The price of tidal power

When did it become OK to save our wildlife at the expense of everyone else’s?

There’s no joy in it but it’s got to be done. We have to press ahead with harvesting the tidal energy of the River Severn, despite the havoc it is likely to wreak on local wildlife, because these days there is no such thing as local wildlife.

When we talk about living in a globalised world, we don’t usually think about nations sharing wildlife. But we are now getting other people’s fish. Bluefin tuna and anchovies are increasingly common in British waters and no doubt we’ll be getting into fights with foreign fishing fleets about them soon. Elsewhere, species of Japanese coral are migrating northwards. A few weeks ago, Australian scientists issued a report into the ocean biodiversity in their region. Rather shockingly, their tropical fish are moving away – those that aren’t dying off in the rapidly warming water are migrating southwards, following the plankton that are being carried on currents that are rising in strength.

You won’t be surprised to hear that the blame for all this flux lies with global warming. Rising temperatures leave the inhabitants of the ocean no choice but to embrace change. Paradoxically, though, taking measures to combat global warming – such as building the Severn barrage to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels – will also force changes on the natural world. It’s now a question of whether we value our creatures more than everyone else’s.

The Severn provides Britain with a golden opportunity to exploit lunar power. The moon’s pull causes earth’s water to bulge out from the surface and the geometry of the Severn creates a bigger bulge than most. The difference between its high and low tide is the second largest in the world; only Canada’s Bay of Fundy can beat the Severn’s 14-metre pile of water.

Hold that heap of water back until just the right moment and the resulting torrent on release is a renewable source of energy. A Severn barrage would provide enough lunar electricity to power 5 per cent of Britain’s homes, equivalent to three nuclear or gas-fuelled power stations. It would also last three times longer – at least. According to projections, the barrage could operate for over a century, compared to the few decades of lifetime offered by a nuclear plant.

A cross-party group of MPs is backing a campaign for the barrage to be built and David Cameron has recently instructed the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, to look at the proposal. It still might not take off, however. That is because, from a local perspective, it will be an environmental tragedy.

As with any hydroelectric project, holding back the water floods areas that would usually be dry. In the case of the Severn barrage, many of those areas are mudflats designated as sites of special scientific interest: feeding grounds for important bird species. It’s also worth mentioning that forcing the water through electricity-generating turbines at high pressure cannot help but hurt fish populations, too.

No pain, no gain

The consortium looking to build the barrage has come up with a design that, it claims, reduces mudflat loss by 60 per cent and operates at lower pressures, easing the toll on the Severn’s fish. Perhaps there are other mitigation efforts that can be made, such as constructing artificial mudflats at the water’s new edge. Either way, it is hard to see how we can justify holding back the barrage now. We will have to sacrifice some of our cherished natural environment.

As far as carbon-free, sustainable energy generation goes, this is the low-hanging fruit. If we don’t grab it, our continued emissions will have a similar, maybe greater, impact on biodiversity in other places. Yes, it will hurt but when did it become OK to save our wildlife at the expense of everyone else’s?


Surfers ride the Severn Bore along the River Severn. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide