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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 07 February 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Point of Order, Topical Question Time, Points of Order, Withdrawal from the European Union (Article 50), Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, Health Service Medical Supplies (Costs) Bill, Decision Time, Blackhillock to Kintore Transmission Line


Contents


Blackhillock to Kintore Transmission Line

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-03637, in the name of Mike Rumbles, on the Blackhillock to Kintore transmission line. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the concern that has been expressed by communities in proximity to Scottish and Southern Electricity Network’s proposed Blackhillock to Kintore transmission reinforcement regarding the development’s potential visual impact; understands that the National Assembly for Wales unanimously passed a motion on 18 January 2017 endorsing the use of underground cables and alternatives to pylons where feasible, with a view to minimising the visual impact of such infrastructure; reiterates what it sees as the need for effective community consultation and the importance of incorporating feedback as a means for addressing such concerns; believes that the outstanding natural beauty of this countryside, for example the area around Bennachie, must be protected, and notes what it considers are the communities’ urgent calls for the existing plans to be the subject of substantial change and mitigation action in order for this to be achieved.

17:11  

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

Following this afternoon’s contentious debate, we now have what I hope will be a consensual one. That is maybe why it is not so popular with members.

I thank my Liberal Democrat colleagues for allowing me to take only the second members’ debate this year that the Parliamentary Bureau has allocated to the Liberal Democrats. We only get three debates a year and I appreciate the fact that colleagues have recognised the importance of this debate to the people of the north east of the country. I also thank parliamentary colleagues from across the chamber who have indicated their support for the motion that we are debating.

I particularly wanted to raise SSE plc’s proposed Blackhillock to Kintore transmission line, which, if implemented in the way that the company was planning, would have caused so much environmental damage to Aberdeenshire’s beautiful and unique landscape, especially around Bennachie. Several Aberdeenshire residents who are in the public gallery tonight would have been badly affected by the proposal had it gone ahead in its proposed form. That is true not least of enterprises such as Insch airfield, which lies directly in the path of the proposed huge 165 feet pylons.

I am using the past tense to describe the problem because, as soon as the bureau had programmed the debate, I received an email from SSE informing me that National Grid had told SSE “not to proceed” with the proposal. That was very welcome news, to say the least. However, there was a word of warning as it also said that such decisions by National Grid are reviewed annually and there is a possibility that the plans could come back at a future date. That is why we are proceeding with the debate tonight.

Although the proposed grid connection, with its threat of huge pylons surrounding Bennachie, is not now proceeding, National Grid could change its mind in future years. That is why I am focusing on the suggestion of a simple one-word alteration in Scottish planning policy, which would, if implemented, undoubtedly improve the environment around our wonderful landscapes. The current Scottish planning policy states that “consideration” should be given to underground grid connections where possible. It would be immensely helpful if the word “consideration” could be replaced by the word “preference”. The word “consideration” gives companies an awful lot of wriggle room. If it was replaced by “preference”, companies would have some clarity about what was expected of them.

The minister is aware of the unanimous vote in the Welsh Assembly, which decided that

“there should be a presumption in favour of underground cables or alternatives rather than electricity pylons in any new or current developments in Wales by the National Grid”—[Record of Proceedings, National Assembly for Wales, 18 January 2017.]

I think and I hope that the minister will agree that that is a very reasonable position to take, especially as technology has moved on tremendously in recent years.

New technology that is already used elsewhere in Europe, based on high voltage DC transmission, now makes the act of burying cables a feasible option—it was not so feasible before. It is a more efficient way of carrying the variable power from our renewable energy sources.

It is important to stress that I am not asking for the undergrounding of all electricity cables on the national grid. That would be unreasonable and unrealistic. I am asking for the Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy to respond at the end of this debate to say that he will indeed examine the possibility of that one-word change to Scottish planning policy. I am not asking for a decision today—I just hope that the minister will be responsive enough to say that he will look at that. I am sure that the minister will agree that there are not many debates in which he is asked to examine just a one-word change in Scottish planning policy.

I believe that this is not a party-political issue. It is an issue on which we can all rally round for the sake of the communities that we represent and for the protection of our wonderful Scottish landscape. If the policy can be agreed on an all-party basis in Wales, I am sure that we should be able to agree it on an all-party basis here in Scotland, too.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That was very succinct, Mr Rumbles. You got everything said—well done. You caught me unawares. We move to the open debate.

17:16  

Richard Lochhead (Moray) (SNP)

I begin, as is customary, by congratulating Mike Rumbles on securing the debate. It is not often that lodging a motion has such an immediate impact, with the cancellation of a major infrastructure project. I congratulate Mr Rumbles on his influence, whether the decision was due to the power of his pen or coincidence, but here we are in changed circumstances having this debate. Nevertheless, some of the key points that Mike Rumbles made deserve the attention of the Parliament and of ministers.

I speak primarily as the MSP for Moray, because Blackhillock, which is mentioned in the motion, is next to Keith in my constituency. Had the development gone ahead it would, of course, have led to the marching of rather large pylons through the Moray countryside and, no doubt, to a lot of concern locally. In fact, I visited the Blackhillock sub-station just three or four weeks ago and I had a briefing from SSE on the huge investment that is taking place there to rebuild and expand it. The existing sub-station is being dwarfed by the complex that is being completed there to cope with massive renewable energy potential from the north of Scotland, which has to be moved down to the main centres of population.

When I was taken outside the building, I asked what size the pylons would be in the new corridor that was being proposed, if it went ahead. I was shown the biggest pylon in the area and told that the new pylons would be as big as that. At that point, of course, I thought to myself that that would be a big issue in Moray if the corridor went ahead.

I want to raise a couple of quick points. First, the presence of the Blackhillock sub-station—I am told that it is one of the biggest, if not the second-biggest, sub-station in the whole of Europe—at Keith in Moray means that it will be a magnet for many more developments to come into the area in the future. Now that we have the Blackhillock sub-station, any infrastructure that is built in the future will no doubt head towards the sub-station as it makes its way further south to Kintore or elsewhere.

Already significant developments are taking place that are leading to infrastructure being put in place from the Caithness route coming down to Moray, and also from the Beatrice offshore wind project, which is substantial. It comes undersea, landing at Portgordon and coming to Blackhillock before the electricity is then taken south. Also, the Dorenell wind farm is potentially to be extended, and that will lead to even more electricity coming to the sub-station from that new wind development near Dufftown.

Moray will potentially host a lot more developments in the future, and in light of the concerns that have been raised by Mike Rumbles, which are pertinent to all the areas that are affected by those developments, I ask the minister how we can ensure that the role of underground cabling and other factors are properly taken into account and addressed. With the existing developments, such as the Dorenell wind farm, constituents who live in the Dufftown and Drummuir areas, who are among those directly affected by the new overground infrastructure, are very concerned about the impact on the scenery, their properties and the visual impact on their areas. We have to look at that.

Community benefit has traditionally been seen as something that should be delivered by the generators in the area where the actual energy developments are happening rather than the infrastructure. However, we now have a particular area of Scotland that could be subjected to a lot more infrastructure as opposed to just energy developments. How can community benefit be taken into account for the communities affected, not just for those who live near wind development or other renewable energy developments?

All the issues have to be looked at in more detail for the future. I thank Mike Rumbles for raising them and I hope that the minister will be able to reflect on some of the issues that have been raised in this important debate.

17:20  

Alexander Burnett (Aberdeenshire West) (Con)

I refer to my entry in the register of members’ interests—in particular, to my involvement in renewable energy.

I am particularly pleased to have co-sponsored the motion and I thank Mike Rumbles for the opportunity to speak in support of protecting one of our most valued natural assets in Aberdeenshire—namely, Bennachie. As my wife was born in the foothills, at Insch war memorial hospital, and brought up at Pittodrie house, I have to declare a further personal interest in seeing its protection. Little did I know, as we ascended the snowy summit the other weekend—in what was probably inappropriate footwear, given the icy conditions and with a seven-year-old in tow—that the threat of the pylons was about to subside.

Some may think that has rendered the debate redundant. I stress that that is far from being the case; the issues that have arisen in relation to the matter are still very much alive and need to be addressed. There are obvious issues that are clear for all to see, including landscape impact and the impact on businesses—for example, Insch airfield, which has already been mentioned and is represented by my constituents Ken Wood and David Sadler. The airfield’s operation would have been in serious doubt if the pylons had gone up, given the need for a 3km exclusion zone. I am afraid that it was only one case out of many, from people who got in touch.

Although the publication of the new National Grid networks option assessment is good news, we could have a different answer in a new NOA report next year. That is simply not good enough. Surely with investment, jobs and the concerns of constituents all on the line, there should be more certainty and transparency in the process or—even better—the process should allow better alternative solutions to be considered. The alternative is not new; it comes in the form of transmission by direct current, which allows cable to be buried. It is a technique that is already working well for high-voltage direct current—HVDC—cables in the rest of the UK and wider Europe. It enables fewer network losses and offers resilience against weather. It also has less impact on the natural environment and is considered to be better for renewable energy production.

In the late 1970s, we used to bury large pipes with short lifespans for gas transmission. Why is it unacceptable to ask that smaller cables that have unlimited lifespans get the same treatment?

To speak more broadly about transmission, it is also clear that we are falling behind in our ability to keep pace with the rest of the world. In 2010, China introduced ultra-high voltage direct current—a step up from HVDC—and recent examples carry 20 times the capacity of the Beauly to Denny power line. Recent contracts would see the equivalent of three Blackhillock projects transmitting from Edinburgh to Istanbul. We are literally miles behind international transmission companies.

Although the threat to Bennachie may have gone for now, the wider questions remain and require further investigation—not just to protect our landscapes, but to deliver our energy needs as efficiently as possible.

17:23  

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I also congratulate Mike Rumbles on securing the debate and I commend the success of the campaign that the motion relates to.

That said, it is good to have a wider debate on the issue, although it appears to have been solved for now. There is agreement to underground the line around Bennachie but other bits of power line may require similar consideration, including power lines that are yet to be planned.

However, let us be clear that each site needs to be considered on its own merit, because undergrounding is not a panacea and has its own risks. Although it might be aesthetically pleasing, it might not be environmentally sound; it may disturb natural heritage because we cannot underground a cable without serious disruption to the land. It is not just the cable: there is also the insulation, which requires a reasonably wide trench, so sensitive habitats in the area could be damaged or destroyed. Some soil types should not be disturbed because of carbon release, so they might not be suitable for undergrounding. Similarly, archaeological remains could easily be damaged. Where those situations arise, it might be much better to put the cable above ground, from where it can be removed if different technologies provide a better solution.

Cost must also be considered. We all pay for distribution networks in our electricity bills. Those of us who are here tonight might be able to afford that, but a lot of our constituents live in fuel poverty and cannot afford the additional cost.

We must therefore consider each case on its merits and ensure that the solutions that are found are sustainable financially, aesthetically and environmentally. Therefore, the word “preference” might not achieve a better balance than the word “consideration”, which is currently in the planning guidelines. However, it is clear that undergrounding is not even being considered unless there is a public outcry, so the balance in the guidance is not right and it needs to be reviewed to ensure that the right vehicle for transmission is used in each situation.

If I may, Presiding Officer, I will push the boundaries of the debate a little and discuss the costs of transmission cabling. With others, I have for some time been pushing for interconnectors from the northern isles and the Western Isles to the mainland. Delays have led to increasing prices and I understand that underwater cables might also now need to be buried. That might not just be a preference for underwater cable—it might become a requirement. Burying cable is sensible in areas where trawling and dredging could disturb it, but where there is no risk of disturbance, surely it is less damaging to anchor the cable to the sea bed. Burying it will displace large areas of the sea bed and the natural habitat that it provides. We know very little about the conditions at depth, so we should take a precautionary approach to what we do there.

Therefore, I ask the Government to examine the proposals to see whether they are fit for purpose. Burying the cable would, of course, increase the cost of interconnectors, which is already prohibitively high. Ministers were working with UK colleagues to look for a solution to that, but I have heard little about the outcome of any meetings or whether any progress has been made. I hope that the minister can update Parliament on that some time in the near future.

I again congratulate Mike Rumbles on securing the debate and thank him for allowing us to debate the issue and its wider implications.

17:28  

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

I am pleased to be permitted to speak in the debate and I am grateful to Mike Rumbles for securing it.

The opening line of the motion is instructive, as it mentions

“the concern that has been expressed by communities in proximity to”

the

“proposed Blackhillock to Kintore transmission reinforcement regarding the ... visual impact”.

That concern is easily recognised. The construction of a 40-mile long, 165-foot high corridor of electricity pylons through some of the most iconic and beautiful landscapes in north-east Scotland must always be treated with caution and the most intense scrutiny.

It might be hard for people from outwith the region to understand what an iconic sight the Bennachie ridge is. It towers over a predominantly flat and rolling agricultural landscape and is visible from miles around. The view from Mither Tap draws thousands of visitors every year—it is Scotland at its finest. I am therefore delighted that National Grid’s recently published network option assessment has recommended that the development should not go ahead, at least in the near future.

What is most encouraging to me, as one who values community and local action, is that, when the community was called on to act, it stepped up. This is clearly a victory for people power. I, too, welcome members of the community to the public gallery. They are just a few of the hundreds who have campaigned hard for many months to ensure that the proposal did not get through. I say that they have campaigned hard, but that is not the half of it. As I am sure is the case for all members present, my email inbox left me in no doubt of the strength of feeling.

Those people deserve the credit for the decision. It is they who kept up the pressure on National Grid and SSE and who flooded the mailbags and inboxes of us, their elected representatives. The American anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

It is important to acknowledge that SSE seems to have accommodated the call, which is reiterated in Mr Rumbles’s motion, for

“effective community consultation and the importance of incorporating feedback as a means for addressing such concerns.”

As Mr Rumbles made clear, that is not necessarily the end of it. The network options assessment merely makes a recommendation and can be reviewed. The NOA is an annual process, so a recommendation can change year on year as generation and demand scenarios change and as transmission development plans evolve. As such, a signal to stop or delay a project in one year might become a recommendation to proceed with it in later years. The question is far from over and the Kintore route remains SSE’s preferred corridor.

The motion is therefore right to highlight possibilities for substantial change and mitigation. Underground and undersea cabling, which is in use across Britain and Europe, is more reliable, as Alexander Burnett detailed, and has less impact on the natural environment. That has recently been recognised by the National Assembly for Wales, which, only three weeks ago on 18 January, unanimously passed a motion that called on National Grid to favour undergrounding when developing new transmission programmes in Wales. Rhoda Grant made important points on that and I hope that the minister will consider them.

No one doubts that there is an increasing demand on the electricity delivery network in north-east Scotland. Mr Lochhead made the important point that, by 2024, a huge amount of additional power will be channelled to Blackhillock for distribution throughout the network. It will come from Shetland, Orkney, the north of Scotland and the Moray Firth. It is likely to overwhelm the existing 275kV lines south. A new solution is required but, by supporting the motion, we are providing a voice to the local communities that ask simply for a more imaginative solution—one that complements and maintains the landscape and does not threaten the tourism industry or the quality of life for people in the region.

17:32  

The Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy (Paul Wheelhouse)

I thank the member for North East Scotland, Mike Rumbles, for raising the matter. I hope that my cold does not affect members’ ability to understand me.

The motion follows on from the parliamentary question on the same subject that the Minister for Local Government and Housing and I answered last week. It would be inappropriate for me, as the Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy and someone who is involved in the consenting process, to express a view on the proposals for an overhead line, which might come before the Scottish ministers for determination in the future. However, as Mike Rumbles outlined, it is now in the public domain that the proposals that the motion refers to were recently reviewed by National Grid under its annual network options assessment and that it has been recommended that the transmission company should not proceed further with developing its proposals at this time.

Mike Rumbles has asked Parliament to note the motion that the National Assembly for Wales passed on 18 January, which Liam Kerr and other members picked up. I confirm that, as Mr Rumbles indicated, the Scottish planning policy that was published in 2014 already states that consideration should be given to underground grid connections where possible. However, I have noted the point that he and other members, such as Mr Lochhead and Mr Kerr, made and I undertake to reflect on it. I can make no promises at this point, but I will listen to the views that have been expressed.

The Scottish planning policy is clear that international, national and locally designated areas and sites for landscape and nature conservation should be identified and afforded the appropriate level of protection in development plans. Rhoda Grant made fair points on the impact of undergrounding on archaeology and natural heritage, and that has to be taken into account in the process.

For national designations, the policy states:

“Development that affects a National Park, National Scenic Area, Site of Special Scientific Interest or a National Nature Reserve should only be permitted where:

  • the objectives of designation and the overall integrity of the area will not be compromised; or

  • any significant adverse effects on the qualities for which the area has been designated are clearly outweighed by social, environmental or economic benefits of national importance.”

I appreciate that a lot comes down to semantics and interpretation of language, but I reassure members that there is at least protection to prevent unacceptable damage.

Our national planning framework, NPF3, identifies a high-voltage electricity transmission network as a national development. That is vital to meeting our ambitious targets for renewable electricity generation, tackling climate change and achieving energy security—basically, keeping the lights on. However, the design and construction of network infrastructure are the responsibility of the network owners—Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks and SP Energy Networks—in conjunction with the system operator, which is National Grid. As electricity network costs are recovered from existing and future electricity bill payers, it is the role of the regulator—the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets—to scrutinise and approve network investment plans in order to protect consumers’ interests.

Having said that, I note the concerns that Mike Rumbles, Richard Lochhead, Alexander Burnett and others have expressed about the degree of community consultation. I reassure members that we greatly value community consultation and expect full commitment to it.

The Scottish ministers require any application for electricity infrastructure from transmission companies to provide detailed evidence of community consultation, and I expect that consultation to be meaningful. The application must also demonstrate how consultation has informed the applicant’s preferred options and clearly explain what mitigation measures it has identified to address local community concerns. I will pay heed to such matters in my deliberations.

I note the fair points that Mr Lochhead made about taking into account the wider impact of other connecting infrastructure at Blackhillock, and other sites across Scotland, from substations of the proposed scale. I will ask officials to brief me on sites of that nature so that I can consider the points of detail for policy on them.

I thank Mr Rumbles for providing me with an opportunity to outline how Scottish Government policy already supports and protects areas with national designations; to provide an overview of the planning and regulation of electricity networks; and to highlight the importance of the Scottish Government’s commitment to involving local communities in decision making.

We understand that—whether in response to Mr Rumbles or because of other drivers—the transmission company had envisaged submitting an application in relation to the proposals that the motion refers to no earlier than 2019. As National Grid has now indicated, the development of the proposals is not optimal at this point. My officials will continue to engage with the network companies to discuss all engineering options, including overhead lines, undergrounding, subsea cables—a number of members referred to them and they are of particular interest—and ancillary technologies.

I take on board the points that Rhoda Grant made about subsea cables and reassure her about our intentions around island communities. I expect that to be on the agenda at the convention of the Highlands and Islands this coming week. Energy strategy and issues to do with interconnection for the islands have been hot topics in our engagement with the island authorities and the United Kingdom Government.

I take Rhoda Grant’s point about environmental impacts. The process is not always straightforward, and we look carefully at the environmental impact of subsea cables that are laid, but they generally provide what is deemed to be a pretty good solution to problems of connecting such infrastructure.

Members might wish to arrange meetings with National Grid, and I can ask my officials to provide relevant contact details if they are needed. I appreciate that some colleagues have access to National Grid already.

I thank Mike Rumbles for bringing this important issue to the chamber. I reassure members that we will always take into account communities’ views on such matters, and I will look to work with members across the chamber to ensure that our policy is always as supportive as it can be of communities’ concerns.

Meeting closed at 17:39.