‘Eyesore pylons ruining the countryside to be taken down’ … ‘Plans to remove biggest and ugliest pylons’ … These are just two of headlines in papers recently reporting that National Grid is planning to bury electricity transmission lines underground in some of our most precious landscapes.
Curbing the pylons
Working for an environmental organisation, it’s sometimes easy to feel besieged by bad news. This is especially the case when it comes to valuing the countryside – not always a top priority for decision-makers.
But the headlines that greeted last week’s announcement by National Grid show it needn’t be all bad news. And it’s even more heartwarming, given CPRE’s role in enabling the company to make such a positive commitment to reducing the impact of their activities on the landscape. In fact, it shows how meticulous expert analysis can reap dividends. With some timely technical research we, along with our Peak District branch, were able to demonstrate the extent to which consumers are ‘willing to pay’ for such mitigation. This enabled us to persuade the regulator OFGEM to make £500m available for National Grid to spend on mitigating the impact of existing high voltage power lines.
Subsequently, we were invited to nominate a representative to sit on the Stakeholder Advisory Group chaired by the well-known naturalist Chris Baines. I have been privileged to fulfil this role on behalf of CPRE. Overseen by Professor Carys Swanwick, the process of reviewing and identifying which power lines have the greatest visual and landscape impact has been fascinating. With the shortlist of locations now announced , the focus switches to technical and financial feasibility studies before final decisions can be made on precisely how the money will be spent.
It must be acknowledged that the costs of undergrounding are massive. So while reducing the impact of just a few miles of existing power lines may seem insignificant given the impact of the wider transmission network, it emphasises how important it is to consider landscape impact early on when discussing new parts of the network. Indeed, I see this as just the first step towards taking full account of the landscape impact of all necessary new infrastructure. This applies to new road and rail schemes as well as energy infrastructure.
All infrastructure providers and regulators, including OFCOM and OFWAT, should learn lessons from this initiative. And, dare I say it, National Grid themselves need to apply these lessons when planning new transmission lines, as controversies over current proposals in the North West Coast Connections project demonstrate …