HC Deb 10 March 1960 vol 619 cc778-86

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bryan.]

10.1 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Mulley (Sheffield, Park)

After the very large questions with which the House has been concerned today and the large sums of money involved, I must ask it now to turn, rather characteristically in our procedure, to a very small matter. I recall one of the most penetrating remarks that I read when the Soviet Union produced its Sputnik. In one newspaper a lady wrote, "If it is going to be possible in the near future to send a rocket to the moon, I think it should soon be possible for electricity to be brought into my street". Our concern tonight is not so much the provision of electricity in the houses in question, but of the electricity supply being adequate. There should be maintained a sufficient volume of current so that the consumers can gain the benefit of the electrical installation.

The houses in question are about fifty in Fellbrigg Road, Sheffield, in my constituency. The most surprising feature of this matter is that the persons concerned have been so patient because, as I understand it, over the last three or four years in the winter months, between the hours of 7 and 11 in the evening, it is often the case that there is not sufficient current to give enough light for them to read or sew. In particular, in recent years, there has been insufficient current for them to enjoy reasonable reception from their television sets. This concerns not only that locality but is even more widespread.

In this connection, I am obliged to the Yorkshire Electricity Board for the following information. I am told that television is a good voltmeter, and in the Electrical Journal for 22nd January last there appeared this statement: At a recent meeting of the North-Eastern Electricity Consultative Council … the Chief Commercial Officer of the Board acknowledged that variations in supply would probably never be noticed but for television, which made a good voltmeter. In the case with which I am concerned, I am assured by the people living in those houses that it is very much worse than merely not getting a satisfactory supply. It is freely acknowledged by the Yorkshire Electricity Board that the voltage frequently falls outside the statutory permitted variation of plus or minus 6 per cent.

The question with which we are concerned is, what can be done about it? I do not wish to attack the Yorkshire Electricity Board, or indeed the electricity industry generally. I know that there have been arrears as a result of the war and that the board has been placed in serious difficulties as the result of a substantial number of capital cuts that have been imposed on the nationalised industries as part of the Government's financial policy.

We know that the local authorities and the nationalised industries have suffered from capital cuts and variations in their capital programmes in the last few years, but I think that the additional sub-station, which, I believe, is all that is necessary to provide adequate supplies to this street, should not be allowed, after four years, still to be wanting. It seems wrong, both in principle and as a matter of trading practice, for the electricity authority to be extending its supply, using capital equipment for new consumers at a time when existing consumers are not getting satisfactory service.

I believe—though I am no expert on the technical aspects—that while the supply may not be sufficient to give them adequate light or to run their television or other apparatus, it is still sufficient to turn the meter so that they seem to be paying the same amount as they would be if they were getting a proper supply. Certainly they are paying, I understand, the normal fixed charge, which is on the normal two-way tariff basis, and they pay that whether or not they are getting a satisfactory service.

I understand from correspondence with the board that remedial measures have been in hand since 1958. Now we are in 1960 and no satisfaction has yet been given. Since I gave notice of my intention to raise this matter tonight, I am informed that some operations are taking place in the street, or next to the street, by the Yorkshire Electricity Board, and there is considerable optimism among the persons concerned that at last remedial measures are going to be applied and that they will be able to sit, like their fellows in Sheffield, round the television at night and enjoy the programmes.

I hope I shall have an assurance from the hon. Gentleman the Parliamentary Secretary—to whom I am obliged for staying tonight to reply to this debate— of a satisfactory character. This is only one example, and there may well be others in Sheffield. Perhaps in replying he can give a general picture of the electricity supply and the difficulties in Sheffield. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) did ask me in particular to mention one street, some residents of which have written to him since this matter received publicity. I believe it is Bessingby Road, Hillsborough. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman, having had notice of that, has been able to make inquiries and can give us some news about it as well.

This is a small matter after the millions of £s the House has been in the course of voting during the day, but it is the right of a Member to bring the smallest matter of his constituency up for discussion in the House, and very often I think the difference between misery and happiness probably turns on the small thing of an adequate electric light. I know of a number of cases where elderly people are unable to get their entertainment and benefit from their television sets, which they bought with money saved over the years, and this is a very real hardship indeed. This is not an attempt just to cause trouble to the hon. Gentleman or the Electricity Board, but an attempt to bring a real difficulty and hardship of some fifty families to his attention. I hope the digging in the road may indicate that he can give us some good news tonight.

10.10 p.m.

Mr. Forbes Hendry (Aberdeenshire, West)

I express the very deepest sympathy with the constituents of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley), who have been deprived of a proper electricity supply. I hope my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will take very grave note of what the hon. Member has said about the hardship suffered by these people. This is truly a case where one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.

I suggest that the hon. Member might tell his constituents of my constituents, who have been promised a supply for seven years but who have not had it yet. I wish that I could assure the hon. Member that the Minister's reason for failing to provide a proper supply for the hon. Member's constituents was the fact that he has been so busy using all the resources of the country to supply electricity for my constituents, but I am afraid that that is not so.

It would be a very good idea if the Minister were to consider putting a surcharge on electricity consumers in Sheffield and other parts of the country to help the North of Scotland Hydro-Electricity Board to bring electricity to the people in the heart of the country to whom electricity is absolutely vital and where the service would be uneconomic. Perhaps that suggestion is out of order, but I hope that the Minister will pay attention to what we have both said.

Mr. Mulley

I think the hon. Gentleman will concede that I had better get proper supplies for my constituents before I dare make suggestions about surcharging them.

Mr. Hendry

I have already suggested that the Minister should put the hon. Member's problem right.

10.11 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Mr. J. C. George)

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley) for the helpful and restrained way in which he put his case and for the co-operation which he showed me in informing me in advance of the points he was likely to raise. Even though I am a Scotsman and represent a Scots constituency, I hesitate to enter into an argument about an electricity supply in Scotland. Much as I sympathise with any troubles which my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Hendry) may have, I will confine myself to the problem of Sheffield.

I said that the case had been put forward in a helpful and restrained way, but that does not mean that there has not been a great deal of irritation, frustration and hardship. My right hon. Friend and I are most sympathetic with the people concerned. The Yorkshire Electricity Board is well aware of the defects and is very anxious to eradicate them as swiftly as circumstances permit.

The trouble, as has been said, is the locally low voltage, which has several effects—lamps give less light, fires give less heat, the size of the television picture is reduced and the definition is poor, and there are other annoying features. Since television has become an integral and intimate part of our life, hardship is being caused, and the board's reputation suffers. The board is well aware of that, and it is therefore keen and eager to get rid of low voltage in its area as quickly as possible. The hon. Member said that this was a local and small problem, as it is, but that is not to under-rate its importance. It is also part of a wide national problem, as the hon. Member himself said.

The electricity industry has a tremendous appetite for capital. The swiftly increasing demand since the war has involved the investment of vast sums of money to enable the industry to supply all classes of consumer. The board is eager to meet all new requests. I did not agree with the hon. Member when he said that the board should leave some of the new requests and carry on with reinforcement, because some of the new requests simply cannot be left on one side—industry and new housing estates are all urgent needs, which must be met.

The industry has been dealing with vast new demands since the end of the war and its expansion and increase in efficiency have been among the features of our post-war industrial effort. New demands are not the only problem. As the hon. Member said, we have had the unavoidable neglect of the war years and accumulating arrears.

In the years when we could not afford to spend much money on electricity supply, because we were using everything for the war effort, domestic demand was increasing rapidly. Between 1938 and 1948, domestic demand went up by 100 per cent., and the local cables, the sort of small cables with which we are dealing this evening, had their capacity severely tested, but nothing could be done about it. Between 1948 and 1958, there was a further increase of 50 per cent. and those little cables, already strained became severely overloaded.

Replacement and reinforcement was put in train. By replacement I mean the replacing of the small cables by cables of larger diameter. Reinforcement is the bringing of high-voltage current nearer the place of use and installing additional sub-stations. Replacement and reinforcement which began slowly after 1945 gained momentum as the years advanced.

That was not the only task facing the boards. All the boards have had three main tasks in the post-war years. They have had to deal with new loads. That had to be first priority. They have had to deal with replacement and reinforcement, because, with the increase in domestic demand, which I have described, plus the increase in industrial demand in the big cities, the cables in nearly every large city became hot and overloaded. There were great arrears of work that had to be undertaken. The boards have also had to deal with rural electrification which had been neglected. The need for this was urgent in the minds of the people and it was also considered to be urgent by the Government.

Electricity has been the favourite child of industry in the post-war years. The financial demands have been insatiable, but successive Governments have found it necessary to restrain local capital spending. When restraint came along the boards could not neglect new industrial demands. People had to get employment. Industry had to increase production. The boards could not neglect the new housing estates which were built on the perimeters of our cities. Those people had to get light. They had none. In addition the farms had to be supplied with electricity. People who had electricity were suffering from the difficulties described by the hon. Gentleman, but many farms had no electricity.

In the event, reinforcement did not go forward as speedily as the boards would have wished, but the Government are well aware of the problem and they have steadily increased the amount devoted to reinforcement in recent years. If one looks at the White Papers covering capital investment in the coal, gas, and electricity industries, one sees that in 1956–57, £32 million was spent on reinforcement in England and Wales. In 1957–58, £37 million was spent. In 1958–59 the figure was £39 million, and the estimate for 1959–60 is £46 million. While it has become habitual to talk about growing expenditure, the expenditure on reinforcement has not advanced as swiftly as the Government would have liked, or as the boards would have liked, or as the consumers throughout the country would have liked.

In the Sheffield sub-area this financial year the Yorkshire Electricity Board is spending £314,000. It has been steadily increasing expenditure on replacement and reinforcement. Even if at this stage we were to have unlimited funds everything could not be done at once. We need skilled men to plan the changes to be made. We need skilled men to carry out the changing of the cables and to build sub-stations. Above all, in intensely built-up areas we have to secure sites. That is not easy to do. It sometimes takes a long time to secure a site and that is the position in the case mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

In the Fellbrigg Road area in the constituency of the hon. Gentleman it was found, as he said, that in the winter of 1957–58 the voltage was below the statutory minimum. It was 6 per cent. below the declared voltage. It might be worse now—I think that perhaps it is at times of peak load.

In general, the position is of course worst at times of peak load. I would distinguish between the peak loads of the nation as a whole which take place at certain hours, and the peak domestic load in small cables which take place in the winter evenings when all the equipment in the home, lights, television, and so on, are on. At this time of peak local load, the trouble arises in the street mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, for the voltage is then below the statutory minimum.

The Yorkshire Electricity Board did not just record that fact: it took action at once. It decided that not one, but three, additional sub-stations were required. It set about searching for them in this built-up area. It had great difficulty, because the local authority was not in a position to make up its mind about the use of certain parts of its area, as is not to be wondered at. When a local authority is planning changes in a built-up area one cannot reasonably ask it to give way to a request for a substation One must wait until the plans are fully drawn up for an area. That is what happened in this area, and progress was slow.

The board started in 1957–58; permission was obtained for the first substation in May, 1959, and permissions for a further two were obtained last December. As the hon. Member knows, one of the sub-stations is now building, and I can assure him that it will be completed before the end of the winter. The other two will not be brought into use this winter, but I can promise the hon. Member that they will be brought into use well before next winter. In the summer the position will be easier. These stations will be brought in to take care of his constituents' troubles before next winter.

After that, I am certain that there will be no further cause for complaint in the street to which he has referred. Family tempers will be soothed again, and perhaps family happiness will be restored. I hope that that gives the hon. Member satisfaction.

But he raised the wider question of Sheffield as a whole, and Bessingby Road, in Hillsborough, in particular. I have investigated the position, and I find that there are 198,000 consumers in Sheffield. Of that number, 5,400 have voltages which are sometimes below the declared standard. The figure of 5,400 is only 3 per cent. of the total—a small figure, but still a problem. In each of the homes of that 5,400, at some time during the day, the voltage is below standard. These people are suffering to a greater or lesser degree the same annoyance as the hon. Member described in the case of Fellbrigg Road To deal with this problem, 37 reinforcement schemes are now in hand and in various stages of completion. One of the 37 schemes concerns Bessingby Road. The hon. Member can have my assurance that that scheme will be completed in May of this year, and that the trouble now being experienced will not continue through next winter.

The 37 schemes will take care of 4,800 consumers out of the 5,400 whose electricity supply is at a low voltage. The board is urgently studying the position of the remaining 600. From the beginning it has been keenly anxious to get rid of all the complaints that exist in Sheffield as swiftly as circumstances will permit. I repeat the regret of my right hon. Friend and myself that these people have suffered for so long. They have been very patient, as has the hon. Member for Sheffield, Park in making his complaint. I trust that the House and the hon. Member are satisfied that the Board is diligently striving to extend to these unfortunate and long-suffering few the rightful benefits enjoyed everywhere else in Sheffield.

Mr. Mulley

I thank the hon. Member for that reply, and I very much hope that things will turn out as he says. If next winter begins without this extra station I have no doubt that he will not be surprised if he hears further from us.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes past Ten o'clock.