HC Deb 07 March 1963 vol 673 cc818-26

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

11.55 p.m.

Mr. Timothy Kitson (Richmond. Yorks)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise on the Adjournment the question of electricity lines in Swaledale. Briefly, the position is that the North Eastern Electricity Board was asked to prepare a scheme to supply 12 farms with electricity in the parish of Muker above the village of Keld. This the board did and the cost of the scheme, which was agreed by the farmers, was about £11,000, the board meeting 75 per cent. of the cost.

Some of the farmers, anticipating early connection to the mains, wired their farms in preparation for supply. I should explain that they are hill farms situated at 1,200–1,500 ft., at the top of Swaledale. They produce mostly sheep and milk, in very difficult circumstances. The conditions in which the farming is carried out could fairly be described as rugged, not merely in a winter such as the one we have just experienced, but at all times.

Swaledale is situated in the Yorkshire Dales National Park area and it is as attractive as anything to be found in our National Park areas. I go so far as to say that Narrow Dale is as beautiful as any part of Britain.

The North Eastern Electricity Board submitted the scheme to the Yorkshire Dales National Parks Planning Committee, which, after consultation with the Yorkshire Dales Joint Advisory Committee and the National Parks Commission, indicated to the North Eastern Electricity Board that it was prepared to approve the scheme on the understanding that the line should be placed underground from its commencement at Keld to its junction at Hoggarth's Farm. In other words, it was suggested that 3,000 yards of the 9,300-yd. scheme should be underground.

The electricity board has since indicated that the additional cost, estimated at about £15,000, would fall on the consumers, the board itself being unable to justify the additional cost. Of course, these small sheep farmers cannot meet this bill, and why should they? Because they live in a National Park area, it is quite wrong to ask the 12 farmers to meet the cost of preserving a national amenity which is being protected for the benefit of the nation as a whole. It is idiotic to suggest that it is their responsibility to find the extra money. Indeed, what would the National Parks look like if we were to deny to those who live in them the amenities to which, we would all agree, they are entitled and if we drove those who live there out of the park area? I am sure that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will agree that farming nowadays with hurricane lamps is not much fun.

It is, however, only fair to say that the Yorkshire Dales National Park Planning Committee has run into some unfair criticism. It is the committee's duty to preserve the beauty of Swaledale and other parts of the area. So far, the committee has been very reasonable. It has asked for only a negligible amount of electricity lines to be put underground in the area for which it is responsible. Indeed, it has allowed for 22 miles of electricity line to be brought overhead all the way up Swaledale from Richmond.

At Wain Wath Force, however, the dale is narrow and the poles would have to be situated on top of a lovely cliff face. When Post Office lines were brought to the area, the Post Office, at the request of the county planning officer, put the lines underground at the Department's expense. The question arises: who will meet the additional cost? I tabled a Question to the Minister of Housing and Local Government asking whether he would take steps to create a fund for the purpose of meeting additional expenditure incurred by consumers wishing for normal amenities in a national parks area, where the National Parks Committee desire to preserve national beauty. The reply I received was No."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th February, 1963, Vol. 671, c. 78–9. When I asked my right hon. Friend the Minister of Power whether he would introduce legislation to ensure that where, at the behest of the National Parks Committee, electricity supply lines are placed underground the consequent additional cost should not fall on the consumers, the answer, again, was "No". Subsequently, my right hon. Friend wrote to me and said: In the particular circumstances of a farmer in a national park, I think we have to recognise that the expense is incurred in providing a service to an individual consumer. Consumers in other areas of natural beauty would no doubt think it unfair if the Boards gave consumers in national parks special treatment. The Boards may also feel that it would be unfair to spread the additional cost over their other consumers. I have a letter from the Lake District National Park which explains that in the North Western Electricity Board area what I am asking for does, in fact, happen. The letter says: …since the introduction of the zoning system by the North Western Electricity Board it has not been the practice of that Board to refuse to lay a line, however unremunerative, if its proper phase in the zoning programme has been reached, and the Electricity Board do not require any increased capital contribution from the consumers on account of the line having been laid underground instead of overhead, whether the undergrounding was carried out by decision of the Electricity Board or at the request or suggestion of the Planning Authority or other local authority, or by direction of the Minister. Surely, if one of the Minister's electricity boards does this he must feel bound to instruct his other boards to ensure that those living in a National Park area should have the same treatment.

The Minister, in his letter to me, also suggested that the prospective consumers should take their case to the consumers' consultative committee. But the danger, I understand, is that the North Eastern Electricity Board might, and probably would, abandon the scheme if it lost its case, and then we would be back where we started. The board has intimated to the county council that it would lose interest if the lines had to be placed underground, and it is doubtful whether the board will appeal to the Minister against the county council's decision.

There does not appear to be any requirement in the Electricity Act that any one scheme should be self-supporting, and the Act expressly requires the board to have due regard for local amenities. I have been up Swaledale. In fact, I went up towards the end of January, when there was about 3 ft. of snow. I went up with two local county councillors, Mr. Sunter and Mr. Metcalfe, to look at the site, and it is very difficult to resite those poles. I dare say it could be done, and if it can, I hope that my hon. Friend will say that the board will be prepared to meet the additional cost if a way can be found to do this.

I do not wish to be too critical of the North Eastern Electricity Board because I realise the difficulties which this scheme presents, but as I see it the Minister of Power is now the only person who can solve the problem. My hon. Friend represents Yeovil and perhaps he will understand the difficulties of farmers who have to turn out at six o'clock in the morning and grope about trying to milk their cows. I know that he will treat this matter sympathetically.

Finally, I would point out that recently the Minister of Agriculture gave a grant of about £5,300 in respect of a scheme costing about £16,000 to improve the road up from Hoggarth's Farm to Raven's Seat. Six of the farms that have applied for the electricity supply were joined by this road, so at least the Minister of Agriculture recognises the importance of these properties. It would not be easy to get a Ministry grant unless these were viable properties. They are not properties that are likely to become uninhabited in the near future, if the proper amenities are provided. In some way we must get an electricity supply up to these properties.

12.5 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Mr. John Peyton)

My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Kitson) has made a very eloquent plea on behalf of farmers in Swaledale who are in urgent need of electricity. I would not complain at all about the way in which he has made his plea; indeed, he has been very reasonable and most restrained. He has rightly claimed that Swaledale is at least as beautiful as any other part of Great Britain. Perhaps, in passing, I may congratulate him on the fact that he referred to the beauties of the countryside, consistently and with justification, without once mentioning the horrible word "amenity ".

My hon. Friend referred to his previous approach to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing, and suggested that a special fund should be set up for preserving, or making it easy to preserve, the beauties of the National Parks. He must continue to pursue that line with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing, since it is not one upon which I am competent to give him an answer.

My hon. Friend referred to a letter he had received from my right hon. Friend, and suggested that it was some-how wrong that the costs should fall on the consumer. My right hon. Friend's letter was right in pointing out that there was nobody else upon whom they could fairly fall, at least without his going into the other field—with which I have already dealt—of a special fund.

I am not for a moment seeking to challenge or deny what he said about those who want and need electricity—especially the people who have gone to the expense and inconvenience of wiring their houses and are at the moment condemned to farming with hurricane lamps, a lot which I by no means envy. I accept that if the line is to be put underground at the extra cost to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention—and I do not challenge his figures—it would be a very heavy burden for such people as he has in mind.

My hon. Friend referred to the position of the board in this matter, but I must point out that although the board is undoubtedly under a duty to have consideration for the natural beauty of the countryside, it also has certain other duties put upon it by Statute. It has, for instance, a duty to cheapen supplies. It has a duty to cover its costs out of revenue, and a duty to give no undue preference to any one class or section of its customers. These duties in some cases undoubtedly create some conflict and a very real problem for the board to solve, and I am certain that this board would be only too willing to solve it if it were easy to do so. My hon. Friend was perfectly fair. He never accused the board of being obstinate or difficult or obstructive; but I hope he will accept that this is a very difficult problem for the board.

When faced with uneconomic connections, what is the right course for the board to follow? I think that it can fairly be claimed that this board falls over backwards to make things easier for the new customer. In this case, beyond paying for the costs of the backbone main, which the board automatically does, it is also willing to contribute about £300 per connection. This is going well beyond the limits of what could strictly be described as commercial. I do not think it can be claimed or suggested that this board is ungenerous or unreasonable to the new would-be customer. Here the board is faced with a very severe problem. The total original cost was £9,500, of which £6,500 was to be contributed by the board, leaving a contribution of between £160 and £170 per farm.

As my hon. Friend has mentioned, there came a subsequent requirement that a section of the line should be put underground. This raised the total cost from £9,500 to £26,000. Taking away the board's original contribution of £6,500, this raised the individual contribution to £1,180 which I quite agree is a great deal of money which those concerned could not economically afford. It is quite impossible. I accept that. My hon. Friend said that there was no reason why they should pay. The difficulty is that it is very hard to see what good reason there is for anyone else to pay.

Mr. Kitson

I do not see that this argument could apply to this area when one considers what is happening in the north western region. In the north western region the board pays these additional costs when it is asked to put the line underground. It feels that in those circumstances it is its responsibility to do so. The Lake District National Park area is no different from the Yorkshire Dales National Park area.

Mr. Peyton

I imagine that my hon. Friend is referring to the case of Borrow-dale. The circumstances are rather different. The cost per connection in Borrowdale was very much lower. It was about £240 with overhead lines compared with £430 here, but the most relevant figure is£415 with lines put underground, as against nearly £1,200 which is involved here. That is a very considerable difference in finance. My hon. Friend is wrong in suggesting—and I have checked this point most carefully—that the north western regional board has a special fund for such purposes.

There is one other difference which I was coming to because it is important. In that case, the matter was taken to the consultative council, with a very satisfactory outcome. In this case, as my hon. Friend made clear, the matter has not yet been raised with the consultative council. I very much hope that my hon. Friend will use his influence with those concerned to urge this course, because I do not believe that anything could be lost by taking that step. As he is probably aware, it is not open to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Power to intervene in this matter unless and until a complaint is brought to him either by the Electricity Council or by the consultative council as an appeal from the decision of the Electricity Council. My hon. Friend should consider this carefully and perhaps suggest it to his constituents.

I should make clear that if, as a result of any action on the part of the planning authority, alternative proposals are brought forward, I have no doubt whatever that the board would be quite willing to look at any such proposals. I am satisfied that there is no desire on the part of the board to be obstructive or difficult in any way. The dilemma and the difficulties stem entirely from the fact that it wishes to comply with statutory duties and to be fair to all classes of consumer without favouring one class unduly.

I am sure that it would be right for me to remind my hon. Friend that the electricity boards are autonomous bodies which have a commercial job to do. They must run their business according to the best commercial standards. If there are slight variations in practice between one board and another that is not a matter which should cause surprise for the boards have difficult problems to deal with in different areas. They are autonomous and have every right to run their business—subject to the statutes under which they operate—according to their best judgment.

I have noted very carefully the points made by my hon. Friend and I do not doubt that the board itself will give due weight to all the arguments he has very fairly and reasonably put. While I realise that the answer which I am giving is necessarily somewhat negative, I hope that my hon. Friend will not impute either to me, to my right hon. Friend or to the board any lack of sympathy in regard to his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes past Twelve o'clock.