Fox declares war on march
The defence secretary has written to Chris Huhne arguing that power lines should be buried to protect picturesque countryside
James Gillespie and Mark Hookham Published: 28 August 2011
Liam Fox fears the pylons will ruin the landscape in his rural constituency (Jon Bower)
The energy secretary, Chris Huhne, has been accused by his cabinet colleague, Liam Fox, of resorting to a quick fix that threatens to blight the countryside with hundreds of giant electricity pylons.
Fox, the defence secretary, argues in a letter to Huhne seen by The Sunday Times that burying power lines underground or underwater could be cheaper in the long term.
His intervention comes as National Grid pushes ahead with plans to criss-cross some of Britain’s most beautiful countryside with more than 400 miles of 150ft pylons to harness power from wind farms and the next generation of nuclear power stations.
In a direct challenge to his own government’s integrity, Fox writes in the letter, dated June 20: “If we are to have credible green credentials then the decision needs to be taken on more than short-term economics ignoring the environmental impact in the longer term.”
Speaking this weekend, Fox said that the choice of pylons was “short termism of the worst sort”. He added: “We are making decisions that will affect our environment for the next 50 years.”
Fox is angered by the plans because his North Somerset constituency is affected by a proposed 37-mile route of giant pylons to take power from Hinkley Point C power station to Avonmouth.
The new power lines, to be strung between 150ft pylons rather than the conventional 85ft ones, also threaten to blight Snowdonia, the Kent Downs and Dedham Vale, the landscape on the Essex-Suffolk border made famous by the painter Constable. The broadcaster Griff Rhys Jones, who has a home in the village of Holbrook, Suffolk, has said: “There is an almost unanimous voice against this dreadful eyesore ruining an area of great beauty.”
The latest route to be added to the list is the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire where National Grid needs to route power from Sellafield in Cumbria and Heysham in Lancashire.
In Scotland, plans are underway to replace smaller pylons with the giant ones on a 137-mile stretch from Beauly near Inverness across the Highlands to Denny near Grangemouth, to link wind farms to the national grid.
Fox said that putting a line of pylons across some of the most beautiful countryside in the west of England was unnecessary. “Taking power from Hinkley to Avonmouth is a straight line under the sea. We already have an undersea connection from Scotland to Northumberland so the technology exists, the precedent exists and in the long term it’s no more costly than pylons.”
Tessa Munt, Liberal Demorcrat MP for Wells, Somerset, whose constituents will also be affected by the pylon route, said: “Using tunnels means lower maintenance costs, less compensation and no visual damage. The Somerset Levels are beautiful and they want to build a line of giant pylons across them.”
Fox’s letter cites research which compares the costs of pylons with underground cables for the Somerset route.
National Grid has said pylons cost about £2.2m a mile while going underground can cost 10 times more. But that is just the initial cost and, Fox claims in the letter, the financial calculations are reversed over their 40-year life-span.
“As you can see,” he writes, “if the costs of the extra plant required for overhead pylons (the need for connections at regular intervals to ensure efficiency of transmission and minimise loss) is included, then the costs rise substantially.”
Over a 40-year period the cost of pylons on the Somerset route is put at £1.12 billion in the research document and the cost of using underground gas insulated lines at £519m.
The research was done by Chris Ambrose, a former director of Ove Arup, the engineering group, and Hugh Pratt, a member of the International Electrotechnical Commission, an official standards body. They say many of the calculations are based on figures from Siemens, the energy company, although Siemens told Fox it disagreed with some of their conclusions and the figures had been “extrapolated”.
In the letter, Fox also challenges Huhne over National Grid’s consultation procedure for the pylons, accusing the company of indulging in PR exercises but “not a proper public consultation”.
A report commissioned by National Grid comparing the costs of all the alternatives was supposed to have been completed by February this year but the energy consultants doing the report, KEMA, have quit, claiming they could not get enough data to produce a viable study. Planning decisions for some of the power lines, such as the one in Suffolk, may have to be taken next year if they are to be built on schedule.
Tim Yeo, Tory MP for Suffolk South and Commons energy and climate change select committee chairman, said: “National Grid are still rooted in a 1960s mindset which means if you need new transmission capacity you build some pylons.”
National Grid said underground gas-insulated lines were a new development and “unproven” for long distances.