HC Deb 24 July 1997 vol 298 cc1111-22

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

7.38 pm
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

I welcome this opportunity to raise a matter of great concern to my constituents and those of neighbouring hon. Members, including the Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), and my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway).

The subject of overhead pylons through the Vale of York was first debated in 1991, and subsequently in 1992 and 1995. The discussions concerned the building of a new gas-fired power station at the ICI Wilton complex on Teesside, which was granted planning permission in 1991 and has subsequently been constructed. Rumours are circulating about a proposal for a new power station to be built in the Newcastle area which would create the totally unacceptable possibility of further transmission implications. The Minister for Science, Energy and Industry may be able to respond to my concerns.

It was only subsequent to the granting of planning permission for the ICI Wilton complex that the National Grid Company proposed to construct new transmission lines running from Lackenby in Cleveland to Pickton in North Yorkshire, and then south to Shipton near York. One point of concern on which I would like the Minister to comment is that these two applications were treated for planning purposes as two separate events. The power stations gained planning permission without any apparent consideration of the environmental impact of the subsequent construction of 60 miles of pylons through some of the most stunningly beautiful countryside in rural England.

My first concern is the impact on the environment. The House will be familiar with the work of REVOLT, which stands for Rural England Versus Overhead Line Transmission. It has 300 active members, stretching to 10,000 signatories of various petitions. That reflects the increasingly vociferous support for the REVOLT campaign throughout north Yorkshire. REVOLT and local residents have consistently argued that the lines were unnecessary, and that is my principal point this evening.

The Teesside complex has been built and, subsequently, there has been no transmission from the plant. The new power station will use apparently spare transmission lines. My constituents, and those of other hon. Members in North Yorkshire, are concerned about that. If there were a proven need, there would not have been the campaign or the strength of feeling against the proposed pylons.

There is also the perceived health hazard, an aspect which has not been investigated fully either by this House or by the public inquiries. The fundamental concern is that the proposal would harm the visual outlook of rural North Yorkshire and would have a negative impact on the prices of housing and other amenities in the immediate residential areas surrounding the pylons.

North Yorkshire county council has lent its full support to the campaign and has consistently spoken against the pylons. The council is unconvinced that the line is required, and believes that the environmental impact of the construction is too high a price to pay and that the procedures leading to the present situation have been wrong.

I would like to ask the Minister a number of questions. Have the Government actively discharged their duty under the European Union directive on environmental impact assessment—adopted in 1985—specifically article 3 and annexe 3 thereof? Have they undertaken a specific environmental impact assessment to identify, describe and assess the direct, indirect and secondary effects of the proposed line of pylons on the environment? It would be a source of satisfaction to the House if the Minister could report that such an impact assessment has been carried out. We are obliged under the directive and our treaty obligations to pursue such an assessment.

My information is that such an assessment has not taken place, and I would like to report to my constituents that it will. Have the Government considered the negative impact on local amenities and specifically house prices, which would plummet should the pylons be constructed? Are the Government in a position to rule on the inspector's report and recommendations following the last public inquiry? The report has been with the Department of Trade and Industry for approximately two years.

During the recent general election campaign, there was without a shadow of a doubt all-party support for the campaign against the construction of the pylons. The Labour candidate for my constituency promised to deliver a decision in the early days of a Labour Government that that Government would reject the proposals. I asked whether any candidate from any party or any member of any Government could deliver such a pledge, but the Minister has an excellent opportunity to deliver.

If the Minister is unable—or does not have the competence—to reach such a decision, will he agree that the figures placed before the inspector at the last inquiry for the cost of transmission were erroneous? Will the Minister instruct another inquiry to assess the true cost? In my view, the true cost would reflect as a 15 per cent. loss in transmission—representing, at a conservative estimate, a £660 million loss to consumers.

I accept that power stations are competitive, but they obtain a subsidy for long-distance transmission on the grid. They have an artificial incentive to locate near the fuel source and far from the end consumer. Does the Minister agree that the preferred option for industry, the consumer and the environment is to locate the power supply as close to the point of demand as possible? Will the Government therefore consider the option of underground transmission? Has this been considered or costed? Sweden and Australia have ruled that no alternative to underground transmission of electricity and gas supplies will be considered in future.

As Sizewell B is now on line, what need is there for increased electricity in the south? Do not Sizewell A and B together satisfy the demand in the south, with resultant cheaper transmission costs?

If the line were consented to, the door would be open, contractually, to increase Scottish imports to the south of England, which raises a wider national issue. There is no proven need for the pylons. It is my view and that of many of my constituents that erroneous transmission costs were presented to the inquiry. I urge that the true costs be investigated.

Information exists that could show that the previous inquiry was crucially misinformed, and that gives good reasons for an early rejection of the proposed line of pylons. Failing that, I plead for the option of reopening the inquiry so that need, finances and the environment can finally be considered.

I invite the Minister to rule against the construction of these ugly and obscene pylons in the interests of preserving our countryside as we know it and keeping rural England as stunningly beautiful as the Vale of York that we enjoy today. The people of the Vale of York are in the Government's hands and we await with eager anticipation a definitive decision against the construction of the pylons or, at the very least, a decision to open inquiries on the perceived need, the cost, the environmental impact and the knock-on effects on amenities and housing.

Will the Government make the necessary changes to ensure that in future, in considering whether to approve power generation schemes, the environmental impact of transmission is also considered?

7.51 pm
Mr. John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead)

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) for allowing me to speak in her Adjournment debate. Hon. Members may be wondering why a London Member should be speaking on an issue concerning the Vale of York. I can explain that simply: BICC Cables—one of the few pieces of manufacturing industry left in London, and a world-class business which exports about 60 per cent. of its turnover but is also dependent on its United Kingdom business, as a major supplier to the National Grid Company—is located in my constituency.

I recognise the hon. Lady's strength of feeling and determination to campaign on environmental issues in her constituency, as I have done in mine when it has been threatened by motorways or roads through areas of outstanding natural beauty, but I must state the position as it may affect employees and businesses in my constituency.

The National Grid Company has a statutory obligation, determined not by Labour but by the previous Government, to connect all licensed generators to its transmission system and to transmit power generated by the licence holder to areas of need, no matter how many tens or even hundreds of kilometres away. There is currently excess generating capacity in Scotland and the north-east of England. It has been estimated that restricting the use of power stations in those areas may be costing as much as £50 million a year. I believe that the Department of Trade and Industry has an obligation to avoid that waste.

BICC is also involved with underground cables, and welcomed the decision of the first public inquiry, in 1992, to put part of the link underground. On environmental grounds, I should like as much as possible of any transmission link to be underground; that would be good news for the environment as well as for employees in Erith.

Labour cannot be held responsible for delays. Problems have been created for BICC, which first became aware of the project in 1991. The first public inquiry was in 1992, and, from 1993 to 1995, BICC did a great deal of preparatory work and detailed engineering study. The public inquiry recommendation published in 1994 gave approval for the link, with the stipulation that the section at Nunthorpe should be underground. The then President of the Board of Trade said that he was minded to accept the inquiry's findings. On that basis, BICC has continued to invest in the project and to keep spare capacity available at its factory in Erith; it has therefore suffered some detriment.

The hon. Member for Vale of York said that there was unanimity among various candidates, but the former Conservative Member of Parliament for the former constituency of Erith and Crayford, Mr. David Evennett, pressed the then Minister, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, extremely hard in September 1996 for an early decision in the matter. Lord Fraser replied in a letter of 30 September 1996 that the Conservative Government were giving the matter careful consideration and noted his request for a decision as soon as possible.

I know that the current Minister has had the matter on his desk for only a few weeks, but a decision is required fairly urgently if BICC Cables in Erith is not to suffer further detriment.

7.57 pm
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) on the good fortune of having been elected to the House as the Member for a constituency which, along with Ryedale, Richmond, Yorks, and Skipton and Ripon, has represented since 1 May a substantial buffer of blue surrounded by a sea of red, and which also happens to be one of the most gloriously beautiful parts of the British Isles.

There is no doubt that the issue raised by my hon. Friend has given rise to considerable anger for about five years, and I congratulate her on securing this debate. In the previous Parliament, I raised the matter on the Floor of the House on no fewer than three occasions: twice in the three-hour end-of-Session Adjournments and once on an Adjournment of the House.

I offer a hand of friendship and sympathy to the Minister. He deserves it, because he has inherited an extremely difficult situation. I am sure that he will tell us that the matter has sat on Ministers' and officials' desks at the Department of Trade and Industry for the best part of two years. It is a tribute to the resilience of those of us who have been fighting this for some time that we have managed to keep the ball in play and avoid a decision being taken in favour of the pylons. As the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Mr. Austin) pointed out, other people want a different decision because of the trade and jobs that will be associated with it. Such decisions always have that dimension.

Three points ought to be stressed, and they present the Minister with the solution to the dilemma that I acknowledge he faces. First, the basic reasons why the National Grid Company first applied for the power lines are no longer relevant. When the application was made, the people of North Yorkshire were told that the line was needed to meet the NGC's statutory obligation to connect a power station into the national grid, as the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead said. It did that, and, in the five years since the new power station at Bilton has been operating, it has been taken into the grid, there has been no reduction in the power demand from the plant, and the grid has worked. There have been no difficulties. I will not explain the technical terms. Our advisers talk of trip-outs and so forth, which have not occurred. So the need for the line has never been demonstrated on the original terms, which were to connect the Bilton power plant.

Secondly, soon after the public inquiries into the matter were launched, the rabbit came out of the hat when it became clear that the NGC was about two separate things. First, it was seeking to strengthen the grid so that it could accommodate more power from more power stations built on the north-east coast.

Two such power stations were in the planning stage, but I think that I am right in saying that no application has ever arrived on the desk of a Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry or, formerly, the Department of Energy. One power station was to be called Flotilla and the other Neptune. Neither has progressed, for the simple reason that, while all this was going on, the Director General of Electricity Supply has rumbled the fact that we are spending so much money transmitting electricity around the country that there is a transmission loss and that it would be more effective and beneficial to consumers, whether domestic or industrial, if more power were generated closer to the market.

The Minister for Science, Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle)

Build more power stations?

Mr. Greenway

Yes, why not? If two more gas-fired power stations are to be built on the north-east coast to transmit electricity to the south of England, where the market is, why not transmit the gas and build the power stations in the south? That is a logical argument, and it would be more efficient to do so.

Secondly, there is excess capacity in Scotland, as has been mentioned, I think by the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead. Really this is about creating the opportunity for more electricity imports into England and Wales from Scotland. When that became apparent, one of the two privatised electricity generators, PowerGen, joined the campaign against the pylons, saying that there was not a level playing field. It said, by all means let there be competition in electricity supply, but that means that electricity can, equally, go into Scotland. On that basis, PowerGen said that the power lines were not necessary.

My third point shows the Minister how he can get out of this dilemma and give the people of North Yorkshire who will be affected by the power lines the opportunity of a fairer say than they have had already. From what the NGC told the original public inquiries, it is clear that they and the original inspector were misled on the key issue of transmission costs. The Minister has the correspondence in his file and on his desk. He knows that the NGC said that it would cost it more if it did not strengthen the grid than if it did, but, following the investigations into transmission costs undertaken by the director general, the reality is that, if it builds the power line, transmission costs will rise.

If the inspector's recommendation to go ahead, which led the former President of the Board of Trade my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) to suggest that he was minded to accept the inquiry, was based on what can only be described, and is described by people in North Yorkshire, as completely duff information, why should the inquiry not be reopened so that the proper facts can be established? What has the NGC got to fear from a fresh inquiry and a fresh opportunity to state its case? It has convinced no one in North Yorkshire that the power lines are needed. On occasion, it has even failed to convince itself.

My solution for the Minister is, please, give us the inquiry for which, as he knows, I have asked for the best part of 18 months in this and the previous Parliament, as has my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, whose constituency is greatly affected by the problem.

Finally, there is no doubt that the structure of the privatisation of the electricity industry has created some of the difficulties we are faced with, as it was bound to do. That made it difficult for former Ministers to grant the decision that we would have liked.

The present Minister is not inhibited by that consideration. He has the opportunity to tackle many of the criticisms of electricity privatisation that we heard when we were on the Government Benches and Labour was in opposition. He should not simply accept that he must make a certain decision because that was the structure of the way things were done. He has an opportunity for a fresh approach and a fresh look at the question. The fact that the NGC knows that it has been found out and that its case to the inquiry was based on bogus information gives us the perfect opportunity to have another inquiry.

8.6 pm

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak tonight. I must also extend my thanks to the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) for allowing me to speak in her debate, for which I am grateful.

As this is my maiden speech, I will certainly pepper it with some eulogies about my constituency, but it is not merely the visual outlook of the people of Stockton, South that is harmed by pylons and overhead lines. Their gardens, streets and schools and the lives that people in so many parts of my constituency lead are, frankly, straddled by overhead lines. The visual impact of pylons when they start in one's garden is monstrous. It is not merely that I want to tell the hon. Lady that I do not want any part of the countryside in Great Britain and its beauty harmed or damaged. I am also speaking clearly for so many of my constituents who want those things removed from their gardens and homes.

This is my maiden speech and it is incumbent on me to say some warm words about a constituency that I love. The River Tees runs through it, some very green and pleasant lands are attached to it and it has many leafy suburbs. It has people with considerable grit and guts. People who fight and have had to fight because their industry has been destroyed—sometimes, because people thought that it was not making sufficient profit and, oftentimes, because people were not concerned to put in the investment that the industry deserved and the people certainly deserve.

My constituency has gone through awful changes. Many of my constituents are unemployed. In some parts, 50 per cent. of the residential area has no one in work. That is a sad statement for me to have to make. Many children face not only existing but accumulated deprivation. I balance that by noting that, while my constituents have put up with, and continue to put up with, industrial turmoil and decline, they are still in there fighting. They would most like their environment to be cherished more and damaged less.

I pay tribute to my predecessor, Tim Devlin, who worked very hard for his party. He was a good constituency Member, as I intend to be. One of my predecessors, Harold Macmillan, was even more notable, although not necessarily more worthy, because he served as Prime Minister. I grew up during his era and, as a small child, sat in the House listening to him. I was spellbound by him and the others then in the House. My father was also a Member, representing Burnley. This is therefore a very special moment for me, because it brings back so many warm and cherished memories.

I am saddened to have to make my maiden speech when I am pleading for the people of constituency and their life styles, and asking the utilities to behave in a decent manner by burying the overhead lines and getting rid of the pylons. I know that one should not use the word "conflict" in a maiden speech, but there is one in this case. I question what the utilities have said about their ability to make profit. Inevitably, it is profit that has driven them to build pylons and overhead lines.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Vale of York. As she stated, it is not only a question of the visual outlook. For many of my people in places such as Yarm and Eaglescliffe, it is a question of health. They believe that a health risk attaches to pylons and overhead lines. Some medical reports suggest that that could be the case. My constituents worry about bringing up their children in such an environment when they do not know whether there is a risk. We must press for better research.

I must point out to the hon. Member for Vale of York that, should the Lackenby to Picton line go ahead, pylons and overhead lines will be removed from a part of my constituency. Some of my constituents will receive a tangible benefit. They long for the lines to come down, because supply will increase and make those lines redundant. The fact that there will be a clear and immediate benefit for some, while for others the hideous pylons and overhead lines will remain, creates an awful dilemma for me. I should welcome more research and development, and clearer ideas about how to transmit power more effectively. I should like to believe that we can produce energy at the point of need, rather than transmitting it as we do.

I hope that this statement is accepted as being made with warmth and not in a spirit of conflict, but I wish that we had not had to wait 104 weeks for the report. It has clearly been with the Department of Trade and Industry for some time, and we should been given it earlier. We could have made clearer and more sensible statements to the electorate in the general election, rather than merely saying that we would fight to do what we could to support their needs. We could have spoken positively and clearly if the report had been made available earlier.

This is an important debate, which I welcome. It is crucial that we get this argument right. It is very important for the countryside, but it is also important for the residents of Stockton, South.

8.14 pm
The Minister for Science, Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) on securing this debate. I pay her a special compliment, because this is an unusual Adjournment debate. Such debates are usually held at the end of the day and conducted exclusively between a Member raising a constituency concern and a Minister, with other Members occasionally being allowed to ask a question. The hon. Lady has displayed extraordinary generosity in letting other hon. Members take part in the debate. The fact that they wanted to take part shows that there is real concern about the issue. I almost feel that the matter was worthy of a full Wednesday morning debate.

It is also unusual for a Member to make a maiden speech in an Adjournment debate. Although she may not wish me to speak in such terms, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), because she spoke with passion and warmth of her constituency. As it was an unusual debate in which to make such a speech, I know that she did not spend not days and weeks preparing, but responded to the terms of the debate. The natural, articulate authenticity with which she spoke augurs well. She is a remarkable speaker and captured our attention. I pay tribute to her for having had the courage to make her first speech in such a debate. Her constituents have an articulate champion in the House. I and, I am sure, other hon. Members, look forward to hearing her often.

I compliment the other hon. Members who spoke. I think that the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) raised the matter in 1985.

Mr. Greenway

Nineteen ninety-five.

Mr. Battle

Yes. It was in 1991 and 1992 that the Leader of the Opposition raised it. I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Mr. Austin) for bringing his angle to the debate.

The matter is one of the items that I inherited. To be provocative, I was left a rather large in-tray by the outgoing Government. This item stuck out between the bars at the bottom of the tray. I am not shy about intending to get through the in-tray to put it behind us so that we can get on to the agendas that we want to address in the medium and long term.

The North Yorkshire lines are a long-running saga. The National Grid Company put in applications for a new 400 kV line development from Lackenby, Cleveland via Picton to Shipton in 1991. All the local planning authorities affected objected, as did more than 7,000 individuals. A public inquiry was held into the development in 1992 and a further public inquiry was held into proposed diversions in 1995.

The 1992 inquiry was lasted six months, from May to November, and reported in October 1993. Following receipt of the report of the 1992 public inquiry, a letter was issued in May 1994 by the Department indicating the overall route to which the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), was minded to grant consent. He was minded to grant consent for much of the route as overhead lines. Copies of the inspector's report from the 1992 inquiry were placed in the Library at the time.

A subsequent public inquiry was held between March and April 1995. It considered proposed line diversions, and reviewed general issues relating to the development. The report was received in December 1995. Since then, the Department has been considering all the evidence, including the material received since the inquiry closed.

It may be a little churlish of me to say it, but I jibbed a little at the hon. Member for Vale of York's remark about my incompetence—I have been in the job for just 12 weeks. As my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead said, the proposed development remained in the previous Government's in-tray for 104 weeks. It is now in my urgent action file, because I want the matter to be sorted out.

As hon. Members will be aware, however, my involvement in the statutory progress precludes me from commenting on the merits and demerits of the application. I am tempted to comment, because I enjoy debate and I enjoyed listening to the range of views expressed tonight, but I hope that hon. Members will understand my role in the matter. I can become involved only when the President of the Board of Trade has considered all the details relating to the application and taken a decision. I must confine my remarks to general ones. I hope that hon. Members will accept my reply in that spirit. I have noted what has been said, which will, of course, be recorded in Hansard, and officials at the Department of Trade and Industry will also take note of those contributions.

In opposition, we promised that, in government, we would look at all the evidence in the light of the two public inquiries and consider local and national needs. That is exactly what we are doing, so we are already acting on the suggestion of hon. Member for Vale of York.

A fair amount of material has built up on the case and must be absorbed. The development has rightly been subjected to the detailed scrutiny of the planning process. Given the controversy that has arisen, it has also been rightly subjected to the attention of the House in the past and again tonight. I got a hint from the hon. Member for Ryedale that it may well be referred to again if the decision on the development drags on. I accept that, but, for our part, we need to consider the conclusions and recommendations in the report on the detailed inquiry in 1995. It is not yet in the public domain, but it reviewed general issues and the specific applications for line diversions.

The line diversions are only part of the overall scheme, and it is therefore appropriate for us to look again at the report on the first inquiry in 1992, as well as the then Secretary of State's provisional conclusion on that inquiry in his letter of 12 May 1994. Various parties have submitted additional material to the Department since the last inquiry closed in 1995, which we also need to consider. We shall also obviously want to reflect on the views expressed by hon. Members tonight. That takes time, and if the Government were so unwise as to take an instant decision either at the Dispatch Box tonight or after we had so recently come into office, there would be complaints about our precipitate response to an Adjournment debate. All I can promise is that we shall reach a view on the case as soon as we properly can, in the light of all the material available.

That means that account will be taken of environmental impact assessments and the cost of putting the lines under the ground, an alternative to which hon. Members have rightly referred. As far as I can recall, the inspectors considered in the first inquiry that the overhead lines in the proximity of the Teesside power station served a number of needs relating to the power station, the future possible growth of generation in the north-east and increasing exports from Scotland. Although the Department of Trade and Industry was aware of the concerns raised by objectors, the consent to the power station was granted without the environmental impact of the overhead line being taken into consideration.

I understand that the previous Government decided that it would have been wrong to treat the overhead line as an integral part of the power station project and, therefore, to have delayed consent to that power station from 1990 until now. There was a division of decision relating to the power station and the line. Having said that, I should add that the overhead line proposals have been subject to full environmental assessments as required by the environmental assessment regulations. The hon. Member for Vale of York asked about that, and I hope that that information gives her a crumb of comfort. I will take that fact into account when reaching a decision on the development.

I am well aware of calls for all overhead lines to be buried underground. I would not claim that overhead cables are a visual amenity in any landscape, but we must balance their existence with people's desire to have electricity supplied to their homes to light them and to operate their televisions, washing machines and all the other accoutrements that are run by electricity. Although I cannot comment on the development in question, I feel that we need to be realistic when making a decision, because those overhead lines may be needed somewhere.

We need to take into account the environmental impact of overhead lines and consider the views of local communities about them. We also need to encourage companies to bury lines underground if they are placed in sensitive locations. We must recognise, however, the limits of present technology. To put a line underground is more expensive than to erect it overground, particularly at high voltage. The indications are that developing technology is unlikely to provide any immediate help in offsetting that cost difference. Those costs could feed through to commercial, industrial and domestic consumers.

There are also other disadvantages associated with underground cables relating to constraints on agriculture and other developments because of the need to protect those cables. They could be less reliable and take longer to repair. All that I am suggesting is that we need to look at any plans on a case-by-case basis. That is the approach which we intend to pursue on the development in question.

At this late stage in the evening, I do not want to start a full debate on the energy market, but the debate relates to it. The electricity supply industry is proving to be one of the most changing and dynamic markets of all time. Its shape is completely different from that expected on privatization.

Mr. Greenway

And even in 1992.

Mr. Battle

Yes. I seem to recall that, when the Electricity Act 1989 was passed, the pool system had not even been conceived, but it is now the main mechanism of the market. Some argue that more power stations should be built locally, while others argue that no more are needed because of generation over-capacity. Both those views have been expressed tonight. It is interesting to note Conservative Members' perception of that market.

Following the debates on privatisation, I sometimes wonder whether Conservative Members recall that, as a result of the changes, Governments no longer build or run power stations or lines. They are run by private companies which must make market investment decisions, subject, of course, to the usual environmental and planning constraints. Developments are occurring in the market as new power stations are coming on stream and older stations are closed down. The regulator is also considering plans to introduce a more cost-reflective system of charging for transmission losses.

We need to be aware of all those factors, but that does not mean that we can simply scrap all that has gone before, wipe the slate clean and pretend that we can start afresh as though the present integrated system did not exist. We must start from where we are, which is why decisions on developments are always difficult.

I am aware that there is some concern about the possible health effects of power lines. Some months ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South drew my attention to that worry. It is a serious issue. An overhead line runs near to my house in Leeds, so it is something in which I take a personal interest—perhaps I should declare that.

We should take seriously the debate about electric and magnetic fields. For the benefit of those who have not been intimately immersed in that debate, I should say that the health implications relate to the alleged effects of electric and magnetic fields which occur from the voltage forcing electric current along wires to feed appliances. The higher the voltage, the stronger the field; the voltage can also exist when no current is flowing. Those fields have been debated by hon. Members on other occasions, and I do not wish to detain the House by commenting further on them. Indeed, the hon. Member for Vale of York did not discuss them, so perhaps it is not appropriate to have a lengthy debate on them now, but they are a matter of concern.

The National Radiological Protection Board has provided a useful information sheet, "Electric and Magnetic Fields". It is important that we treat the debate as scientifically and as seriously as we can to alleviate the worst fears and ensure that we live in as safe an environment as practically possible.

I am not advocating complacency. I do not want this matter to remain in an in-tray for another 104 weeks, as it did under the previous Government. Health issues, environmental concerns and the concerns of local communities must all be taken seriously. I understand the frustration of hon. Members at not having a definitive decision, even after two public inquiries. I also understand that they are doing more than their best to represent their constituents by raising these matters in the House tonight.

I appreciate that constituents have had to live with the uncertainty of this proposal for far too long. However, I plead with hon. Members to be patient, as this case has been with me for a mere 12 weeks. It has now been pulled out from the lower bars of the in-tray. We shall reflect on all the points made by hon. Members during the debate. I want to get on with the business of making the decision and removing the uncertainty. As I said, that will be as soon as is properly and practically possible. I assure hon. Members who have participated in the debate that I have no intention of holding up that decision.

Question put and agreed to.

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