Going Underground: Ramblers and National Grid

How the Ramblers is working with National Grid to help conserve and enhance the natural beauty of our most precious landscapes

Words by Michelle Clark and illustration by Edu Fuentes

From awe-inspiring coastal havens to the tranquillity of ancient woodland, the nation’s diverse landscapes have the power to move and inspire.  They are an unparalleled inheritance for future generations who are unknowingly reliant on our careful stewardship.  It was from this collective sense of appreciation and responsibility that National Grid’s Visual Impact Provision (VIP) project was born. Michelle Clark, VIP project manager, explains more.

While many know us as the people who ‘keep the lights on’, that is only one part of National Grid’s broad commitment to the communities we serve.  Consumer research conducted in 2012 on behalf of the energy regulator, Ofgem, revealed public support for reducing the impact of existing infrastructure in nationally-designated areas, the nation’s breathing spaces.  Accordingly, the VIP project was established in 2014.

A world-leading project

VIP is possible because of a funding mechanism made available by Ofgem for eligible projects to reduce the visual impact of existing electricity transmission infrastructure in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) and National Parks across Great Britain.  We believe that it is the first initiative in the world to seek to mitigate the appearance of existing high-voltage transmission lines in a substantive way.

However, with approximately 571km of electricity transmission line in protected landscapes in England and Wales, the establishment of the project was only the beginning. 

The journey so far

With 30 designated areas in England and Wales eligible to benefit from VIP, it quickly became clear that specialist advice and guidance would be needed.  Therefore, National Grid decided to form a Stakeholder Advisory Group to guide decision-making on the project.  The Group is made up of organisations dedicated to enhancing our landscape and countryside, including the Ramblers, the National Trust, CPRE, the Landscape Institute, Natural England and Historic England, as well as their Welsh counterparts.  Chaired by environmentalist and broadcaster Chris Baines, the group has driven the major project decisions taken to date.

There’s an old truism that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  In a bid to combat this, National Grid sought to create a transparent and objective process for identifying the sections of line that presented the greatest opportunities for enhancement.  Under the guidance of independent landscape advisor Professor Carys Swanwick, 130 sections of electricity line were comprehensively assessed using a methodology based on established industry-accepted principles to determine which could benefit most from the available funding.

As well as where, there was also the how to be considered.  Multiple options for improving the visual setting of electricity infrastructure were considered, from innovative painting techniques for camouflaging pylons to screening overhead lines with tree planting.  Ultimately, most stakeholders favoured an approach of replacement with underground infrastructure.  While this approach would entail a significant construction phase, it was judged to provide the greatest overall benefit.

Against strict criteria, including technical feasibility and the potential to enhance public understanding and enjoyment of the landscape, the Stakeholder Advisory Group unanimously chose four major projects where overhead line is now being planned for removal and replacement with underground solutions.  These are located in the Dorset AONB and the New Forest, Peak District and Snowdonia National Parks.

Reaching this point has taken more than three years of collaborative work with local and national experts.  The submission of a planning application for the Dorset scheme in early 2018 is only one of many major milestones to come.

Using your initiative

From the very beginning, the Stakeholder Advisory Group members have been particularly keen for the allowance from Ofgem to benefit the widest possible number of affected landscapes.  As such, a scheme was conceived to complement the work being undertaken in Dorset, the New Forest, the Peak District and Snowdonia.

The Landscape Enhancement Initiative (LEI) is the brainchild of Chris Baines and the Stakeholder Advisory Group, and runs in tandem with the other VIP projects.  Launched in May 2016, the initiative aims to provide up to £24 million for small-scale projects for local visual improvement projects.  Grants of up to £200,000 are available for each scheme.  The funding is offered for projects including localised tree planting, changes to public trails and rebuilding of dry stone walls – all things which might detract and divert attention from overhead lines.

National Grid has been impressed by the breadth and diversity of the applications received for LEI grants.  In the first window of funding, over £430,000 was allocated to projects by Ofgem, including schemes in High Weald AONB, North York Moors National Park and the Peak District National Park.

The variety of suitable schemes means it is an initiative which invites creativity, and Ramblers volunteers can play an active part in suggesting projects for the areas they treasure most.  While applications can only be submitted by eligible AONBs or National Parks, being able to demonstrate involvement from the wider community is a key benchmark against which applications are assessed.

You can find additional details about the areas eligible for funding and the selection process at lei.nationalgrid.com.  If you are inspired to submit a suggestion for a project, please contact the relevant AONB Partnership or National Park Authority directly.

Inside view

Nicky Philpott, Ramblers’ director of advocacy and engagement, represents the Ramblers on the VIP project’s Stakeholder Advisory Group:

Enabling people to walk in beautiful landscapes is at the heart of the Ramblers mission.  We have a long history of collaborating with like-minded organisations to protect the unique sense of freedom and empowerment that comes from being outdoors on foot. 

Working on the Stakeholder Advisory Group has been a unique chance to develop a scheme to improve the landscapes our members love.  The group has been meaningfully engaged on the major decisions which have led us to this point, and as we look towards the submission of the first planning application, the path ahead of us seems bright.

On this long journey, a new model for knowledge sharing and creative debate between public sector organisations, industry and local communities has been established.  It is my hope that our collaboration will prove a valuable model for working together for the benefit of our landscapes and the people who enjoy and treasure them most.

Approximately 47 pylons are planned for removal across Dorset, the New Forest, the Peak District and Snowdonia, but the true success of the project will be far broader and more difficult to quantify.

In decades to come, the pylons that once stood and the VIP project that removed them may be all but forgotten by the public who enjoy these precious landscapes.  That, perhaps, would be the greatest measure of success of all.