A company owned by a secretive Russian tycoon that donated more than a quarter of a million pounds to the Conservative Party has been accused of “abusing planning laws” in its bid to build a major undersea power link between Britain and France.
Portsmouth City Council has questioned the legality of proposals for the £1.2 billion scheme put forward by Aquind Limited, which is owned by Viktor Fedotov, a former executive of Lukoil, Russia’s largest oil company.
Portsmouth authorities are particularly concerned about the inclusion of a potentially lucrative high-speed data link in the undersea plans that they say is a “purely commercial” move. Under UK planning laws, associated developments must support the construction or operation of the principal development, in this case the proposed power link.
Portsmouth City Council maintains that the data link is “motivated in purely commercial terms” and “should not be held as lawfully within the scheme”. According to Aquind’s website, the data link would allow the firm to lease capacity to telecoms providers in the UK.
The council has said that it is “unaware of any precedent for the inclusion of such equipment, especially in the context of the benefit of a private company”, according to documents seen by openDemocracy.
Aquind, which has given more than £250,000 to the Conservatives in recent years, has strong links to senior Tories. In 2018 the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial (BEIS) approved Aquind’s application for the project to be granted status as a “nationally significant infrastructure project.” As a result, Aquind’s proposals are being reviewed by the Planning Inspectorate – an executive agency of Robert Jenrick’s Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government A decision on whether the project will go ahead will be taken in 2021 by BEIS in consultation with the Planning Inspectorate.
The scheme could prove extremely lucrative. Aquind claims the data link will consist of up to 360 “dark fibres” allowing super-fast transfer speeds of 100 Gbps per fibre pair. This capacity would give Aquind significant commercial clout in the market. Crosslake Fibre, a rival company, has unveiled plans for a similar data link between the UK and France to be built in 2021 but, in comparison, would use just 96 fibre pairs.
How Aquind intends to finance the overall construction costs related to the project, estimated by the company to reach £1.2 billion, is unclear. The company’s November 2019 funding statement claims the project will be entirely financed through issuing debt secured against the project’s future income but does not provide any detail.
A spokesperson of Aquind said that by “enabling the transmission of up to 5 per cent of Great Britain’s annual electricity demand, Aquind will help to meet the nation’s rising future electricity demand created by the increasing electrification of transport and heating.”
Aquind has become a frequent Conservative donor in recent years. In 2019, David Morris MP asked a question in the Commons relating to regulatory matters affecting Aquind shortly after receiving a £10,000 donation. Morris was found by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to have breached standards on paid advocacy and was forced to issue an apology.
In addition, it emerged in July that Aquind directors had paid substantial sums to sit next to Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Minister Alok Sharma at a party fundraising dinner. Sharma soon after publicly recused himself from being involved in decisions affecting the project.
Aquind has close links to the heart of the British establishment. Alexander Temerko, a director of the company since 2016, is said to call Boris Johnson by the Russian diminutive ‘Sasha’. The former arms tycoon, who is reported to have given more than £1million to the Conservatives, is an advisor to the influential libertarian think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs.
A former Aquind advisor and Conservative MP, James Wharton, was this year elevated to the House of Lords in Boris Johnson’s dissolution honours list. In August, the Times revealed that Aquind was ultimately owned by Viktor Fedotov, a secretive former Russian oil executive.
In response to the Portsmouth City Council’s accusations a spokesperson for Aquind told openDemocracy “any questions relevant to Aquind’s application for development consent are being addressed during the formal examination with all documents available at the Planning Inspectorate’s website”.