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First, I wish to pay tribute to my predecessor, David Heathcoat-Amory, who sat in the House for 27 years, a longer period of service than that of any other MP for Wells since the Great Reform Bill. He was, perhaps, best known as a passionate Eurosceptic, and he voluntarily stood down from John Major's Government in order to pursue his convictions in that area. Although I do not share his views on Europe, I believe we should respect
MPs who put such a premium on their principles. Mr Heathcoat-Amory has recently announced that he does not intend to stand for election again. He is a man with other interests and activities, and I wish him well for the future.
Members will be familiar with the names of many places in the Wells constituency. It runs from the coast at Brean and Berrow, and Burnham-on-Sea and Highbridge in the west, to Shepton Mallet and Chilcompton in the east, and from Street in the south to Star and across the Mendips to Ston Easton in the north. My constituency also encompasses England's smallest city, Wells, with its glorious cathedral, and the towns of Glastonbury, Axbridge and the villages of Cheddar and Wedmore, and 170 other rural communities. I celebrate the addition of the village of Stratton-on-the-Fosse within the boundaries of the constituency at the last election, and recognise the service of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) in previous years.
Wells is rural Britain at its very best. The Mendip hills, reaching over 1,000 feet high, look down over the Somerset levels and moors, much of which is below sea level. Somerset is well known for its farming, its Cheddar cheese and its cider.
Somerset is heavily reliant on tourism, with 26,000 people employed in attracting and serving tourists. Perhaps, in this of all weeks, it is most familiar to the 145,000 music fans, 35,000 staff and over 20,000 volunteers who visited or worked in the village of Pilton for the 40th Glastonbury festival. Many people have enjoyed some or all of Michael Eavis's 40 years of festivals, including those devotees who watched some of the 60 hours of live BBC coverage-some of it from yurts, I might add in reference to earlier conversations in the House. People were living in teepees and in camps but this time there was no rain, so we suffered not the mud. The BBC coverage was even in competition with the World cup and Wimbledon.
This weekend, I met people who first attended in 1970 at Worthy Farm, when the tickets cost £1 for the whole festival, which included free milk for the duration. The real benefit of the Pilton, or Glastonbury, festival is long-lasting: the huge support that Michael's festival brings to local communities and businesses and its promotion of Somerset and all it produces.
My constituency is a place of both great history and great legend. People can trace the footprints of King Alfred and King Arthur, as well as of our first tourist, Joseph of Arimathea, who reputedly brought the holy grail to Glastonbury for safekeeping. However, despite its long history, I would not want anyone to think the area is anything other than a collection of thriving modern communities sharing many of the challenges confronting the country as a whole.
I have entered the House because of my shouting at the radio in frustration for the past 20 years. I have spent most of my time saying, "People should be able to see that things can be done in a different way, and someone should do that." That frustration led me eventually-it possibly led my father initially-to think that that someone might be me, and that I should actually stand up for what I believe in.
I therefore stood for election, and I hope that in my time here I will be able to bring a little more common sense. By way of example of that, let me offer some of the issues that have struck me over the past couple of weeks. One of my constituents has come to me and said that her village has just replaced two bins at a cost of £340 and that everyone accepts that. I think that is an absurd amount of money to be paying for two bins, particularly as they are to be used for dog poo. That sort of thing cannot be sensible, and must not be done unquestioningly on behalf of people. We need to check that we get value for money and insist that our councils and authorities across the country ensure that that is the case.
My second example comes from Cross in my constituency. Again, the local authority has accepted that something may need to be done in that local community to alleviate some of the traffic problems, but a roundabout might cost £600,000. I cannot see how we can accept these things; we must ensure that in economically difficult times we question what is happening right the way through our land. I hope that I can bring a level of common sense.
When I was standing for election, I did not expect to find myself on the Government Benches-that was a nice surprise. I was delighted that when I looked at the coalition agreement I found that 27 different Liberal Democrat manifesto pledges had found their way into it. I have been questioned on several occasions about what it is like to be in the coalition team. I have told people that it is not absolutely where I thought I was going to be, but that a seven or eight-year-old child might dream about playing for West Ham and then at the age of 21, having spent 12 years training, they might suddenly get an offer from Fulham. What do they do then? Do they say, 'No, no, I am going to hold on and wait until West Ham spot me"? They are not going to do that, and it is better to work with people and try to get spotted from somewhere else. Therefore, I view the coalition as a positive opportunity for Liberal Democrats to make progress in government and bring some of our manifesto pledges to bear.
I wish to take this opportunity to draw to the House's attention some of the problems that I have experienced and that some of my constituents have experienced in relation to the subject of this debate, "Progress and prospects in energy efficiency". National Grid has put forward proposals to plant a series of pylons across the beautiful Somerset levels and the moors, and up through the neighbouring constituencies of Bridgwater and West Somerset, and North Somerset; the route goes from Hinkley Point to Seabank, in Avonmouth. It covers a distance of some 40 miles, but National Grid insists that it must transmit power from Hinkley Point through cables on overhead pylons. It wishes both to upgrade the current network and to prepare for some future transmission, which may come from wind farms, from a possible use of the Severn river-the barrage, the lagoon, the reef or whatever other method of transmission may come from that-or from microgeneration.
The people of Somerset understand that there is a need to transmit electricity from A to B, but they surely have a right to some say in how that is done and how it might come about. National Grid sounds like a lovely beneficial or philanthropic organisation, but people need to remember that it is nothing like the National
Gallery or the National Trust; it is a multinational corporation with its shareholders' interests at its heart. I say to hon. Members that it should be allowed-this House has a place in making this happen-to bring modern practice and thinking into its research and development functions. Pylons are a 1920s technology, and they are not the solution to 21st century transmission problems.
The pylons that the National Grid Company proposes will be 400,000 KV, they will be 46 metres high-that is 152 feet in old money-they will hum, they will buzz and, most importantly, they will completely destroy the tourism opportunities in my constituency. The Campaign to Protect Rural England is trying to remove overhead lines and make moves to ensure that National Grid does not put pylons through areas of special landscape beauty, such as the national parks, or areas of outstanding natural beauty, such as the Mendip hills. It is also trying to prevent green belt land from being used. However, in a rural area an awful lot of land is not designated as such.
When questioned, National Grid said that although a great deal of my constituency is under consideration for the 17th world heritage site in the country, since we had not achieved that status it did not have to have any regard to that fact. It seems that those who live in an urban area-the northern part of the line passes through bits of Bristol and Avonmouth-get automatic protection from this blight, because National Grid intends to put the power underground as it is near housing.
This problem does not just affect 38,000 people. There are already 22,000 pylons in this country and 4,370 miles of overhead lines, and with the movement towards more nuclear power and, as I have said, the other forms of transmission that will be necessary, they will be coming to a place near all of us soon. So I come back to the fact that National Grid insists that pylons are the cheapest and most efficient means of carrying electricity. It does that because the framework in which it exists and the decisions that it is allowed to make fall within, as far as I can see, the Electricity Act 1989 and various other rules, such as the Holford rules, which date back to 1959. Those rules are stopping National Grid from considering the other options.
All that people in my constituency want is a choice, and as of last October National Grid went out to what it called consultation. People have a choice of three routes-just two in my area, really. Those routes go near schools, they go across open land and they go near housing. We should not only consider economic efficiency and financial cost, as the Electricity Act 1989 insists. Views of efficiency must have changed since 1989. We must consider the whole-life costs of the construction of pylons. Surely we should be considering the environmental cost and the cost to land and farmers, such as those who are prevented from running organic farms because of the proximity of pylons. Most importantly, we must consider the issues of health, specifically that of children's health. Finally, we must consider transmission losses.
National Grid faces opposition from thousands of local people. Some 38,000 are considered to be directly affected by the Hinkley to Avonmouth line alone. National Grid admitted that it was surprised by the number of responses that it received from people in Somerset and along the line. Up until now, it had
received only 247-the maximum number of objections that it had ever had to any proposal. Now, after this so-called consultation, it is trying to respond to the 4,106 responses that it has received. The objectors notably include Griff Rhys Jones and Carol Vorderman. Bill Bryson, the CPRE's president, is on record as saying:
"This is crazy-more pylons do not equal progress."
Let me draw attention to the issue of health, in particular. There are illnesses-among them cancers, childhood leukaemia and depressive conditions-that are believed to be a health effect of living near high-voltage power lines. Studies at Bristol and at the university of California rate other illnesses and conditions as directly associated with electric and magnetic fields.
In particular, I want to draw the Minister's attention to a huge study in Sweden, in which the effects of overhead power lines have been measured on 500,000 people over a period of 25 years. That study found overwhelming evidence that electrical fields generated cancer in children at four times the normal rate and at triple the rate in adults. Sweden now lists electromagnetic fields, which is exactly what we find with overhead lines, as a class 2 carcinogen along with tobacco. I could also quote from studies in Russia, India and the United States, and our Department of Health found a link between proximity to power lines and childhood leukaemia that was sufficient to warrant a precautionary recommendation, including the option to lay new power lines underground where possible and to prevent the building of new residential buildings within 60 metres of existing power lines.
We should consider the framework in which National Grid must exist and think carefully before we force overhead power lines on to people in Somerset and across the country. What local people want is choice. It would be sensible and logical for them to be told the costs, risks and benefits of all the different types of transmission that could be used. It is clear from practices across the world that power can be put overground, as is proposed, but also underground and undersea. Surely, the most logical way of joining Avonmouth to Hinkley would be undersea. That is what people require. People should have the opportunity to say what they want having received all the information that they should have received. National Grid is running a new consultation, which involves it shouting at local people what it has already said: all it is doing is explaining in more detail why it is right and why people should not have that choice.
Looking purely at the economic argument, even that can be dismissed because although National Grid says that underground routes might cost 10 or 20 times as much, its counterparts in Denmark and Germany have been able to use underground lines at between two and a maximum of five times the cost. Undersea lines are also being used, and there are grids around Europe and across the world. National Grid even admits that that would cost a fraction of a penny per kilowatt-hour. I and some of my electorate have costed its £1.2 billion plan, if there is such a thing-its proposal if it wanted to go undersea-and it comes out that the cost, over 50 years, would be but 33 pence per person per year. We should consider Bill Bryson's comments on progress and the very bleak prospects for the people of Somerset in terms of this proposal and energy efficiency.
I ask the Minister to consider the draft national policy statement and to retrieve it from the black hole into which it may have disappeared before the election. I hope that he will look again at how we might make it work-for example, we could reconsider the Holford rules. Various paragraphs could be replaced by more balanced and neutral commentary on the pros and cons of undergrounding. Perhaps we should ask Ofgem to commit, in the next five years, to undergrounding a percentage of its network and to removing all the old pylons. We should also consider amending the Electricity Act 1989, particularly schedule 9, to require Ofgem and electricity companies to mitigate the landscape impact of electricity network infrastructure and to lay reports before Parliament on achievement.
I thank the Minister for considering the issues I have raised and for realising that the threats to rural communities are real, particularly in relation to tourism, which is our lifeblood in Somerset. Thank you for allowing me the luxury of time to speak, Mr Deputy Speaker. I promise to be an active and enthusiastic Member of the House in representing the people of Wells and Somerset.
Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): May I take this opportunity to welcome you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to your new elected role? I look forward to serving in this House under your guidance. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt), who gave a very thoughtful and considered speech on the various aspects of her constituency. I am delighted to have been here for that.
"radical overhaul of Britain's energy policy".
"a succession of eleven energy Ministers and eight Secretaries of State"
in the 13 years under Labour, so I welcome the fact that, less than 13 weeks since that document was published, the Prime Minister has already appointed a new Minister with responsibility for energy efficiency, and a new Secretary of State.
However, it was not only the Energy Ministers who got a radical overhaul; Conservative energy policy did as well. The House will recall that in the Prime Minister's "husky days", when he went to Greenland to hug glaciers, we were told that nuclear power would be the Conservatives' "energy of last resort". Even so, in March they talked about fast-tracking the process of building new nuclear plant. Fast-tracking their energy of last resort?
That, of course, was Conservative policy BC-before Chris. The new Secretary of State was obviously keen to recycle the old policy-some might say that he would rather have composted it-as his views on nuclear energy are well known. As long ago as 5 November 2007 he set out his position on his website, as follows:
"Ministers must stop the side-show of new nuclear power stations now. Nuclear is a tried, tested and failed technology and the Government must stop putting time, effort and subsidies into reviving this outdated industry."
The fact is that by 2020 the following nuclear stations will have closed: Wylfa, Oldbury, Hinkley Point B, Hunterston B, Heysham 1, Hartlepool and Dungeness B. The stations at Torness and Heysham 2 will follow soon thereafter. That is approximately 18% of the UK's power generation that we will have to source elsewhere, just to maintain our current level of consumption. However, that description fails to account for any increase in population or consumption patterns, and it also means that a huge effort will be needed just to maintain an unsustainable status quo-a perfect description of Conservatism in general.
Thomas Docherty: Is my hon. Friend aware that a large number of coal power stations are also going to close? The Scottish Power station at East Lothian is one of many examples, so the Government will have an even bigger gap to close.
Barry Gardiner: My hon. Friend is entirely right, and the example that he gives illustrates the extent of the gap opening up between our generation capacity and our predicted levels of consumption. I hope that he will pursue that point, perhaps in his own remarks later this afternoon.
Of course, the best way to manage this shortfall in supply is to engineer a corresponding shortfall in demand. That is where energy efficiency is critical, and I was delighted that the Minister of State with responsibility for energy efficiency visited the Mark Group's home energy efficiency academy earlier this month to welcome their 1,000th graduate-Shaun, I believe his name was. The academy is exactly the sort of resource that we need if we are to make sure that our small and medium-sized construction enterprises have the skills that they need to retrofit insulation to all the UK's housing stock.
I trust that the Minister will acknowledge the fact that the Mark Group academy was set up in November 2007 as part of the Labour Government's green homes initiative. In fact, Bill Rumble, the Mark Group director, said at the time:
"We welcome the Prime Minister's"-
"environment plans as a real step in the right direction in the task of arresting climate change and reducing the UK's carbon emissions.
The Mark Group agrees with Gordon Brown's assertion that the UK can take a global lead in tackling climate change and in doing so generating thousands of jobs."
I do not wish to detract from the Government's green deal; indeed, I applaud it. We need to accelerate the work of insulating the millions of homes without adequate loft insulation, and the millions of homes without cavity wall insulation. However, I would simply make two points. It is all very well to celebrate the 1,000th graduate trainee, but it sits uneasily with the abolition of the Train to Gain programme, which helped small construction and other companies to acquire precisely such skills, and to equip themselves and their workers for the green jobs of the future.
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