High voltage pylons consultation ‘not-fit-for-purpose’

A consultation into plans to build miles of high voltage electricity pylons across swathes of Essex needs to be rewritten to include other options, a top barrister has said

Charles Banner QC, a leading barrister employed by campaigners against the plans, has said that if “left uncorrected these legal deficiencies will infect the later statutory consultation.”

In a formal opinion into the plan for a 180-km long high voltage power line suspended on 50-metre high pylons across open countryside including around Chelmsford and Brentwood. Mr Banner has said National Grid has failed to evaluate the environmental impacts of the preferred route against alternatives which involve no, or considerably fewer pylons.

He has added the consultees have thus not been provided with a sufficient information to allow a comparison how the scheme’s environmental impacts compare to other options.

National Grid says the reinforcement is needed to carry more renewable and low carbon power from offshore wind and interconnectors, as well as new proposed nuclear generation at Sizewell C.

The new reinforcement is expected to be around 180 km long and travels though swathes of countryside. It will mostly consist of overhead transmission lines and new 45 to 50-metre tall steel lattice pylons except for where it runs underground through the area of outstanding natural beauty of Dedham Vale.

Mr Banner said: “It is plain that National Grid has already resolved to proceed with this project and to discount alternative options – including those which involve no, or considerably fewer pylons – including underground and/or undersea routes and/or upgrading existing infrastructure.”

The plans have been angrily opposed led by the newly formed Essex Suffolk Norfolk Pylons action group. Essex MP Sir Bernard Jenkin, MP, who chairs Off Shore Electricity Grid Task Force (OffSET) – an East Anglian group of MP’s bidding to protect communities in Suffolk and Essex from new pylons and cabling in the countryside – called the current plans a “no brainer”.

Mr Banner added: “Furthermore, National Grid has failed to evaluate the relative environmental impacts of the preferred route corridor against alternatives which involve no, or considerably fewer pylons. But National Grid is actually under a legal duty to have regard to the desirability of preserving natural beauty, of conserving flora, fauna and geological or physiographical features of special interest and of protecting sites, buildings and objects of architectural or archaeological interest.

“The lay public consultees have not been provided with anything approaching a sufficient level of information to enable them to make an intelligent comparison of the environmental impacts of the preferred option compared to options which involve no, or considerably fewer, pylons.”

He concluded: “If left uncorrected these legal deficiencies will infect the later statutory consultation.”

Rosie Pearson, spokesperson for Essex Suffolk Norfolk action group said: “Our QC has agreed with us that National Grid’s pylons consultation is just not worth the paper it is written on. The public has simply been presented with a proposal NG has already set its heart on – effectively a fait accompli.

“It’s a disgrace that we have been given insufficient information to make an informed response.”

She added: “We share Mr Banner’s view that the only remedy is to scrap this not-fit-for-purpose consultation and rerun it with a full range of alternatives.”

A spokesperson for National Grid said: “The government has set an ambition to connect up to 50 GW of offshore wind by 2030 – enough green energy to power every home in the country. It is National Grid’s responsibility to connect new generation into the national transmission system and get it to where it is needed, safely and securely. We are governed by a number of licences and regulatory obligations and we’ve been carrying out assessments and studies to find the most appropriate way to achieve this in East Anglia, and in other parts of the country. We feel these proposals best meet our obligations.

“We have been consulting communities for the last eight weeks to introduce the scheme and ask for local peoples’ opinions. Residents within the immediate vicinity of our proposals have received a newsletter with information on the consultation, and we have run 12 public consultation events, 12 public consultation webinars, as well as parish council and other stakeholder presentations.

“We are listening carefully to the views of local people and will take their comments into consideration as we develop the proposals in more detail. There will be another opportunity to comment on the proposals before National Grid submits a planning application to the Planning Inspectorate in late 2024, who will hold hearings to examine the proposals and make a recommendation to the Secretary of State.

“The minister will decide on whether development consent should be granted.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter