Environmentalist and broadcaster Chris Baines updates us on his role as chair of the Visual Impact Provision project, and discusses recent developments surrounding the £500m drive to enhance the appearance of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and National Parks.
I think we’ve made a great deal of progress In the half year or so since the Stakeholder Advisory Panel first met. We’ve certainly learned a lot about the challenge of reducing the visual impact of pylons and transmission lines in precious landscapes.
When we met for the first time last April, we all felt that £500 million was a huge sum to be spending in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs). However, with a kilometre of power line costing around £20 million to bury underground, it quickly became clear that we’d only be able to give a very few of the most imposing lines a full underground treatment.
We could make the money stretch further if some lines could be moved rather than buried, but hard engineering solutions alone were likely to leave most of the 30 eligible designated landscapes unimproved.
Given this realisation, we quickly began to explore other ways in which visual impact might be reduced. I’m pleased to say that, with help from National Grid’s own specialists and our panel representative from the regulator Ofgem, we’ve found a way to spread the impact of the fund more broadly.
While the majority of the available money needs to be spent on a few major engineering schemes, we’ve determined that a substantial amount – as much as £24 million – should be used over the next six years to support a whole range of more modest, local landscape changes.
Work on the major schemes is now entering a highly technical stage. The extremely thorough landscape assessment by our consultants has identified the dozen stretches of transmission line that have the greatest visual impact on the landscape. These will now be subjected to detailed studies, but it will take several months to analyse such issues as archaeology and geology, the ecological sensitivity, accessibility and ownership of the affected land.
In the meantime, we expect that we’ll encourage a whole range of less complicated schemes to be brought forward for funding. We want these relatively low-cost contributions to landscape improvement to be imaginative and innovative.
Some of them will undoubtedly involve localised screen planting, but we also want to encourage landscape restoration through habitat improvement, stone-wall repair, footpath resurfacing and more ambitious schemes such as relocating car parks and viewpoints. We’re also keen to see the landscapes made even more interesting through schemes for additional interpretation, waymarking and landscape learning.
These local and low-key contributions to the Visual Impact Provision have particular appeal. Firstly, they’ll deliver real improvements to the landscape much earlier than the major engineering schemes. They offer scope for bringing tangible benefits to a great many of the 30 AONBs and National Parks that are affected by National Grid transmission lines, and they allow us to tap into the skills, expertise and enthusiasm of very many different people.
We’ve decided that individual projects should be submitted by the National Park and AONB authorities for funding, as a way of ensuring that the fund complements wider strategic plans. However, we want to encourage as many interested parties as possible to play their part.
All these landscapes are important to a whole range of interest groups, from nature conservation charities to landscape and heritage organisations and local communities. We want to make the best possible use of all their individual and collective strengths.