YOUR COUNTRYSIDE – FIGHT FOR IT NOW! your Britain fight for it now
My title paraphrases the 1942 wartime recruitment campaign slogan. But you will note that the vision of Britain worth fighting for was one based on its rural beauty. Today it is the vision worth fighting for that needs protection. This poster view could almost be one in either the Colne or Stour Valley.
In a time when the natural beauty of our countryside is under threat from various energy developments, how are we to fight for that most valuable asset: the natural beauty of our countryside? In this article I set out to update you on the pylons saga, explain recent developments, show that you are not being told the whole story and explain what is needed to protect our beautiful landscape for both us and future generations.
Back in November 2013, National Grid (NG) announced that they were shelving their Bramford to Twinstead Connection Project. Accordingly the threat to our countryside from new pylons and a substation has been put back: delayed but not cancelled. This they said was because they finally accepted what Stour Valley Underground (SVU) had maintained for several years: that many of the new generators on which the project’s need case was predicated were either unlikely to ever be built or would not need connecting to the grid until much later than originally planned. For example, according to the developers, Sizewell C is still scheduled to come online in 2020 – 21 but that is clearly impossible. A nuclear power station has never been built in under a decade.
NG initially wanted to build the new connection with its 3/4 pylon, 1/4 underground cable mix by the end of 2017. National Grid now say they don’t need the connection until the early 2020s. Following NG’s announcement, there was some ill informed crowing in the media that this was some form of victory but in reality it is only a stay of execution. This provides us with time for which I propose a use. The current situation is that the building of the proposed pylons and substation has been put back by say 5 years. And it is important to realise that, as things stand, NG intend to resurrect the consultation and go to the planning inspectorate with the pylon, underground cable, routing and substation location planning proposals as they stand. Indeed, when the consultation resumes, there will follow a spate of recap meetings promptly followed by the formal consultation which will be short and very demanding for all community representatives if we are to defend our interests.
Having had some success in arguing for underground cabling and routing that would deliver environmental benefits, community groups including SVU singularly failed to change NG’s wish to build a new substation on a greenfield site close to the A131 at the gateway to the heritage landscapes south of Sudbury. An NG representative had stated in 2011 that they would press ahead with this plan and nothing subsequently was allowed by NG to have consultation change that. The consultation NG organised on the substation was in truth a desecration of the very word consultation and a corruption of the concept of community engagement. Sounds harsh?
In March 2012, NG led the communities to believe that there were essentially 3 areas in which the substation could be built: Castle Hedingham, Twinstead and a site in between near Wickham St Paul. There are around 1900 people living in the potentially effected communities of which 1000 live in beautiful and historic Castle Hedingham. By October 2012 NG had decided that for transport reasons, a Castle Hedingham location was not viable. And yet they did not tell the people of the village. Instead, in early 2013, they led them to believe that their village was under threat and the result was that the biggest community, outnumbering all the others put together, expressed a preference to put it somewhere else. All very clever but SVU exposed what had happened and that it invalidated any conclusions from public responses to the consultation. Put this together with other facts such as NG exaggerating the cost of one substation option they did not want by over £45m and you soon realise that the whole consultation was grossly misinformed.
All local government bodies and community representatives supported the SVU proposed option of installing any needed substation equipment at Braintree with underground cables to link it to the local distribution network. NG accepted that this solution fulfilled its technical requirements but it was never really put to the public at the consultation events. NG claimed it would cost £25m more than their preferred option but given the huge cost estimate errors we had seen during the consultation, we found this costing questionable. In a final twist, we discovered that the very reason why NG had rejected Castle Hedingham as a possible substation site had been a complete guess. The given reason was that a bridge in Gosfield would have to be upgraded at a cost of £1m to carry the weight of a huge substation transformer in transit. But we checked with NG’s consultant and this figure was drawn out of the air: no survey was carried out and the Highways Department was never consulted to asses the engineering need and costs. So was the £1m figure an expert guess or a necessary expedient to support NG’s preferred option? This all seemed very smoke and mirrors.
Having covered what we have been told by NG, I now want to turn to what you haven’t. There is much more to understanding what (if any) new grid capacity is needed here than has been presented by NG. By way of example, an undersea grid to coordinate and connect the offshore windfarms is currently being researched by NG with Ofgem’s support. As energy giant Siemens told us, undersea grids can be designed to reduce on-land grid capacity requirements. Shale gas could be a true game changer altering the geography of generation in the UK significantly as could renewable energy exported from Ireland into the UK. Ireland is currently in political turmoil over pylon proposals to deliver this last. And the people of Mid Wales fight to defend their landscape from NG’s proposals for pylons that will feed the Irish energy into the UK grid. Undersea connectors will run from our eastern shores to mainland Europe to integrate us into the European Supergrid. All of these things will in my belief happen and will impact what’s needed in terms of grid capacity requirements in our valleys.
So my previous paragraph indicates both unaddressed significant factors and great cause for uncertainty over whether NG will still need what they are currently proposing when their Bramford to Twinstead project resumes in (say) 2 to 5 years. But no matter what new electricity infrastructure is proposed for this area, there is just one factor that will greatly influence precisely what (if anything) gets build and that is the government’s National Policy on energy and the planning policy framework. Accordingly that’s what I want to turn to next, because national policy is something we can influence.
Currently, national policy on energy and the planning policy framework are plainly failing to protect high value landscapes and are disabling local communities with respect to protecting local assets from inappropriate developments. Ministers in both the energy and communities ministries seeing the impact of the deficiencies in the policies for local communities have published formal Guidance to refine said policy. Sadly, the planners see this as having no basis in law and so completely disregard it. This impacts our ability to defend our countryside from proposals for various forms of energy infrastructure including wind turbines, overhead power lines and solar PV. With respect to solar PV for example, we have recently seen Braintree DC grant planning permission for a solar farm on a site that is plainly within the area to be included within the proposed extension of the Dedham Vale AONB. The planners and committee were made aware of the Guidance from the minister and totally disregarded it, also disregarding their own emerging policy on not compromising the ambition to extend the AONB.
Given the current stay of execution on the pylons and substation issue plus new and increasing energy industry related threats to the countryside, it is very clear to me what we should use the time that has unexpectedly become available. We should lobby for two things. Firstly, the best protection for our cherished pylon threatened countryside would flow from inclusion within the AONB and Bob Erith ably covers this elsewhere in this magazine. I strongly urge you to support his worthy and important efforts. But gaining this designation will take time and we need to protect the landscape in the meantime to ensure that it remains worthy of such status. This brings me back to National Policy for my second objective. The ministerial guidance that was issued by Greg Barker (DECC) and Eric Pickles (DCLG) is clearly needed and yet ineffectual. If enacted it would directly aid our ability to protect our countryside during and after the interim period before any expansion of the AONB is sanctioned. Thus we need to lobby politicians of all colours to have the objectives of the guidance enshrined in statute by incorporating it into National Policy.
As we enter 2014 our countryside is under greater threat than ever from energy infrastructure of more forms than just pylons. We are blessed with 12% more sunshine than the UK average and our valleys play host to connection capacity for solar PV that does not exist across most of our region. To the threat of pylons we must now add the threat from solar panels carpeting over the south facing slopes of our valleys. The key to protecting our wonderful heritage landscapes from energy industry threats is political, through revision to national policy. And there is an election looming. Now is the time to press for change. We must not allow “national interests” to continue to always trump countryside ones. It is our countryside: we must fight for it now.
Chair of Stour Valley Underground
David has been a tower of strength in taking on National Grid and quite often putting them “on the spot”. He has built up a font of knowledge and the CSCA have backed his Stour Valley Underground Group (SVU) all along.