HC Deb 31 July 1964 vol 699 cc1950-5

Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.

11.27 a.m.

Mr. Turton

I was giving the illustration of East Moors because I think it shows the problem which the House and the Minister face in this matter. That particular case was turned down by the area board, which demanded the full charge. The consultative council endorsed that view, and the matter has now been remitted to the Electricity Council. But it is only one of a great many cases in certain of the National Parks. Moreover, there are very many occasions when, because of this procedure, there is undue delay in the provision of electricity.

The origin of this power is to be found in Section 37 of the Electricity Act, 1957: In formulating or considering any proposals relating to the functions … of any of the Area Boards … the Board in question, the Electricity Council and the Minister, having regard to the desirability of preserving natural beauty … shall each take into account any effect which the proposals would have on the natural beauty of the countryside …". That provision was inserted in the Act in the other place by the Minister of Power. In so doing he expressly said: … the Boards can provide perfectly well, under the existing financial clauses of the Bill, for any consequent expenditure which they may regard as unremunerative."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 30th May, 1957; Vol. 204, c. 184] When he gave that undertaking he was asked what would happen about putting a line underground—not the whole circuit but a connection to a particular house. He gave a further undertaking that that type of case would be covered and that the Minister would have power to ensure that that was carried out.

The pesent policy of the differing practices in the different boards is not consistent with the pledge given in May, 1957, by Lord Mills, when he was Minister of Power, by which he bound the Government. This is illustrated in last year's reports of some of the electricity boards. In dealing with this Section, the North-Eastern Electricity Board said in paragraph 64 of its Report. The Board continued to consult with local planning and other appropriate authorities to ensure compliance with their obligations under Section 37 of the Electricity Act, 1957. The new overhead lines and sub-stations caused the minimum of damage to visual amenity". In other words, the Board was ensuring that where the natural landscape demanded it the lines were replaced underground. However, it was not placing the extra cost on all the consumers but merely upon those who were connected.

That is made clear by paragraph 47, which states: in addition, the Board invested some £42,000 in replacing or modifying existing works which detracted from the amenity of their surroundings. Of the 30 cases dealt with, the majority consisted of the replacement of overhead distribution networks by underground cables in attractive villages. We therefore have the further fact that, whereas in this board's area consumers have to pay the cost of a new line when it is brought to the house, if the board later finds that some of the existing overhead lines to villages are spoiling the beauty of the landscape it will put them underground and place the burden of the cost on all of the consumers of the board, which, as I say, should be done in all cases.

The South-West Electricity Consultative Council, in its Report for last year, said: The Board have only very limited funds available for allocation to amenity purposes and consequently any demand for unduly high expenditure on amenity grounds can only result in delaying such electricity extension". The unevenness of the charge on some consumers and the consequent delay in the provision of electricity in the areas of National Parks is a well recognised problem. That was confirmed by the speech of Lord Strang, Chairman of the National Parks Commission, at a conference in Scarborough in 1963. According to page 81 of the 14th Report of the National Parks Commission, Lord Strang, in dealing with this problem, said that he wanted to touch on the defrayment of the cost of underground distribution lines by Area Electricity Boards"; and he then made three propositions. The first was this: Under the Electricity Act, 1957, the Electricity Boards have an obligation to take into account any effect which their proposals would have on the natural beauty of the countryside". He then quoted Lord Mills, and went on to say: … the Boards can provide perfectly well for any expenditure caused by care for the landscape, which they may regard as un-remunerative. Secondly, in cases where a Board agrees with the planning authority to place a section of a line underground. The extra cost of so doing would, the Commismission hope, be spread over the whole body of the Board's consumers and not be charged upon the immediate consumer. Some of the boards do spread the cost in this way. Thirdly, if a Board and a planning authority cannot agree that a given stretch of line should be placed underground, the proper course is for the Board to refer the differene to the Minister for decision and not to withdraw the proposal, placing the blame upon the planning authority. I commend all three propositions of Lord Strang to the House. I believe that they represent good planning and good sense and that they follow the undertakings given by Lord Mills in another place in May, 1957. I therefore ask by hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to confirm the undertakings given by Lord Mills when the Electricity Act, 1957, was introduced and Section 37 was placed in it.

The benefit of undergrounding an electricity line goes, not only to those who are resident in the National Park areas, but to those who visit National Park areas. At present, it is the more affluent visitors who come from the towns to the National Park areas who get the advantage of the beautiful scenery and of having the electricity lines placed underground. There is a good deal of rural depopulation in the more beautiful parts of Britain. One of the main reasons for it is that the amenities in those areas are not as good as the amenities in other parts of Britain, and when they are obtained they cost a good deal more. I believe that this is particularly true of electricity.

It is of vital importance to people who live in National Park areas that they should have electricity, especially in the winter. Can anyone give any reason why they should have to pay twice as much as people in other parts of the country for the installation of electricity in their cottages and farms? That is what is happening. They are being denied this facility. It is quite wrong that my constituents in my National Park area should be denied it while the people in other National Park areas benefit from it.

11.38 a.m.

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

It would be as well if I were to make it clear at the start what we are arguing about. It is the very simple but vexed question of who is to pay. Of course, I make no complaint that my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) should raise this matter, which greatly affects his constituents, and that he should seek to dwell particularly upon any differences in the treatment which his constituents may receive as opposed to that meted out by other boards to other people in different parts of the country. The basic question which faces us and the electricity industry is who is to pay—the individual customers, all the customers of the board or, perhaps, even of the industry as a whole, or, as a last alternative, the Exchequer?

The Herbert Committee took the view very strongly that each area board should stand on its own feet. Of course, the corollary of that independence is that it should have discretion to act as it thinks fit and to adopt and be free to follow the commercial policies which it believes to be right and which fit its own individual circumstances.

The 1957 Act quite clearly endorsed and adopted that view, and since then each area board has been under an obligation to pay its own way. That Act abolished the central reserve fund, following the recommendation of the Herbert Committee. I should remind the House that there is nothing to stop individual area boards balancing losses which they may make in one area or sphere against profits made elsewhere. I should also like, in view of what my right hon. Friend has said, to remind him of the distinction formed by all boards and certainly by the North Eastern Board between the so-called service line, the purpose of which is to serve an individual customer or small group of customers, and the main distribution system.

The cost of the main distribution system is always borne by the board; in other words, by the customers as a whole. It is only the service lines to individuals or to groups of customers that we are really discussing today, and I do not think my right hon. Friend would challenge that. In these cases, I should make it clear that the board is willing to make contributions to individual connections up to a maximum of £480. It is important that one should try to get away from any idea that the boards are particularly niggardly or mean to those who live in remote areas. In point of fact, rural electrification already involves this board in a loss of some £300,000 a year. It is felt, I think rightly, by the Board that if it were to accept some larger burden of the cost of putting lines underground it would open itself to many new and larger demands.

It is very important that the area boards must be free. It would be wholly wrong for the Government, or for any Minister, to seek to press them into commercial policies which they regard as uneconomic. Indeed, it would not only be wrong, but it would be unfair because the Government have placed on them—I believe absolutely rightly and with abundant justification—the responsibility of meeting certain agreed financial objectives. This policy, which I shall not go into in detail because the House is very familiar with it, is, I think, quite indispensable to the common sense commercial operation of these immense enterprises.

I should remind my right hon. Friend of what the Select Committee said on this subject. I am afraid that the views of the Select Committee are of small comfort to him in urging the course that he has urged this morning. The Select Committee suggested that in cases where terms for rural electrification are noticeably easier to the consumer they should be brought up to the level of the stiffer and stricter ones. It would be very difficult to challenge the wisdom of the Select Committee's recommendation in this matter.

I should also like to remind my right hon. Friend that rural electrification which has taken place in the area of the North Eastern Board now covers 93 per cent. of farms and that, I think, represents a very considerable achievement. In fact, over the next year or so, something like 95 to 96 per cent should be covered. Perhaps I should also remind my right hon. Friend that this board has invested a very large sum, amounting in all to £8 million, in rural electrification since nationalisation.

My right hon. Friend asked me point blank whether I could confirm what Lord Mills said in the past. My answer is that the statutory obligation under Section 37, to which he rightly referred, is quite clear. Boards have a duty to pay regard to the beauty of the countryside and to safeguarding it. Equally, they have other duties and sometimes these duties are in conflict with one another. The real point is—I think we must make this quite clear—that it would be wrong to rob this Board, or any other, of discretion in following out its commercial policies.

I know that my right hon. Friend has already referred to the fact that one of these cases is before the Electricity Council at the moment, and, of course, this problem is one which has been frequently considered by the Council. The whole purpose and existence of the Electricity Council is that it should be able to consider in a forum representing the whole industry problems which affect all boards. I shall make it my business to see that my right hon. Friend's words this morning are brought to the attention of the Electricity Council, but I hope that I can carry him with me when I say that it would be quite wrong for me, or for any other Minister, to depart from the principle that these Boards must be free to decide their own commercial policies and use their own wisdom in facing their own individual problems. A constant stream of interfering guidance from Whitehall would be damaging and would, I think, have a result far from that intended or sought by my right hon. Friend.