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Bristol Barrage and Severn Estuary

Volume 487: debated on Tuesday 3 February 2009

I always seem to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock, and it is a privilege to do so once again. I am delighted to have a chance to speak on a subject that might be slightly controversial, but something that I think that we can support. First, however, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), in whose constituency the barrage will be located. He has played a vital role in moving the barrage to its current state.

My comments today are less about this Government and more about the operation of successive Governments. The problem is that, owing to their boldness, the plans for the Severn barrage have been on the drawing board since 1974, when I was still at school. They say that a week is a long time in politics; 35 years must be getting on for a bit of a record. I wish all Ministers well in their jobs, but I must remind a few people of the facts. Ministers, rather like barrage blueprints in Somerset, come and go quickly. If I were to list every hon. Member, living and dead, to have taken responsibility for this project, we would be here until well after bedtime and the snow would be falling again.

I suspect that no one really wants to be responsible for making a decision. The Government have tried to confuse us—I say this in the nicest possible way—by deliberately changing the names of the Ministries in charge. Until very recently, barrage experts were all based at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which is known colloquially as “brr”—which is rather appropriate, given my struggle out of Somerset this morning. The Department has now become the principality of darkness and the Prime Minister’s new best friend—dare I say it?—Lord Mandelson, is now in charge. Whatever I might think about the noble Lord, he has a very good nose for trouble. When he took over at BERR, the controversial subject of energy was promptly shunted off to another Ministry—of silly names, dare I say it?—the new Department of Energy and Climate Change. DECC has nothing to do with our famous northern friends, Ant and Dec, although I suspect that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change might be looking at the barrage and saying, “I’m a celebrity, get me out of here—quick!” In short, the project is one of the most poisoned chalices faced by any Minister.

One of the problems is that the scientists are at loggerheads. Energy experts say one thing and the green lobby something completely different. They are complete rivals. Engineering firms are dying to win contracts, and consultants are crawling over everything for a fat fee, and that is not to mention a whole raft of do-gooders—unelected and unaccountable—and busybodies, such as my favourite whipping horse, Mr. Humphrey Temperley, who is in charge of the flood defence committee—God help us! He has managed to get himself on so many flood defence committees that he now wears wellies in bed, I am told. He is a menace to the success of this project.

The Government have allowed all those different groups to deluge them with views over many years, which helps to explain why, after umpteen reports, inquiries and consultations, we are still discussing the idea, rather than the reality—I say that advisedly. Twenty two years ago, after 65 million quid of public money had been spent on surveys, the Severn tidal power group came out in favour of a barrage—great! However, the Government of the day fudged it. Seven years ago, the tidal power group revamped its findings, but the Government said that the project was too costly and might damage the environment—in other words, they fudged it again. The whole thing then festered until three years ago, when an outfit called the Sustainable Development Commission was given a big bung to do more—guess what—research. At our expense, it ordered no fewer than five new reports—wow! It also took a large volume of evidence from a wide range of organisations and consultants—cor! It also got stuck in the politically correct agenda, and I have to quote the commission because this is such appalling stuff:

“We undertook a programme of public and stakeholder engagement to explore opinions and attitudes towards tidal power in the UK and the Severn Estuary resource”.

In other words, it did more talking.

Throughout this sorry saga, there has been too much talking and—I again say this advisedly—too little action. The project is now under the control of Ant and DECC, but Miliband minor may have actually come up with a few surprising signs of movement. Just a few days ago, the Government thankfully nailed their colours to the mast and produced a shortlist of possibilities, for which we are grateful. They have done the courageous thing: they have made a choice—sort of. The Government now have—wait for it—five different ideas for the Severn estuary, with plans for three possible barrages and two lagoons. First, there is the Shoots barrage up near the toll road over the Severn, which is estimated to cost £3.2 billion and designed to generate slightly less than 1 per cent. of the UK’s electricity—the rough equivalent of a very large coal-fired power station.

Secondly, there is the Beachley barrage, which is slightly smaller and further upstream than the Shoots barrage. It is priced at £2.3 billion, but it would generate much less electricity. Thirdly, however, there is the monster: the Cardiff to Weston barrage, between Brean down and Lavernock point, which could provide more than 5 per cent. of the UK’s electricity. This is the one that the environmentalists—to their shame—really hate. Critics say that the birds will have nowhere to feed, that the construction might get in the way of shipping and that it could cause flooding.

Next there are the lagoons: Fleming lagoon, over on the Welsh shore of the estuary between Newport and the Severn road crossing; and the Bridgwater bay lagoon, which will be on the English side of the estuary between Hinkley Point and Weston-super-Mare. This is the one that could really affect my constituency. Will the Minister give me cast-iron assurances today that a lagoon so close to Hinkley Point nuclear power station would not hinder its vital supply of cooling water or the outflow? She is well aware of the new developments at Hinkley and the possible building by EDF of two new reactors, but I wonder what the impact will be on the seaside holidaymakers who are absolutely crucial to that part of the coastline, not just in Weston-super-Mare but in Brean and in Burnham, which are in the constituencies of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory). Tourism is an absolutely vital ingredient of our local economy and we just cannot afford to lose the seaside because of a lagoon.

I sympathise with the dilemma facing Ministers. There are a great many unknowns, and I suspect that there always will be, but so much research has already been done that I wonder whether the latest round of consultations are a convenient excuse to put everything on the back burner again. As the Secretary of State might say about this case, “My indecision is final.” One might say, “Shall we have lunch, Secretary of State? Perhaps you would like to see the menu? Perhaps not. Suppose we add some extra courses?” When we look more closely at the Government’s position, we find that they have actually announced that there will be yet another three-month consultation before any one of those five plans can be rejected.

But hold on, there is a little more. An extra half a million quid of public money is about to be spent on developing other innovations, such as the tidal reef and the tidal fence. So, again we might be saying, “Bring on the new technologies and let’s have another hugely expensive public consultation exercise. How about next year—after lunch?” It is up to the Minister to decide.

Somewhere over the rainbow, perhaps after the next election, someone might make some sort of decision about this, but then again, perhaps not. I yet again urge the Minister to clarify what the Government would like. I represent Bridgwater and west Somerset. I am keen on using natural energy, if it works, but I am keener on keeping the lights burning in places such as Minehead where we need to keep people warm, so I am delighted—I mean this—that the Government have taken the future of nuclear energy seriously.

EDF Energy now runs Hinkley B nuclear power station, which it has taken over from British Energy, and it plans to build new reactors on the site. Not only will that contribute enormously to the UK’s energy needs and our energy security, but—more importantly, from a personal point of view—it will create vital jobs in the local economy and at our local colleges.

The difference between nuclear power and harnessing the tidal flow is that nuclear has a proven record—it is possible to look at it both ways, but it has a proven record. The estuary has never been given a chance. Even in France, the tidal project that is up and running is Mickey Mouse compared with what we are looking to do in the UK. I applaud the Government for what they are doing, but there is no real equivalent anywhere in the world to a civil engineering project on such a scale.

I live close to the Bristol channel. I have spent my time going down to the sea—occasionally wanting to chuck myself in when it all goes wrong—and watching the behaviour of oyster catchers and ringed plovers. I live in the most beautiful part of the world. However, to be brutally frank, I have witnessed swifter decision making by our visiting feathered friends. The water birds wade in the waves and get on with it. Dare I say that consecutive Ministers have wallowed and wavered? Yes, hon. Members have guessed it: the only winners after three decades of Government indecision are the blessed birds themselves. The Severn estuary is designated a special area for conservation. There is nothing wrong with that; in fact, it is absolutely right. I know that it is a special place—I live there—but this is why I tried to secure the debate.

Every year, up to 85,000 migrating birds pass through my constituency and stop off at our beautiful estuary, so there is an awful lot of flapping, squawking and carrying on. People cannot move for curlews and dunlins, and all sorts of greedy waders fill their beaks on the mudflats of Bridgwater bay. What will happen to those mudflats if one of these three barrages is built? Will the birds take off and simply fly elsewhere and, to be brutally frank, does it matter if they do—they are birds? I am not sure of the answer, but I do not know whether the Minister is sure, either, because this area has not been explored. The only people who say that they are sure are the bird lovers of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who are forever on the local television, condemning everybody. The RSPB is so sure of itself that it has got involved in some high-powered and very expensive lobbying, which, I am afraid, makes the recent antics of a handful of Labour Lords look like chicken feed.

The RSPB is backing the idea of lagoons as though it was the holy grail. It supports an American company called Tidal Electric, which says that it can construct shallow lagoons to trap incoming water and then release it through turbines when the tide goes back out. The RSPB paid for an impressive report by the British engineering giant WS Atkins, which handles huge Government contracts—for example, it takes care of the roads in Somerset—but the firm will write a report for anybody, providing they foot the bill, because that is the name of the game. Guess what? Atkins now favours lagoons—funny that, especially when it does a lot of work in Somerset.

Meanwhile, Tidal Electric insists that its lagoons could generate almost as much power as the best barrage, but that that would cost the taxpayer absolutely nothing. It sounds like the bargain of a lifetime, but most bargains, as we Members of Parliament know, are too good to be true. We have free lagoons versus billions on the barrage. The cost of constructing the biggest barrage is already being talked about as being in the region of £20 billion at today’s prices, although it might be slightly more or less than that. For months, I had the uncomfortable task of sitting on the Committee that considered the Crossrail Bill and watching the public cost of Crossrail going up like a high-speed taxi meter in a gridlocked London traffic jam, which is rather pertinent given the conditions of the past two days. The cost of the barrage might be £20 billion now, but by the time whichever Government make the decision to actually build it, it will cost a few squillion more.

Even the bargain basement lagoon will not be cheap and, as always, the taxpayers will end up footing the bill. I am afraid that I do not think that the lagoon will be free and I am certainly not seduced by the RSPB. No one has, to my knowledge, ever built a working lagoon of this size, but there are not a whole lot of working barrages like the ones planned for the Severn either.

What I am getting at with this? Some 35 years ago, when the prime source of electricity in this country was coal, people started dreaming up ways to trap the energy of the sea, which was fantastic. I was 15 then, and I am heading for 50 in a month’s time, yet we are still too far from that point and still too busy talking about whether it would be a good idea. We do not know all the answers—we accept that—and perhaps we never will, but we must try to understand.

The gossip is that Ministers favour the big 10-mile barrage but do not want to upset the bird lovers by saying so. Britain is used to innovation; we are a country of innovation. Brunel left his mark on my part of England because he took risks. The time for shilly-shallying is over. I say to the Minister: please make the decision, build the barrage and to hell with the RSPB. Let us get the job done as quickly as possible.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) on securing the debate and on the way that he presented his case. I am rarely amused in Westminster Hall, but I have been thoroughly amused this morning, and I thank him for it.

The hon. Gentleman said that it had taken all of 35 years, and that he is familiar with it all. Coming from south Wales, and having been at school there, I am also familiar with the proposals over the period that he mentioned. For me, it was always an exciting possibility, but one that clearly had huge impacts on the local environment, no matter which side of the estuary one came from.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change said at the launch of our first consultation on the issue last week, we want an open debate about whether a Severn tidal power scheme can help us meet our climate change and energy goals. Although it has been a long time coming, the consultation is serious and focused, lasting three months. It is occurring because we want to go to the next phase and make a decision.

There must be an open debate with stakeholders, with the public and here in Parliament. To help inform that debate, we have published alongside the consultation document a number of detailed reports covering the range of issues under consideration. They include the scope of the strategic environmental assessment, the potential finance and ownership options, the regional economic impacts and a preliminary review of compensation and mitigation requirements under the habitats directive. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who spoke at the Severn tidal power parliamentary forum last week, has already offered to hold two further parliamentary briefing sessions during the consultation to cover in more detail the economic and environmental impact work done so far in the feasibility study.

Combating climate change while ensuring secure energy supplies is the biggest long-term challenge that we face. Hon. Members will know that we have committed to providing 15 per cent. of our energy from renewable sources by 2020 and adopted a domestic target of an 80 per cent. reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050. To meet those requirements, we will need greater energy efficiency coupled with low or no-carbon generation, including nuclear power and renewables. Our actions must be not only ambitious but fair and sustainable, and we must consider all reasonable options.

In that context, consideration must be given to harnessing the power of the Severn estuary, with its phenomenal 14-metre tidal range. As the hon. Gentleman said, it could provide some 5 per cent. of UK electricity from a renewable, indigenous resource. It is a hugely important option. The Cardiff-Weston barrage, which he favours, could save 7 million tonnes of CO2 a year and have an operational life of more than a century, which would be more than equivalent to turning off two medium-sized coal-fired power stations.

Of course, before we take a decision on whether to support a Severn tidal power scheme, we must understand all the pros and cons. As the hon. Gentleman said, that takes time. We must understand the potentially considerable effects on the estuary’s unique and internationally important environment, the possible impacts on flooding, the impacts on the people and economies—he mentioned tourism—of the south-west and Wales and how a scheme could be financed and owned. Only when we have that information will we decide whether we want to support a scheme, and that decision will be a question of which of all the alternative low-carbon options offers the best, fairest and most sustainable way to meet our climate change goals.

Over the past year, we have begun the work that we need to do, building on the valuable work done by the Sustainable Development Commission, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. We have assessed, in high-level terms, the costs, benefits and impacts of 10 possible schemes and are consulting on a list of the five schemes that we consider are technically and economically feasible—the schemes that we believe could be built. The consultation will cover the process used to move from the long list to the shortlist, the proposed shortlist and the proposed issues for further investigation, including the scope of the strategic environmental assessment.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the shortlist includes two lagoons—one proposed for Bridgwater bay and one on the Welsh shore of the estuary—a larger tidal barrage between Lavernock point and Brean down, known as the Cardiff-Weston barrage, and two smaller barrage proposals, at Beachley and Shoots. Those schemes vary in cost between £2 billion and £21 billion. They also differ in respect of potential environmental and regional impacts and the way in which they could be financed and owned. The hon. Gentleman has said that the taxpayer will always have to pay. That is not our assessment. We believe that there would need to be very serious public money for the Cardiff-Weston barrage because of the huge cost, but it is not impossible that some of the smaller proposals could be funded entirely by the private sector.

All schemes would impact on the estuary’s unique environment by reducing designated intertidal areas, displacing protected bird species and threatening migratory fish, with the scale of the impact varying between the different schemes. Clearly, that is why we have to assess all of them. More work will be done this year further to understand the scale of the potential impact on the environment and how those impacts could be mitigated or, if not mitigated, compensated for as required by law. We do not take threats to biodiversity lightly, but climate change is probably the greatest threat to biodiversity, not least through rising sea levels.

All the schemes are likely to have, on balance, positive regional economic and employment benefits, with the Cardiff-Weston barrage potentially bringing 1,500 net additional jobs over a seven-year construction period and smaller schemes bringing an additional 500 jobs over a five-year construction period. Of course, we also recognise the potential impacts on the estuary’s ports and other industries such as fishing and tourism, to which the hon. Gentleman alluded. Clearly, that has to be taken into account in any of these debates. As I said, the smaller schemes could be constructed by the private sector alone, but we believe that the Government will be required to help if the largest of the schemes goes ahead.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of points, particularly about the impact on Hinkley. We recognise that there is concern about flooding in the Severn region if a Severn tidal power scheme goes ahead. We will need in-depth investigation involving the Environment Agency to examine that issue. We already know that much more work will be needed over the coming year, but at this stage we do not expect the higher low-tide levels behind a barrage significantly to affect any upstream flooding caused by rain—the hon. Gentleman will be familiar with the major floods in Tewkesbury in 2007. It is even possible that some schemes could provide extra protection from flooding caused by strong storm surges from the sea. That was one of the aspects advanced in support of the outer barrage, which has not been included in the shortlist because we consider it simply unaffordable.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the impact on Hinkley. Again, that needs to be fully understood and examined. The strategic environmental assessment that we are doing within the study will examine the impact of a Severn tidal power scheme on existing and planned infrastructure in the Severn estuary region. That is the assurance that I can give him: we are entirely mindful of the present infrastructure and any future developments. That all has to be taken into account. A decision on whether we want to support a Severn tidal barrage will have to take in the wider context of all our alternative options for meeting our climate and energy objectives. As he said, nuclear power will play an important part in meeting those objectives.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the tidal reef and tidal fence. I want to say a quick word about those technologies, which are not on the shortlist. We are keen not to rule out those innovative new schemes but they are not sufficiently developed technically at the present time, so there must be more detailed evaluation if they become technically feasible.

We are committed to considering the progress of those technologies before taking a decision in 2010, after a second public consultation, so that is why we will need to see what technical developments they can bring on stream in time for that second consultation. In order that those technologies should have a fair chance of being selected, we have provided £500,000 of public money to examine them. They have their supporters, they are interesting schemes and we must give them a fair chance as we are progressing.

The hon. Gentleman said that he thought that perhaps we just wanted to prevaricate further and put this issue on the back burner. I can assure him that that is absolutely not the attitude of Ministers. We have taken seriously our commitments on climate change and on renewable energy, and we know that this scheme could play a very significant part in meeting those commitments, so we are very keen to move ahead as fast as is reasonable, while treating consistently all the issues that must be discussed.

We do not think that it will be possible to deliver on our climate change goals without radical action and without making tough choices. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that we take those choices in a way that is fair to people, communities and businesses, and in a way that is also sustainable. As I have said, we are also absolutely committed to entering an open dialogue on whether or not harnessing the vast power of the River Severn has a role to play in meeting our goals.

I am so sorry to tell the hon. Gentleman this, because it is exactly what he does not want to hear, but to that end there will be a second public consultation. However, at that point, we will have so much more material—so much more concrete evidence—to put before people and it is only in that way that we can move towards making a proper decision.

Meanwhile, I hope that all hon. Members will join in the current debate, keeping an open mind until we have the evidence we need to make an informed decision on whether or not we want a Severn tidal scheme to go ahead. I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving us the opportunity to have a very interesting exchange; I know that it will be the first of many that we will have.