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22 Apr 1998 : Column 784

Planning (Vale of York)

1 pm

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): I hope to use the opportunity of this debate to prove that, although the Government pay lip service to the countryside and to preserving the green belt and green-field sites, in practice those policies are not being observed in the Vale of York.

I want to disclose some irregularities and anomalies in planning procedures that have been followed on certain decisions in the Vale of York. The most intrusive such decision, wreaking havoc on the countryside the length and breadth of the vale and causing severe and permanent environmental damage, is the consent granted by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry for 50 miles of giant pylons.

This decision was unnecessary. The pylons are simply not needed. There is 100 per cent. over-capacity of generation in the north of England at peak times in winter. The transmission of energy in that form wastes power: the combined loss in generation, transmission and distribution is estimated to be 36 per cent. of primary fuel energy. It also flies in the face of current power-generating policy, which is that all electricity should be generated as close as possible to the point of demand. Supply should be located near demand.

The pylons are hugely damaging to the environment. They will blight a landscape between the North Yorkshire dales and the national park. The visual impact of 150 ft steel giants stretching from Lackenby through Picton to Shipton will be grotesque.

The planning procedures associated with the decision are fundamentally flawed. Thousands of objectors will not accept the decision without a fight, including a possible legal challenge. Many features remain unresolved: nine wayleaves in sensitive areas and three sealing end compounds with terminal towers at Nunthorpe and Newby have yet to be decided on.

The opposition to the decision is cross-party and cross-county. North Yorkshire county council and Hambleton district council have pledged their opposition. REVOLT, the campaign uniting that opposition, is co-ordinating a possible legal challenge. The crux of the opposition, and the reason, in my view, why the decision is flawed, lies in the planning procedures that were followed.

It is genuinely believed that evidence given at the public inquiry was misunderstood by the two independent technical inspectors who accompanied the planning inspector. North Yorkshire county council objected to the fact that the applications for consent to the power station at Teesside and for the overhead power lines came separately, and the inspector agreed with that objection. The consent was sought and granted for the power station, and only subsequently, through a later application, was consent given for the overhead lines.

The inspector concluded, in support of North Yorkshire county council, that both applications should have been considered as part of the same application. I refer the House to section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989, which sets out the procedures for the construction of a power-generating station in accordance with a ruling by the Secretary of State.

Section 37 of the same Act refers to consents for overhead power lines, and says that, if a local authority objects, as North Yorkshire county council did in this

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case, a public inquiry should be held, and that no electricity pylon of more than 20 kV can be installed without the Secretary of State's consent.

I believe that the Secretary of State's decision is flawed, and was reached on erroneous grounds. The people of the Vale of York would like to know today on what grounds the Secretary of State overruled the inspector's advice that the applications for consent to the power station and to the power lines should rightly have been considered together.

Arguably, the Secretary of State overstepped her powers in reaching the decision, and relied on evidence presented by the two independent technical inspectors, which they themselves had misunderstood, leading to her being inadvertently misinformed. The decision should now be subject to a judicial review, to assess whether it was reached erroneously. It seems highly unlikely that the Electricity Act 1989 was interpreted correctly in this case, or that the evidence presented at the inquiry was properly understood.

I gather that there is a very limited time in which an application for judicial review can be lodged, and the local authorities are meeting virtually as we speak to decide whether such a review should be sought.

Wider issues that the public inquiry failed to address and which would have had a bearing on the Secretary of State's decision include the question of undergrounding. I understand that BP is currently holding consultations on the laying of underground pipelines along virtually the same route. Could not the power lines have been laid alongside the pipes? The technology exists, and, on the most recent figures available, National Grid shows a profit of either £681 million, at historic costs, or, at the very least, £445 million per annum at current costs, so it could certainly afford to underground the power lines.

The Labour Government are clearly on the retreat: the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry withdrew his acceptance of an invitation to speak to a meeting at Easingwold in the Vale of York this Friday, where the Government would have had their first opportunity to take questions and explain the issue. The Labour candidate at the Vale of York in the general election pledged that, if a Labour Government were elected, the consent to build the pylons would not be granted.

The Energy Minister, in cowardly fashion, announced the decision in an answer to a written question, so that the Government would not have to respond to questions in the House, and now he refuses to attend the meeting in Easingwold. Curiouser and curiouser: the reason given was that police protection could not be provided, but the police had not been asked to provide such protection in the first place, and we are all extremely law-abiding citizens in the Vale of York, where he would have been given an extremely warm welcome.

If the pylons were the only blot on the landscape, that would be bad enough, but a catalogue of other planning issues are pending, many of which also throw up anomalous procedures on which I hope that the Minister can shed some light.

One success story emerges, which shows that people power, to which the Government respond with alacrity, gets results. Witness the application to build a cattle incinerator at Rufforth, which has now been thrown out.

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An alternative site is to be found. The proposed site was on green-belt land in a residential area within a mile of the city of York, yet the city council could demonstrate no special circumstances to justify planning permission.

What is worse, the council overturned the North Yorkshire structure plan and its own green-belt localplan. The local government ombudsman judged that malpractice had taken place in the council reaching its decision. Only in the face of tough opposition by local residents has the council decided to seek an alternative site. At least that is a real success story, and a tribute to people power making the Government review their activities.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South): I hope that the hon. Lady does not mind me making this interjection and asking a question. I felt slapped by her statement about a "cowardly response". The written question was mine, and I thought that it was a fair way to ask the Minister--I asked him time and again when the report was to be published--so I object to that description. Secondly, does she not welcome, as I do, the fact that the decision will mean that my constituents will have pylons, which were shadowing their homes, taken down, out of their gardens and off their streets? They are hideous things for my constituents to have had to suffer. Surely she must welcome the fact that they--as opposed to green fields--are being freed from those hideous pylons.

Miss McIntosh: Obviously, I am delighted for the hon. Lady's constituents that the pylons will be removed, which shows that the technology exists to put these horrible wires underground. In many respects, the issue is something of a red herring. Many of my constituents will face ruin because the price of their land and property will go down, and the compensation being offered is negligible.

I used the word "cowardly", and I am particularly concerned about the way in which the Minister presented the answer to the House. I must place it on record today that he wrote to me in mid-March, literally 10 days before the announcement, to tell me that there was no news on that front. I was extremely disappointed when an announcement was made 10 days later in answer to a written question. If there is one role that Back Benchers such as the hon. Lady and I can fulfil, it is holding the Government to account on behalf of our constituents by questioning the grounds on which such a decision was reached. I am delighted to have the opportunity to do so today.

The proposed park-and-ride scheme at Rawcliffe has been less fortunate than the incinerator scheme at Rufforth. Even though it faces overwhelming opposition from local residents, it is still being considered. The proposed site for which planning permission is recommended is green-belt land, in spite of the Government's stated aim nationally of encouraging brown-field development wherever possible. Indeed, the Deputy Prime Minister has stated that policy publicly on a number of occasions. Also, brown-field sites exist locally, but have so far not been considered by City of York council, which makes nonsense of the Government's stated national policy.

Constituents judge each planning application on its merits, as the local planning authority should do. In this instance, they feel severely let down. The council is being

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investigated by the Comptroller and Auditor General, in particular because the consultation focused on those who stand to benefit from the proposed scheme, not those who will be badly and negatively affected.

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