Pylon design taxes grey cells at Grid

YOU CAN have any colour of high-voltage pylon - so long as it's grey. And any shape, provided it's the same as all the other thousands of pylons that stride across Britain's landscape.

This is not what the National Grid Company wants to tell the people. It is struggling to make itself more receptive to radical new designs and colours. Yet try as it might, the company is finding it hard to change its mindset and improve on grey. It also has grave doubts about whether foreign designs, particularly a giant pole widely used in America and France, are superior to the familiar L12.

Last year, after two years of deliberations, a 10-man study group produced a wordy report, Alternative Tower Designs, which conceded that many people find pylons monstrous and intrusive. It suggested rewriting Ogden Nash's poem: I think that I shall never see / A pylon lovely as a tree.

But it concluded there was much to recommend the colour grey and the utterly functional lattice-work of the L12.

Undaunted, Carl Lomas, the study group's chairman and the company's chief civil engineer, hopes the grid will approve another review of design and colour later this year.

Mr Lomas warned: 'If we try anything new it must relate to its surroundings and represent a real improvement on other designs.'

'But we wouldn't like local planners to insist on something different simply in order to make us try a different sort of pylon.'

National grid pylons began to appear en masse during the Fifties in Britain, and there are now around 25,000 of them. At 156 feet tall, the standard L12 dwarfs hedges and houses. It takes a distance of several miles for an open landscape to even start absorbing a line of them. National Power television advertisements, which turned pylons into cute, animated giants marching around the country, failed to make us love them.

Some may find a certain elegance in the L12's austere functionalism. 'Adherence to strict engineering requirements will seldom result in a structure which will offend the eye,' ventured a pioneering 1929 document on British pylon design quoted approvingly in the latest report.

It suggests the mid-grey colour of their weathered, galvinised steel 'relates well to the background of sky colours and to the varied landscape of the British Isles'.

Mr Lomas said green could help pylons blend into the landscape in summer but in winter they stood out like sore thumbs among the bare trees and muddy fields.

One reason for convening the study group with several outside experts was to consider foreign designs. The chief alternative to the L12 is the slightly shorter but still enormous pole.

The group concluded that seen sideways on from a distance, a line of poles was less intrusive than a line of conventional, lattice-type pylons. Close up, however, they are even more noticeable because the poles are so thick; six feet across at the base. They are also about 70 per cent more expensive, require bigger concrete foundations and are more difficult to build and maintain.

Mr Lomas said English Heritage and the Countryside Commission were unenthusiastic about poles. This design also received little support during a recent public inquiry into the longest stretch of pylons planned for years, 50 miles along the Vale of York linking a new gas- fired power station on Teesside into the national grid.

The only place where poles have been used in Britain is for a short span near Cambridge's science park. Eastern Electricity chose them because of their futuristic appearance.

Even if the National Grid and the public did favour radically new designs, there is not much opportunity to install them. Little is being added to the 4,000 miles of 400,000 and 270,000-volt lines which comprise the grid and they should last 70 years before needing replacement.

Running the high voltage lines underground costs about 15 times as much as erecting pylons. Buried cables are three times as thick and a strip of land as wide as a three-lane road has to be excavated to a depth of five feet before laying them. So burial will be used only rarely, when power lines must cross the most precious and jealously guarded of landscapes. Pylons are here to stay, a familiar but unloved part of the countryside.

(Photograph omitted)