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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Jumping the gun on the Severn Barrage

As I drove back from LIverpool yesterday morning I heard an interview with Energy Minister, Chris Huhne in which he was asked about the Severn Barrage project and made it clear that no decision has been taken. He said that he could not at this stage give a timetable as to when that decision would be made, because it is a complex and difficult project and he needs to work through all the submissions before coming to a conclusion. That is the reality of being in government, you cannot work to media timescales, no matter how much pressure is applied. You have to get it right.

I was astonished therefore to see this morning's Western Mail announce that UK Ministers are looking at slimmed-down alternatives to the huge tidal energy barrage in the Severn estuary. Well of course they are. They are looking at all the alternatives.

I am not sure where the Western Mail got the idea that no public money will be involved. The Govermment has said that it wants to carry out a series of infrastructure projects to boost the economy and this could be one of them. However, I continue to be astonished that journalists and opposition politicians believe that Ministers can easily put their hands on £15 billion for projects like this, which will inevitably cost much more than that. We are in a time of austerity for goodness sake.

Perhaps if the media exercised some restraint in its expectations about new capital projects then it might help us be taken more seriously in the Treasury when we ask for cash.

The other bizarre aspect of this article is the apparent surprise that a shoots barrage might be under consideration. Not so long ago Welsh Liberal Democrats and our counterparts on the other side of the Bristol Channel set up a study group, which developed policy in favour of a more environmentally-friendly shoots barrage. That policy was debated and passed by the Welsh party conference and also the Federal Conference. It is party policy and this is a Liberal Democrat Minister. Of course he is considering that option actively but things change, other information becomes available, government has more resources to consult and model alternatives and so it may not be the final choice.

I remember at the time that we were mocked for setting up that policy group and told that we were wasting our time. It does not seem like a waste of time now, does it?
I always found it fascinating that the Lib Dems had reached such a conclusion before the publication of the Feasibility Study. I did ask Steve Webb MP if the Lib Dems had any technical data up their sleeves that the rest of us were unaware of! The Lib Dems did not even consult the Gloucester Harbour Port for data or opinions - a pity since the regional port of Sharpness will be affected by a Shoots scheme. The modelling done thus far with regards to sediment deposition is nebullous in the extreme when dealing with the above Avonmouth options. But hey lets not facts get in the way of a big green political headline...
I'm actually going to defend Peter, because the Welsh Lib Dems (and Plaid) got this one right.

"I always found it fascinating that the Lib Dems had reached such a conclusion before the publication of the Feasibility Study."

What about how Labour seemed pretty conclusive on a Lavernock-Weston Barrage before the conclusion of the study?

Peter Hain even took journalists on a boat out into the estuary to where the Barrage would be constructed.

The effect on ports would be far more dramatic if the largest Barrage went ahead.

Plaid and the Lib Dems looked at all of the options and concluded that Shoots would be preferable, but also that the other, newer technologies needed investigating.
Re Peter Hain I quite agree with you - I do not support ANY barrage option since it is outdated and inefficient. Google the Petitcodiac to see what happened there with regards to sedimentation. The Severn is also now an SAC and whether you think the flaura and fauna will change/adapt/fly away/fly in is probably immaterial - I'll leave the environmentalists to argue the toss on that. That big issue would ultimately need to be sorted out in a European Court. Small wonder the Severn Tidal Power Group are baulking at potential planning costs! In summary, no Peter hasn't got it right!
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