National Grid Proposals: North East Lincolnshire

Thursday 23rd May 2024

(1 month, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Suzanne Webb.)
19:52
Martin Vickers Portrait Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con)
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I am delighted to have this opportunity to raise the issue of National Grid’s proposals for the Grimsby to Walpole route, which, if realised, will see stretches of pylons constructed across the countryside in Lincolnshire and neighbouring regions. There can be no doubt but that this would have a major impact on the environment and economy along the length of the route. My focus today is on the section passing through North East Lincolnshire, though I note the presence of Members from other affected constituencies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) led an excellent Westminster Hall debate on this matter on 2 May, and I fully support the points that he and others raised, but such is the concern—and to some extent anger—of local residents that I wanted to wait for an opportunity to focus on the effect on North East Lincolnshire. I am pleased, thanks to Mr Speaker, to have the opportunity to put on record my concerns about National Grid’s proposals.

John Hayes Portrait Sir John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)
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My hon. Friend is generous in allowing me to intervene to emphasise the case for South Holland and The Deepings, which faces exactly the menace he describes. What is proposed would compromise food security by using valuable agricultural land and blight the landscape, as well as endangering, in my judgment, the wildlife in the site of special scientific interest that covers the saltmarsh on the coast. This must be stopped, in the public interest and for the common good.

Martin Vickers Portrait Martin Vickers
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As my right hon. Friend says, it must be stopped, and that is what I and my constituents want.

My concerns reflect those of my constituents, a significant number of whom have been in touch with me in recent months to voice their understandable anger and concern at the National Grid plans. The main villages impacted are Brigsley, Ashby cum Fenby, Barnoldby le Beck and Waltham. These are attractive traditional villages that face being blighted by monstrous metal structures and cabling. While it may not be the legal case, the reality is that projects on this scale require popular consent if they are to be delivered well. There is no point in bulldozing through public opinion; this will lead to further resentment and distrust. There are alternatives and they must be considered. Decisions such as these are an opportunity for Governments to show that the views of local communities matter and that there are ways of delivering the much-needed improvements to the grid that take account of those views.

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con)
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I am further down the east coast but I recognise the problems my hon. Friend is describing in terms of the impact on north-east Lincolnshire. In Suffolk Coastal—I see that my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) is also here—we have been concerned for some time about the lack of vision in using new technology to avoid the devastation not just of pylons but, thinking of Friston and Saxmundham in my constituency, of converters and other substations. Those would have a truly damaging impact on greenfield sites, and we should be doing everything we can to get them on to brownfield sites closer to where the electricity is being used. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) has indicated that must be stopped. I agree, and I also suggest we should at least have a moratorium until the 2025 strategy is ready.

Martin Vickers Portrait Martin Vickers
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I thank my right hon. Friend for the intervention and she is absolutely right: a moratorium is the way forward.

I have attended one National Grid consultation meeting and met representatives privately. It is not ideal that its plans remain vague as to the exact route; more concrete proposals would be beneficial to all involved. The National Grid has also given the impression to some local residents that this is a fait accompli, and I am sure the Minister will reassure them that is not the case. I also want to reassure them that is not the case. The consultations that National Grid is holding in the constituency and up and down the country must be meaningful, and they must be certain that Members from across the House will ensure they are meaningful.

Bernard Jenkin Portrait Sir Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate because what he describes affects Norfolk, Suffolk, and Harwich and North Essex in particular, and other Essex constituencies where the Government are not considering new technology at the moment. Instead of pylons, we could have high-voltage, direct-current underground systems of the kind that are now the default option in Germany, for example. Getting that on to the agenda would speed up that infrastructure, because it would not be nearly so controversial and mired in judicial review and courts processes.

Martin Vickers Portrait Martin Vickers
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Like other colleagues who have intervened, my hon. Friend highlights the point that new technologies are available which must be considered before a final decision is taken.

Infrastructure that transmits electricity across the country is nationally significant, and we accept that upgrades in one form or another are needed. Expanding the network will indeed lower consumer bills. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) noted in the debate on 2 May, transmission and distribution costs are now roughly 15% of every electricity bill. It will also secure our energy supplies as we decarbonise our energy production in pursuit of net zero.

Of course the most ideal routes from a resident perspective are also, according to National Grid, the most expensive. Building pylons is cheaper than burying cables or taking them offshore. Once we consider that this infrastructure is needed up and down the country, we realise that the cost becomes staggering. The Government argue that power lines buried underground are up to 10 times more expensive, although that is disputed and the cost often falls on to the bill payer. However, cost should not always be the primary factor in decision making: Governments and their agencies have wider considerations such as ensuring that the quality of life for their citizens is as pleasant as possible. They need to carry people with them by seriously considering every alternative and sharing their deliberations with the communities involved.

Similarly, there are indirect costs of building pylons that have nothing to do with their construction, but have been imposed as a tool to buy local support. An example of that is the announcement of community benefits schemes to be provided for the areas. That will be funding—although compensation might be a better phrase—for every overhead line and underground cable in an area, and the cost of that must be taken into account overall, as must the discounts of up to £1,000 for households closest to the new infrastructure. I am never opposed to local communities being given much-needed funding to improve the areas for the benefit of local residents—of course, it is only right that communities are compensated for inconvenience, particularly when it relates to such nationally significant work—but those costs will soon add up, and they must be included in calculations.

Unfortunately, constraints imposed by Government seem to have placed an emphasis in favour of pylons, as opposed to alternatives such as underground and offshore. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher), standing in for the Minister in the debate on 2 May, said,

“overhead lines should be the strong starting presumption”.—[Official Report, 2 May 2024; Vol. 749, c. 200WH.]

The phrase “strong presumption” is a loaded statement and does not indicate that full consideration will be given to alternatives. Though he did clarify that flexibility is possible

“where there is a high potential for widespread adverse landscapes and/or visual impacts.”—[Official Report, 2 May 2024; Vol. 749, c. 200WH.]

Some clarity on what “high potential” and “widespread” means here would be welcome, given that many communities will have a valid case to say that both terms apply to developments in their area.

Matt Warman Portrait Matt Warman (Boston and Skegness) (Con)
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I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, as he is discussing the debate I secured in Westminster Hall. I welcome the contribution of many Members to that. Does he agree that the Minister rightly expressed that there is a huge amount of real feeling on our constituents’ behalf? It is right that the Government should listen to that and that this process needs to consider those feelings. Perhaps we should ask whether it should be paused while those feelings are taken fully into account.

Martin Vickers Portrait Martin Vickers
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I agree with my hon. Friend. Whether we call it a pause or a moratorium, we need to stop and reflect on where we have arrived.

I hope the Minister will confirm in his reply that although planning guidance contains an assumption in favour of pylons, full consideration of the alternatives will be put before Ministers. The proposals are short-sighted and incoherent, given the obvious necessity to rewire the grid to make it fit for the future and ensure we have the infrastructure in place to reach net zero. By 2050, the country will require two or three times the amount of electricity as today, but in respect of these plans, there is a clear failing of strategy in relation to how we ensure the necessary infrastructure.

My constituency is largely a rural one, as Lincolnshire is more broadly, and there are significant regional concerns regarding the impact of erecting pylons on prime agricultural land and what that will mean for our food security. In fact, when it comes to this land, even underground wiring is not ideal, given the disruption that might cause.

We are fortunate to benefit from an ever-increasing amount of electricity generated from offshore wind farms, and my constituency is fortunate to be on the Humber estuary, which is a leading force in the renewable energy sector. That presents an opportunity for an offshore grid transmitting much of our electricity away under the sea. At some point that electricity will have to come on land, but it would significantly reduce the need for pylons and overhead cables. We can learn here from examples in Belgium and Denmark.

I conclude by delivering a few messages to relevant stakeholders. To National Grid, I reiterate my previous remarks, where I stressed that it must consider the impact on residents in nearby villages before making any decisions and look to mitigate the impact on the visual environment to the greatest extent. I, like many of my colleagues, am in favour of extensive underground and undersea sections rather than utilising open countryside. I desperately hope that will be taken on board.

In that regard, I was encouraged by the Prime Minister’s reply on 20 March when, referring to me, he said:

“He will recognise the balance we need to strike by making sure that we give our country the energy security it needs but doing it in a way that is respectful of the impact on local communities. I will make sure that Ministers take into account the concerns he raised and that all the views of local constituents are taken into account.”—[Official Report, 20 March 2024; Vol. 747, c. 934.]

I do not want to make this speech too political. However, given that the ultimate decision on this matter is unlikely to be taken until next year, and consequently after the election, my message to whoever sits on the Treasury Bench and is responsible for deciding this matter is that I and my Conservative colleagues will not let it rest. The proposals as they stand will not get my support.

Finally, I say to the Minister that the Government have set out ambitious but sensible environmental targets. If we are to achieve those targets to reduce emissions, we will need to produce more electricity, and clearly that means that the additional infrastructure is required, but we must protect our visual environment.

I appreciate that Ministers cannot pre-empt National Grid’s final recommendations and must not prejudge issues that they will later have to determine, but I hope that the Minister will ensure that the views of my constituents, as well as those of others across the House, are front and centre in the process and that the wider impact on the environment and economy of north-east Lincolnshire, which I am privileged to represent, will be taken seriously. I assure my constituents that their voice will be heard and that I—and I know my colleagues—will fight any proposals that have a detrimental impact on their communities.

20:06
Justin Tomlinson Portrait The Minister for Energy Security and Net Zero (Justin Tomlinson)
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It is a real pleasure to respond to the final Adjournment debate of this Parliament. Earlier today, I responded to the final Westminster Hall debate—yes, I have literally been doing the washing up.

In the spirit of the tributes that we have been paying to our soon-to-be-departed colleagues, I want briefly to pay tribute to my dear friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy). While he claims that his proudest moment was the looped Sky News footage of him carrying the bag of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Sir David Davis), I disagree. I would say that he was one of our finest performers at the Dispatch Box and is one of our strongest performers in the media and in debates. I made that clear to each and every one of the Chief Whips and Prime Ministers at various reshuffles. Our party underused him, which was a great loss. He will be sadly lost in the future.

I turn to this incredibly important debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) for raising this important issue, which I know is of importance not just to his constituency but to his region and across many areas of Great Britain. I assure him as a Minister that I have been lobbied heavily by so many colleagues on it.

An expanded electricity network is critical to lowering consumer bills, securing our energy supply, delivering green growth and skilled jobs, and decarbonising our electricity system. Nobody denies that, but that must be delivered in a strategic and sensitive way, which considers and mitigates impacts on communities and our treasured landscapes. I thank all hon. Members present for their contributions.

Lia Nici Portrait Lia Nici (Great Grimsby) (Con)
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The offshore wind grid will come in through Grimsby West substation and skirt around the Great Grimsby constituency, but residents are concerned that it will go through beautiful countryside, passing by an area of outstanding natural beauty. Does the Minister understand people’s concern that if this development were in another area of the country, that area would not be getting ridden roughshod over as much as we feel that we are in north-eastern Lincolnshire as a whole?

Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson
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My hon. Friend has championed the voice of her community. I will come specifically to the importance of residents’ concerns. We all recognise that this is an important subject for communities. My Secretary of State and I are clear that community voices must be heard in our transformation of the electricity system.

The Prime Minister has made it clear that we are making the transition to net zero in a way that supports communities and families. That is true of new electricity infrastructure, and the organisations that plan and deliver it are working to ensure that. Members will be under no illusion that to bring new home-grown electricity on to the system, we must expand the electricity network considerably, rewiring from where new generation is being built in our wind-rich seas and new coastal nuclear sites to connect it to areas of demand. We also anticipate that by 2050 we will need to meet double the current demand, and we need an efficient, high-tech electricity network to transport that power from where it is generated to where it is needed, to drive our country forward.

The Government are acutely mindful of the potential visual impacts of electricity transmission infrastructure—particularly overhead lines—on communities. That has been raised by Members, whether through parliamentary questions, tonight’s Adjournment debate or the recent Westminster Hall debate. As it stands, although the use of undergrounding is the starting presumption in nationally designated areas—national parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty—to protect those landscapes, overhead lines are the strong starting presumption. In theory, that remains flexible. Undergrounding may be used in other areas in certain circumstances, namely where there is a high potential for widespread adverse landscape or visual impacts. Such decisions will be weighed up through the planning process.

The Secretary of State and I are mindful of the constructive challenges made by colleagues, whether individually or in their sub-groups. OffSET—offshore electricity grid task force—is one of those groups. On my first day in the Department, I thought it was just another WhatsApp group I had not been invited to join, but it is a powerful group of Conservative colleagues making sure that their communities’ voices are heard.

On the back of that, this week I met my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), who has detailed and extensive knowledge of future opportunities that could and should be considered. We had a deep dive discussion about overhead cables being the strong starting presumption, which in simple terms is based on the cost, as per the electricity system operator’s 2012 figures. I am sure that the House would recognise that, since 2012, significant advances have been made to new technology. As has been mentioned, Germany has already made underground cables the default.

The ESO’s own recent figures for the East Anglia study suggested that, when considering lifetime cost—not just the up-front cost but the potential for long-term lower constraint cost—and challenges around delivery speed, each variable raised important questions. We cannot answer with certainty whether those questions are valid, because the data simply does not exist. If we are to let communities’ voices be heard and championed by my hon. Friends, those communities would expect at the very least that we have those answers, not just to protect their communities but to ensure that we deliver on our commitment, as we race towards our net zero target, to lower consumer bills. We have to take the public with us, or we lose everything. At that meeting, we were mindful to explore how we could carry out an urgent review to consider those variables and challenge those long-standing presumptions.

You may have noticed, Mr Deputy Speaker, an announcement this week that may delay what we had hoped would be an urgent review. Whoever is in government when we return, they need to ensure that they get the facts. This review is an opportunity to ensure that communities’ voices have been listened to, and that we champion the best value for money for bill payers. I will continue to support that.

Andrew Percy Portrait Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con)
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The Minister was very generous about me at the beginning of the debate, but what he missed out in his generosity was the fact that one of the biggest privileges I have had in this Parliament was living with him for a period as his flatmate. I should make it clear that I was the clean one.

The Minister is a great friend of mine, but he is also a very good Minister and a really decent chap—and obviously my two colleagues from north Lincolnshire, my hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici), are fantastic champions for our area on this issue—

Matt Warman Portrait Matt Warman
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What at about the rest?

Andrew Percy Portrait Andrew Percy
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Of course there are those in broader Lincolnshire; I was talking about north Lincolnshire.

The really important point is the one that the Minister was making just now. Our constituents feel that this is something that has been done to them. They understand that we must increase our grid capacity, but they feel that it must be done in a way that makes them feel that they have had a voice, that it has not been done to them, and that every single option has been considered.

Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson
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My hon. Friend has summed up exactly the point of this. It is a tribute to each and every one of my colleagues, who have been constructive and have engaged in a pragmatic way. Whoever is in my position when we return after the election should take forward this opportunity to conduct a review to ensure that communities’ voices are heard and we deliver those cheaper community options.

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
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I greatly appreciate what the Minister is saying. He is showing great wisdom and has grasped all the issues, even though he has been in the role for a relatively short time.

There are problems in that connections are still being offered for stations that have not even been granted planning permission, but the key point that I want to make to the Minister relates to what is happening in the middle of the consultation and planning processes. Before he leaves office—and he will continue to be a Minister at least until the decision of the electorate on who will form the next Government—will he and the Secretary of State please make every effort to ensure that Members of Parliament do not lose their voice in the consultation, and that, if necessary, the Planning Inspectorate is instructed to add time in recognition of the pre-election period that is under way?

Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson
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My right hon. Friend was a wonderful boss when I had the pleasure of serving under her stewardship in the Department for Work and Pensions. She has made her plea crystal clear, and I hope that common sense will be applied. In effect, things are paused during a general election period, and whatever the format and whoever is the decision maker, that person should always be mindful of community engagement.

That brings me back to the core point: the review gives us an opportunity to obtain up-to-date facts, recognising modern technology and the lessons that can be learned from Germany, and recognising the lifetime costs so that we can be confident that we are doing our best to deliver lower consumer bills, which are crucial not just to helping with the cost of living but to ensuring that we carry the public with us in respect of net zero.

Bernard Jenkin Portrait Sir Bernard Jenkin
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his endorsement of OffSET. It is encouraging to find that we have had a bit of influence. Will he clarify, however, whether this background work will be continued during the general election period so that it is ready for an incoming Minister, whether it is him returning to office or another Minister?

Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson
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Tempting as it is to bind a future Government, I cannot do so, although I know that my policy teams felt it was important to look at those principles. What I can and will do, however, is ensure that I am part of the process after the general election.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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As this is the last Adjournment debate of this Parliament, I congratulate Martin Vickers and Justin Tomlinson.

They say that “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame”. Well, there is—two Dames. I have worked alongside two Dames for the past four and half years, Rosie Winterton and Eleanor Laing, and they have been absolutely superb. We have worked as an incredible team, along with Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who has been the best Speaker I have ever worked under or alongside. He too has been absolutely superb, along with Sir Roger Gale, who has given us tremendous support over the past several months.

I just have to say what an emotional time this is, because I do not know what tomorrow will bring—I do not know whether or not I will be in the Chair—and I wanted to put on record my grateful thanks to all those people. Let me also ask the Serjeant at Arms to pass on my grateful thanks to the staff who have looked after us for the past four and a half years, ensuring that our democracy has continued in the way that it has.

Question put and agreed to.

20:19
House adjourned.