HC Deb 25 July 1967 vol 751 cc523-34

1.40 a.m.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

After the last prolonged debate, which has rather held up progress on the Bill, I shall be fairly brief and to the point in discussing a subject that is very important in most rural districts—certainly in the East Midlands and Leicestershire. It concerns the telemetric control of gas underground pipelines. Telemetric control is a method of controlling the supply and pressure of the gas in underground pipelines and I gather that the system needs the erection of chains of masts of varying height up and down the country, following the routes of the pipelines they service.

I have tabled this subject for debate because of my concern and that of a number of hon. Members who have come across the problem in their constituencies. Their numbers may not be apparent tonight, because of the late hour and the succession of late nights we have had. New gas pipelines are now running from east to west across the heart of England, to bring natural gas supplies from the North Sea to the industrial centre of England and the Potteries. for instance, which were mentioned earlier. The supply and pressure of the gas in those pipelines will have to be controlled by one of two methods.

My fear is that the telemetric method may be used. It will involve the construction of chains of masts along the route of the underground pipelines, with their attendant disfigurement. Some of the masts can be as high as 300 ft. The relay masts will be 150 ft. high or more, and I understand from an answer to a Question in another place today that at this early stage it is envisaged that there will be no fewer than 50 of them up and down the country. In addition, there will be about 500 or more of the smaller masts of a height below 50 ft.

Certain sites have been considered for the masts in the East Midlands, and I have been told that sites for the very high masts have been selected in some of the most beautiful parts of the East Midlands, such as Naseby, where the ancient battle was fought. I gather that it was intended to site one at Skeffington, in Leicestershire, but that it is being re-sited.

My real point is to ask whether another method of control can be found. Across my constituency today lies a very broad scar, running from Rutland to Warwickshire, from east to west north of Market Harborough and north of Lutterworth, where the gas pipelines go underground. I welcome that. Of course it means inconvenience for farmers, landowners and those who live in the country, but this is progress and if the country is to benefit to the utmost from the large supplies of natural gas under the North Sea, the supplies must be taken where they are most needed. But what we are not so happy about is that, in two or three years, when the scars have healed and the grass grows again and the fences are replaced by the hedges, there will be a line of control masts marching across the heart of England to remind us of what lies beneath.

Inquiries on the subject to Ministers in both Houses of Parliament have received the answer, "Hon. Members need not worry because the local planning authority will have the last say and their views will be given preference," implying that, if the planning authority does not want a mast, it will not be erected. Is the nasty rumour true that, in fact, the local planning authorities will have no say in the matter, that for the telemetric system of underground gas pipelines to work effectively there is only one place for the mast to be and that the Leicestershire planning authority will not be able to tell the Gas Board to put its mast elsewhere? Is it true that the siting of the mast is governed by the contours of the grounds and that what a planning authority may say does not matter two hoots?

What is the alternative to the ghastly system of masts from 50 ft. up to 100200 ft. high stretching across the country? A perfectly modern, safe and efficient alternative is to control the pipeline not by these visible monstrosities but by the landline method, with the land-lines adjacent to the underground pipe, which works effectively in many countries. Just because we are staying up fairly late to try to maintain what many of us think is the beauty of a valuable piece of the countryside and an important principle on the advance of pipelines to other parts of the country, and to argue that the invisible method should be used instead of the masts, does not mean that we do not welcome the Gas Board's modernisation of its control of the pressure of supply and the contents of the underground pipelines which it has recently installed.

Not so long ago, if there was a leak in a gas pipeline, a telephone message was sent to a Gas Board employee who cycled to the point of the leak and turned off the power. The Gas Board has come up to date and by the landline system, effective control is exercised immediately and just as effectively as it would be by the telemetric system of control. It is recognised as being just as effective by those concerned with modern advanced methods.

There is one point of confusion I should like ironed out: which Ministry is responsible for the decision as to whether we should have a telemetric system or an underground landline system of control of gas pipelines? A proliferation of Ministers has been dealing with this by correspondence in the past. I have a copy of a letter from the Minister of Housing and Local Government to a noble Lord in another place, in which the Minister states the position as he sees it. I have also been fortunate enough to see correspondence which the Minister of Power has had with Members on both sides. The Postmaster-General answered questions put the other day by my hon. Friend the Member for Gains-borough (Mr. Kimball), who is here tonight. It seems to me that the absence of complete responsibility for the control system means, despite what the Postmaster-General said the other afternoon, that there is a likelihood that the country will find itself slipping into a system of telemetric control whether we like it or not. Unless we have a useful debate about this tonight and get answers on these points, we will wake up and find the country criss-crossed by an unnecessary pattern of pylons and radio control masts.

I ask the Minister to say what the system of control is to be, whether telemetric or underground. If the Minister is taking a decision, why cannot hon. Members be consulted? If we cannot be consulted, why cannot we at least be told, so that we have a chance of discussing what in a few years' time, with the proliferation of these underground pipes, could be literally another network of masts over the countryside, similar to the pattern of electric pylons with which the countryside is disfigured at the moment.

1.55 a.m.

Mr. Marcus Kimball (Gainsborough)

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) has done a very great service to all of us who live or have constituencies in the East Midlands area by raising this subject. Like my hon. Friend I have a constituency which stretches between the North Sea and the industrial Midlands. My constituency has several areas of outstanding natural beauty, notably on the Lincolnshire Wolds, which are now threatened by this system of telemetric control of gas pipelines if the Government decide to proceed.

It is clear that the operation of dealing with North Sea gas bears the hall-mark of an operation that is being carried out in a hurried, slipshod, ill thought out and extravagant fashion typical of a nationalised industry pretending that it is meeting a great need in a very short time with waste of public money and all the normal extravagancies that one expects from this sort of operation.

Is the Minister satisfied that in allowing the Gas Council to embark on a system of telemetric control he is acting correctly according to Section 43 of the Pipelines Act, 1962? The Act imposes upon the Minister the perfectly clear duty to ensure that the proposed works are kept below ground as far as is practicable. It also makes it perfectly clear that the Minister in considering every single problem must bear in mind the desirability of preserving natural beauty and conserving the countryside. I hope that the debate, if nothing else, will encourage a few of the people who will be inflicted with these radio masts at various heights along the line of sight of the pipeline to pursue the Minister in the courts and hold up this desecration of the countryside until the courts have a chance of deciding whether or not the Minister is carrying out his duties in accordance with the 1962 Act.

I hope that the Minister will answer the question raised by my hon. Friend about why the pipelines cannot be controlled by landlines. I understand that there is some monopoly which prevents any private individual or even another nationalised industry laying a cable. It is the right of the Postmaster-General. Is the Postmaster-General so pushed for cables and people to lay them that he cannot lay cables for the Gas Council so that it may be able to control the pipelines with an underground cable? Is it not possible to make some arrangement with the Postmaster-General so that we can have underground control of these pipelines?

I gather that the problem arises because the gas will be pumped through the pipelines at a pressure of 1,200 lb. per sq. in. Is the Minister entirely satisfied that this is safe, that in allowing the Gas Council to do this he is acting in accordance with the sections of the Pipelines Act which seek to ensure that proper safety regulations operate in the countryside? On 9th May, 1962, when the Pipelines Bill was introduced, no fewer than four columns of HANSARD were devoted by the then Minister to dealing with the problem of the safety of the people who live around the areas of these pipelines, and he said that he thought that the Act would be quoted for generations afterwards as proving that Conservative planning really works.

Is the Minister satisfied that pumping gas at 1,200 lb. per sq. in. through these pipelines is safe, and was it envisaged when the original Act was passed? I understand that through one pipeline in the East Midlands, which passes along the Welland valley in my hon. Friend's constituency, gas at this pressure is at present being pumped, with no attempt at telemetric control.

Mr. Farr

I had the privilege of serving on the Pipelines Bill Committee. At no time did we envisage an underground pipeline containing any liquid fuel at this pressure.

Mr. Kimball

This is typical of the situation. To make matters worse, the Government have shown not only indifference or callousness for the safety of people living around the pipelines but they have shown complete indifference about employment in the area. I understand that the pumps and equipment to pump the gas into the pipelines to keep the pressure up are all to be bought from America, the justification being that everything must be done so quickly that British firms could not deliver in time. The British taxpayer's money, through this nationalised industry, must, apparently, be spent to buy the pumps from the United States. The Minister knows that there are firms in Lincoln and on the perimeter of my constituency which could well supply these pumps. If there are some nice juicy law suits which hold the process up, so that people have time to reconsider it, there will be no reason why the equipment and pumps should be brought with precious dollars from the Americans, who have succeeded in doing a very hard sell to a lot of officials in the nationalised gas industry. This is all typical of the incompetence and waste of public money which is going on. At least, a Socialist Government might have considered employment in some of the Midland towns instead of ordering pumping equipment from the United States.

I hope that we shall have a satisfactory answer from the Government and an assurance that a firm directive will be given to this nationalised industry that it must not desecrate the countryside with pylons along the line of sight of the underground pipelines. When the Bill was going through, the big argument for facilitating its passage was that it would make possible a marvellous way of conveying energy without damage to natural beauty. The countryside is spoiled for 18 months while the pipelines are put in, but after that they are forgotten. We remember the pictures of a field last summer showing how one could hardly tell that a pipeline had been put across only two years previously. All those arguments are made worthless if the pipelines are to bristle with wireless aerials of various heights along their length.

2.4 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Mr. Reginald Freeson)

I shall deal with the subject in rather less hysterical fashion than the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) did. I can give him one assurance straight away: there is no threat by way of electrocution of foxhounds from the introduction of the telemetric system.

Mr. Kimball

I suggested nothing of the kind.

Mr. Freeson

We had some rather silly language from the hon. Gentleman—slipshod planning, extravagance, waste of public money, inflictions on the people, desecration of the countryside, threats, monstrosities, and the rest. Rather foolish language, I thought. I shall not pursue it further with him, but shall try to deal with the matter more seriously. I hope to give the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Fan) one or two assurances on the points which he raised.

I will attempt briefly to describe what is happening in this situation. I start by saying that there should be no confusion in hon. Members' minds about the responsibilities of the two Ministries most directly involved—the Ministry of Power and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. No change is involved in planning control as a result of introducing this system. Under certain circumstances planning control will operate, and any rumour to the effect that it is being pushed aside in this respect is quite incorrect. There will be planning control operative within the law as at present.

The Gas Council is planning to construct an integrated pipeline system to carry natural gas from the coastal land- ing points to the various area gas boards, and it is planned to provide natural gas to all 12 boards by 1970 in a properly-planned fashion. This will involve laying about 1,300 miles of large-diameter pipe during this period, and the system has been described in the Gas Council's booklet, "Gas Goes Natural", that was published a little while ago and was the subject of discussion in a previous debate in the House some weeks ago. There is a map on page 7 of the booklet showing the pipeline system diagramatically. It does not produce the horrors of a great criss-crossing of the countryside throughout the length and breadth of the land, either underground or overground, as was implied by some of the remarks made in the debate.

In connection with this pipeline system the Gas Council is also planning a nationwide radio network for telemetric control. The intention is that the system will ultimately provide channels for speech, teleprinter circuits and computer networks, as well as control. It is the technical view of the Gas Council that this is the most effective way to operate it. It is not for the Ministry to direct the Gas Council how to operate the industry technically. It is well established that the day-to-day management and running of this and other nationalised industries is a matter for the governing boards—or, in this case, council—of the industries. It has been concluded that this, technically, is the best way of operating the new system. How effectively it will come under planning control I have indicated already.

The reason for the proposal is that control by radio link, which is a comparatively new development, gives a much greater degree of reliability than landlines which have been used until recently for the control of pipelines. It is of particular importance for the natural gas pipeline system which will be operating at high pressures and transmitting large quantities of gas.

On the point raised by the hon. Member for Gainsborough, there are no reasons to believe that the industry and the Ministry are in conflict on their responsibilities in law in this respect, under any legislation within which the industry is now laying down the pipeline system. To throw these wild adjectives about, as if the industry or the Ministry were not concerned with the safety of the public, is nonsensical. In the interests of safety and ensuring maintenance of supplies it is clearly necessary to have as reliable a control system as is technically practicable, and this is provided by a radio link system. In other words, it is the opposite of what the hon. Member for Gainsborough suggested. The industry seeks to establish the most effective way of controlling the pipeline supply flow.

The system requires receiving aerials at the control installations on the pipelines where gas is metered before off-takes are made to area boards and gas flows regulated. The Council is, therefore, including provision for these aerials in applications being made for planning consent for the control installations. I understand that two such applications have so far been made and that others will follow.

These receiving aerials normally require only a pole mast with an aerial array on top, similar to that on a domestic television aerial. The height of the pole would depend on the contours of the site and surroundings, but often would not be more than about 50 ft. The system would also require aerials at points giving line-of-sight vision with the receiving aerials. The distances between these relay points would usually be between 20 and 30 miles. The height of the masts would depend on the contours of the land surrounding the particular site, but are likely to be 150 ft. or more in height and involve a trellis-type mast.

This form of radio communications system is already being operated, or is in process of being developed, by a number of other organisations; the G.P.O., broadcasting authorities, Home Office and electricity and gas boards. The requirements of the various users are co-ordinated by the G.P.O., which allocates radio frequencies. The approval of the G.P.O. is thus required before a system for radio communications can be adopted and, before allocating a frequency, the G.P.O. needs to be satisfied that the adoption of such a system is technically justified.

The Gas Council will be submitting an application to the G.P.O. for an allocation of frequencies. It is hoping to do this shortly. In considering it, the G.P.O. will be concerned with the technical requirements and need for the system. If the G.P.O. agrees to allocate a frequency, this will not carry with it any planning consent and the Gas Council will have to seek such consent in the normal way, under planning procedures. I hope that this reassures hon. Gentlemen opposite.

As I have said, the Gas Council is including provision for a receiving aerial, if this is required, in planning applications for installations at offtake points on the pipeline route, but separate applications will have to be made for relay masts where these are required.

The other organisations using radio systems have already selected some of the allocations most suitable for this form of communication, and the Gas Council intends, wherever possible, to use these existing sites. In other words, it will be seeking—and we shall encourage it to do so—to avoid unnecessary proliferation. This will, of course, require the agreement of the existing users but, subject to this, it is hoped that, in the majority of cases, the Council's requirements can be met by using existing sites. Where new sites have to be obtained because sharing is not possible, these will provide scope for use by other organisations and reduce the need for them to obtain new sites.

This sharing of sites is accepted policy and machinery exists for co-ordinating requirements, both of the nationalised fuel industries and of other users of these radio systems. While the technical planning of the system is still provisional and subject to consideration by the G.P.O., it seems likely, on present expectations, that about 50 relay points will be required throughout the United Kingdom, most of which, it is hoped, will be on existing sites.

I hope that the House will consider this general outline to cover the matter in reasonable detail, certainly at this hour. I trust that hon. Gentlemen opposite accept that it would be wrong to convey the idea to the public that a new attempt is being made to desecrate the countryside. I wish to make it clear personally, as well as speaking for the Department, that I take second place to no hon. Member in wanting to avoid the unnecessary destruction of amenities and the natural beauty of the countryside.

Mr. Farr

Can the hon. Gentleman indicate complete satisfaction by giving a clear and categorical assurance that a local planning authority will have effective power to prohibit the installation of a relay mast if an application is made and the local planning authority does not approve?

Mr. Freeson

The hon. Member is leading me on to ground—

Mr. Farr

Can the hon. Gentleman say "Yes"?

Mr. Freeson

I cannot say "Yes", because the hon. Member is leading me on to ground more appropriately covered by the Minister of Housing and Local Government. No local planning authority in the country has such absolute authority. There are rights of appeal and procedures whereby people can appeal in connection with any planning application against the decision of a planning authority, and the appeal may be upheld. This is the only qualifying point I make. The same applies in cases where the decision is not acceptable to the applicant. In this case it would be the Gas Council and no doubt there would be an appeal, but this is not special to the Gas Council; it is a right which can be exercised by any applicant.

Mr. Kimball

Will the hon. Gentleman see that the equipment which the Gas Council uses is of British manufacture wherever possible?

Mr. Freeson

The hon. Member should not need to ask that question, because it is the policy of the nationalised industries to buy British equipment wherever possible. The hon. Member should not press this point too far, because there is a long history attaching to it. It cannot be laid at the door of the Gas Council or of this Government that the industry has not been able to be provided with all the equipment it needs. A failure in the past goes far beyond the period of office of this Government. The hon. Member should not pursue that point too much or a number of valid points might be thrown across the Floor of the House.

I hope that I have been able to give the hon. Member for Harborough general assurance. There is no attempt here to run not over the countryside any more than there was with telegraph poles. This is an attempt to produce a satisfactory technical system which is necessary and also to pay the fullest possible regard to the natural beauty of the countryside which it is the responsibility of all of us to try to preserve.

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