Landowners need to stand ground in battle for powerlines compensation

Farmers should insist on a flexible and comprehensive compensation model for electric lines
Farmers should insist on a flexible and comprehensive compensation model for electric lines

Richard Collins

For almost one hundred years, since its foundation in 1927, ESB/Eirgrid has maintained its totally unrealistic position that large electric powerlines do not devalue property.

The role of professional valuers in supporting this position is regrettable.

It is difficult to understand how some valuers can one day rely on one set of valuation principles to support claims on behalf of landowners, and on another day give completely contradictory evidence at arbitrations on behalf of an acquiring authority.

This appears to be in conflict with the valuation standards laid down by the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, which states that "a valuer's duty is to be impartial and uninfluenced by those instructing or paying to give the evidence."

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The Supreme Court decision, in the Gormley case in 1985, resulted in amendments to the ESB Acts, and opened the door for landowner compensation. Unfortunately, this is not how ESB/Eirgrid see it.

Despite the Supreme Court findings, and numerous Arbitration awards against it, ESB/Eirgrid are still aggressively attempting to deny landowners their entitlement to reasonable devaluation compensation, by employing Boris Johnson-type tactics, claiming that it is compliant with the entitlement to devaluation compensation, but then getting around it by insisting that there is no devaluation anyway.

Repeated and unwarranted referrals to Arbitration and the High Court is not acceptable behaviour by a large state organisation such as ESB/Eirgrid against the farming community. It seems to forget that farmers, and the agricultural industry, are also its greatest customers.

Can you imagine any other supplier taking its major customers to Arbitration and High Court in similar circumstances?

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Arbitrations and High Court challenges were never intended to be normal routine, rather they should only be resorted to in exceptional circumstances.

Landowners are to be admired for asserting their rights to electric line compensation. Unless ESB/Eirgrid changes its attitude, they have a long and difficult road ahead.

On the matter of High Court appeals against reasonable Arbitration awards, landowners will need to hold their nerve because the chances of ESB/Eirgrid being successful in these appeals are very limited.

These tactics appear to be aimed at intimidation of landowners and driven by outsiders, knowing that there is an unlimited pot of fees at their disposal.

Planning

Landowners should sit down with Acquiring Authorities and agree a professionally designed compensation model for the assessment of impacts and appropriate compensation.

This is not rocket science and, with the right approach, could bring about a much more equitable outcome for everybody.

* Designing a professional compensation model

Perhaps I should, at the outset, describe what a compensation model should not be.

* It should not be political

While final decisions on the structure of a compensation model may be made by landowners and their representatives, it should be designed by experts acting solely in a professional capacity.

* It should not be legal in content

The existing legal framework for compensation has been in existence since famine times, in 1845, and has been regularly up-dated. It is extremely robust and equitable and accordingly legal experts should not be necessary in the model design process. There should be no need to tamper with these structures. This is not to say that the final design should not be legally stress tested.

* Essential features of a compensation model

Equality and consistency will be the most important features of any compensation model. It must be fair to both ESB/Eirgrid as well as landowners.

Gas Networks Ireland (formerly Bord Gáis) has been operating a basic type of compensation model for several years and, while it may not be perfect, it has satisfied farmers for more than 30 years.

In my book on CPO matters, I have described the basics of a simple compensation model for use on road schemes. Unsurprisingly, it has been ignored by the Roads Authority, but it appears to be the only show in town that could help bring about equitable and consistent compensation for both landowners and the Roads Authority.

A similar model, professionally designed, for electricity infrastructure compensation, could at least form a basis for discussion.

The principle features of any such model are as follows:

Impact criteria should be described under a limited number of heads such as slight, moderate, significant or profound.

Rigid models do not work. A fixed payment of €22,000 for a pylon in the corner of a 200-acre holding and a similar payment for a pylon in close proximity to the dwellinghouse on a 50-acre holding are not equitable, or consistent, and as a tool for compensation has no merit.

Furthermore, these payments not in accordance with statutory requirements. A range of coefficients, linked to the impact standards would provide for the necessary flexibility.

Every single situation will be different and landowners should be given the facility to have each and every case independently assessed and claimed. This is also a requirement of the statutory assessment of compensation provisions.

Relevant Experts

Experts appointed to design a professional compensation model should be agreed by both parties.

The expertise required for the design of a professional model should include the following:

* Expert and Experienced Valuer: The valuer should be knowledgeable and experienced on all aspects of valuation and be guided solely by professional principles.

* Agronomist: Agricultural land is normally the property most frequently impacted by electric lines. The design team should include an agricultural expert and, like the valuer, should be guided solely by professional principles.

* Professional Planner: Most schemes will impact on lands with at least some development potential. Expert knowledge on planning rules and regulations will be an essential input.

* Engineer: Land drainage, property accesses, Health and Safety, etc. are major concerns that will require engineering expertise.

* Environment expert: In modern times, all schemes have to be compliant with environmental standards and accordingly an environmental experts input will be essential

Summary

Farmers should insist on a flexible and comprehensive compensation model for electric lines.

This should deliver an average compensation level for 110kV and 220kV similar to that for gaslines, and substantially more for 400 kV lines.

Richard Collins is a consultant with FBA Consultants, based in Fermoy, Co Cork. He is the co-author of A Practical Guide to Compulsory Purchase in Ireland

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