Jonathan Dean argues that the visual impact of electricity transmission needs greater prominence in decision making
The North Wales Connection Project proposed another 100 or so pylons over 30km of Anglesey’s scenic rural landscape, running alongside the existing line built in the 1960s for Wylfa Nuclear Power Station. Ironically the existing line would not be allowed today due to its proximity to properties and communities and passing through an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty; however, its pre-existence was used as one justification for the sighting of this new electricity superhighway.
This new connection was needed because of the proposed new power station, Wylfa Newydd. The increased output required a backup for the existing line, to prevent instability on the grid in the event of line failure. Power would then be transmitted to the south east of England, where the demand is. National Grid’s own data shows that Anglesey, and Wales as a whole, generate more power than it consumes. The flow of power in the grid is from north to south. The south of England has the demand and Anglesey supplied.
The power station would bring jobs, both in construction and operation. All National Grid could offer for the proposed new connection was ‘dry stone walling and fencing’.
The alternative option of having the connection underground or subsea was dismissed by National Grid due to cost. However the real cost to rural Anglesey was being overlooked and dismissed: the toll on tourism, agriculture, house prices and potential health concerns of future generations.
Since the 1960s there has been local opposition to the first row of pylons. Anglesey was not listened to then, neither were many rural areas supplying the growing need for utilities in England. More recently the statutory requirement to consult allowed us to express our views, but little or no evidence exists that anyone really listened to our concerns. They were still not listening.
The recent opposition has been organised by One Voice Wales since 2012. On an island with less than 70,000 inhabitants it would be practically impossible to petition Parliament, where a petition needs 100,000 even to be presented.
Anglesey Says No to Pylons was born out of frustration and anger. A grassroots campaign was needed to coordinate opposition and to generate media interest to challenge the National Grid road shows and planning application.
Difficult questions were asked at National Grid’s annual general meetings, after a few members of the campaign bought a handful of shares entitling them to attend. Trips to the Senedd and Westminster won support and a meeting with the industry regulator Ofgem. We also made contact and shared experiences with similar campaigns in Cumbria and Northern Ireland.
Currently we have almost 14,000 signatures from both the online petition and from attending local events, opposing the pylons. This issue matters to so many people, not just the residents of Anglesey.
Since the project was being progressed as a National Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) under the Planning Act (2008) the decision lay with Westminster and not Cardiff. When National Grid submitted their planning application we facilitated hundreds of people who wanted to register as interested parties to have their say to the Planning Inspectorate (PINS). A total of 821 people and organisations registered including 779 members of the public who rejected National Grid’s plans.
Then the plug was pulled on Wylfa Newydd.
Hitachi subsidiary Horizon Nuclear Power announced on January 17th that they were “suspending” their plans, and on February 20th National Grid withdrew their application. It was all over, but had we ‘won’? No, but at least we didn’t have to fight anymore.
From attending the Wylfa Newydd public hearings it was clear to me that by the time planning inspectors get involved the decision is all but made. The complex inter-relationship between the Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), Ofgem and PINS gives the perception a developer can do virtually whatever they want and no single body takes responsibility.
If we are to stop National Grid’s pylon proposals ever coming back, and to protect rural Wales, we need changes to policy, process and desired outcomes.
We need BEIS to review National Policy Statement EN-5, particularly the presumption in favour of pylons. The Welsh Government need to be prepared to use Planning Policy Wales, as their response to PINS totally missed their own policy to underground all new connections. Planning decisions for National Significant Infrastructure Projects in Wales need devolving, just as in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Ofgem need to make National Grid change their flawed methodology used to select between options, in particular to include the socio-economic costs in their analysis and to increase the funding National Grid are permitted to mitigate visual impacts.
If the power station project is resurrected, Horizon need to take more ownership of the impacts they cause, as burying the connection would only add 3% to their project costs.
Natural Resources Wales need to give greater recognition to open countryside as a resource to be conserved, perhaps by extending the AONB as this campaign amply demonstrated the public feeling towards it.
National Grid need to give more attention to the visual impact of new and existing assets, particularly the current line through the Anglesey Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which would not be allowed if it were being built today.
The immediate threat may have passed but it is likely to come back. If not a new nuclear station, Anglesey has a wealth of renewable sources of energy – wind, wave, tidal and solar – that are waiting to be exploited. If the value of visual amenity is not recognised and fairly considered in planning policy and process we will have the same fight all over again. Now we have the campaign established we aim to address the flaws in the system.
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