HL Deb 31 July 1956 vol 199 cc487-513

5.54 p.m.

LORD LUCAS OF CHILWORTH rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in the interests of the national economy, they will instruct the Central Electricity Authority to suspend further operations upon the erection of the 275 kilovolt super-grid and ask the Minister of Housing and Local Government to hold a public inquiry into the overall national amenity aspect of this project; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I ventured to put this Motion on the Order Paper to invite your Lordships to consider, in view of various circumstances, whether or not it is advisable in the view of Her Majesty's Government to go ahead with the erection of this new super-grid, the 275,000 volt grid, for the supply of electric power. I think my Motion is explicit and I should like to tell your Lordships just what this proposal is. It is a proposal to take power from generating stations to be built in our coalfields. As the noble Earl, Lord Munster, said quite plainly when I raised this matter in the form of a Starred Question in your Lordships' House on July 2 [OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 198 (No. 110) Col. 184] the idea behind this 275 kilovolt Grid is to provide bulk transmission of electricity from generating stations on the coalfields to parts of the country where coal is scarce or more costly. The idea of this form of transmitting bulk electrical energy was first propagated or formed in 1951—that is, five years ago. A great deal has happened in five years. The scheme envisages a system of about 1,200 miles of cable, with three-tier pylons to carry three tiers of cables about 136 feet high, situated about 880 yards apart, some of the pylons going up to about 156 feet and 160 feet. As I pointed out when I interjected a supplementary question to the noble Earl, that is a little short of the height of Nelson's Monument. Coupled with this there will be twenty-two switching and transforming stations and, so far as I can gather through the published information, this super-grid is to carry at the present time 275,000 volts, though it will be erected with the idea that it may go up to 380,000 volts. I believe I am right in saying that the largest known voltage to be carried overground in an electricity grid of this description is 500,000 volts which I think expert opinion will agree is totally unsuitable for this country owing to the electrical and atmospheric conditions. I think that 380,000 volts is doubtful, and I am prepared to think that even 275,000 volts may prove not altogether as efficient as perhaps theory would lead us to believe.

The cost of this scheme will be somewhere in the region of£30,000 per mile, which will work out at£36 million, I assume, leaving out the cost of the twenty-two sub-stations. I want to impress on your Lordships that the main object of the scheme is to save the transport of coal. I wonder whether it is not in the national economic interest for a reappraisal to be made—I ask for no more—in view of what we are told. It is the undoubted truth that capital expenditure must be reduced to an absolute minimum—not only expenditure of capital but also of our national resources. Here, I suppose, of all the desirable exports and the exports that are finding the most ready market in the countries of the world, goods made of steel are in the forefront. There is a colossal shortage of steel and electrical equipment.

I ask the Government to take one or two factors into consideration. Since this idea was mooted in 1951 we have contemplated spending—I have heard of hardly any reduction in the figure—£1,200 million on the modernisation of our railways. It is significant, when we come to look at the modernisation of the railways, because at the present time, or for the year for which I have the figures, 1955, coal traffic carried on British Railways totalled 166 million tons, or 60 per cent. of the total freight traffic on British Railways. Some 885 million loaded wagon miles were run in respect of coal traffic, out of a total of all classes of 2,892 million; and receipts from coal traffic, at£119 million, represent about 43 per cent. of the total railway freight receipts. The stock of mineral wagons on British Railways at the end of last year amounted to 595,264, with a total capacity of over 8¾ million tons, and in the future we shall be spending a considerable amount of money in building large steel wagons, some of which eventually will be built to a capacity of 20 tons for the sole purpose of making handling of minerals on British Railways economical and to provide the service which British Railways so desire.

There is one other figure that I think is of great interest. The General Plan for the modernisation of the railways includes the re-siting and modernisation of some 55 marshalling yards, the majority of which are at present too small and inconvenient solely for coal traffic; and the total cost of the whole remodernisation of the marshalling yards will be£80 million. Having given those figures, I make no comment on them, except to ask the Government whether they will take them into consideration. One other factor that I think it is necessary to take into consideration when looking at the economic side of this matter is that we are about to commence building, and are scheduled to build, about twelve atomic energy power stations. I have the unhappy feeling that one day we are going to arrive at the position of regretting having done some of these things. We are spending millions of pounds on these projects all, perhaps, in some respects for the duplication of one or another. All I ask the Government is to have a reappraisal.

My Lords, as I am standing here, there comes into my mind a debate which your Lordships held in 1952. It was a very short debate and its effect was to reverse the decision in regard to a project enlarging the gasworks at Oxford—I expect some of your Lordships will remember it. At that particular time the departmental experts said that there was only one possible solution: that they must enlarge the gasworks at Oxford to twice their capacity, and it did not matter whether they blotted out completely the view of the spires of Oxford from the top of Boar's Hill. Your Lordships then told them that they must "go and have another think"; so they took their project to Cowley. During the process of the inquiry, all the non-departmental experts said, "Of course you do not want any more gasworks in Oxford; the thing to do is to pipe your gas to Oxford from Reading where a super-gasworks is going to be built." That was regarded as a lot of nonsense, and on they went with the£2 million project for the gasworks at Cowley. It was only a fortnight ago that they decided to abandon the project for the gasworks at Cowley, because now they have arrived at the conclusion that the host way to supply added gas to the City of Oxford is by a pipeline from Reading gasworks.

That is a typical example of what happens. No scheme on earth is so dear to the technical planner as the one upon which he is engaged at a particular moment. I have an unhappy feeling that we may be spending a lot of money which will be counted in the years to come as waste. I, and I expect your Lordships too, would hate to have hundreds and hundreds of steel pylons, each anything from 136 to 160 feet high, all over this country as monuments to the folly of to-day. I make no dogmatic statement in regard to what is the right thing to do. All I ask the Government is: Do they think that the present economic stringency supplies the opportunity for a reappraisal? They may come to the conclusion that it does not; they may come to the conclusion that this scheme must go on. All right. If all the factors have been weighed, and so long as it is a decision of Her Majesty's Government, whose word must be supreme, I am quite happy.

Then I come to the question of how the scheme should be carried out. There, again. I am unhappy about the way proposed and about the machinery for doing it. I think there must be some flaws in the Act covering the installation of projects of this kind—I am now confining ray remarks to the 275 kilovolt grid. Now that this project has (if I may use the expression) leaked out, now that the public are being alerted after the project has been incubated since 1951, to say that it is "dynamite" is, I think, a pretty fair statement. The public are really "up in arms." I am not going to deal with the position that has arisen in the Lake District, which is typical, because that does not really affect this 275 kilovolt grid. That is another problem. But the two are allied. My noble friend Lord Chorley is so knowledgeable about the Lake District that I had hoped he would be able to speak and to voice some opinion. I am not happy as to the machinery, because I have ample evidence that it is not working very well.

Since I asked a Question in your Lordships' House on this matter I have had masses of letters from people who, even though they are vitally affected, are only just beginning to hear about how this project affects their interests. Here are just one or two. I have a letter here from a farmer—I quote it to the noble Earl, Lord Munster, because he might like it as a fair sample—who wrote to me and said that one day some people entered upon his land without his permission and pegged out the position of pylons and the proposed route of the cables. He goes on to say: The first knowledge I had was on June 8 when a Central Electricity Authority officer called at my office with a map and a consent form which he expected me to sign. The farmer then says: I naturally made some inquiries as to my rights of appeal, and his answer was that it would be a very costly matter and if a tribunal was set up to hear my appeal they"— that is, the Central Electricity Authority— would have at least four Q.C.s to represent them. He goes on in his letter: I also inquired as to the valuation of the timber they proposed to cut. The answer was, that the timber would be felled, cut and stacked. At no time was I consulted or communicated with, and at no time did any advertisement appear in the local Press giving notice of their intentions. That comes from Gloucestershire. I had another letter from a local paper, the Bucks Herald of Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, in which the writer said: It appears that the question of the route which this line should take has been under discussion between the Central Electricity Authority, the Buckinghamshire County Council and other local councils since 1951. It remained as a confidential matter until October, 1955. This correspondent was very much affected by all these things which were going over his land, but when he asked he was informed that he could not be told of any of the plans, and the only announcement that had been made came about five years after the project was first mooted.

I am not going to weary your Lordships with reading extracts from correspondence—I expect all noble Lords could do the same thing—but there was one which was rather amusing, though not to the individual concerned, the headmaster of a school just outside Manchester. The Governors had bought some land for playing fields to improve the amenity of the school. Along came the Authority saying that they were going to put up one of these huge pylons at each end of the playing field and carry wires across. They said the wires would only sag down to about forty feet from the ground. When the headmaster asked "What of the amenity of the school?" he was told: "Do not worry about that; people soon get used to loss of amenity." The headmaster asked, "Have you no alternative route?" They said, "Yes, but the opposition to alternative routes will be greater, so you had better 'grin and bear it'."

That does not seem to me the right way of going about it. I want a lot of convincing that these wretched things cannot be put under ground. I am told that the cost of putting a 275,000 volt cable underground is almost prohibitive. But if it is put above ground, the amenity of the country is being robbed in a very decisive manner. I am not certain that overhead cables are the thing. The storm of last week-end seemed to blot out from any electrical energy whole areas of this country, because of overhead cables, and I should want a lot more evidence of their use than has yet been given me. If this grid has to be put up in this country, if it has to supersede rail transport of coal, I should want a lot of convincing that it is in the interest of the nation as a whole to put it overhead and spoil the amenity. I am certain that science has progressed further.

The most amazing thing is that telegraph wires are becoming fewer and fewer, and telegraph poles are disappearing from the countryside, because in their wisdom the Post Office are putting all their cables underground as fast as they can. They say that maintenance costs less, even though the initial cost may be higher. I am certain that if Post Office engineers can do this, the authorities responsible for electrical energy in this country can do it as well. But supposing that the Government in their wisdom decide that we must have overhead cables, I am unhappy about the machinery. I will take as my example the new line from Fleet in Hampshire to Drake-low in Nottinghamshire. That line has now been projected and will pass through some of the most picturesque parts of England—for instance, the Berkshire Downs, which the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, knows so well, right over a section of the Berkshire Ridgeway, crossing the Thames Valley, straddling the valleys and some of the most lovely parts of Oxfordshire, right through North Oxfordshire and Northampton up to the coalfields in Nottinghamshire.

That line will go through somewhere in the region of thirty planning areas, and not one word has been said to some of those areas, by any official source, until the area has been—what shall I say?—Shanghaied. It is the Hitler technique of grabbing one before approaching another, of swallowing up planning authorities one after another. Though I will not weary your Lordships by reading it, I have here the whole synopsis of the story, with the Central Electricity Authority trying to put terrific pressure on one planning authority by saying: "All authorities up to your boundary have agreed, and now that we are on your boundary you had better agree." They go on in that way, catapulting all the way.

I suggest to the noble Earl that there should be better machinery. In my view, as soon as the line of such a huge project as this was first known, years ago, there should have been under the Act—I have studied the Act as well as I can but it does not cover this point—obligation on the Central Electricity Authority to publish an intention to consider a plan That would have alerted all the planning authorities right the way through that area, so that they would have had plenty of time to consider together and to reach a mutual understanding as to how this line should go and where it had to go overground and where underground.

Then we come to the machinery of appeal. As I understand it, the only authority which can force a public inquiry is a local planning authority, such as a county council. If a county council or a planning authority "dig their toes in" and say, "No, we are not going to give permission", there is a public inquiry under an inspector appointed by the Ministry of Fuel and Power. I say to the noble Earl, with great respect, that I think that it is completely the wrong Ministry to appoint that court of inquiry, because in 99 of every 100 of those cases the objection is on grounds of amenity, and the Minister responsible for amenity in this country is the Minister of Housing and Local Government. It seems to me a little incongruous that a highly skilled, reputable, electrical engineer—for that is the type generally appointed as an inspector by the Ministry of Fuel and Power—should sit to inquire into amenity problems. I am afraid that the experience up to date has been that these lines and the direction and the plan are arrived at through a series of hagglings and bargainings, and that the amenities of the countryside, the amenities which affect the people, are forgotten altogether.

I am glad that the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor has found it convenient to sit on the Woolsack during this discussion, because I want to draw his attention and the attention of the noble Earl to the evidence which was given before the Sir Oliver Franks Committee upon these administrative tribunals. lf do not think I am putting it too high when I say that there has been universal condemnation of the secrecy with which these inquiries are at present held. The General Council of the Bar have been very forthright in their criticisms, and the evidence which they have put before the Sir Oliver Franks Committee is to the effect that, largely because of an element of secrecy, there is widespread dissatisfaction with the procedure of administrative tribunals and inquiries. The Council stated that What is lacking in people's minds to-day is a sense of security for justice, and people can have this only if the procedure is at all stages open and manifestly impartial.

The Council recommended that inquiries into objections against a Minister's decision should not be conducted by inspectors from the Ministry but that a panel of inspectors should be set up and paid from central funds. The inspector's report on which the Minister based his findings should be published.

The Council went on to say in their submission of evidence to the Committee. We regard the publication of the inspector's report as the greatest single improvement in the present machinery of ministerial inquiries and the one most calculated to engender public confidence in the procedure. Appeals, it was suggested, should be possible after an inquiry and a Minister's decision, and should be dealt with by a Select Committee of both Houses of Parliament—that means, right at the end. I think that before we get as far as that, in the first instance an appeal by a planning authority should go before an independent inspector. It should not be heard by an inspector from a Department which has a vested interest in the problem which is being discussed. I submit also that the inspector's report should be published, and that a synopsis of the evidence should be published as well.

One last point, because I do not want to labour this subject. I am worried as to the position of the individual—perhaps the noble Earl will tell me what it is, if he can. There is ample evidence to support a prima facie case that if the individual is one of substance and influence the thing is altered. There is all too much evidence to that effect. If, on the other hand, the individual is a poor, small farmer or a poor, small householder, whose amenities and property are going to be desecrated by one of these huge things, springing up like Jack's beanstalk overnight, what is his redress? What can he do? The noble Earl may say that local planning authorities—usually county councils—are supposed to represent the people's interest. All the evidence that I have been able to collect does not support such a view.

That is the burden of what I wanted to say. First of all, I ask the Government: is there a prima facie case on the economic side for a reappraisal of this project? If, in their wisdom, the Government say that we must go forward with it, and that we cannot resolve this problem in the national economy, will the noble Earl have an inquiry instituted into the question of what is the proper machinery to set up so that the fullest knowledge may be given to the public of the course followed by the Central Electricity Authority. I must accuse them, in spite of their denials, of going about this matter in a rather hole and corner manner.

Will the noble Earl see to it that if an inquiry is held it will be held by an independent tribunal; also that it is held in public, and that the findings are published so that everyone may know what is going on? I beg to move for Papers.

6.27 p.m.


My Lords, I will not detain your Lordships for more than a few moments, but before the noble Earl replies I wish to make one or two comments upon what has just been said. I sympathise with the underlying desire of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, to avoid any uneconomic expenditure and to protect the amenities of the countryside. But I cannot resist the feeling that if the procedure which he indicates had been followed, the Grid authorised by the Act of 1926 would still be a subject of discussion and not a fact.

I feel that there can be no doubt that the transmission of electricity at a high voltage is an immense economic gain; and it presents no technical doubts or difficulties. There cannot be any case for re-examining the advantages of the super-grid. I should have thought that if it facilitates pit-head generation that may also prove to be a big economic advantage. That is a project which many engineers advocated years ago, and if it had a reaction upon the railway traffic the railways would be readily able to adjust their plans and their rolling stock to the new situation. If indeed anything needs re-examination may it not be the other matter to which the noble Lord referred? There may be some doubt as to whether it is wise to proceed with the construction of a large number of new atomic stations before the biological results upon marine life of the issue of vast quantities of warm water into our estuaries have been scientifically assessed. That, however, is a separate matter. I feel that the super-grid must and should go on.

The noble Lord has raised the question whether it need go overhead. Not many years ago, in the time when I was Chairman of the Electricity Commission, it was accepted that to put underground high voltage lines would not only be extremely costly but also technically open to many objections. The cables would have to be oil-filled. That would have involved the construction of numerous structures along the route, which, again, would have given rise to protests on the grounds of amenity. As the noble Lord has said, technical progress continues, and those difficulties may have been mitigated or may even have disappeared. I think that the higher and bigger the tower or pylon, the less open toæsthetic objection it becomes. If one may use such a term of an engineering structure, a pylon can be of great architectural quality, and if exact placing of the towers is properly considered and places of special interest or beauty are avoided, in my opinion a line of cables stretching across the country need not give any æesthetic offence. Undoubtedly there are cases where the contrary may be the case. The point I wish to submit to your Lordships is that there may be cases where even the high-voltage lines ought to be put underground; and there are a great many cases where underground cables would avoid a great deal of unpleasant interference with landscape where difficulties at present are raised. In my time, the old electricity companies and municipal authorities alike always used to protest and say that it was going to "cost something". Cleaner air, purer water, dignified towns are hound to cost something to preserve, but the price is well worth paying and ought to be paid.

The next question that arises is: who ought to bear this cost? It is sometimes said that the preservation of amenity is a kind of social service which ought not to be placed on the industry which causes interference but ought to be borne by the taxpayer or ratepayer. I could never accept that view. Still less do I think it applies to the electricity industry, in spite of what Sir Edmund Herbert says in his recent Report, which I hope your Lordships will some time debate. Even when nationalised, it is entitled to come and demand wayleaves, if necessary by compulsion, in all the circumstances to which reference has been made. I submit that an industry which can claim and get these wayleaves right across the country can reasonably be asked to bear and throw upon its own consumers the cost of avoid-iny any unreasonable interference. To that extent, I would go the whole way with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth. I feel that more attention should be paid to amenity than has been done in the past. Indeed, it is difficult to see the sense of nationalising an industry, if one cannot secure that kind of public advantage as part of its purpose. The cost spread over the consumers of electricity as a whole—and they are now coincident with the mass of citizens—is negligible. So I hope that, when he replies, the noble Earl will be able to say that that point of view is accepted by the Central Electricity Authority.

There have recently been welcome moves by some regional boards who have taken the line that they are not going to small communities and say that, if they put in an underground cable, the cost will go on to the price charged for the current but that the board will spread the cost over the whole region. It would not be going much further if they were to extend the "pool" over the region to cover the whole of Great Britain. We all travel over the country. We are all affronted if we see eyesores. We should all feel grateful for their avoidance and ought to be willing to pay the minute decimal point of a penny per unit which, in the long run, it may cost us. Apart from that, I feel that it would be a mistake to advocate any procedure which would prevent or delay the construction of the super-grid itself, because I am convinced that it will bring very large economic advantages and avoid many of the minor and other local interferences with amenity which would occur in its absence.

6.35 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, has raised a most important subject, and I, for one, feel greatly indebted to him. What he has said can be divided, as he himself divided it, under two heads—the economic argument and the amenity argument. On the economic argument, I have no qualification to speak, certainly not to question anything said by the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb. In my view, Lord Lucas of Chilworth's speech would have been well worth while if it had done no more than produce the speech we have just heard from such an expert as the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb. I wish to confine myself entirely to the question of amenity.

This is a vast project, which has been briefly described by the noble Lord. The particular scheme runs over no fewer than five counties and passes over the Ridgeway, in which in earlier debates I have taken a great interest. But it also passes through, in the words of John Betjeman, some of the most delicate and intimate unspoiled landscape in England. If the noble Lords were to look at the country near Standlake, Northmoor and the stripling Thames, they would see why I say that it might do irreparable damage to our delicate scenery. Let me say at once that I agree entirely with theæsthetic point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, that there is nothing necessarily objectionable in a pylon. I hold that view strongly. I would even say that there are certain sorts of landscape of which the beauty can almost be enhanced, if the pylons are correctly sited, but that is not the case with all landscape. As the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, says the placing of the pylons, the line they take, is extraordinarily important, especially when it goes through any delicate and intimate scene.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, I am disturbed by the apparent inadequacy of the prescribed machinery to ensure that questions of amenity are considered adequately. What I wish to know from the noble Earl who is to reply is what has so far been decided. How much of this route has yet to be chosen? If there are still to be inquiries, by whom are these inquiries to be held?

We are concerned with what is a great economic asset, though it is much else as well—namely, the beauty of England. One of the things that appals me, since I made my first speech on this subject in another place some twenty years ago, is that the national scandal and the public shame of the way in which we are ruining both urban and rural amenities continue at a scarcely diminished pace. A new word has recently been popularized—"subtopia." Twenty years ago I referred to it as "universal suburbia," when I described the policy of persistently destroying the beauty of both town and country and creating in their stead a universal suburbia without the charm of either. I should like to put this specific question to the noble Earl: why has there been an apparent change in the machinery that gave us some protection as recently as 1944?

I speak with some experience, because I happened at that date to be Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, and my Minister was the present Speaker of the House of Commons. The question that then arose—I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, will remember it, as will the noble Lord, Lord Lawson—was a project by the North Eastern Electricity Supply Company, Limited, which desired to erect a great power station at Durham. Just as in. the example of the gasworks at Oxford. a great deal of evidence was brought forward to the effect that it was absolutely necessary to put it where it would ruin the prospect of the Cathedral, and other things of that sort were said. But my right honourable friend the present Speaker and I were not much impressed. The Minister of Fuel and Power at that time was the present Home Secretary. In due course a public inquiry was held. But who held the public inquiry? It was a joint inquiry, inspectors being sent down by each Minister.

I would contrast that with what has recently taken place at Bradwell. I was interested in what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, who said that possibly the nuclear power station should be questioned rather than the super-grid; he may well be right. But apparently we are to have both. And we are not only going to have both, but with a project like the nuclear power station at Bradwell, passionately opposed by those who have found and love some unspoilt beauty on this Essex coast, what happens? Not a joint inquiry, as we had in the year 1944 when Durham was threatened, but an inquiry held by an electrical engineer on behalf of the Minister of Fuel and Power. I should like to know from my noble friend (and if he is not in a position to give the answer to-day perhaps he would be good enough to let me know in writing) why there has been this change. Why was it possible to give this protection to the public in 1944; and why is it impossible to-day? It may be that there has been some change in the law which I have forgotten; or it may be that there is some subtle technical difference in the facts which has not been brought to my notice. But I would say that, at first sight, there is a contrast, and a lamentable contrast, between the two cases.

As I have said, I accept what has been said on the technical aspects by the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb. But do not let us underestimate the importance of what will be done by this great scheme. The scheme in outline may be an admirable one; it may be economically justified; and it may be, in part, inevitable. But whether it destroys, or does not destroy, the beauty of rural England will depend on the wisdom with which the line is sited and the actual course it takes. It may well be, as the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb said, that part of it should be placed underground. What I want to I certain of is that the amenity aspect either has been, or will be, adequately considered, and by the right people, before any work is done; and I should like to know why the protection which it was possible to give in 1944 cannot I given to-day.

6.45 p.m.


My Lords, the Motion which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, has moved asked two questions: first whether in the interests of economy the Government will suspend the erection of the super-grid, and secondly, whether my right honourable friend the Minister of Housing will hold a public inquiry into the amenity aspect of the problem. The short answer to both these questions is "No"; but as is customary when a Motion has been moped, both the noble Lord and your Lordships will naturally expect a fuller reply.

The reasons which have necessitated the building of the super-grid, quite apart from the ever-increasing demand for electric power and light, are technical; but nevertheless I feel that in reply to the first part of the noble Lord's question, I must deal with them, not in great detail but in some detail, in order to give him a clear indication of what the position is. I am told that as far back as February, 1954, the British Electricity Authority (as it was then called) gave an account in their publication Power and Prosperity of the proposed super-grid and its relation to the existing grid system which was built during the years 1928 to 1932 and designed to operate at 132,000 volts. Its purpose was to interconnect selected (or the more efficient) power stations in regional groups and link them together for mutual support and economy. This interconnection ensured that if one generator failed, the deficiency could be made up by bringing a spare generator into use in another undertaking and then transmitting the electricity over the interconnecting grid. Long interruptions in supplies were thus avoided, and the amount of spare generating capacity which had to be maintained was reduced, with a consequent saving in capital expenditure. In addition, operating costs were reduced by the concentration of generation in the more efficient stations.

That system undoubtedly worked well and would have continued to do so if there had not been an enormous increase in the demand for electricity which has now made the existing grid quite inadequate for present and future needs. A new grid system had to be built to carry the additional load, and as an increase in the voltage enables more power to be transmitted with no greater current loss, the. Authority decided to construct on the basis of the existing system a super-grid operating at 275,000 volts. The noble Lord who moved the Motion was correct in believing that certain sections are designed with a view to possible operation at 380,000 volts.

The first function of the new super-grid will be to make good the deficiency in interconnection capacity between the existing grid control areas. With adequate interconnection the same security can be given in all areas with a smaller percentage of spare plant, and this will reduce the capital investment—and, after all, that is one of the vital things we want to do to-day—in generation and transmission plant and equipment. The second function of the super-grid will be to transmit power in bulk to points where it will be fed into the old grid, and so distributed in the usual way. The bulk supplies carried by the super-grid will, in the main, be provided by new power stations near the East Midland coalfields. These coalfields are scheduled by the Coal Board for rapid development; and for this reason, and also in view of the high cost of transporting coal, it will be economic to establish new generating capacity in the vicinity.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, raised the question of carrying coal by freight train. I am told that the electrical transmission of energy is far more economical than the transport of coal by rail. It is hoped that by 1960 there will be a considerable saving in fuel costs due to the siting of new power stations near the coalfields of Yorkshire and the East Midlands, combined with the use of the super-grid to transmit output to the Southern and South Western parts of the country where local fuel resources are inadequate.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to build more power stations close to large cities, and that is due entirely to the complete lack of suitable sites, with adequate water supplies and facilities for handling large quantities of coal and ash. New stations, therefore, have to be built some distance away from the load centres, and in a number of eases the super-grid will be used to transmit the energy generated to main distributing centres nearer the load. In this rôle, the super-grid will provide the local transmission capacity more economically than could be provided by the old system. As the super-grid circuits have about six times the capacity of the standard circuits, fewer circuits will be required, with a corresponding simplification of technical operation and fewer towers—which will certainly please my noble friend Lord Conesford—and lines to be erected across the countryside.

Let me tell my noble friend behind me, who asked about the mileage, that the first section of the super-grid, of 41 miles between Newark and Sheffield, was brought into commission in the summer of 1953, and up to March 31 of this year a further 424 miles had been brought into commission, making a total of 465. Present plans provide for the construction of about 1,600 route miles by 1960, and, as the grid is a developing project, further extensions will be required after 1960. I think the House will readily agree with me that as industrial production expands, and as power is brought to the rural areas, the demand for electricity will continue to rise. If the Authority are to keep pace, as of course they must, with the ever-increasing load, it would be impossible in these circumstances to suspend this operation. To do so would have the most serious consequences, for without doubt there would be many and prolonged interruptions of supplies, and that, in the very nature of things, would be bound to hamper all kinds of industrial development, and thus affect most deeply our external trade and, indeed, our daily lives. I hope from what I have said that the noble Lord will agree with me that it would not be possible, and indeed would be utterly wrong, for the Government to tell the Authority to suspend all further operations.

I pass from that to turn to the point made by the noble Lord who moved the Motion, and also by my noble friend Lord Hurcomb, with regard to putting some of these lines underground, thus saving the amenities in many of the most beautiful parts of the country. Here again, this is another highly technical question, but I am advised that if these lines are put underground, quite apart from cost there must be loss of power, because the insulation of the lines is not capable of holding the power underground, whereas by having the lines overhead far less power is lost. I am told that is so, but the subject is so highly technical that I must leave it to my noble friend Lord Hurcomb, who has been Chairman of one of these public authorities, to say whether or not that is correct. I am told that the cost of this super-grid was estimated in 1953 at£72 million, but against this there will be savings of capital expenditure on generating capacity, estimated in the same year at£110 million; and, in addition, there will be substantial savings in operating costs. That is what the Electricity Authority say, and I suppose it must be correct. The latter, together with the savings in capital charges, were estimated at a figure ultimately approaching£5 million. The up-to-date estimated savings in capital expenditure due to the super-grid are, I am told, substantially unchanged from the 1953 estimate, but the operational savings are expected to be greater on account of the increase of coal transport costs.

I turn from these matters to deal with the second part of the noble Lord's Question, which has raised comment not only from the noble Lord himself but also from two other noble Lords. Here I shall try to explain to the House, as best I can, the procedure which has to be followed under the law of the land when a new power line is to be constructed. Noble Lords will note that in my remarks I am not concerned in any way with what the law does not say; all I am endeavouring to do is to construe, as best I am able, the Acts of Parliament which have laid down the course which the Electricity Authority must follow. As the House will shortly see, the whole procedure bristles with safeguards, and it seems to me that it is in fact a very elaborate process.

What happens is this. The Authority prepare and agree a scheme—in this case we are talking about the construction of a super-grid. Directly afterwards they make an informal approach—I stress the word "informal", for reasons which your Lordships will appreciate in one moment—to the county council as the local planning authority. The county council, in their turn, approach the district councils and hold such other local consultations as they think necessary. Proposals of this kind, as have been pointed out in the course of our debate, invariably raise questions of amenity, and the county councils consult local organisations who are interested in preserving amenities and, therefore, in safeguarding the beauties of the countryside. The county council then reply to the Authority giving their observations, and at the same time suggesting, if necessary, any adjustments to the proposed route. That is the first procedure which, as I say, is entirely informal.

It is now that the statutory process begins. I told the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, on a previous occasion that the Authority cannot proceed to construct any line without applying to the Minister for his consent. This plan is therefore submitted to my right honourable friend the Minister of Fuel and Power in order to obtain his consent, and at the same time a copy is sent, under the statutory provisions, to the local planning authority and to the district councils for their comments. If all these bodies agree, then, as we all know, the procedure is very simple: the Minister merely gives his consent under a paragraph of the Schedule to the Electric Lighting (Clauses) Act, 1899, and a direction under a section (with which I need not weary the House) of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947. If my noble friend Lord Conesford will read that Act again, he will see that it altered all the procedure from the time when he and the Speaker were Under-Secretary and Minister at the Town and Country Planning Department.


May I ask a question?


Please do.


The scheme discussed by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, was a special one that affected five counties. Do I understand that the informal approach to each of those five counties was made simultaneously?


No, I do not think so. I think they went individually—in fact, I am sure they went individually.

Having, I hope, explained to the House the course when no objections are raised to the proposal of the Authority to construct a line, let me now try to explain what happens if objections are made to the proposal of the Authority. These objections have to be heard, and it is usual at a public inquiry, as was said by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, and, I think, by my noble friend behind me, for an inspector from the Ministry of Furl and Power to attend; and, if amenity questions are involved, an inspector front the Ministry of Housing and Local Government attends as well. It may be right or it may be wrong that my right honourable friend should have the power to appoint an inspector from his own Department to consider the objections which have been raised locally against any proposal which has been put up by the Authority. I will go no further to-day than to say that that, at the moment, the law of the land.

This matter is now, as was rightly pointed out, being considered by Sir Oliver Franks' Committee, and as it is to a certain extent sub judice, I hope that I shall not be pressed by the noble Lord further on that point to-day. However, I remind him once again that at present it is the law of the land. The recommendations which are made by these inspectors are made to my right honourable friend, who then has to give his decision. But I would point out again that both the amenity question and the technical aspects are covered at the inquiry, and before coming to any decision my right honourable friend consults with the Minister of Housing if any amenity questions are involved.

Now we pass to the next point, that when the general route has been approved, with or without inquiry, the Central Electricity Authority approach the landowners concerned for wayleaves. They have no right whatsoever to enter on any land without permission, and if they have done so they can stand condemned before the law. I should be glad to receive from the noble Lord, or from his friend the farmer in question, a copy of that letter which I can take up with the Board, if, in fact, they did commit what is really an unforgivable sin.

As a rule, the Authority have, I am told, no difficulty in negotiating way-leaves but, if they are unable to agree, then they cannot proceed without the consent of my right honourable friend the Minister of Fuel and Power who, before he reaches a decision on this particular point, must give all the parties concerned an opportunity to be heard. It may interest the noble Lord who moved this Motion, and other noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon, if I say that up to March 31 of this year, the Authority have had to ask the Minister for compulsory powers over 22 miles of line, and that wayleaves for 835 miles were obtained without any difficulty. I hope that the House will appreciate, from what I have said, that everything possible within the existing law is being done through the elaborate and complicated machinery which I have described to safeguard the interests of local authorities, district councils, amenity bodies and individuals as well.

In view of these circumstances, my right honourable friend does not think that any better system is likely to emerge or be achieved by an inquiry such as is suggested by the noble Lord in his Motion. How the planning authority inform themselves of local opinion is a matter for the authorities themselves to decide. The law, however, gives the Press the right to attend meetings of local authorities (though not meetings of their committees) subject to the authorities' right to exclude them temporarily if they consider such a step to be in the public interest. I have been informed that some years ago a committee of representatives of the local authority associations recommended that as much business as possible should be taken in open session, and I imagine—though I do not know —that this view has been brought to the notice of the individual authorities.

I trust, and think, that I have fully appreciated the reasons which have prompted the noble Lord to express his feelings of anxiety on the amenity question, feelings which, I think, found an echo in the hearts of my two noble friends who have also spoken in this debate. It is quite natural that all of us in this House should seek to preserve the beauty of the countryside and, indeed, if occasion arises, to act with vigour, if we think that it appears to be imperilled. However, we must remember this one thing—and it is vital for the whole story—that our population of 50 million or more live in a small Island, far too small, in fact, to preserve unharmed all the amenities. Nevertheless, I can recall during the twenty-eight years that I have spent in your Lordships' House, that both Houses of Parliament have been zealous to preserve amenities, and consequently clauses have been inserted in many Acts of Parliament which have laid down a procedure to be followed which, in most cases, is of a cumbersome and indeed expensive nature and which would be totally unnecessary in any larger land area.

My Lords, I fear I have wearied the House far too long with a good deal of technical detail, but, I trust, with a full explanation of the procedure which is followed by the Authority and by my right honourable friend when a new line is to be constructed. I hope I have satisfied the noble Lord that the Authority do not ride roughshod over anyone—indeed, no nationalised industry or any Government Department should do that. If he is satisfied with my reply and the assurance that I can give him that the Authority will examine in detail and with care the observations which have been made, then I ask him to withdraw the Motion which he has moved this afternoon.


My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, may I ask him one question? He has made the procedure abundantly clear, but apparently, if I correctly understood what he said, that procedure was not followed in the recent case of the Bradwell nuclear power station. The noble Earl said that where amenity interests are involved the Minister of Housing and Local Government also sends an inspector. In this case that was not done.


My Lords, frankly I do not know of that individual case, but if there was a public inquiry held by my right honourable friend the Minister of Fuel and Power and an amenity question was concerned also at that inquiry, then it seems to me queer that my right honourable friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government diet not also send an inspector to consider that case at the same time. But I will certainly make inquiries.


I thank the noble Earl.

7.12 p.m.


My Lords, I am indebted to the noble Earl for the trouble he has gone to in giving such a full answer, and, if he will permit me to say so, the courtesy with which he has given it. His reply will be studied throughout the country by all those who are interested. I should like to thank the noble Lords, Lord Hurcomb and Lord Conesford, for their contributions. I am perfectly sure that if this debate had been held at a more convenient time many more noble Lords who feel the same as these two noble Lords and myself would have spoken. I agree with much that Lord Hurcomb said. As I remarked originally, my economic point was one about which I had no dogmatic ideas; I just wanted to hear the opinion of the Government, which the noble Earl has been good enough to give.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, that many of these things should go underground. If I may use the term, there should be a system of "postalisation"—in other words, precisely what is done by the Post Office and the British Transport Commission. Just as fares are the same all over the country, so the whole of the populace should bear the burden of the cost of amenity. The noble Earl has told us of the great saving to be obtained by putting up these grids for the bulk supply of electricity as opposed to transporting coal by rail; but of course no figure could ever be put on the loss of amenity. Many millions of pounds would have to be weighed in the calculation to balance the loss of amenity.

I really must join issue with the noble Earl on this point. It is no good the Central Electricity Authority saying that when this project was first mooted it appeared in their house organ. Their house organ is no substitute for the Press of this country. I have never heard of the wretched thing. They did not send me a copy of it. I do not suppose that the populace of the country had a copy of it. To say that that was sufficient publicity when the scheme is something which is going to affect the lives of fifty million people, is utter nonsense.

The noble Earl made his speech with great care, but could not disguise the weakness of the present law. The noble Lord, Lord Conesford, put his finger on one vital spot. Five county councils were concerned in this matter and the technique was to gobble them up one at a time. I have a letter here which the noble Earl knows very well. The Oxford-shire County Council had a letter from the divisional secretary of the Central Electricity Authority at Portsmouth upon this proposed line. This is what the letter said: This line should be cleared for construction to start at about the end of 1957, to meet the programme date. I hope that planning agreement, in principle, to the route, can be received by the end of June, 1956. The letter was dated May 8, 1956. That was the first official approach. That letter was replied to, to this effect: "We have got all the urban councils and parish councils to consult." They thought that perhaps they were going to be "jumped".

There is another point. The Minister for whom the noble Earl speaks this afternoon has the right and the power under Act of Parliament to say that a line shall not go overground, but he has no power to say that it shall go underground. The resultant position is that if the Minister or any public planning authority goes to an inquiry and demands that it should go underground, there is the implied threat: "Nobody can make us put it underground, so if you do not agree to its going overground you will not get any electrical energy at all." That should not be; the Minister should not be in that 'position. I do not like the existing law. In listening to the speech of the noble Earl I could quite understand why he was at great pains to stress that point.

I am not going to press him on this question of preference, because I agree that it would be preferable to wait until Sir Oliver Franks' Committee has reported. In the meantime, would the noble Earl answer this question? I say that it is hopeless to try to get justice and equity by asking the Ministry to appoint an inquiry when they have a vested interest and the only objection raised is not a technical objection but one on the ground of amenity. The noble Earl has said in this House that the Minister responsible for amenities in this country is the Minister of Housing and Local Government. Here let me say how much we all admire the forthright interest he has taken in amenity. Is it not possible to appeal to him? Why should any planning authority be satisfied with a technical inspector's decision, made on behalf of a Department having no direct responsibility for amenity? Is it another weakness of the law, and have we to wait for legal revision? Is there no way in which a party who does not agree with the 'Minister's decision can appeal to the Minister of Housing and Local Government who is really responsible for the amenity of the countryside? Could the noble Earl give me an answer?


My Lords, subject to correction, from what I recall I think it is quite clear that the individual Minister concerned with the holding of a public inquiry is the Minister of Fuel and Power. If questions of amenity are involved, then the Minister of Housing and Local Government appoints an inspector to sit with the inspector appointed by the Minister of Fuel and Power to consider the case in point.


My Lords, I am grateful. If the inspector from the Ministry of Fuel and Power is the only inspector appointed, and the case of the objecting party is one of amenity, they can start by objecting to the inquiry because it is not held in the dual capacity—that is, of Fuel and Power, and Housing and Local Government.


My Lords, that is not so. If the amenity question is raised as well, then the Minister of Housing and Local Government appoints an inspector to sit with the inspector appointed by the Minister of Fuel and Power at the same public inquiry.


But supposing he is not there? Supposing, as in the case mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, that amenity is the main point of the inquiry, and that the only inspector who sits is the official inspector appointed by the Minister of Fuel and Power: can the opposing party the planning authority, object to the inquiry being held without the dual inspector?


My Lords, I believe that the other inspector is there when questions of amenity arise. In the instance mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, I said that, although I was not acquainted with the individual case, I would certainly inquire into it; but it is clear that if amenity questions are raised, then the Minister of Housing and Local Government appoints an inspector to sit at the public inquiry.


But supposing he is not there and only one individual turns up—the other may never have been appointed. Surely that situation must be taken care of, because there have been cases when the only inspector has been a very highly qualified engineer; he has not been accompanied by a representative of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. I take it that, as that is the rule, any planning authority can now object to the holding of an inquiry at which a representative of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, which is the appropriate authority for amenity questions, is not present.


My Lords, I must interrupt the noble Lord. If no question of amenity is involved, a public inquiry can, of course, be held without the presence of an inspector from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. If the county council should raise questions which had nothing to do with the amenity aspect of the case, then it is quite clear that the Minister of Housing and Local Government would not be asked, and indeed would not wish, to appoint an inspector to sit with the inspector from the Ministry of Fuel and Power to discuss a matter which had nothing whatever to do with the amenity problem.


That was not my point. Supposing only one inspector sits at an inquiry at which there is an objection on grounds of amenity—it is no good having an electrical engineer to discuss such an objection.

We had better wait to see what Sir Oliver Franks' Committee say and then refer to this matter again when we come back after the Recess, by which time I assume the Report is likely to be available. May I again express my thanks to the noble Earl for his trouble and courtesy. I ask your Lordships' permission to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers. by leave, withdrawn.