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9 July 2008 : Column 455WH—continued

3.2 pm

Dr. Doug Naysmith (Bristol, North-West) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), who made some interesting points—particularly the last one about the EU directive, with which I fully agree.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on securing this important debate, particularly given its focus on the economic aspects of the proposed Severn barrage, which are often downplayed. It is important to emphasise the economic aspects because building a barrage is understandably an attractive option at first sight. It seems to offer in one big leap an answer to many of the questions about how we meet our commitment to generate much more of our electricity from carbon-free sources. The Government have an obligation to help the EU reach its target of producing 20 per cent. of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Although estimates for the proportion of the UK’s energy that would be produced by the Severn barrage vary between 4 and 7 per cent., that would still go a long way towards meeting our target. When people throw in extra, often uncosted possibilities, such as new road and rail routes in addition to the barrage, the proposal becomes even more attractive.

It is not difficult to see why various proposals have regularly been suggested over the past 100 years or more and then dropped on economic grounds. The most recent large-scale assessment began in 1983, when the Severn tidal power group carried out an interim study; that was followed by another research programme, which reported in 1989. There followed five years of heated debate locally and nationally, in which I took part as the then chairman of the Port of Bristol authority. My task then, as now, was to remind people that an economic enterprise known as the port of Bristol underpinned thousands of jobs in an area far wider than just Bristol and that that enterprise would be markedly affected by a Severn barrage, particularly one that was constructed without locks of a size sufficient to accommodate large bulk-carrier ships.

In 1994, the then Government decided not to proceed with the proposal. In “Energy Paper 62”, they stated that that was largely because the scheme was thought to be uneconomic following the privatisation of the electricity industry, and because the environmental consequences were too great. It was also thought that the development of tidal energy would be very capital intensive and that predicting the outcome would be very risky, and both of those problems still apply.

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I shall concentrate mainly on the effects of building a barrage on the Severn downstream of the port of Bristol, probably between Lavernock point near Cardiff and Brean near Weston-super-Mare. It should be noted that I am talking not just about potential effects, but about current effects, in the sense that today’s proposals introduce a note of uncertainty into development plans and therefore investment in the port, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud noted in his excellent speech.

Although I was either chairman or vice-chairman of the Port of Bristol authority between 1985 and 1991, when the port belonged to Bristol city council, I currently have no interest to declare in the port, other than as an honorary trustee of its pension scheme, which was put in place by the trade unions, by the way. In addition, the port system is partially located in my constituency, at Avonmouth, which also houses the headquarters of the private Bristol Port Company, which now owns and runs the port.

There can be little doubt that renewable energy sources are the way forward in terms of energy security and sustainability, and that the UK has vast wave, wind and tidal power resources at its disposal. I fully support research and development in those areas, as well as in alternative sites and different methods of capturing the strength of the tides in the Severn, such as lagoons. However, a project of this size, which has not been tried before, makes it essential that we first assess the full financial and environmental implications and costs.

In addition to concerns about the environmental and possible legal implications—particularly in relation to the EU birds and habitats directives—there are major concerns about the costs, which are estimated at £14 billion to £15 billion, as well as about the impact on the local economy. However, it is important to note that Bristol and the surrounding area have a thriving and diverse economy, on which the Severn barrage proposals would clearly have an impact.

Changes to tide levels and patterns could have a serious impact on local tourism. High tide levels mean that beaches are often far from the water at low tide—the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) will no doubt mention that. The threat of flooding could also increase if the barrage raises water levels in some areas. Equally, a barrage would stop the Severn bore, which is a tourist attraction further up the river, towards Gloucester.

The estimated cost of £15 billion does not take into account land acquisition costs or the cost of creating new habitats, as EU law would require. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) recently highlighted in this very room, a barrage across the Severn would create another economic and environmental problem by blocking the path of thousands of fish returning to the Severn and its tributaries, the River Wye and the River Usk.

As I said, however, my main concern is the impact on the Bristol Port Company and its customers. Bristol port is the largest bulk-cargo port in the southern half of England. It relies on its ability to accept very large, deep-draught ships to import materials at economic rates. It also has good transport links to the UK’s major population centres. The port handles 27 per cent. of UK imported aviation spirit, and changes to that could affect the aviation industry, to which Bristol has close links—Airbus and Rolls-Royce, which are heavily involved
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in the aviation industry, are both in my constituency. Bristol is also the UK’s second largest import facility for power station coal, and 30 per cent. of total UK animal feed capacity is located at the port of Bristol. In terms of deep-sea volumes handled, Bristol is the leading UK port for the import of motor vehicles. Also planned—this will mean further additions to trades at Bristol’s port—are a £500 million deep-water container terminal and several biomass power stations, which will be fuelled with imported woodchip. All those cargoes are viewed as important because of their strategic significance or the nationally significant volumes handled—or sometimes both.

It is not possible today to go into great detail about the potential and likely effect of a barrage on the port’s trade, as much of the argument is very technical. There is a lot of evidence from previous and current studies about the risks of deleterious effects on the trades that I have mentioned, and other more local ones. It is well known that there is considerable movement of both sediments and sands in the Severn estuary, and that the capability to model the estuary’s transport systems for sand and sediment remains rudimentary. However, there is a clear expectation that post-construction there will be increased deposition of silts, clays and sand banks, which will be bound to affect the deep-water navigation channels, which are, at present, self-scouring. There will also be changes in the sand banks and post-barrage reduction of water density and levels of water on high tides. It is only on those higher tides that deep-draft ships can access Bristol’s two major docks.

Any effective reduction of water would have an immediate adverse impact and make the port economically unattractive to a cargo owner. That is currently the case for fewer than 30 per cent. of tides, but the figure could rise to more than 50 per cent. of tides post-barrage. Should such an adverse impact arise, cargo owners would be faced with two alternatives. Those customers could use other ports, but many of the facilities needed for strategic bulk cargoes, such as deep water, storage land, pipelines, and inland road and rail transport simply do not exist at other ports. The second option would be to continue to trade through Bristol in smaller ships at a much higher cost per tonne per kilometre. That would certainly have an impact on the wider UK economy, but since Bristol’s trade is unsubsidised and operates in a competitive free market, it is not easy to predict what would occur in such circumstances. Those elements of the regional and national logistics chain that depend on the existence of a shipping route in the Bristol channel surely have a right to expect that that will continue to exist in a post-barrage era.

The effect of a Cardiff-Weston barrage will be to incur very substantial additional costs for navigation infrastructure—mainly for the adequate provision of locks, one of which may have to be in the middle of the structure and not landward as in previous proposals—maintenance dredging and shipping transits of the barrage. All that will almost certainly mean that the £15 billion cost currently suggested will be very much on the low side. In the light of the risks that I have just outlined, in addition to guarantees of adequate locks at the construction stage, it would be necessary to protect and/or compensate the Bristol region and port for unforeseen and unquantifiable post-barrage effects.

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I realise that the current study includes other possibilities, such as lagoons and smaller barrages in other locations, and I look forward to the outcome of the deliberations. I have no wish to try to stop or affect any of that process, although I know that the Minister has said there will be an opportunity later this year to examine the proposals for anything that would stop them going ahead altogether, and lead to a decision that it is not worth while to proceed. I hope that a realistic assessment will be made later this year. Many of the points that I have made would apply to some of the other options, although not to all of them.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on the matter. I had the pleasure of accompanying him to the port of Bristol a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately it was very much a flying visit and we did not have a chance to talk about some of the things I have discussed this afternoon. I am grateful for the opportunity to do so, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud for securing the debate.

3.14 pm

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): It is a delight to follow the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith). I know that his heart is absolutely in the right place; we talk about the wonderful coastline that runs between my constituency of Bridgwater, Weston-super-Mare, Bristol and on towards Stroud.

One thing that concerns me about the proposal is not whether it should happen, but the idea, which I do not like, that something is to be created to affect targets. Targets leave us all cold in this place, for obvious reasons. I have just spent two and a half years of my life trying to get the Crossrail Bill into a workable form, which we have now done. That comes to £16 billion; it is funny how everything costs £16 billion. We know perfectly well that that is not going to be the true cost.

The cost of the Severn barrage is low. It must be low. No infrastructure project in this country has ever—regardless of Government—come in on time, and the cost will probably double. Let us say that the project does not commence for another decade, for all the reasons that we know so well; I shall come on to the Planning Bill. It is not possible to guarantee any costs at the moment.

I had a chat to Sir Robert McAlpine, which, at the moment, is one of the companies that would like to take part. Even that company said that in its experience of building many nuclear power stations and other huge infrastructure projects, none of the process goes smoothly. What worries me is that perhaps not this Government or the next, but a future Government, will use the fact that we must hit our targets under son of Kyoto—or daughter of Kyoto—as an excuse, as my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) said. I do not expect the Minister to be able to answer that point, because it will not be on his watch. [Interruption.] The Minister, from a sedentary position, makes a valid point, and makes me blush. However, Members of Parliament representing constituencies around the coastline will have to bear the situation for generations to come: this project is long term, not short term.

I am interested in the fact that, already, the chattering classes are taking to the barricades. It is like “Les Misérables”. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says, “Oh no, shock horror!” and the Environment Agency says, “Oh no, you can’t do it.” Everyone is
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appearing already, and we have not even got to the White Paper. They are all saying, “No, you mustn’t do it.” Well, hang on a minute—they are non-governmental organisations. They should be saying that we can do it if it is the right thing to do and we do it in the right way. Through the Minister and through you, Mr. Weir, I ask those bodies to shut up until we have given time for consideration of what is proposed. Like many hon. Members, I am sick to death of NGOs—before anything has been talked about or decided—telling us what we are going to do. This matter is another example of that.

I want to talk about tourism. Tourism is the life blood of the south-west, especially Weston-super-Mare. It is the same for much of Bristol, Stroud and Bridgwater and across the Somerset levels. The barrage would be an iconic tourist attraction. I know that that is not, and should not be, the main reason for building it. The point was ably made by the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West when he talked about the idea of sticking a road on it being uncosted. However, if it were built, it would be iconic. There is no doubt about it. It would put the south-west, with Cardiff on one side and possibly Weston-super-Mare or Wells on the other—my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) is not here—on the map. That should not be taken lightly.

A barrage would bring people to the south-west in the same way that Glastonbury tor does, or the docks in Bristol. Why not use that as part of the reason to consider the proposal? The financial input of the creation of the barrage would be phenomenal for parts of the south-west, Cardiff bay and all the rest of it. Cardiff would not have to rely only on “Dr. Who”. It could have something else to look forward to.

There would also be long-term problems. The flooding issue has been ably described, and it must be of concern. Bridgwater, in west Somerset, covers most of the levels, the gateway to which runs through my constituency and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells. If there is any change to the water level or any dramatic change to the sand banks or how the water flows, it will come through our constituencies. I hope the Minister agrees that that is not acceptable in any way, shape or form.

Much of the levels—I do not mean to teach the Minister or you, Mr. Weir, to suck eggs—is at or below sea level. We have a finite time when the back tide and the wrong wind will prove to be disastrous for us. That is one area that the study must examine. As to the longer-term study, I plead with the Minister to look not only north of the barrier, up to Stroud, but south of it. One reason for me saying that is that the intakes for water at Hinkley Point, about which the Minister and I have endless conversations, are next to the River Parrett.

The Minister has been helpful with Hinkley Point, for which I thank him. I welcome all decisions that he is making in that direction at the moment, but it would be a shame to jeopardise what is an important infrastructure project in my constituency in relation to the long-term energy security of this country, or to do anything else that we might live to regret. Having said that I am castigating the NGOs, I am also arguing the other way round: we do not want the proposal to stop other things that are vital.

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This comes down to the Planning Bill. No hon. Member can be in any doubt that the Planning Bill will go through. It will happen. That means that there will be a mechanism to force this proposal through, no matter what the chattering classes say. When that happens, we must be absolutely sure that it is exactly the right thing to do, so I come full circle.

The Planning Bill will be crucial in forcing the proposal through, because there will be many people who do not want it. People will be concerned about everything from a frog with one leg to what happens north of Stroud. They will also be concerned about the Severn bore. Those are all admirable things, but I suggest that security of supply of electricity for this nation is more important.

If we use the Bill to force the proposal through, which I think ultimately we will, I urge the House not to do so for the sake of expediency, for the reasons that hon. Members have given and those that I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) and the Minister will give. This is a long-term commitment. If we get it wrong now, at all stages beyond we will get it disastrously wrong. The Severn barrage might not be built on our watch, but my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare is right: we are building for the future, securing supplies and securing the future of energy. If we get it wrong now, the legacy, which we will have to live with, will be disastrous.

3.21 pm

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): I am grateful for your indulgence, Mr. Weir, and that of other hon. Members. I was chairing a Committee upstairs and I apologise for missing most of the debate, which is on a subject dear to my heart. I shall be brief.

The decision facing the Government is so great that, although it is of course entirely proper that they will consider all the evidence that they can possibly get, in the end it will be a political decision, and I bet it will be taken at Cabinet level. The decision, I believe, will be that the damage caused by building a Severn barrage, which would irreversibly and for ever change one of the most special estuaries in the British isles, will be rejected. That does not mean that I oppose the principle of generation of energy by water—far from it. I think, however, that the Government would be much better advised to avoid any serious consideration of blocking the Severn estuary in favour of concentrating efforts on various kinds of tidal barrage and tidal flow technology, which is short of development at the moment.

We must consider not only the biodiversity, but the history, the archaeology and the culture. It is the poetry. It is Shakespeare. Everything about England is tied up in the debate about a Severn barrage. Hon. Members on both sides of the House and from both sides of the Bristol channel have strong views about it, but it also affects every citizen of this country and, indeed, of the United Kingdom.

There is another practical thing that impresses me. Forgive me if my colleagues have already said it, but I do not believe that we will find an electricity generator willing to do this. Let us consider the experience of √Člectricité de France at La Rance in Brittany, where people are quite clear about the fact that they would never do it again. If the generators are not prepared to
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do it because it is not cost-effective, no one else will, and it would be quite wrong for the taxpayer to pay for the whole thing.

We also need to consider the consequences for the landscape of other parts of the United Kingdom, especially the western highlands of Scotland, of shipping aggregate on the scale necessary to build a Severn barrage. There is nowhere else it could come from unless we brought it in by sea from China or somewhere. In the western highlands recently, I was devastated to see the damage done to the landscape by the decision to allow quarrying on a grand scale on the west coast of the highlands, which is one of the most beautiful parts of the world, let alone the United Kingdom.

If this proposal were to proceed, I would be one of those who was protesting very loudly indeed, and I believe that the public protest would far outweigh the arguments of those who think it a good idea. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) for giving us the opportunity to air our views.

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