HC Deb 16 March 1995 vol 256 cc1125-34

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

9.36 pm
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

I am grateful to Madam Speaker for selecting for debate the proposal for a new 400 kV power line through the vale of York. I welcome my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to the Dispatch Box. It is good to see him there. I understand that this is his first Adjournment debate. In wishing him many more, I am thinking only of the length of his ministerial career.

This is the fifth time that the matter has been raised on the Floor of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who is in his place, has raised the matter twice and I have raised it twice. That speaks for itself.

From time to time, all hon. Members experience local controversy over planning matters. Over time, opposition generally wanes, perhaps following a detailed examination of the facts at a public inquiry. That is not the case with this issue, for reasons that I shall outline shortly.

The debate arises out of decisions taken over four years ago on the construction of a gas-fired electricity generating plant—ENRON—at Wilton on Teesside and the subsequent requirements for the electricity generated to be connected to the national grid.

In September 1990, before the then Secretary of State for Energy gave planning consent for ENRON, the Office of Electricity Regulation issued a derogation to the National Grid Company for ENRON's connection to the grid. Under the Electricity Act 1989, the NGC had a statutory duty to provide that.

Shortly afterwards, the NGC entered into an agreement with Scottish Power and Scottish Hydro-Electric to increase the interconnection and transmission capability between Scotland the north of England. It was a purely commercial decision by the NGC. As a direct consequence, the NGC concluded that it would need to strengthen the transmission capacity in Yorkshire and, in September 1991, it lodged an application with North Yorkshire county council for the construction of a 400 kV overhead line from Lakenby to Picton and from Picton to Shipton through the entire length of the vale of York.

The proposed line would extend over some 56 km of open countryside. That was the first intimation to local authorities in Yorkshire that the construction of ENRON would have such profound implications for local communities. It highlights a fundamental weakness in the planning process for power stations. There is no requirement to consider the need for transmission into the national grid, or to assess whether the location of a power station makes sense in terms of national energy strategy.

Without question, had the North Yorkshire local authorities been consulted when the ENRON application was considered, they would have registered the strongest opposition. At the very least, they would have sought to ensure that conditions be attached to any planning consent, restricting further power lines in the county.

It should therefore come as no surprise to learn that the communities affected by the Vale of York power line proposal feel let down by the planning system. The public inquiry held in 1992 was not seen as sufficiently independent. The inspectors, who were appointed by the Department of Trade and Industry, rather than by the Department of the Environment as happens in all other planning matters, constantly gave the impression that their job was to smooth the way for the power line to be built rather than to make an impartial and objective assessment of the NGC's claims.

Throughout, the NGC relied on the argument that it was merely seeking to fulfil a legal duty. The inspectors agreed and seemed to think that they had no choice. The final paragraph of their report to the Secretary of State states:

we are satisfied that for NGC to comply with their statutory responsibilities and the terms and conditions of the transmission licence there is a need to reinfuice the transmission system. Surely, planning should never be about just "technical" issues. The views of people whose lives are affected must have weight, as they do in any other planning matters, yet the inspectors rejected their concerns. All that seems to matter is that the NGC fulfils its legal requirements regardless of all else.

It seems that we should forget about agricultural interests, concerns about health and the fact that there has not been a proper environmental assessment—a point that I have already raised with Environment Ministers on the Floor of the House. It seems that we should forget that the better solution of undergrounding does not suit the NGC's balance sheet or that the area itself derives no benefit from the proposal—the NGC's interests are paramount. I suggest that that is not a sustainable position for the Government to take.

It is little wonder that local people are up in arms. When the public inquiry was held in 1992, more than 8,000 objections were lodged. Since then, a petition organised by REVOLT—a group campaigning against the power line—collected more than 12,000 signatures and has been lodged with my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade.

Opposition to the proposed power line has strengthened as the weakness of the NGC case and the deficiencies in the structure of the electricity industry and energy industry generally post-privatisation have become more apparent. If there is one message that I want the Minister to take from the debate, it is that North Yorkshire says no to the power line proposal.

Although we have begun the Adjournment debate slightly earlier than usual, time will not allow a full examination of all the facts. I suspect that my hon. Friend the Minister has spent many hours reading the various reports and papers. I have, and so has my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks.

The following issues are relevant. First, the NGC has failed to establish that the new line is needed. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will doubtless tell us that my hon. Friend and I have that wrong. We have not; he has. It is worth bearing in mind the fact that a 400 kV power line already exists throughout the length of the proposed route. Its capacity is 5,560 mVA —do not ask me to explain, Mr. Deputy Speaker, what that means. The important fact is that that capacity is the highest of any part of the national grid. That is the stretch that it is proposed to strengthen. The route is significantly under-utilised. The derogation granted to the NGC to connect the ENRON power station to the grid has proved entirely adequate. The inspector's report following the 1992 inquiry went into considerable detail in considering whether the temporary derogation should become permanent. The arguments against extending the derogation are unconvincing and acknowledge disagreement within the electricity industry on transmission standards.

At the 1992 inquiry, Dr. Ian Davis, on behalf of the NGC, conceded that the organisation

take a commonsense view of the application of transmission standards, taking into account the costs and the potential benefits in each case, so departure is often argued for in reasoned terms and can often be justified. In other words, the NGC interprets the standards to suit itself.

I have mentioned the need to improve the link with Scotland, which was the NGC's commercial decision. That need has also been argued as a justification for the power line. But why construct a second high-voltage line on the east side of Yorkshire to cater for Scottish power, which is transmitted on the west coast of Scotland to Carlisle, when the extra load of the export of electricity of 750 MW could be carried south of Carlisle on existing lines, which in the NGC's seven-year statements show a surplus capacity of 2,400 MW?

As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, two other gas-fired generating stations for the north-east coast, Flotilla and Neptune, are under consideration. The inspectors and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State sought to argue that the transmission demands of ENRON and Scottish electricity exports are in themselves sufficient to justify strengthening the national grid, but no one is in any doubt that the accommodation of the additional capacity from Neptune and Flotilla is the real reason for the NGC seeking to strengthen the grid.

Indeed, the NGC has already entered into agreements with Neptune and Flotilla for connection into the grid. Yet no formal applications for planning consent for either Neptune or Flotilla have even been lodged. Potentially, they are very much in the future. They may never be given planning consent. They do not justify bolstering the NGC's case for new transmission lines at this time.

It is worth bearing it in mind that a connection agreement with no planning consent in Hampshire and an agreement in Lincolnshire with consent have recently been cancelled. The future of energy generation and pricing is under review. We read in the press this week that the future of the NGC sell-off is in doubt. At the very least, the current uncertainties dictate that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State should postpone any final decision on the NGC application.

As I have already said, there is also continuing uncertainty about transmission standards. The NGC has merely adopted the standards established in the 1970s by the Central Electricity Generating Board with no regard to improved technology and despite the fact that faults on the NGC transmission system are currently less than one minute per customer per year. That is a security of supply of 99.999 per cent. The position with the regional electricity companies is rather less remarkable, amounting to an average for connected customers of 164 minutes' disruption a year. Why on earth do we wish to despoil the countryside of North Yorkshire for a potential loss of that one minute per customer per year?

The higher the standard of transmission, the greater the eventual cost for the customer. The NGC also has a vested interest in shifting electricity round the country. That is how it earns its money. However, in the case of ENRON, it results in a power loss of up to 6 per cent. because of the distance over which the electricity is transmitted. With Scottish exports, the power loss may be up to 10 per cent.

Mindful of the importance of those issues, shortly after the 1992 inquiry, Professor Littlechild ordered the NGC to conduct a review of four areas of transmission standards: operating standards, planning standards, connection standards and quality criteria. It took the NGC almost two years to respond. It consulted generators, RECs, interconnectors and customers, but not the environmental lobby. It seems that only North Yorkshire local authorities made representations on the environment, because other local authorities and environmental groups were unaware that the review was taking place.

Bearing in mind the two years that it took the NGC to respond in its review of its own transmission standards, Professor Littlechild has now given until 31 March—just two weeks' time—for a wider input of views. I remind my hon. Friend the Minister that section 3 of the Electricity Act 1989 places a duty on the regulator to take into account the effects of electricity transmission on the physical environment. It is part of the case of those who oppose the line through North Yorkshire that that duty has not been properly exercised.

In a statement in February, Professor Littlechild made it clear that he was not satisfied with the retention of the existing standards, although provisionally—and I stress provisionally—he did not intend to make changes in the short term. He also confirmed that he intends to look with Ofgas at the relative pricing of electricity and gas transmission lines and that he will then return to the question of the pricing of transmission and its implications for price control by the NGC. In other words, the whole question of transmission standards, in addition to the NGC's future and what will happen to electricity generating policy, remains in a state of flux.

The Minister will doubtless argue, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks and I have heard so many times in the past, that the Secretary of State will have to reach a final decision on the matter based on the transmission standards as they apply at the time he makes his decision. With respect, that is simply not good enough.

As each day passes, it becomes ever clearer that the privatised energy utilities are capable of delivering greater efficiency and lower prices. That is what came out of our own regional electricity company, Northern Electric, in its spirited defence, which I supported, after the Trafalgar House bid. That is what has prompted the further review of prices announced by Professor Littlechild, about which we have heard so much during the past seven or eight days. In two or three years' time, as a consequence of all this, we could be looking at a completely different requirement for transmission. Why, then, should this proposed power line be foisted on the people of north Yorkshire when the argument in favour is at best doubtful, and at worst—particularly in the longer term—totally unnecessary?

We must also ask who will pay for the new power line and for all the nonsense that has been going on. Who will pay all the costs of the inquiries? There is only one answer—the consumer. It will certainly not be the NGC or the power generator at ENRON.

As the Minister is aware, a further public inquiry is now under way at Northallerton, examining alternative proposals for two sections of the proposed power line route. Many of the issues that I mentioned are being raised in further evidence to the inspectors.

Local landowners have expressed total dissatisfaction with the handling of the inquiry and the unseemly haste with which proceedings are being carried forward. The attitude of the NGC and of the inspectors does nothing to enhance the credibility of the DTI. The current inquiry is also considering the question of wayleaves.

Before finishing my speech, I stress in the strongest possible terms the fact that two thirds of the landowners affected by the proposal have not reached agreement with the NGC for the siting of pylons on their land. In some cases, cash offers in excess of £40,000 have been refused. It is not like Yorkshire farmers to refuse that sort of money without good reason.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister, on this serious matter, to give an undertaking tonight that, so long as the majority of landowners fail to reach agreement with the NGC, the Secretary of State will not use his powers to impose agreements. Landowners and farmers are resisting the bullying tactics of the NGC, to demonstrate their outright opposition to the power line and their helief that any truly subjective independent appraisal of the NGC's application would result in the plan being shelved.

In responding to the inspectors' report in May last year, the President of the Board of Trade said that he was "minded" to grant approval. I trust that my hon. Friend will confirm tonight that that does not mean that my right hon. Friend has already made up his mind, and that there is still time for him to be influenced and to come to a different decision.

I hope that in this brief debate I have given my hon. Friend the facts that he needs to persuade the officials in his Department, and ultimately the President of the Board of Trade, to think again. For the reasons that I outlined, there is sufficient doubt about the direction of future energy policy not to proceed with the construction of a second 400 kV power line through the vale of York unless and until it is inescapably required.

If people were convinced that the power line was inescapably required, the opposition to it would be nothing like as strong or as vehement. But the NGC has dismally failed to provide a justification. ENRON has been generating electricity for two years, since the winter of 1992-93, and the lights have not gone out yet. In spite of that, and in spite of all the other uncertainties about future transmission requirements, the NGC is ploughing ahead with new commitments, although the power line proposal has not yet been approved. Such action is insensitive, to say the least, bearing in mind the strong opposition to the proposal.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister to reassure me, my constituents and the people in the Richmond constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks. Even more people are affected in Richmond than in Ryedale, and we are finding it bad enough. Minister, please reassure us that the NGC has no authority from the Department to behave in such a cavalier fashion, and that in response to the most strongly felt public anger that I have ever known, the Department will reject the NGC proposal, or at the very least postpone indefinitely any final decision. Please listen to the voice of local people in north Yorkshire. Tonight that voice says emphatically, "No, no and no again," to the National Grid Company.

9.59 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Energy (Mr. Richard Page)

I know from experience how difficult it is to obtain time for debates of this kind. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) on his success, and thank him for the kind words with which he opened the debate.

There have been two previous Adjournment debates on this matter, the others having taken place in 1991 and 1992. It must be quite unusual for three Adjournment debates to be held on the subject of a single overhead line project: that demonstrates the level of concern. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the zeal and effectiveness with which he has pursued the interests of his constituents, not only this evening but over the long history of the project.

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Page

My hon. Friend's constituents can know that, whatever the outcome of the proposal, he has represented them in a most effective and forceful fashion. Having read the files that have accumulated over the years, I know that he has been a definitive and powerful force in expressing their concerns.

It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to other hon. Members on both sides of the House who have acted in a similar fashion on behalf of their constituents. Let me particularly mention my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who raised the matter on the two previous occasions. Despite his ministerial duties, he has made time to be present tonight; he sits beside me, a brooding presence, waiting to express the anxieties of his constituents.

I know that both my hon. Friends appreciate that I cannot discuss the merits or otherwise of the project. I can only view it as an ordinary Member of Parliament—as if such a project were proposed for my constituency. I understand my hon. Friends' natural concerns, but as a Minister I note that this would be one of the largest overhead line developments of recent years, and it is entirely appropriate for it to receive detailed scrutiny both throughout the planning process and in the House. All aspects of the project have been, or still are, the subject of statutory proceedings, reports of which my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade will consider carefully when making his decisions. I must therefore limit my remarks to general matters, and not the specific issues that have been raised in the public inquiries and local hearings.

It may be helpful if I remind the House of the background to the project and the current position. I know that my hon. Friends are vividly aware of the circumstances, but it is only right to put them on the record, because what is said tonight will command a wider audience.

The NGC submitted five applications for consent under the Electricity Act 1989, in September 1991. The applications suggested alternatives—two possible routes for the proposed line between Lackenby on Teesside and Picton in North Yorkshire, and three possible routes between Picton and Shipton, also in north Yorkshire.

Those applications were the subject of a long public inquiry in 1992, whose report my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade published on 12 May last year. At that time, he said that he was minded to accept the inspectors' recommendations but would make no final decisions on the five applications until the NGC had made progress in obtaining the appropriate rights over the land concerned. That is in line with his normal practice in cases where wayleaves have not been obtained.

The inquiry inspectors recommended that consent be granted for the major part of an overhead line between Lackenby and Shipton, combining elements of the five application routes, but recommended refusal for three sections of the line. It suggested undergrounding for one section and possible rerouting overhead for the other two sections.

Since that time, the NGC has pursued wayleave negotiations with the landowners involved. As few of the landowners were willing to grant wayleaves voluntarily—my hon. Friend referred to that forcibly this evening—the NGC applied to my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade for necessary wayleaves under the provisions in schedule 4 to the Electricity Act 1989.

Local hearings on the applications were held in November and December 1994. The NGC has also submitted a compulsory purchase order relating to land required for the underground cable, including the sealing end compound, and new consent and wayleave applications in respect of alternative routes in the other two sections which my right hon. Friend suggested that he was minded to refuse consent. All those matters are the subject of a new public inquiry, which is currently in progress in Northallerton.

At this point, I should like to take the opportunity to put the record straight about certain complaints against my Department on procedural matters. For example, I am aware, from correspondence that I have seen, that there has been public comment that there has been complicity between my Department and the NGC—the applicant—on procedural matters. I reject such accusations unreservedly.

The House will appreciate that I have only recently acquired a direct interest in the project. I have found it somewhat ironic, given that the project was first applied for some three and a half years ago, that objectors to it have complained that my Department has been over-hasty in arranging inquiries and hearings.

Minimum periods of notice are laid down in statutory regulations. Wherever possible, and indeed in almost all cases, my Department has given the parties concerned longer notice than required by regulations. It is also true that those concerned have generally been aware from a date much earlier than receipt of the notice that a particular inquiry or hearing would be held following objections by the relevant local planning authority or relevant individuals. Therefore, as the House will understand, I reject completely any suggestion that individual parties have not had sufficient time to prepare their case for a particular inquiry or hearing.

I also understand that some objectors to the project have found it difficult to accept the appointment of Mr. Alan Walker as one of the inspectors at the public inquiry taking place at Northallerton. My hon. Friend did not refer to the matter, but it is right to put it on the record. The difficulty in acceptance of Mr. Walker is apparently because he was one of the inspectors who held wayleave hearings at the end of 1994.

I do not accept that Mr. Walker's role as an inspector is in any way compromised by his involvement in those hearings, even in so far as those hearings and the current inquiry raise common issues. The wayleave hearings dealt with site-specific interests relating to the granting of rights across specific pieces of land, rather than to all the planning issues associated with consent applications. Mr. Walker made it clear at the wayleave hearings that he would not be making any recommendations to my right hon. Friend on the generic issues considered at the 1992 public inquiry.

My hon. Friend touched on health issues only briefly—en passant, if Hansard can put "en passant". I do not know whether we are allowed to use little French phrases. I should like to make a comment on health. A large majority of those who have made representations to my right hon. Friend, either in correspondence or through the inquiries and hearings, have expressed anxiety about adverse health effects. In particular, an increased health risk has been perceived by the public as a result of studies published in other countries which suggest a possible association between electromagnetic fields and cancer.

My right hon. Friend can take into account only the most current and authoritative evidence available to him when he makes a decision, including advice from the Department of Health and the National Radiological Protection Board. That applies in the case of any overhead line decision and such decisions are being taken every day. The NRPB's current advice is that it has considered all the available information and has concluded that it does not establish that exposure to electromagnetic fields is a cause of cancer, although it provides some evidence to suggest that the possibility exists, which justifies moving forward with research.

The significance of an epidemiological study depends, among other things, on the strength of the association, the presence of dose-relationship, supporting experimental evidence and a credible biological explanation. Those tests for causality are not satisfied for a link between electromagnetic fields and cancer and the NRPB does not therefore recommend the adoption of quantitative restrictions on human exposure to electromagnetic fields. Should, of course, the NRPB's advice change before my right hon. Friend reaches any decision on this project, he will take that new advice into account.

As I have said, my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade has yet to receive and consider a number of reports by independent inspectors on different aspects of the project. He is also obliged to consider any new relevant evidence which he receives before he makes his decisions. If he takes into consideration any such new evidence or new matter of fact which disposes him to disagree with the recommendations made by any of the inspectors, he must, under the relevant procedure, give the parties involved an opportunity to ask for the reopening of that inquiry.

I assure my hon. Friend and the House that no decisions on the various individual applications until my right hon. Friend will be taken before he is satisfied that he has all the information before him to enable him to take that decision. Furthermore, as the House will realise, my right hon. Friend cannot take a decision that will in any way restrict his discretion in relation to any other decision.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past Ten o'clock.