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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The cost of folly

The BBC have revealed today that more than £5m was paid out in in consultancy fees over the now-shleved Severn Estuary barrage.

Shadow Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain is quick to jump in, arguing that the scheme would have created thousand of jobs and accused the coaltion government of "frittering away millions" on consultants. But hang on a minute, wasn't all this money on consultants spent by the last Labour Government, of which Peter Hain was a prominent part, before his fall from grace and rejection by Labour MPs in the Shadow Cabinet elections?

Any project that is going to committ a substantial part of £22 billion of public money needs to be properly evaluated before it can proceed and often that evaluation proves unfavourable. If, as Hain seems to be arguing, we were going to proceed anyway, then why did his Government employ these consultants? Wouldn't it have been better to just to get on with the construction? Could it be that there were substantial doubts amongst Labour Ministers too regarding the viability of this barrage?

In passing judgement on the planned scheme I can do no better than Gordon James from Friends of the Earth for example who told the BBC:

"We have long argued that the Cardiff to Weston-super-Mare Severn barrage would have been too costly in both financial and environmental terms, and that better options exist to harness this important source of clean energy.

"The costs of construction would very likely have risen from the estimated £22bn while it would have caused irreversible damage to wildlife sites that are meant to be protected by law.

"This could have resulted in prolonged legal challenges that would have further delayed a project that would not have delivered the clean energy we so desperately need for over 20 years."

We now know far more about what is feasible, environmentally acceptable and economically sustainable in the Severn estuary as a result of the expenditure of this £5 million. The objective must be to use that knowledge to harness the tidal range that is available in the estuary to generate electricity.

That is why I am not going to join in Peter Hain's criticism of his own Labour government for employing these consultants and why I am happy to agree with the Coalition Government's decision not to proceed with such an expensive and over-the-top barrage scheme. I await further developments with interest.
Read Rawnsley's 'End of the Party' for Gordon Brown's view of the barrage when he barged into a cabinet committee as Peter Hain was making a presentation on the project.
The point has also been made that invaluable data have been gathered, and that a model of the estuary has been made, both of which are there for reference for years to come.
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