HL Deb 31 January 1974 vol 349 cc471-81

4.2 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House I should like to repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland about offshore installations for North Sea oil. The Statement is as follows:

"It is a little more than two years since the first announcement was made establishing that oil in commercial quantities had been found in the British Continental Shelf, off the shores of Scotland. Since then oil in considerable quantities has been found in other parts of the Northern basin of the North Sea.

"The events of last October have completely changed the world oil situation. The threat to Britain's oil supplies and the effect on our balance of payments of the sharp increase in the price of oil have added immensely to the importance of the North Sea oilfields. It is a matter of extreme national importance that we should procure this oil in quantity as soon as possible.

"Part of the process of extracting oil from the seabed is the building of the massive platforms to be placed in the sea over the wells. Coastal sites for this purpose have been sought in Scotland and nine have received planning clearance, the first over two years ago. None of the sites, however, has the particular deep-water facilities needed for the construction of concrete platforms required for certain of the oilfields where other forms of platform are unsuitable or less effective. As a consequence of the crisis in world oil supplies last October, I have been examining closely, with my right honourable friends, how soon such concrete platforms will be needed in order to obtain the maximum quantity of oil possible. It has become clear that, if at least one such site does not become available this summer, we could lose a significant proportion of the oil which we would otherwise be extracting from the North Sea in 1977 and 1978.

"In the exceptional circumstances of our national need to obtain as much oil from the North Sea as we can, as soon as possible, we have decided to introduce a Bill which would enable the Government to acquire, using an accelerated procedure if necessary, land which is urgently needed for certain projects related to the production of offshore oil and gas. The Government would then lease the land to operators with appropriate safeguards as to its use. The accelerated procedures would apply also to planning permissions required for the projects themselves or essential and urgent supporting activities. It is intended that these powers should be used sparingly and only for a limited range of cases. Advantages would be that a particular area could be developed in an orderly fashion, the best use made of the chosen site, and safeguards provided for the eventual restoration of the land involved.

"This proposed legislation is linked with a number of other measures being considered by my right honourable and noble friend, the Secretary of State for Energy, to strengthen Britain's capability to supply its own energy needs. In view of the national importance of these powers, and the possibility of further oil and gas being found off other parts of the British coast, the Government believe that they should be available throughout the whole of Great Britain. The Bill is therefore to be presented by my right honourable and noble friend who, in the exercise of the powers, would closely consult the Ministers responsible for land use planning South of the Border as well as in Scotland.

"It is intended that the first use of ate powers proposed will be to permit an early start to the construction of concrete platforms in the Loch Carron area, in the North West of Scotland, which has been identified as the area most clearly fulfilling the conditions required for building these platforms. At the same time the Government will take steps to prevent the proliferation of similar developments in other areas of the West Coast of Scotland.

"Three British companies have already submitted applications for planning permission to build concrete platforms at Loch Carron and a public inquiry is now being held concerning one site there, at Drumbuie. I accept that the parties at this inquiry may well feel that this announcement of Government intention has substantially changed the basis on which the inquiry has been proceeding and it may be that they would wish to seek an adjournment to give them an opportunity to reassess their position. If so, no doubt they will indicate their wishes to the Reporter.

"If, however, parties wish it, I would see no objection to the public examination of the argument for and against the grant of planning permission on the proposed site at Drumbuie being continued meantime. And certainly I am anxious to ensure that the objectors to the site are afforded full opportunity to put their views.

"I also accept that the objectors may claim that the Government's proposals have rendered nugatory some parts of their expenses so far incurred at the inquiry. I am prepared to take account of this in the light of the outcome of Parliamentary discussion of the Bill.

"Under the shortened procedure which we will propose, there will be arrangements for interested parties to make representations, but several valuable months of time should be saved in the case of a Loch Carron site.

"This initiative, in the exceptional circumstances described, will ensure some welcome additional employment in the West of Scotland, not only at the coastal site, but also indirectly. Engineering firms in the industrial belt of Scotland will have opportunities of new business in providing equipment for the platforms, including the modules. The expected development of a concrete platform construction site can bring substantial benefits to Scotland."

My Lords, that is the end of the Statement.

4.9 p.m.


My Lords, this is probably the most important Statement that the noble Lord, Lord Polwarth, has ever made in your Lordships' House. I am grateful, and I am sure all of your Lordships are grateful to him for repeating it to us here to-day. It is difficult, in fact I would say it is impossible, to argue with the view expressed that in the present position with oil the Government should be seeking to procure this oil in quantity as soon as possible. There may well be some folk in Scotland who might take exception to that in other circumstances, but I think even they would find it difficult to do so at the present time.

Where I think we must be very careful is in seeing that, in achieving the object of getting the oil out as quickly as possible, the greatest care is taken to avoid anything which would be to the long-term disadvantage of the areas affected. We do not wish to see in the North-East of Scotland, in the Shetlands, in the Orkneys, or in any other place where the exploitation of oil is taking place, a repetition of what we have had to do in the last 20, 30 or 40 years in repairing the damage in "completed" mining areas. One would hope that in regard to oil we shall learn from the mistakes made in the past in regard to coal.

There will be perhaps in another place a certain amount of disagreement with the Statement, which implies that the Bill referred to will be introduced in your Lordships' House—I am grateful for the noble Lord's indication otherwise. I was going to say that I did not think it followed that, because the scheme was being dealt with by the Secretary of State for Energy, the Bill need be introduced here. I think that is right; because at the present time, although I agree completely with the desirability of doing this on a United Kingdom basis, the immediate prospects are entirely Scottish, and there are few of us on this side of the House who can speak to the Scottish position. One aspect which I hope will be emphasised (it is referred to in the Statement) is the question of planning permissions. It is most important that proper planning procedures are still followed through, although it is desirable that in this matter quick planning procedures should be found. Many people have been saying for some time that the Drumbuie affair has now been going on far too long, and requests have been made by the local authority concerned and others for some form of comprehensive planning for this sort of thing. This will be welcomed.

There is one thing that is not mentioned in the Statement (I do not know whether it could have been included), but the Statement gives the opportunity of refering to it. Is consideration being given to the possibility of building platforms other than at deep-water sites, or in such a way that the facilities of the industrial belt of Scotland can be brought into use? There is no part of the country which is in greater need of being able to participate in the future prosperity of oil. I hope—in fact I am certain—that the Government will be looking at that aspect of the matter.

Finally, in these procedures for a more rapid acquisition of land by the Government, will the Bill be of such a nature that it would enable land to be acquired for purposes in connection with the exploitation of oil generally, rather than with the construction of oilrigs? As we know, the Shetland County Council presently have a Bill before Parliament to enable the acquisition of land in Shetland, to accomplish in some way in relation to oil development the same kind of object which the Government have in relation to oilrigs. Perhaps that might be taken into consideration. And when the Bill refers to accelerated planning procedures, I take it this does not mean that only scant consideration will be given to all the issues which in normal circumstances would be dealt with in a much more leisurely way. The object presumably is not to cut out any consideration but to ensure that it is done in the quickest possible way.

4.13 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for the general welcome he has given to our proposals. Perhaps I may make it quite clear that while the Bill will be presented by my noble friend it will in fact be introduced in the other place. The fact that it is I who am making this Statement in this place, and my right honourable friend in another, is I think a clear indication of the involvement of the Scottish Office in this matter of very great importance. With regard to the noble Lord's question about other methods and the possibility of constructing platforms at other places, the answer is that this matter is being pursued and we are glad to know that an order was received for a pattern platform to be built by McAlpine's at the site on the Clyde where they will use the resources of the central belt. The indications are that, however many platforms can foreseeably be built at such sites, there is an immediate and continuing need for those that can be built only at deep-water sites as well.

With regard to the further point on the kind of installations covered, the Bill will relate to land urgently needed for the production of offshore oil. This is carefully stated because, while it would include platform sites, and I think could indeed include landing points for pipelines and for the storage of oil brought ashore, we should not like it to go much further. It certainly would not extend, for example, to refineries. It concerns purely those facilities needed to win the oil and get it ashore. As to the further point on planning procedure, I can assure your Lordships that there is no intention to remove the right of objectors and others to make representations. But we have found it necessary, in view of the very prolonged time that the existing procedures are taking, and might take in future, to find a way of dealing with this matter more quickly, but without removing the right to make representations.


My Lords, may I also thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement from the other place, and say that we on these Benches are conscious that a need has arisen, in view of the national crisis in the supply of oil, for speedier procedure for the acquisition of land and for obtaining planning permission. But we hope that, even in the circumstances of the present crisis, the local amenities will not be sacrified extensively merely in the pursuit of speed, and that every effort will be made to avoid desecration of beautiful areas in the way my noble friend referred to earlier.

We note that it is intended that these powers should be used sparingly and for only a limited range of cases. Is it possible for the noble Lord to indicate the kind of cases that will be required in the future? We also note that the proposed legislation is linked with a number of measures being considered by the noble Lord the Secretary of State for Energy. Is it possible at this stage to indicate more precisely what may be the number of measures to be linked with this question of building massive platforms? May I also ask a question about the present planning application which is proceeding in Drumbuie? As the Statement indicates, a number of objectors will have their position considerably affected in this matter, and I assume that their expenses will be carefully considered and, in due course, paid.


My Lords, in answer to the noble Lord, it is particularly with a view to preservation of the amenities, and the restoration of the land afterwards, that we are proposing this procedure of the Government's acquiring the land and then leasing it. We are most conscious of the importance of this aspect. As to the range of cases, I thought I had outlined them fairly clearly to the noble Lord who posed the previous questions. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, would care to read my reply in the OFFICIAL REPORT. As to further measures, these will be announced in the future; they are not yet ready to be announced. My noble friend has not been in office, nor has the new Ministry been in existence, for very long. Finally, as to the expense of the inquiry, I think I made it clear in my Statement that my right honourable friend will consider the position about this carefully.


My Lords, does the Drumbuie inquiry now become completely superfluous?


No, my Lords; that is not what we have said. But we have felt it right to point out that those participating may feel that it should not continue, or that it should be suspended; but it is only right to leave them the opportunity to ask for its continuance if they so wish.

4.19 p.m.


My Lords, one has a feeling, rightly or wrongly, that what the noble Lord is saying is that you can go on with this little plaything but, whatever decision is reached, it is going to be ignored. I can well understand the difficult position in which the noble Lord finds himself. May I ask one further question, because we ought to have clear what is meant by "further developments", not only extraction? When he talks about provision on shore, I think he is talking about all on-shore development, which would of course include tank storage and so on, without going so far as having a refinery there. Next, may I ask what it is proposed to do with the Zetland Bill? Very soon the Committee which has been set up by your Lordships' House will be meeting, and of course this matter is of great urgency as well. May we then accept that if the Zetland Bill proceeds and meets with the approval of your Lordships' House, then this will in no way be interfered with by the Bill which the noble Lord proposes to introduce to the House? Finally, the noble Lord said he was going to introduce a Bill, but that, "first of all we propose to consult the interests concerned." I do not quite know how this is to be done, unless the interests concerned know what is going to be put into the Bill and their opinions asked about the contents. Or will it be done the other way round, by the Government asking those they are consulting what the Government ought to put in the Bill?


My Lords, as to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hoy, the reason for maintaining the possibility of the inquiry continuing is that already the evidence has been heard mainly on one side, that of the promoters, and it can be very valuable to a decision, even under the procedure of the new Bill, that perhaps the rest of the case should have been heard. On the other hand, those taking part may feel they would rather see the inquiry suspended at present. That is why we should like to leave the position open in regard to this matter. As to the Zetland Bill, there is no intention that this Bill should necessarily cut across the Zetland Bill which seeks wider purposes, and, as the noble Lord knows, is in passage through your Lordships' House. I think those were the main points.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord about on-shore development? This ought to be more closely defined so that the House and the country will understand what the Statement really covers. Secondly, I should be grateful if the noble Lord could inform us how he proposes to consult people about what ought to go into the Bill that he proposes to introduce.


My Lords, as to the installations which I tried to outline previously, the important point is that it is no use winning the oil with the platforms unless we can get it ashore and store it until something else can be done with it. We will put the exact definition in the Bill in due course. As to consultation, I cannot say exactly how this will be done, but I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Hoy, it will be undertaken, and we will welcome any views given to us.


My Lords, can the noble Lord assure us that this is not the start of the slippery slope of the desecration of the North-West of Scotland, especially as I believe that the employment will be only for ten to 15 years? These concrete monsters could be made equally well in Norway, in a far more suitable place. Before asking my second question, I must declare an interest. I am on the Executive Council of the National Trust for Scotland. Can the noble Lord tell us how the inalienable land at Drumbuie of the National Trust for Scotland will be affected by the proposed Bill? Thirdly, the noble Lord said he welcomed additional employment. We want employment in the Clyde, the Western half of the central belt. We do not want it particularly at Drumbuie or Loch Carron where there is little unemployment anyway.


My Lords, I can assure the noble Duke that this is not the start of any slippery slope. He will find when the Bill comes forward that there will be full provision for Parliamentary approval of individual site cases. Z he position about Norway is that there is every indication that the facilities for production in Norway will become strained before long, and therefore we shall need additional facilities. Further, the value of the production in this country is not limited to the works on the site. There is also the very valuable work in producing the modules, that is, the steel structures and all the elaborate equipment which goes on top of the platforms, which we are more likely to secure if built in this country than in Norway.

My Lords, turning to the National Trust, I appreciate very fully their position in this matter. National Trust land is inalienable only in the sense that a Parliamentary procedure has to be used before it can be acquired against the wishes of the Trust. I think it would be better if the question of the position of the National Trust vis-á-vis any other owner were to be discussed fully in Parliament when the Bill is introduced.


My Lords, while welcoming the Statement very much indeed, may I ask whether the noble Lord could possibly tell us for how long these concrete platform construction sites will be needed, or what is his estimate? Secondly, at whose cost will be the restoration of the land after they are no longer needed?


My Lords, dealing with the second question first, it is just for this purpose of restoration that the Government are proceeding in this way. How they will deal with protection is probably a matter for the terms of lease to the individual operator; but this is the advantage of the Government building in terms to meet the cost of restoration. Would the noble Earl be good enough to remind me of his other point?


My Lords, I realise this is a vague question, but how long does the noble Lord estimate that these concrete platform construction sites will be needed?


My Lords, that is difficult to forecast at the present time. It must depend on the further discoveries of Oil.


My Lords, I have one question, prefacing it with a declaration of interest in that I am associated with one of the firms, Peter Lind, who have applied for one of the sites. Does not the noble Lord agree that the total area of coast involved in these proposals is somewhat less than 3 per cent. of the entire Scottish coastline?


My Lords, I cannot off-hand verify the exact figure quoted by the noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, but it is a minute proportion of the total. As the noble Earl will know, the problem is that it happens to be in an area of considerable scenic value.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that this new procedure, which on the whole we would welcome, will be watched very carefully indeed by those of us who have an interest in the Celtic Sea where we also have a very sensitive coastline, especially in Pembrokeshire and, if it should so happen, in the Scilly Isles and Cornwall? So we wish this procedure well, but will be watching it extremely critically.


My Lords, may I say I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady White. That is why we are making this a Great Britain Bill, and not just a Scottish Bill.


My Lords, when the noble Lord replied to the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, he seemed to indicate that each individual site would be the subject of Parliamentary consideration. Does this mean the Bill contemplates that when this process is brought in there will be an Order placed before Parliament?—because I cannot think how otherwise each individual site would be considered by Parliament.


My Lords, this is still a matter for final settlement, but it will be made clear in the Bill, if we can leave it till the Bill is put forward.