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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Let's face it: supporting Spurs is basically a form of charity

Now, for my biggest donation yet . . .

I gazed in awe at the new stadium, the future home of Spurs, wondering where my treasures will go. It is going to be one of the architectural wonders of the modern world (football stadia division), yet at the same time it seems ancient, archaic, a Roman ruin, very much like an amphitheatre I once saw in Croatia. It’s at the stage in a new construction when you can see all the bones and none of the flesh, with huge tiers soaring up into the sky. You can’t tell if it’s going or coming, a past perfect ruin or a perfect future model.

It has been so annoying at White Hart Lane this past year or so, having to walk round walkways and under awnings and dodge fences and hoardings, losing all sense of direction. Millions of pounds were being poured into what appeared to be a hole in the ground. The new stadium will replace part of one end of the present one, which was built in 1898. It has been hard not to be unaware of what’s going on, continually asking ourselves, as we take our seats: did the earth move for you?

Now, at long last, you can see what will be there, when it emerges from the scaffolding in another year. Awesome, of course. And, har, har, it will hold more people than Arsenal’s new home by 1,000 (61,000, as opposed to the puny Emirates, with only 60,000). At each home game, I am thinking about the future, wondering how my treasures will fare: will they be happy there?

No, I don’t mean Harry Kane, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker – local as well as national treasures. Not many Prem teams these days can boast quite as many English persons in their ranks. I mean my treasures, stuff wot I have been collecting these past 50 years.

About ten years ago, I went to a shareholders’ meeting at White Hart Lane when the embryonic plans for the new stadium were being announced. I stood up when questions were called for and asked the chairman, Daniel Levy, about having a museum in the new stadium. I told him that Man United had made £1m the previous year from their museum. Surely Spurs should make room for one in the brave new mega-stadium – to show off our long and proud history, delight the fans and all those interested in football history and make a few bob.

He mumbled something – fluent enough, as he did go to Cambridge – but gave nothing away, like the PM caught at Prime Minister’s Questions with an unexpected question.

But now it is going to happen. The people who are designing the museum are coming from Manchester to look at my treasures. They asked for a list but I said, “No chance.” I must have 2,000 items of Spurs memorabilia. I could be dead by the time I finish listing them. They’ll have to see them, in the flesh, and then they’ll be free to take away whatever they might consider worth having in the new museum.

I’m awfully kind that way, partly because I have always looked on supporting Spurs as a form of charity. You don’t expect any reward. Nor could you expect a great deal of pleasure, these past few decades, and certainly not the other day at Liverpool when they were shite. But you do want to help them, poor things.

I have been downsizing since my wife died, and since we sold our Loweswater house, and I’m now clearing out some of my treasures. I’ve donated a very rare Wordsworth book to Dove Cottage, five letters from Beatrix Potter to the Armitt Library in Ambleside, and handwritten Beatles lyrics to the British Library. If Beckham and I don’t get a knighthood in the next honours list, I will be spitting.

My Spurs stuff includes programmes going back to 1910, plus recent stuff like the Opus book, that monster publication, about the size of a black cab. Limited editions cost £8,000 a copy in 2007. I got mine free, as I did the introduction and loaned them photographs. I will be glad to get rid of it. It’s blocking the light in my room.

Perhaps, depending on what they want, and they might take nothing, I will ask for a small pourboire in return. Two free tickets in the new stadium. For life. Or longer . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times