When governments speak warm words about consulting the public it is sensible to be wary. The word "choice" will not be far away and, as the Thatcher years proved, the apparently harmless idea of offering consumer choice can be the magic key that opens the door to deregulation and a financial free-for-all. It is big business which is liberated.
The National Grid has just launched a consultation exercise in advance of decisions which could change the face of rural Britain forever. The revolution in energy supply, with a large proportion of the nation's power being generated out at sea, will require a major overhaul of the way electricity is transmitted around the country. Power needs to be brought from the coastline into our towns and cities, and the existing infrastructure is entirely inadequate.
The National Grid, whose task (and financial opportunity) it is to prepare the nation's energy transmission for the future, has made no secret of its preferred answer to the challenge: many, many more pylons. An alternative exists, in the form of underground cabling – indeed that is what is already used in urban settings – but, the National Grid has always argued, it is an inordinately expensive option.
Tentative local plans had been put before individual councils over recent months, but it was only in September, when the National Grid released a long and innocent-sounding document called the Offshore Development Information Statement, that the national picture emerged. Across the country, not only existing transmission lines would need to be "reinforced" with new pylons but a large number of the lines, often across unspoilt countryside, would need to be built.
To the 22,000 pylons which currently exist, with their 4,375 miles of overhead cable, would be added thousands more. The Campaign to Protect Rural England, and some small, dynamic local action groups, have been effective in raising the alarm about a plan that was in danger of slipping through the system, pointing out that many of the arguments about the cost of underground cabling have been exaggerated. In the recent BBC documentary The Secret Life of the National Grid, an entirely uncritical PR exercise on behalf of what is now a private company, a figure of 12 to 17 times compared to the cost of pylons was used; what was not mentioned was that those statistics were historical, relating to the 1920s when power lines were first being erected.
The timing and manner of the National Grid's consultation are significant. It was launched in the slipstream of Eric Pickles' Localism Bill and as the Government published its plans for the biggest shake-up to the energy market for years. The emphasis in the news has been on local empowerment on the one hand and, on the other, a steep rise in household energy bills. What better time could there have been to slip out, with a strange lack of publicity, a consultation exercise which warns of another hike to electricity bills: the extra costs which would be incurred by underground cabling.
Offered that somewhat weighted choice – preserve bits of the landscape that you rarely if ever see or save money on your bills – the average, urban consumer is unlikely to cause the National Grid too many problems. This kind of consultation relies heavily on public indifference. Those who argue that the open landscape of the most beautiful parts of Britain are an important part of our national character and wellbeing and should be passed on to future generations can be dismissed as a vocal, middle-class minority, setting its face against the realities of modern life.
Since the National Grid will announce its multi-billion pound strategy less than a month after the consultation ends in March 2011, there are understandable suspicions that its offer to engage with public opinion is something of a window-dressing exercise.
Yet no one should be surprised that the National Grid is acting like a sharp-elbowed, aggressive corporation. Its name and image may suggest that is it a great British institution, somewhere between the National Health and National Trust – indeed, the BBC series fostered that fond illusion – but in reality it is a privately owned company, motivated entirely by profit. Its shareholders will be delighted by its recent performance, with pre-tax profits for the first half of this year up a whopping 45 per cent, but some of the news stories it attracts suggest that, even by the robust standards of the market, it can be rather too ruthless for its own good.
Two years ago, there was a little local difficulty with the energy watchdog Ofgem, which imposed a fine of £41.6m, the biggest in its history, having found that National Grid had "abused its dominance in the domestic gas metering market, restricting competition and harming consumers". In America, its aggressive pricing policy has brought criticism from price regulators, with claims on Massachusetts and New York that up to $26m of executives' "questionable" expenses were being loaded on to consumers. Those executives, by the way, are doing quite well. Earlier in the month, unions balloting for strike action revealed that five of the National Grid's directors are in the Labour Research Department's list of the 10 highest-paid directors in the country.
Against this background, it is reasonable to worry about the National Grid's concern for, or even interest in, the landscape. Yet the decisions that they make will affect the way our country looks for future generations. Anyone who believes that uncluttered rural beauty is a precious asset should let National Grid know (details are below), but if, at the end of it all, the usual list of excuses for the pylonisation of Britain is trotted out – the need to keep the lights on, cost to the consumer, energy security, technical problems – it is worth remembering that money and profit are being put before the way our country looks.
The National Grid's consultation website is at www.nationalgridundergrounding.com