HC Deb 30 July 1959 vol 610 cc765-77

3.57 p.m.

Mr. W. F. Deedes (Ashford)

I am genuinely sorry to detain my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power until almost the last phase of this Session, and I acknowledge with gratitude his presence here to deal with a matter which arises from the decision to put one of the nuclear power stations at Dungeness and to convey power, by overhead line on pylons, thence to Canterbury. My hon. Friend will know that the advent of this station and the power line is anticipated with mixed feelings, at least in East Kent. These feelings have had some expression—in respect both of the power station and of the overhead line—at the inquiry which was conducted last October and the result of which has just been promulgated.

I shall exercise considerable restraint and resist the temptation to rake over that ground with my hon. Friend this afternoon. I have come to the conclusion that it would be profitless to do so. In East Kent there is resentment and even suspicion, especially in regard to the decision to run the line of pylons on one of the two alternate routes originally proposed—and on the route which seems contrary to all the independent evidence offered at the inquiry. Against that. I must in honesty place on record my own belief that these inquiries are conducted by competent inspectors, who give honest findings, and if there was any monkey business in this case it was certainly not on the part of the inspector associated with my hon. Friend's Ministry, or with that of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government.

The fact is that entering public inquiries against bodies like the Central Electricity Generating Board is a little like playing poker with the jolly man on the Brighton train. No matter how many aces one holds, one always loses. But I am restraining my comment on this matter. I accept the Report with reluctance and I do not expect my hon. Friend to comment upon it.

My object is to raise with him some matters which are calculated to ameliorate the results not only for us but for people in other parts of England who are to have these gigantic installations erected in their areas. We all want light and power, and most of us take a proper pride in the lead which this country has achieved in the development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes—but we all want these installations to be erected elsewhere. That is a natural and not irrational reaction, and I am not wasting time by pursuing it again.

The first serious thing that I must say to my hon. Friend is that he and anyone else associated with this tremendous development must not make light, nor encourage anyone else to make light, of the very great price which has to be paid for this programme in terms of things which count tremendously with a lot of people. Because an inquiry has given the right of way, that is not the end of it. In this case, naturalists, ornithologists and others have lost much in this area which for them was precious to save, and all of us who are associated with this part of Kent have lost the silent, open spaces of the Romney Marshes, which are really a great national possession and irreplaceable, and for that I think the whole country is the poorer. There are not many of these places left now where men and women can get away from the sound of a hammer. It is too easy, as some people try to do, to make light of the claims of bird watchers and those who want a little solitude and silence. I do not want to do that, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will not try to do so.

It seems to me to be the heart of this policy that these stations must go into remote places. Thomas Hardy's famous heath, that strange, central character in "The Return of the Native", has gone in Wessex, and now Romney Marshes, or a great part of them, which have inspired quite a lot of literature on their own account, are to go. Perhaps my hon. Friend will say why these installations must be built in remote areas. Would there be any danger to the public if they were built near centres of population, and are the reasons solid or psychological? Is it likely that we shall be told in five or ten years' time, when the marshes and heaths have been invaded, that all is well now and that they might have gone nearer to the centres of population, or that they might have gone to the estuaries, because I appreciate their tremendous thirst for salt water elsewhere. That is my first main point.

It is not only the stations which concern us. They have to have lines to carry their power, in this particular case, as my hon. Friend will know, to serve a double purpose. They will bring power from the station and they will take power to Europe. In East Kent, we are to have pylons 125 ft. high in order to do the job. The man who tells me that I must suffer pylons 125 ft. high in the name of progress I can just endure, but the man who tells me that I shall eventually get used to them causes my gorge to rise. By any standard, 125 ft. pylons are ruinous to the English landscape and to any sweep of countryside, whether hill or dale. There is no other word for it. They may be inevitable, but as long as those responsible for them delude themselves, as some do, that after a while we shall all get used to them and get to like—even to love—them, there is precious little urge to think of alternatives.

These giant pylons apart, this country is becoming a birdcage. I know that we must all have electricity, and no one needs to persuade me of the boon it is to the countryside, but the lines and pylons which bear them, and which proliferate, must be characterised as ugly, and cannot be glossed over by euphemistic talk about the silver-laced wings of twentieth century power. "Silver-laced" my foot!

I am immediately concerned with these giants 125 ft. high. I am told that to run the lines in this way costs £25,000) a mile, and that to lay the lines underground would cost £300,000 a mile. That brings me to my next point. I want to ask my hon. Friend whose figure is that of £300,000 a mile? It is tossed about very confidently at inquiries, and is generally accepted as authoritative, but who produced it? Can my hon. Friend say, in these days of enormous mechanical excavators, what brings in such a bill? I think a great number of people affected by these stations and their power lines would like to know a little more about it. My information, subject to my hon. Friend's correction, is that this figure is produced by the private companies who make the cables. I am not suggesting any funny business, but I ask my hon. Friend to say whether that figure has been submitted to any independent scrutiny. Has that been done? If not, I ask that it should be.

My third point is rather broader and I do not expect a detailed reply. But, in common with a number of people, I become increasingly depressed—indeed, I think the Royal Fine Art Commission said something on these lines some weeks ago—about our prosaic approach to some of these great modern installations, nor only those within the orbit of my hon. Friend, like power stations, but motor roads and the rest. Our approach so often seems to be a purely negative one, due possibly to the domination of the engineers and the subordination of the architects.

It is surely not only a matter of stopping the worst, but, when building something as large as a power station, of seeking to inspire the best. Some of our greatest engineers in the past have done it in this country and in your own, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and the Americans are showing how it can be done today. We cannot buy this for money, and I am not telling my hon. Friend that by slapping another million on the price of a power station we will necessarily achieve grace. At the same time, tight contracts breed bad, ugly building, and I relate this to the great inestimable loss to which I referred earlier. No reasonable sum should be allowed to stand in the way of giving these great lumps a touch of grandeur. Let us, anyway, try to evoke the best that our architects and engineers can produce.

Here I turn to a point of detail. When these projects are being sold to us, the most beguiling photographs appear of a peaceful seashore and, nestling beside it, a great symmetrical clean-limbed power station. "Just a few hundred will be working quietly there", we are told. True, we must suffer some thousands building it for seven years, but after that we are ready to think that the birds will be back, that peace will descend and silence will reign. I think in reality that will prove eyewash. That is not how it turns out. Huts, garages, outbuildings, petrol stations, approach roads, dumps and a lot of appendages have got to be added to these major establishments. The perimeter is likely to emerge quite differently from its appearance in these preliminary advertisements. A landscape architect should be given control over the whole of an area into which one of these stations is to go. There must be overall design control, and I would welcome reflection on that point by my hon. Friend.

Now I come to my final point, and with it I utter a warning. Since the war successive Governments, quite rightly, I believe, have tried to impose stricter control on development by private individuals, by local authorities and so on. I accept the need for this, although I find it difficult to understand most of the Town and Country Planning Acts. But these standards impose obligations of examples not only on the Government, but on Government agencies such as the agency which is now responsible for building up nuclear power. We cannot have one law for the large and another law for the little.

Lately—perhaps too late—the statutory obligations of these Acts have been supplemented by what I would call amenity-consciousness. This is being fostered increasingly by amenity societies and is being most wisely guided by a body like the Civic Trust which has the respectable patronage of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence. Indeed, I think he was largely responsible for its beginning. I must tell my hon. Friend that I propose, with some willing assistance, to apply these standards, both statutory and non-statutory, most rigorously in every phase of forthcoming operations in East Kent. It may well be necessary for me periodically to report to this House on how we are getting along. I think this may prove a very useful and instructive exercise.

Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine (Rye)

Not only in East Kent, but in East Sussex.

Mr. Deedes

In East Sussex as well. I shall be fortified in this by having as my neighbours my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Sir T. Low), my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Sir H. Mackeson), my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. L. Thomas) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rye (Mr. Godman Irvine) willing to lend a hand. I find I have a wealth of legal and architectural guidance at hand. We shall see that in all respects the standards the State applies through Acts to the private individual, and those standards we are encouraged to attain at the civic level, are fulfilled in this nuclear programme. When there are shortcomings we shall have to take appropriation action. We shall be strict, but, I hope, just. We may be regarded as the vigilantes of a nuclear age which I know my hon. Friend will heartily approve and endorse.

Meanwhile, I invite him to say what he can to show that he and his Ministry are willing to do all they reasonably can to redress the losses which cannot be calculated in pounds, kilowatts, dollars or power, but which, none the less, are heavily borne and deeply felt.

4.11 p.m.

Mr. Stanley McMaster (Belfast, East)

I do not intend to keep the House for long, but there is one thing to which I want to draw the attention of the Minister. It is that in this country we have a great need to develop atomic power. No matter where we site our power stations there is bound to be difficulty and complaint, but the welfare of many people in this country will depend on the rapid development of atomic power stations.

I should very much like to see an atomic power station developed in Northern Ireland. We have just heard in the news that there is threatened redundancy at Short and Harlands, very heavy redundancy. Development of atomic power throughout the country and in Northern Ireland may help us to employ more people, not only in atomic power, but in other industries. We heard earlier today an excellent contribution to the debate about a dry dock.

I should also like to see a dry dock in Northern Ireland, but that debate is over now. I am very much in favour of pressing on, as this country has pressed on, with this very important matter of atomic power research and development in the interests of the community and of trade, about which we have heard a great deal in this Session, and on which the prosperity of all our people depends.

4.14 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Sir Ian Horobin)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) for introducing this subject. I think I can go so far as to say that, with very few and minor exceptions, I associate myself with everything he said. The protection of the beauty—I think that is a much nicer word than the horrible word "amenities"—of this lovely island of ours should be, and is, a major consideration for all who have any responsibility for initiating or controlling development.

I am bound to say, however, that I think we ought to keep a sense of proportion in this matter. I am not by any means sure that the damage to beauty in this country is as great from electricity high pylons and big main generation and transmission stations as it is from the absolutely indefensible jungle of wires in so many of our beautiful villages and country towns which could be far more easily avoided and corrected. Moreover, from many years intimate knowledge I know the territory with which my hon. Friend and others, to whom he has referred, are concerned, from Hythe right away West to Winchelsea.

I ask hon. Members representing constituencies in that part of the country to consider whether any damage which may be done by major electricity generation and transmission can equal the vulgar desecration which has been produced all along that lovely coastline by bungalows, caravans and every kind of un- controlled or poorly controlled and ill-designed development. Let us keep some sense of proportion.

Nevertheless, two blacks do not make a white and what my hon. Friend has in mind is a very serious problem. I will try to answer one or two points which he raised. We must face the fact, as my hon. Friend very fairly did, that for one reason or another, nearly all of them good, the demand for electricity in this country is insatiable. It is doubling every ten or twelve years. The demand for it in rural areas is, if anything, keener than in built-up areas.

For every one letter which the Ministry receives making complaints or asking for speedier advance in electricity supplies in built up areas, we receive ten or twenty from hon. Members such as my hon. Friend saying, "Why do you not hurry on with rural electrification? Why do you not supply people in the country so that they do not go off to the towns? Why do you not put electricity here so that people do not go south?" Therefore, the Generating Board and the Ministry have a problem which we simply have to endeavour to meet with the minimum of damage.

Why do these nuclear stations, in particular, have at present, by and large, to go to scantily populated districts? It is very important to be careful in one's account, because there may be dangers in overstatement either way. I am very anxious that anything which one says in defending the present policy should not do damage to the development of the nuclear programme by awakening false alarm. I can assure the hon. Member and the House that every precaution which is humanly possible at every stage is being taken by the A.E.A., the Ministry and the Central Electricity Generating Board to ensure that these strange new powerful installations are safe. The safety record of the nuclear industry is better than most other industries in this country.

But these installations are new. We have no long practical experience of running them. The first of the major stations is not yet commissioned. There are always remote possibilities of human frailty in their operation which might—we do not think that it will; in fact, we are nearly certain that it will not—cause difficulties such as arose on a small scale in the Windscale incident. If anything, unlikely as it may seem, of that sort occurred there is always the remote possibility of fission products and radioactivity in the immediate neighbourhood, which might in certain circumstances lead to the need for evacuation in the near vicinity, to tests perhaps further afield, to the putting out of action of food production in the neighbourhood, and so on.

I repeat that all these things are extremely unlikely, and everything which can be done to prevent them is being done. However an ounce of practice is worth a ton of even the most advanced nuclear theory. In case any of these things should become necessary, it is surely common sense for the Government and the Generating Board to lay down the principle that the number of people in the immediate vicinity should be kept as small as possible so that the possible danger and the difficulty of the task involved if anything should go wrong are reduced to a minimum.

That is a balanced statement, so far as I can make it, of the reasons why, although we think that these things are safe and no precautions are omitted, nevertheless at this stage it is common sense to site them in districts where, if anything went wrong, the problem would be manageable.

I turn to the second point which my hon. Friend put to me. He asked whether, if we have to site them in this area and link them up in a grid and run transmission lines, it is practicable to put lines underground where they will not be seen. I ought to remind my hon. Friend that the need for a grid has nothing to do with the nuclear stations at all. Under modern conditions any station has to be big. In fact, the biggest station under contemplation is not a nuclear station but a conventional station. These stations must be big and they must be interlinked. That is not new but dates back for thirty years, long before anybody had thought of nuclear power stations.

If we have to link them and if, for reasons which I have given, some of the stations must be in districts far away from populated centres, is it not possible to avoid using overhead lines to link them? I have looked into the question of the enormous disparity in cost I do not pretend to be an electrical transmission engineer and, as far as I know, my hon. Friend is not, either. One can, however, get a common-sense account given one, and I have gone out of my way to have it given to me by experts from my Department and from the Central Electricity Generating Board in order to give a broad picture. If my hon. Friend will follow me in a not very technical and short exposition, he will appreciate the point.

If we put a power transmission line up in the air we have to support it with something about four times in a mile, and at that point we have to insulate it, but we do not have to insulate it anywhere else, because the air does it for us and nothing can touch it. The costs are, therefore, comparatively small. Incidentally, the type of conductor can be different, but I need not go into that at this stage.

If we put it underground we must insulate it everywhere, and the insulation is remarkably complicated. I had a sample on my desk which I thought of bringing to the House, but it is very heavy. If my hon. Friend would like to see it, I will show it to him. It is not just a matter of insulating in the way in which we think of insulating a wire in a car. For these high voltages we wrap round the core, in the first place, 1 in. or more of carefully prepared paper. Since the paper must not get damp we wrap lead round that. Since the lead must be protected we then put steel wire round the lead. As the steel wire might corrode, we must wrap some bituminised substance round the steel wire which is round the lead which is round the paper which is round the copper.

The result is that instead of a total cost of £23,000 or so a mile, the cost of the cable alone is over £200,000 a mile, and the total cost is at least 50 per cent. above that when we include trenching and filling in. In certain circumstances, with which I will not bother my hon. Friend, there can be another £100,000 on top of that to overcome the peculiar problems of instability due to the condenser properties of the cable.

I hope that my hon. Friend will take it, with this very simple and, I have no doubt, partly inaccurate layman's explanation, that this is not something which people have merely thought up. In essence, it means that instead of having to insulate a very powerful and dangerous thing at four points in a mile we must insulate it for the whole of its length, and this is a very expensive business.

Having done my best to explain that point, I should like to turn to the question of design. De gustibus non dispu-tandum. Nobody will be quite certain that his taste in these matters is correct. I return to the point which I have already made. Personally, I very much doubt whether the standard of design of these great installations leaves very much to be criticised, granted that they have to be produced at all. There is, however, a part-time member of the Board, a very eminent man, Sir William Holford, a member of the Royal Fine Art Commission, who has general supervision of all these matters. In addition, the designs of these power stations are submitted to the Royal Fine Art Commission.

I am not suggesting that what the Commission says artistically will always be accepted. I dare say that my hon. Friend shares with me the experience sometimes, when we go to some modern exhibitions in other artistic directions, of wondering how anybody produced the exhibits in the first place, let alone liked them. I would only point out that such expert advice as we can get is available to the Board and, is in fact, used.

That applies, incidentally, to the pylons also. I do not think that we can do much about pylons once we have decided that they must be there, but I am advised that half-a-dozen designs were submitted by eminent architects for the main pylons and that the design used was chosen from among them. I say that to show that it is not haphazard but that a serious effort is made to look into these matters.

I should like to take the opportunity of putting the record right in a matter which my hon. Friend the Member for Rye (Mr. Godman Irvine) raised on an Adjournment debate some time ago, on 23rd June. I explained to him and the House then that while the existing arrangements between the various local authorities concerned in all this are not a matter for the Ministry, I had endeavoured to go carefully into the details of the method by which their obligations and the statutory obligations of the Generating Board had been exercised in connection with the Dungeness Station and its connections westwards.

The position as I explained it to him was that the Generating Board had to make certain observations to the Kent County Council and to a borough council in Kent; that Kent took certain steps with the Sussex County Council and the Sussex County Council took certain steps with the Battle Rural District Council. In fact, I explained what happened between the first alerting of these authorities and the inquiry in December.

The broad picture I gave was correct, but I am sorry to say that in one minor particular my information was incorrect and I wish to take this opportunity to put the record straight. I informed my hon. Friend in that debate that the Battle Rural District Council with which he is especially concerned had been told in writing by the Sussex County Council, who had themselves been told by the Kent County Council, where it could obtain further details about the proposed installation of which it had been alerted. My information was obtained for me on the telephone in time for the debate and really had nothing to do directly with my own Ministry.

I was left under the impression that the information was given in a letter from Kent to Sussex and from Sussex to Battle, but, in fact, it was given by the Central Electricity Generating Board by advertisement in the Press. I am sorry about that incorrectness. It does not affect the point at issue. I make no reflection either on the Kent or Sussex County Councils, or on the Battle Rural District Council. We are making every effort to get this machinery as nearly perfect as possible and the Ministry and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government are now engaged in seeing whether we can learn any lesson from this inquiry. We shall probably never get the matter perfect, but we shall do what we can.

In conclusion, my general answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford and those acting with him is that I wish them good luck in ensuring that no opportunity is lost to minimise the damage. I am afraid that there must be some damage, if the development of electricity is to proceed as rapidly as I am sure most of his constituents would desire. There is nothing between us in our desire to see that the remaining beauties of our lovely countryside are not unnecessarily spoilt by the development of power industries which are. I think, inseparable from modern progress.