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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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear