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Severn Estuary (Electricity)

Volume 461: debated on Wednesday 6 June 2007

1. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on Government support for a reappraisal of the options for generating electricity from the tidal flow in the Severn estuary. (140334)

I have had discussions with Cabinet colleagues, and I am keen to see the Severn barrage go ahead, as tidal power represents a massive untapped, clean, green energy source.

Will my right hon. Friend seek commitments from UK Cabinet and Assembly colleagues to ensure that Welsh universities have the support to enable them to develop sustainable technologies—such as those harnessing wave, tidal or river current energy—in order to generate electricity and to help bring research and development jobs and manufacturing jobs to Wales?

We certainly want every opportunity to be explored. I welcome my hon. Friend’s interest and support. The Severn barrage could create up to 35,000 jobs over the nine-year construction period, half of them in areas surrounding the Severn estuary. It is anticipated that in the longer term about 40,000 permanent jobs would result from the barrage, which would lead to economic regeneration in terms of recreation, transport, housing, industrial and commercial property, tourism and infrastructure development. My hon. Friend is right that renewable energy has enormous potential not only to fight climate change but to strengthen the economy and to create more jobs.

Further to the question of the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), will the right hon. Gentleman also make sure that in-depth research is undertaken into the possible use of tidal lagoons in Wales, bearing in mind the New Zealand experience where that is a huge component in the energy mix?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s interest in that issue, and the Sustainable Development Commission is looking into it. However, previous assessments suggest that a lagoon alternative in the Severn would produce less than a third of the generating capacity of the barrage, and in addition the barrage would save about two and a half times more carbon dioxide emissions than a lagoon. Prior to any further investigations at least, the barrage therefore appears to me to be a much better bet, and it would also offer the opportunity of a transport link between Taunton and south Wales, which could be of enormous benefit on both sides of the Severn.

The Severn estuary is an internationally important site for wild birds. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is important that we protect the habitats that would be affected by the proposal, and that that must be taken into consideration before any development goes ahead?

Yes; my hon. Friend raises an important point. The European Union birds and habitats directives must be considered in relation to the project. However, I should draw it to the House’s attention that the experience at La Rance river in France is that biodiversity can increase as a result of the construction of a barrage. Also, if we are not prepared to take bold steps to fight climate change, biodiversity will be, in a sense, a secondary matter. That will be the case if we get the terrible consequences to life on this planet that would come from climate change, which can be avoided by the adoption of projects such as the Severn barrage, which could create up to 5 per cent. of the UK’s electricity-generating needs.

While I welcome tidal energy in the Severn estuary, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is enough tidal power off the north Wales coast to offset the need for a replacement nuclear power station in Anglesey? However, given that all bar one of the Labour deputy leadership candidates said on “Newsnight” that they support more nuclear power stations, including the right hon. Gentleman, how can anyone seriously believe that the second nuclear consultation is not destined to be as big a sham as the first?

It is not a sham. I have always made it clear that if a nuclear new-build is necessary in order to keep the lights on, it would be irresponsible to rule that out. As the hon. Gentleman knows, no one is more enthusiastic about clean, green renewable energy than me. Indeed, I often have scraps with Liberal Democrats about wind farms and other sources of clean, green energy, because they are in favour of green energy in principle, but in practice differences can arise. However, I think that we can work together to make sure that Wales benefits from all forms of energy. Sometimes there is a demand for a replacement nuclear power station. That is the case in Anglesey. The local council and my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) support a replacement of the existing nuclear power station, and they deserve to be supported.

I very much thank the Secretary of State for those remarks. I support a rich and diverse energy mix, including tidal power. However, will the Secretary of State assure me that funds and support will not be diverted from established and emerging options into one big project, such as the Severn barrage? If we are serious about security of energy supply and lowering carbon emissions, we need a rich energy mix.

We do, and we need our energy to be developed and sustained as much as possible in home-grown forms, so that we are not dependent on fossil fuels imported from abroad, including from many unstable areas of the world. So this is not just a climate change but a security of supply issue. However, I see no conflict here between strong renewable energy and considering the nuclear option in Anglesey, for example, if that is appropriate. The Severn barrage is a privately funded project; the construction companies—McAlpine, Balfour Beatty and others—that formed a consortium intend to fund it privately. Indeed, that is the point: there would not be a big draw on public funds.

Will the Secretary of State assure me that despite the obvious, early and absolute backing for the Severn barrage scheme given in answer to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), the Secretary of State is not going to rule out investigating tidal lagoons? Has he had the opportunity to read the research produced by Friends of the Earth showing that the generation cost from tidal lagoons is more economically beneficial than that from the barrage; and will he give this House and the people of Wales an absolute assurance that he will carry out full investigations into the environmental impact of the barrage and of the lagoons, and not rule out the lagoon option at this stage?

I can assure the hon. Lady that I am not ruling it out; indeed, the Sustainable Development Commission is looking at this option. However, the facts are reasonably clear—unless they are contradicted by any further study—that the barrage would generate masses more power and is lower in emissions, and there are other benefits. The risk in the Severn area of flooding, especially as sea levels rise, is enormous, and the barrage would clearly help by providing a much securer environment for local houses and businesses. It also offers the exciting prospect of a transport link, with Cardiff airport being just round the corner. So there are benefits, which is why there is a lot of support in the south-west of England for this proposal, especially along the coast. The local regional development agency, for example, supports the idea of a barrage. So that is where my preference lies, but obviously we will look at the evidence.

However bold the Severn barrage project is, we must not ignore the opportunities along other parts of our coastline. In Swansea, particularly Swansea bay, the lagoon has captured people’s imagination and there is a great deal of support for it. There should be more localisation of power generation. Does the Secretary of State agree?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, Wales is supremely well placed to harness the benefits of tidal and wave power because we have such an extensive coastline, including in the Swansea bay area, which provides a great tidal power opportunity. We should look at all options there, including the one that she mentions.