Severn barrage controversy

Sian reports from the Green Party conference in Swansea

Green Party Spring Conference this week. We're in Swansea, soon to be the scene of the election of our first Welsh Assembly member. Rhodri Griffiths, our lead candidate for South Wales West region, opened proceedings with a thoughtful attack on the ruling Labour Party in Wales. First Minister Rhodri Morgan having handed us a gift recently by saying that he sees global warming as a bit of a business opportunity for Wales - perhaps a flourishing wine industry may emerge? Hmmmm.

Exposing ignorance of the global scale of the problem apart, our Green Rhodri was keen to point out that Welsh Labour's lack of care and ethics would have the early pioneers of the Labour Party turning in their graves. It was after all here in South Wales a century ago that Keir Hardie became the first Labour MP, after all.

Rhodri also reminded us that 250 years ago, it was here that the industrial revolution took hold and that, if any country in the world has a duty to make up for the consequences and take a lead in reducing carbon emissions, it should be Wales.

The first panel session of conference followed, and it was a contentious one, also with huge relevance to the area. How do we make use of the tidal energy of the Severn Estuary? It's clear there is enormous potential for generating clean, renewable and, crucially, predictable energy from the flow of the tide in and out of the Severn but it's also one of the most rare and unique habitats in the world, so we have to be careful.

How exactly to harness the energy while doing the least damage to this environment is the big question, and something the government's Sustainable Development Commission is looking at now. It will assess the different options (based on existing evidence) and publish its conclusions later this year.

The question is the subject of disagreement between environmental groups and is also a hot debate within the Green Party, so we have had a special Working Group on the case for the past six months. They are now putting a pair of motions to this conference on Friday to allow us to decide on our position.

The controversy and debate surrounds whether or not to completely enclose the Severn - along with nearly 200 square miles of estuary - with a hydroelectric barrage. The potential for power generation through this route is massive - equivalent to around three new nuclear power stations. However, the plan is guaranteed to permanently disrupt the wetlands and mud flats behind the barrage, reducing the range between high and low tides by half.

Today's panel discussion heard from both sides of the argument.

Insisting he didn't represent 'a plan for a barrage' but calling strongly for a more detailed government-funded review of the Severn, we heard from Jim Redman of the Severn Tidal Power Group, which includes several large engineering companies such as McAlpine and Balfour Beatty.

He did have a lot to say in favour of a barrage though, pointing out the predictability of the energy source, the lack of carbon emissions, the fact no fuel from abroad is needed, and the fact that, with carbon credits at the level currently provided to wind power (via the current Renewables Obligation, or feed-in tariffs as we would prefer - see previous blogs) private-sector energy companies would be willing to fund it. His call for a closer look at the options is supported by Greenpeace.

Peter Jones, from the RSPB for Wales, spoke in a personal capacity about the dangers to the environment of a barrage. His view is shared by Friends of the Earth the RSPB and WWF. The uniqueness of the Severn Estuary, with the second highest tidal range on earth, and home to tens of thousands of birds, means that, legally, for any barrage plan to get approval it would have to show there was no alternative and that there was an over-riding public interest at stake.

A possible alternative was outlined by Peter Ullman of Tidal Electric, a company specialising in enclosed tidal lagoons. He was keen to stress that there is nothing experimental or revolutionary about what his company does - everything used was a 'mature' technology back in the 1920s. The principle is simple - a barrier encloses a small area of shallow water, filling up at high tide, and then the water is let out of the lagoon via turbines when power is needed. A more complex arrangement of interlinked pools is able to make power available for longer than a barrage - around 80% of the time - and the environmental effects are negligible outside the pool itself.

There are well-developed plans for a lagoon in Swansea Bay that would enclose two square miles and generate around 30MW of power. Brig Oubridge, the Green Party member most famous for organising the annual Big Green Gathering, is proposing that the Swansea project is run as a 'public-public partnership' through a company backed by regional and local government with local people as significant investors. He estimates a down payment of £24 million needs to be raised, and that bank loans can complete the £81 million budget. With profits of £13 million a year expected after the loans are repaid, this could generate useful long-term cash for the local community.

To give a sense of the reduced environmental impact of lagoon projects, Peter Ullman superimposed little blue blobs on a photo from Google Earth to show that only fifty square miles within the estuary would have to be enclosed to generate the same amount of power as a barrage enclosing nearly 200 square miles.

Interestingly, the two technologies are not mutually exclusive. Although the area upstream of a barrage would be less viable for lagoon power, the dynamics of the tides mean that, downriver of a barrage, the amount of energy provided by each enclosed area would be increased. The debate is very complex and, even though I grew up around the Severn and am very attached to it - not least to the exciting tidal bore that rushes up river when tides are highest - I'm still not 100% sure how I will vote when the policy motions come up tomorrow.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad