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8 Feb 2006 : Column 306WH—continued

Electricity Pylons (Southerham)

4 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): This probably qualifies as the most obscure Adjournment debate that I have had the pleasure of introducing in my time in the House, but the subject is important locally. Let me state clearly at the beginning that my objective in initiating the debate is to secure the removal of a highly intrusive electricity pylon in a prominent place in the area of outstanding natural beauty outside Lewes at Southerham in my constituency—a pylon that the Department of Transport, a predecessor to the present Department, caused to be put there, and which intended works to the A27 between Southerham and Beddingham provide an opportunity to remove.

In 1974, a need was identified to provide a temporary diversion of an underground cable. I am talking about the moving of a 132,000 kV cable to facilitate the then A27 Southerham bypass. Seeboard—the South Eastern Electricity Board, as it then was—suggested a permanent overhead diversion. That was unanimously opposed by the local people and by the relevant local councils: Lewes district council and East Sussex county council. Seeboard then took the only available course, which was to publicise a temporary diversion. Notice of the diversion appeared in the Sussex Express & County Herald on 7 February 1975, and the statutory notice from Seeboard included the following paragraph:

That was the official notice in 1975. Thirty-one years on—the anniversary has just passed—we are still waiting for the pylon to be removed. The powers that be, notably the Department of Transport, let us down, because that pylon is still there.

I have always recognised—it was recognised at the time—that moving an underground cable or having an underground cable rather than an overhead one was more expensive. It can be 11 to 15 times more expensive. However, even in those days, when environmental awareness was less than it is now, there was a strong desire in the local population to have the cable undergrounded because of the picturesque views of the downs and the special nature of the landscape there.

The cost of alterations to the electricity network and the reinstatement of the underground cable were to fall to the Department of Transport. That was quite proper, as it was the Department of Transport that caused the cable to be moved in the first place. The estimated cost in 1976 of removing the temporary pylon and reinstating the underground line, as was promised in the statutory notice in 1975, was £84,000. What happened next was less satisfactory and caused some unhappiness. We are talking about a predecessor Department under a previous Prime Minister and regime, and about something that happened a long time ago, so I am not criticising this Minister; I hope he takes that as read.

On 11 February 1977, Seeboard's wayleave officer for the Sussex area, Malcolm Hearn-Grinham, who is still one of my constituents, I am happy to say, and who helped me to prepare for the debate, was instructed to attend a meeting at East Sussex planning department in
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Lewes. He was not briefed on the subject of the meeting beforehand and assumed that it concerned a proposed wood pole overhead line elsewhere in his area. However, on arriving at county hall, he was surprised at the seniority and number of Department of Transport representatives at the meeting. It was made clear to him at that point that the subject of the meeting was highly confidential.

The meeting was to inform Mr. Hearn-Grinham, and through him Seeboard, that the Department of Transport intended to retain the overhead line at Southerham, notwithstanding its promise and the statutory notice, which had been published in the local paper not long beforehand. As the relevant Electricity Act required consents from landowners, occupiers and the Secretary of State for Energy to alter the current temporary consents, only Seeboard could carry out the required negotiations, and Mr. Hearn-Grinham was sent away to do so under instructions, in effect, from the Department of Transport. He protested at the meeting that the proposal was completely out of the question. It   was contrary to the statutory notice and he had met   with uncompromising objections to the original diversion proposals from the landowners and the local authorities. Mr. Hearn-Grinham also pointed out that Seeboard had nothing to gain by retaining the overhead line, except bad publicity and problems in PR terms, and that organisation was, of course, part of the state at that time. He said that it was unacceptable to put Seeboard in that position, but he was told away to go and do it. He   reported the details of the meeting to his senior engineering manager, who referred the matter to Seeboard headquarters.

It is clear that the decision to overturn the statutory notice and the temporary pylon originated from the Department of Transport, and the clear motive in doing so was to save the £84,000 that it would have cost at the time to reinstate the underground line. An official notice was published to overturn the previous notice. It was published not in the local paper but in a paper that circulates in an entirely different area, which was an attempt, in my view, to prevent local people from knowing that a U-turn was about to be undertaken. The notice was published in the Mid Sussex Times, which circulated, at the nearest point, about 6 or 7 miles north of Lewes and was not the paper in which the original notice appeared. As I said, I believe that what occurred was deliberate.

On 28 April 1977, a representative of Strutt & Parker, the chartered surveyors representing the trustees of Firle estate, on whose land the pylon sits, approached Seeboard's Sussex engineering group to discuss the conversion of the terminable wayleave covering the temporary overhead line to a permanent easement. The standard valuation principle for overhead line easements applied by the electricity supply industry is based on 20 times the annual wayleave payments. That formula takes into account rental, compensation for loss of crops and so on. In this case, the easement value for the section of overhead line and pylons to be included in the easement, based on the standard formula, would have been £2,900. The Strutt & Parker agent was not prepared to grant Seeboard an easement for that "very low sum" and said that he had been
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informed—he did not say by whom—that a far higher figure would be offered. That was contrary to the standard formula and contrary to Seeboard policy.

In the event, negotiations were presumably carried out by the Department of Transport, not by Seeboard, and the easement was completed to the sum of £9,750 by Seeboard's legal department and the money reimbursed by the Department of Transport. In other words, the figure of £2,900 was multiplied by three or three and a half to get to the figure that was finally paid out. Of course, for the Department of Transport, a sum of less than £10,000 represents considerably better value than one of £84,000, which is what it was previously committed to in order to reinstate the pylon as an underground cable.

It is clear to me that the Department of Transport participated in, and almost certainly instigated, what can only be described as a grubby act designed to save money at the expense of the environment. It was prepared to go back on its publicly agreed position, stated in a statutory notice in the local paper, and, it seems, to offer what amounts to a bribe to the local landowner to accept a higher amount of money than would otherwise have been the case for the pylon to remain in situ.

That was a long time ago and no one can hold anyone who is in office now in any way responsible for what happened, but I do argue to the Minister that the Department for Transport, as the successor body to the   Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions and various other incarnations of the Department, has a moral duty to remedy the historical injustice. I argue that the A27 works that are planned by the Government—which, incidentally, I by and large support in the proposed configuration; I thank the Minister for that—present an opportunity to right a historical wrong. The area of land in question will be subject to the A27 works.

Let me outline the actions that I have taken since all this became apparent. I wrote at the end of 2004 to the Highways Agency. I wrote again on 4 April 2005 to Ing Fischer at the Highways Agency. He is a splendid officer, by the way. He is off to Kent and I am sorry that we are losing him. He has been exceedingly helpful and very efficient in his job for the agency. I also wrote to Vincent de Rivaz, the chief executive of EDF Energy.

On 18 May, the Highways Agency looked into the issue and came back with the information that EDF, as a successor body to Seeboard, had provided an estimate of £1 million for undergrounding the cable. The Highways Agency said that the A27 budget, as constructed, would not cover that sum, but it was sympathetic and said that it would refer the matter on    to the Department for Transport for further consideration. EDF said that essentially it was not its problem and I have some sympathy with that. It is merely undertaking what it is required to do. It said that the overhead line and tower in question are fully operational and therefore it has no interest in moving them and I understand that position.

The £1 million quoted is not an accurate figure and has subsequently been revised downwards to £800,000. It took no account of the opportunity savings that the A27 works present, nor did it take account of the fact that ducts were already in place under the relevant
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bridge and were put there to enable the underground cable to be reinstated. That work has already been done. I can confirm that the ducts are still under the bridge, waiting for the underground cable, 31 years on. I wrote back to EDF in July and had a meeting in August. EDF subsequently wrote to me and said:

That may not surprise the Minister, but that is the official position that it has set out.

In parallel, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport setting out the position and asking for the Department for Transport to take a sympathetic view, given the history that I set out in my letter. I received a response from the Minister of State about a month later. He referred to the figure of £1 million, which, as I have already said, is inaccurate. He also referred to money from the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets that might be used to provide for some undergrounding of   cables in AONBs. Although I was grateful for that information, I felt that there was no attempt to recognise that the Department for Transport has a moral duty in this matter, given the history that I have set out. I do not think that the Minister will dispute that history, although perhaps he will. If he accepts the accuracy of what I have said, there is a duty on the Department for Transport to be helpful and to try to remedy the problem.

In pursuit of the Ofgem money, I wrote to the South Downs joint committee, which has responsibility for advising on these matters. I received a response from the planning officer, Nathaniel Belderson, on 19 January, just two or three weeks ago:

As the Minister may be aware, the issue was raised   at the recent public inquiry into the A27 works between Southerham and Beddingham and the proposed scheme there. It was raised by one of my constituents, Sy Morse-Brown. I will be interested to see whether the inspector takes that on board in his final report. Perhaps the Minister will say when he expects that report to be published.

The pylon should have been removed 30 years ago. That was the undertaking given by the predecessor Department, the Department of Transport. It was not removed because of dealings by that Department to avoid its responsibilities and to save a small amount of public money. In doing that, it left an electricity pylon that is a scar on the landscape, is in a temporary and, in my view, not terribly stable position—it is on the edge of a cliff—and is visible for miles around. The Government have properly laid great stress on AONBs. I do not know whether the Minister has seen the pylon, but I know that his boss has because he was down to look at the road scheme. The pylon is ghastly. It is probably the worst example of a pylon that I have seen in a sensitive landscape. Aside from the issue of justice, that is why I wanted to raise the matter today.

The pylon needs to be moved and the A27 works provide the opportunity to do that. Will the Minister seriously consider what the additional costs would be of removing the pylon as part of the A27 works? The EDF figure was worked out on the back on an envelope. It has
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already been reduced by 20 per cent. after being challenged. Workmen on the site might need to move the pylon slightly anyway as part of the works. It is only right for the pylon to be moved at that juncture, as part of those A27 works. If it is not moved as part of those works, the cost of leaving it there and dealing with it later will be even more enormous. Dealing with it later may also cause disruption to the highway and it is important that we have a free flow of traffic along the A27.

EDF says that it will not provide the funding. After all, why should it? I have some sympathy. I would like it to make a contribution out of good will, but I cannot really argue that it should. EDF is not responsible for the pylon's being there. The only moral duty it has relates to caving in to Department of Transport pressure in the 1970s, rather than standing up for what it believed was right, but, apart from that, it does not have a responsibility.

The South Downs joint committee believes that it is unlikely that money will be forthcoming from Ofgem, although that may be one of the hopes that the Minister holds out. The letter from the planning officer says:

Ofgem's guidelines allow lesser lines to be undergrounded, but they do not deal with major lines and therefore there is little hope that, in the foreseeable future, Ofgem will deliver the undergrounding of the line from the money set aside in its budget of £7.7 million for such purposes. However, I hope that it will and I   suppose that that is the backstop position if the Minister will not help.

Money can be found for undergrounding lines. The Minister may be aware of a recent announcement relating to the Olympics, which I happened to pick up from The Sunday Times. The article states:

It seems that there is money from the public sector for some pylon removal, where appropriate. I am happy that pylons are being removed in east London. I hope that that helps the Olympic project and makes it more viable. However, if pylons can be removed from east London, they can be removed from AONBs in sensitive locations in East Sussex. The Minister and his Department have a moral obligation to help to ensure that that removal takes place.

4.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Derek Twigg) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on securing the debate, which is on an issue of great concern and interest to him. I am, of course, aware of the environmental sensitivities surrounding that area near Lewes, which lies in an area of outstanding natural beauty, scheduled to become part of the South Downs national park. Indeed, the preparation work on the A27 Southerham to Beddingham scheme, which he has welcomed, has
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been undertaken with regard to national park designation, although the final decision has yet to be taken.

The south coast multi-modal study recommended in 2002 that the section of the A27 from Southerham to Beddingham, between Lewes and Polegate, should be a dual carriageway. However, Ministers considered that the environmental effect that that would have on the landscape was too severe and, in 2004, decided that the important safety scheme to remove a high-risk level crossing should be scaled down to a single carriageway, with two lanes westbound and a single lane eastbound. We have now been able to take forward a scheme through the draft orders stage, to a public inquiry. It has a reduced environmental impact on the area of outstanding natural beauty while still providing the safety benefits.

Environmental considerations have been at the forefront of our thinking on that scheme and that includes the issue of the pylon carrying the electricity supply cables at Southerham. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we have to consider costs. The costs we have heard about today vary between £800,000 and £1 million. The costs attached to diverting the 132 kV overhead supply carried to the pylon are still sizeable, and high in relation to the £18.3 million cost of the A27 scheme.

There are also a number of competing cost pressures on the Highways Agency's targeted programme of improvements. The improvements proposed to the A27 do not affect the existing cable route, so the agency does not need to divert the supply, and it does not need to move the pylon that carries it.

I am not in a position to comment further on whether the diversion of the cables underground should be undertaken. The public inquiry into the A27 improvement proposals finished in early November last year. Southerham residents appeared at the inquiry, gave evidence to the inspector on the issue and asked him to recommend that the diversion underground should be provided. The hon. Gentleman asked about the timetable. We should receive the inspector's report before the end of February, and we anticipate the decision of the Secretary of State some time during the spring. I cannot confirm the absolute time scale, but that is roughly what is envisaged.

Norman Baker : Will the Minister, as a matter of procedure, confirm whether the debate will be drawn to the attention of the inspector? Is that proper procedure?

Derek Twigg : I am not aware that we would normally do that, but I shall check and get back to the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] I have just been passed a bit of information that says, "No". As I said, the inspector's report is currently awaited and the Secretary of State for Transport and the Deputy Prime Minister will be jointly responsible for taking a decision. The hon. Gentleman will know that I cannot pre-empt the need for Secretaries of State to consider and to weigh carefully the report's recommendations.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the history, but it is worth putting on record some more information from the Department for Transport's point of view. The
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events took place around 30 years ago. The 132 kV underground cable at Southerham was diverted overhead on a temporary diversion to enable the construction of the eastern end of the Lewes bypass. It is also known that the temporary diversion was subsequently made permanent through due process and that the decision to do so was unsuccessfully challenged in the early 1980s. The permanent diversion is therefore now legally in place.

As I said, Ministers have to decide formally on any recommendation made by the A27 inquiry inspector, but the cables and pylon now form part of the permanent route that does not need further diversion. Furthermore, I am informed that the supply company, EDF Energy, does not have any operational reasons for diverting the supply.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that Ofgem has a scheme of grants to be used to place overground cables underground when there are environmental gains to be made. Although the Highways Agency and EDF have no current reason to divert supply, I am aware that together with the South Downs joint committee, which is the authority responsible for this area of outstanding natural beauty, they continue to be involved in the pursuit of possible grants for the work. We have given proper consideration to the issue of the Southerham pylon and we are aware of the environmental sensitivities locally, as evidenced by the scheme we have developed for the A27 between Southerham and Beddingham.

We can only speculate as to what the intentions might have been 30 years ago. The cable diversion route has now formally been made permanent. It does not need a further diversion as part of the current road proposals, or for any operational reasons of the electricity company. To return to the hon. Gentleman's point about the inquiry and the inspector, the inspector cannot review any evidence after the closure of the inquiry, but the debate will be taken into consideration as part of the Secretary of State's decision. In the light of what I have said, and the inquiry, we shall have to wait for Ministers' decisions based on the inspector's recommendations.

Norman Baker : The Minister's response is reasonable, but if he accepts the logic of my position, he accepts the historical accuracy of my version of events. He has not queried that in any way. I hope that he would accept that the Department has a moral duty to deal with such matters. It is not simply a question of a permanent pylon being there that I want to be moved; the pylon is there because of the Department of Transport's improper behaviour 30 years ago. That is what I want the Minister to address. Will he look into the version of events I have given?

Derek Twigg : I understand the concerns the hon. Gentleman has expressed about what happened in the past. We have asked to see whether any other documents are available but, as I pointed out, that is not possible.

Before I conclude, I would like to return to what happened in the past. I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes but it is not possible to know exactly what reasons were behind the decisions made in the 1970s
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to make the temporary diversion permanent without the information we talked about. Unfortunately, the records from the mid-1970s relating to the statutory undertakers diversions required for the Lewes southern bypass no longer exist. I am also informed that EDF has no details from its predecessors either. It is reported that in the 1970s the cost of diverting the cables underground was £84,000. At that time, that was a significant sum, so it may be reasonable to assume that that was taken into account in coming to a decision, but because the information is not available, it is not possible to say whether that was the only, or deciding, reason.

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