister has just set out?

Photo of Mark Fletcher Mark Fletcher Assistant Whip

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I am not empowered to give that particular positive response, but he has already called on me throughout the debate to respect beauty, and I hear what he has said loud and clear.

Elsewhere, overhead lines should be the strong starting presumption, but this remains flexible, and undergrounding may be used in other areas in certain circumstances, namely where there is a high potential for widespread adverse landscapes and/or visual impacts. Such decisions will be weighed up through the planning process. The Government have worked with the Electricity Systems Operator to create a new process for strategic planning for electricity networks, which considers the four principles of impacts: on the environment, on communities, on costs to consumers, and on the deliverability and operability of that system. That design process looks at the network holistically, identifying areas where existing infrastructure should be upgraded and reinforced, and considering where co-ordination efficiencies, or innovations such as offshore cabling, can be used to reduce the overall impact on communities of infrastructure expansion.

New innovations in cable technology are enabling a very substantial offshore network to be created to help reduce the need for new transmission infrastructure on land. The recommendations in the ESO’s most recent network plans mean that, by 2035, three times as much undersea cabling could be laid than new pylons in Britain. However, we will inevitably require some new onshore infrastructure, as those offshore links have to make landfall and run inland. We must also consider the impacts on the marine environment and marine users, such as the fisheries industry, just as we would on land, as well as the far greater costs of offshore cabling.

Photo of Dave Doogan Dave Doogan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy Security and Net Zero)

I respect the Minister’s logic, but while it is all very well to transmit subsea, it has to come on land somewhere to find its way to the consumer base. The line that I am talking about, which goes between Aberdeen and Carlisle, is transmitting energy down half the length of GB. That is not making landfall; that is transmitting down the land of the island. It is a different proposition, and is it not inconsistent with his logic?

Photo of Mark Fletcher Mark Fletcher Assistant Whip

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. I have to be incredibly careful when it comes to the specifics of individual projects. He will appreciate, as he mentioned in his own speech, that there is a quasi-judicial role for the Department and for the Secretary of State, so he will forgive me if I do not comment on a specific case.

I recognise the concerns that communities have about energy infrastructure projects proposed in their areas, and hon. Members are right to raise that issue today. That is why, in last year’s autumn statement, the Chancellor announced proposals for a community benefits scheme for communities living near new transmission network infrastructure. That will see communities receive funding of £200,000 per kilometre of overhead lines in their area, £40,000 per kilometre of underground cables, and £200,000 per substation—and communities can decide how that funding is best spent locally. In addition to those generous community benefits, the Chancellor also announced that properties closest to the new transmission network infrastructure will receive electricity discounts of up to £1,000 per year for 10 years.

Of course, the electricity system needs to be expanded at a scale and a pace not seen for decades, but that must be done—and is being done—with community views at the forefront. That transformation will not only reduce household energy bills but foster skilled jobs and high-quality investment across Great Britain. Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness, and I am incredibly conscious that he should have some time to finish up at the end. I will return to the Whips Office, where I will be silent forever more.

Photo of Pauline Latham Pauline Latham Conservative, Mid Derbyshire

Unfortunately, there is not time for the hon. Member to wind up.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered pylons and upgrades to the national grid.