HC Deb 22 January 1965 vol 705 cc655-66

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

4.4 p.m.

Mr. Peter Hordern (Horsham)

This Adjournment debate arises from a request which I made of the Minister of Power on 8th December last to hold a fresh inquiry into the proposal to construct a 400 kV line from Bolney to Lovedean. I made that request because I believed that the previous Minister of Power's decision to construct the line along what is known as the "red route" as opposed to the "blue route" in the western sector of my constituency was clearly contrary to the best evidence produced at the inquiry and was against the most detailed recommendations of the Ministry's own inspectors. Indeed, if the heat generated in my constituency by that decision could be fed into the national grid there would be no need either for pylons or for cables.

That the Minister decided as he did on the grounds of a shortage of time seemed to many in my constituency to come badly from a man who took nine months to reach his decision—a point not lost on my constituents. It seemed to them that the whole process of holding an inquiry was a sham and an affront to our democratic system. I do not take that view. I uphold the Minister's right to make his decision, just as I uphold his right to change his mind if circumstances changed. But to say, as does the present Minister, that he has no powers under the existing Act to change his predecessor's decision is an extraordinary argument. Is it really his contention that in no circumstances whatsoever, no matter how serious the country's financial position, for example, can the decision be changed? If so, the logic of that position clearly means that a Government in power can so hamstring the efforts of their successors in Government that no fresh decisions are possible, which is manifestly absurd.

If, therefore, the Minister rests his case on a narrow legalistic interpretation of the present Act, he should know that nobody will be satisfied. Indeed, he knows as well as I do that the best legal opinion has it that it is perfectly possible to alter his predecessor's decision if the Minister so wishes. It is my task, as I see it, to make him wish to do so.

He will have noted, as I have, the enormous correspondence on a national scale which has been generated by the decision not to put underground any part of the proposed line from Petworth to Lovedean. I have seen almost 200 letters from amenity societies all over the country which are associated with the Civic Trust supporting the views expressed by the Society of Sussex Downsmen. There was a letter signed by 250 people living in Thornton Heath, a suburb in the south-east of London. But the example which I cherish most was a letter written by the Sussex Downsmen to one of its own members in California which was returned because the member had moved. Across the envelope was scrawled, "Keep up the good work"—subversion in the G.P.O!

But the Minister will quite properly not be swayed entirely by the force of public opinion. He must be influenced by circumstances, and changed circumstances at that. One of these circumstances is that in the autumn of last year the decision was taken to designate a large part of West Sussex as "an area of outstanding natural beauty". This decision obviously does not mean, nor should it mean, the end of constructional work in West Sussex. But what it must mean is that any vast act of disfigurement, such as the proposal to erect these pylons would entail, is clearly one which would make a mockery of the designation.

If the position were that the Central Electricity Generating Board proposes to construct these pylons, the height of Nelson's Monument, across West Sussex in order to fill a short-term gap in the country's electricity supply, that would be one thing. But that is not the position at all. This proposal is only the first part of a gargantuan plan to build still higher and more dreadful monsters capable of carrying 750 kV in the early 1970's. They would be arranged in mesh squares averaging 30 miles a side. This is not planning. This is total surrender to the board of a nationalized industry. It is wholly unacceptable if there is any meaning at all in the expression "an area of outstanding natural beauty".

Nor is it the position that if the cables were to be laid underground this would be an unprecedented action. No such thing. In January last year the Minister decided that the Central Electricity Generating Board's plan to erect a 400 kV line from Dunford Bridge to Woodhead Station in the Peak District should go underground. Before that he ordered another stretch to be laid under the River Glaslyn to preserve the view of Snowdonia from the coast to the south.

It is, of course, a matter of taste and discretion whether the Downs are as beautiful in their way as the Peak District or Snowdonia. This is not a question upon which one can argue without prejudice, nor is it the real question now. For the fact is that if the cables are not laid underground under some part of West Sussex now, we should have 750 kV lines in the early 1970's which would so devastate the countryside as to make the earlier decisions to lay underground 400 kV lines in Snowdonia and the Peak District appear footling in comparison.

I appreciate, however, that the Minister's prime charge is the provision of power at reasonable cost. I do not deny for a moment that there may seem to be strong grounds for thinking that a super-grid system from Dungeness to Cornwall operating a 400 kV line would best meet that provision if the C.E.G.B.'s calculations are accepted. Let us consider these calculations. The Board estimates that the demand for electricity in central Sussex will be 893 mW by 1967 and that the present capacity to meet this demand is 842 mW. Is it not a fact that the demand for electricity is now showing unmistakable signs of slowing down? Is it not also a fact that there is at present one very heavy industrial user of electricity at Fawley which is planning to set up its own generating plant, which will diminish considerably the present rate of demand? Is it not a further fact that the increasing use of gas will lessen the rate of growth of electricity consumption? Has the Minister taken all these new factors properly into account?

But suppose the Board's estimates were accepted. Would it not be faster to install new generating capacity near the source of demand? Why could not more local power stations be constructed as they are required? I trust that the Parliamentary Secretary will answer these important questions.

The most serious doubt, however, remains on the question of the cost of underground cable, which has been put at £1.2 million per mile. If the cost is as high as that, what consideration has the Minister given to breaking the 400 kV line into lower voltage components, which could be put underground at much lower cost? Has he informed himself of the new kV line in California to be run by direct current rather than alternating current, which can easily be put underground?

It seems extremely doubtful that the Board is anything like as advanced in transmission techniques as in generating techniques. This is not surprising when one learns that of the total budget of nearly £6 million, only about three-quarters is spent annually on transmission and that we are still using paper insulation, invented by Ferranti in the last century.

Nevertheless, the Minister knows better than I that a good deal of progress has been made in undergrounding techniques. He will know, for example, that a high-density polythene form of insulation has been developed that will actually make underground cables cheaper to run than overhead ones, that a gas-filled cable is also at hand and that a third possibility is keeping cables water-cooled by placing water-circulating pipes close to them. He therefore knows that it is only a question of time before underground cables will be well worth the higher initial capital cost of laying them.

Is it really defensible that these new pylons can be justified on any but the most short-term, penny-pinching considerations? I urge the Minister to do two things: first, to hold his own inquiry, on the basis of the fresh evidence laid before him of the desirability of under-grounding cables on at least part of the route from Bolney to Lovedean, and, secondly, to set up an advisory, council composed of members of the local authorities and amenity societies to advise him when there is a conflict between the preservation of the countryside and the provision of electricity.

In support of this I will read an extract from a letter written on 24th September last to the Clerk of the Parish Council at Breamore: The decision as to whether the amenity of any particular area or locality should be preserved is clearly not one that can be taken by an interested party such as the Electricity Board concerned, and I would have thought that an objective assessment and conclusion could be reached only by an independent body of qualified and detached persons. It went on: I know that provisions exist under Statute for local public inquiries, but if these provisions are inadequate and independent and qualified persons are not engaged to make an assessment, I would be happy to consider appropriate amendment of the law. The letter was signed "Harold Wilson". I hope that that will encourage the Minister to take the necessary step. He has it in his power to do so and, at the same time, to preserve what is in my view the most beautiful country on earth.

4.14 p.m.

Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)

I would like, from this side of the House, to support the case which the hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Hordern) has made. There are two issues involved in this and the question of amenity is much wider than a particular area of Sussex. This is part of a nation-wide network which will affect the whole country sooner or later. With the pressure of population on the South-East, what happens in the beauty spots we have left in the South-East is of vital importance to us all.

On the question of principle, which is my reason for now speaking, we have, on the one hand, in a situation like this, local people who know intimately the area involved and are very conscious of the need to preserve it from spoliation by works of this kind. These people are not just nuisances but watchdogs. People like this all over the country are very vital for keeping Administrations on their toes in relation to such schemes as this. On the other hand, we have the undoubted need for major works of power transmission that are economic, and necessary to meet modern conditions.

It is precisely because in many cases there is this opposition between the two that the inquiry system has been evolved, so that an impartial inspector can review all the evidence and make his recommendations. If this machinery is good, as I believe it to be, it should be operated properly; if it is not good, it should be revised to be made effective. What, to me, is quite intolerable is that the inquiry procedure should be slowly undermined by setting elaborate and costly machinery in motion and then, after very long delay, completely ignoring the inspector's recommendations without any valid or cogent reasons for so doing.

That is what seems to have happened here. I know all the difficulties of the Minister. I appreciate that this problem is not of his making—he has inherited it from the previous Government—but I beg him to realise that he is not bound by the decisions of his predecessors; that his hands are not tied. Particularly, because of the wider implications involved, I ask him, in spite of what he has said about this on previous occasions, in his reply today at least to leave the door open so that the question can be re-examined in the light of the facts that have been presented.

4.17 p.m.

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

First, I should like to thank the hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Hordern) for his great courtesy in informing me beforehand of some of the points he wished to raise.

I would be the first to concede that in this very short debate we are dealing with an area of outstanding beauty. Indeed, when the predecessor to the present Minister of Power came to his decision, ho made that abundantly clear in paragraph 23 of that decision. I am sure that both the hon. Member and my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Joyce Butler) have read that part of the decision, so we know with what kind of area we are dealing.

The House should know very briefly some of the background of this issue. The Central Electricity Generating Board is concerned with setting up transmission lines running across the South of England from Dungeness, in Kent, to Fraddon, in Cornwall. The lines are required to reinforce the supply necessary to meet the increased demands of electricity consumers in the southern counties, and to connect new power sources on the coast at Dungeness and Fawley and Hinkley Point. Consent has been granted for the whole extent of the lines except for the section from Exeter to Plympton, for which application for consent is awaited. I will not go into too much detail at this point; I could detain the House, if there were time, substantially on all these points, but it might be easier and more fruitful if I were to turn very quickly to the points made by the hon. Gentleman.

First, all the machinery set up by legislation—legislation going as far back as the Electric Lighting Clauses Act of 1899—has been gone through. Legislation has set up the machinery for holding an inquiry, and one was held in this case. There was an inquiry, with two inspectors, one from the Ministry of Power and one from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. If I recall correctly, the proceedings at Chichester lasted for over a month.

What we should all face is the fact that this was a decision taken as a result of an inquiry by the predecessor of my Minister. This was not an administrative decision that might be subject to review with a change of Government, but one that involved the issue of a formal legal instrument. I am advised that the Minister has no power to order a fresh inquiry except on particular problems which may be raised on issues of way-leaves; if, when we come to wayleaves, there are objectors at that stage, inquiries can be held into their objections.

There is also power for the Minister at any time after five years from the date of consent to hold a review if he thinks fit. The condition provides that the Minister may then terminate his consent, in which case the lines would have to be removed, or he may renew it for a further period. Termination would create a serious position for the Board because the latter would be faced with the problem of providing alternative lines and the Minister could not close his mind to this consideration.

I am sure that the hon. Member is aware of the possibility of review after five years, but, although this exists, I make it perfectly clear that the hon. Member should not have any hope that consent is likely to be terminated. We must face the fact that the correct procedure has been gone through. Consent has been given and, subject to what I have said about the powers of the Minister, that is the extent to which he can go.

The point was raised that this was an area of outstanding beauty and it was asked whether it were known that this area was likely to be designated as such at the time of the inquiry. The hon. Member will know that there have been technical problems as to the extent of this area of natural beauty as regards advertising of the area, but paragraph 23 of the Minister's decision makes it abundantly clear that it was perfectly well known all along that this was an area of outstanding natural beauty.

The hon. Member raised the issue of precedents for putting this kind of cable underground. I wish to make clear what that would mean. The cost of putting cable underground on the present system runs at about £1 million a mile, which is 18 to 20 times higher than the cost of putting it above the ground.

Mr. Hordern

That is a very interesting figure which the hon. Gentleman has given, but it is a reduction on the estimates given by the Minister, which amounted to £1.2 million per mile. Is this a reduced estimate?

Mr. Morris

I thought I made it clear, without going into fine figures, that it was about £1 million a mile. Estimates, of course, vary.

There is no practical experience in this country of laying 400 kV lines underground, or indeed, maybe anywhere in the world. Physical difficulties are involved. If an underground cable were laid it would mean having a wide band right across the country, probably of a width of 57 feet. The equivalent required would be 877 tons of cable a mile, including 334 tons of copper a mile. Ten miles of this kind of underground line would increase the country's consumption of copper for electrical purposes by about 1.3 per cent. All these matters were considered by the Minister's predecessor.

It would also involve substantial buildings every seven miles, laying water pipes along the cables, and building a heat exchange unit the size of a large bungalow every two or three miles. Then there would be a substantial structure where the lines would go underground. A certain amount of heat would be generated and that might affect the vegetation above; this cable and the surrounding works and access roads would form a scar with a width of 57 feet running right across the country. Those are some of the considerations which should be made known as to what under-grounding might mean. Having said that, there is, as I said earlier, no practical experience of doing this in this country. We should not blind ourselves with the assumption that this is a useful alternative.

The hon. Gentleman then asked whether it was not true that the demand for electricity appears to be slowing down while the use of gas is increasing. Electricity sales are increasing at about 7¼ per cent. a year at present and, although this is below the exceptionally high level of growth experienced in 1959–60 and 1960–61, it is not much different from the growth rate the industry has experienced in the long term. I have no reason to think, despite the recent increase in the use of gas, that the demand for electricity will not continue to grow at least at the same rate. I think that that meets the hon. Gentleman's point.

I have before me the report of a meeting of the Cuckfield R.D.C. which was reported in yesterday's issue of the West Sussex Gazette and South of England Advertiser: There was a sustained and detailed attack on the South Eastern Electricity Board … for failing to supply electricity at a sufficiently high voltage to villages in Mid-Sussex, Balcombe being the village from which most complaints came. As I understand, this village is a few miles outside the hon. Gentleman's constituency. The complaints came because of the inability of the electricity boards to provide electricity at the voltage required for people to shave and to do all the ordinary things for the use of which they depend on electricity.

In this instance the generating transmission is necessary to meet the demand in this area and, unless the Generating Board is able to have these lines in this part of the country, at the end of the day it is this very area which will suffer and continue to suffer on the lines expressed both in the report of the R.D.C. meeting for an area very close to the hon. Gentleman's constituency and as expressed in the very strong leading article in the paper which I mave mentioned. The comment of the area manager of the Electricity Board on the complaints that were made was reported as follows: It should not pass without notice, he continued, that the difficulties which the Board and the Central Electricity Generating Board experienced in obtaining satisfactory routes for the establishment of bulk supply points undoubtedly contributed to the supply difficulties of consumers, particularly in rural areas. A case in point was the establishment of the new Bolney grid sub-station. Certainly when this was commissioned, together with the Board's Newick sub-station, a general improvement of 'supply security' would occur. That is at the heart of the matter. Not only existing supplies of electricity have to be protected and ensured, but there must also be security whenever and wherever a breakdown might occur. In the view of the Board, as accepted by the previous Minister, these lines are required.

There are several other points with which I should have liked to deal. If I am not able to deal with them fully, perhaps I may write to the hon. Gentleman and meet some of his points. I have certainly considered the aspect he referred to as to possible developments in generating capacity at Fawley and the very pertinent point he made about the breaking down of the 400 kV line into lower voltage components. He also referred to the possibility of providing a D.C. system as opposed to an A.C. system.

Lastly, the hon. Member asked whether the Minister would set up an advisory council composed of local authorities and amenity organisations to advise him whenever there was a conflict between the preservation of the countryside and the provision of electricity. This is effectively provided for under the existing procedure. The board plans its lines in consultation with the local authorities, and this was done in this case. An eminent landscape architect planned the scheme, a lady who is a past-president of the Institute of Landscape Architects. The scheme was preferred by the National Parks Commission, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and the National Trust.

The previous Minister came to the conclusion that this was the best way, of all the alternatives, of providing the necessary transmission required by the Generating Board. The Minister is advised that he cannot withdraw the consent granted by his predecessor even if he wished to do so, and he does not.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Five o'clock.