French villagers bid to stop Tory donor Aquind laying cable under Channel

Energy firm and director Alexander Temerko have given £1.1m between them to Conservatives

French mayors and residents along the Normandy coast are campaigning to block a project for a cross-Channel electricity cable backed by a Ukrainian-born businessman who has donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Conservative party.

Kwasi Kwarteng, Britain’s business secretary, is due to decide this week on whether to give the go-ahead to a £1.2bn project for the 148-mile cable between Normandy and Hampshire. The firm says the link, which will run through Portsmouth, could supply up to 5% of Britain’s electricity needs.

Opposition MPs have highlighted more than £1m in donations given to the Conservatives by the company, Aquind, and one of its directors, Alexander Temerko, a British industrialist born in Ukraine.

Labour says the project is “mired by cronyism”. That allegation is strongly denied by the firm, which says the scheme can play a vital role in helping to secure Britain’s energy supply.

The project faces strong opposition in Portsmouth from the council and campaigners, who say it will have a detrimental impact on the city and cause widespread disruption.

The proposal is to run the cable from the village of Lovedean in east Hampshire to Portsmouth, across the Channel to the French coast and to its end point at the small settlement of Barnabos in Normandy.

An alliance of the French mayors on or near the route has now been formed to oppose the project.

Photograph of Durand in formal military-style uniform with a peaked cap, braided sleeves, medals and white gloves
Pierre-André Durand, the prefect of Normandy, has rejected Aquind’s application. Photograph: Raphael Lafargue/Sipa/Rex Shutterstock

“The company is very aggressive,” said Jean-Marie Tabesse, mayor of Biville-la-Baignarde, one of the villages along the proposed route of the cable to the connecting station in Barnabos, where it will link to the French national grid. “They never take no for an answer. They never listen.”

The shoreline where the cable will make landfall is known as the alabaster coast because of its chalky white cliffs. It was a favourite place of the painter Claude Monet. The cable would reach the French coast at a car park and mini-golf course at Hautot-sur-Mer, a popular spot for tourists.

In June last year, Aquind submitted an “occupation rights” application to the mayor of Hautot-sur-Mer for construction and excavation works on the town’s seafront.

It was rejected by the mayor, Jean-Jacques Brument, who says he will never give permission. “Nothing obliges us to cede this plot to them,” Brument told a French newspaper. “They are as stubborn as fools.”

Jean Nicolas, a founder of Non à Aquind, a pressure group in the Dieppe area, said high-voltage transmission cables should not be routed through populated areas.

He said: “We don’t want a high-power electric cable near our villages, and we don’t want the disruption. It’s a crazy idea.”

Aquind made its application to the Planning Inspectorate for a development consent order in England in November 2019. The proposal was included on a list of projects of common interest by the EU in November 2017, which allows schemes to be fast-tracked. It was, however, removed from the list in October 2019.

The scheme was rejected by Pierre-André Durand, the prefect of Normandy, in January. Aquind is challenging the decision and considers that it will not stand in the way of getting the required planning consent.

Head and shoulders photograph of Temerko in a blue suit and tie
Alexander Temerko has donated more than £700,000 to the Conservatives. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

Campaigners from Let’s Stop Aquind in Portsmouth say the power cables would involve construction through and under parks, allotments and wild open spaces. Viola Langley from the campaign group, said: “This would cause absolute chaos in Portsmouth and beyond. We don’t want it here.”

Aquind is the subsidiary of a Luxembourg-based company, Aquind Energy. Company filings say the company’s “persons of significant control” are the Russian-born oil businessman Viktor Fedotov and Temerko, a prominent Conservative supporter. The UK firm has donated more than £430,000 to the party. Temerko, a director of the company, has donated more than £700,000.

Lord Callanan, the minister for business, energy and corporate responsibility, is a former director of Aquind, standing down in June 2017. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy says he will have no role in the decision over the project.

Stephen Morgan, MP for Portsmouth South, said: “Aquind would cause devastating disruption to Portsmouth, the most densely populated city after London. Roads, parks and the precious natural environment would be ripped up. Residents will face noise, dust and huge traffic problems. This national infrastructure project has been mired by cronyism.”

Aquind says all its donations to the Conservatives were properly made and have been legally declared. It does not consider the removal of the project from the European list of projects of common interest is an obstacle to securing the relevant permissions.

The company said in a statement: “The French planning process is ongoing, and the project continues to engage with all relevant parties and authorities.

Contributors

Jon Ungoed-Thomas and John Lichfield in Normandy

The GuardianTramp

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