Her Majesty’s Government have had two and a half years to reflect and make further inquiries since the Department of Energy and Climate Change published its feasibility study in October 2010. I therefore urge them to be proactive and to enlist the best academic and engineering brains to identify the most economic method or combination of methods to produce clean, non-polluting energy for generations to come. They should not just rely on nuclear power with its quite unpredictable clean-up costs. Interest rates are now as low as they are ever likely to be, so the present moment is an opportunity not to be missed. I therefore trust that this debate will inject real urgency into the search for solutions.

6.41 pm

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, one certainty has not been mentioned so far, which is that simply leaving the estuary alone will cost nothing. We have to deal with rising sea levels, and the Severn estuary is highly vulnerable to them. We already have a London barrage, which we know all about, and which will have to be replaced. That problem writ large all the way up the Severn estuary will be a problem not only in Bristol but in every other city anywhere near the estuary, and all landowners will have to face it too. It is not an easy question to answer. This is part of a much wider issue. That is the first thing that we must realise.

Secondly, to answer a point made by my noble friend Lord Cope, intermittency is not an issue. It would be perfectly simple to build some barrages on the east coast where we have some quite large estuaries. The time difference for high water is almost precisely six hours. If barrages are built on both sides of the country, there will be an even flow of electricity into the system. That point needs to be made.

Thirdly, we do not sufficiently consider the energy pattern and requirements caused by our Climate Change Act. By 2050 we shall have had to say goodbye—I say good riddance—to the internal combustion engine. All land transport will have to be driven by some other system. My bet would be on hydrogen, which requires electricity to generate it. Those who say that it cannot be done because there is no hydrogen infrastructure have got it wrong. The hydrogen infrastructure already exists. Wherever you have electricity and water you can make hydrogen. It is actually much more efficient to use that in a vehicle than to use batteries, and there is not quite the waste disposal problem because hydrogen is permanently recycled. The electricity generating requirements as a consequence of that are at least twice as big, if not two and a half times as big, as anything we are considering at present, so we have that implication, too.

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That brings us back to the point that we have this enormous potential resource. The question is not whether we can afford not to use it but how best to use it. I am afraid that I am not enough of a technician to know whether this latest proposal is appropriate, and there we have to fall back on my noble friend in the Government because they get all the information.

The other certainty—this is where I will finish—is that this is a resource that we cannot afford to ignore. It may seem harsh to say that this may be more important to the country than the port of Bristol, but when the chips go down in 10, 15, 20 or 30 years’ time, that may be a reality that we all have to face. If it is a choice between future energy supplies for this country and the future of the port of Bristol, I would hate to be in the position of the Government, but it is a decision that would have to be taken.

6.46 pm

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, talk about building a Severn barrage has been going on since the 19th century. In our own time, we know that every reasonable opportunity needs to be taken to develop renewable sources of energy to mitigate the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change. A Severn barrage would utilise predictable and sustainable tidal power on a scale to provide perhaps 5% of Britain’s energy requirements, the carbon payback time would be a matter of only months, and the installation could be expected to generate energy for perhaps 120 years. If it is not to be Hafren Power’s Lavernock Point to Brean Down barrage, then it has to be another Severn or Bristol Channel barrage scheme.

Of course, the ecological impacts on sites of special scientific interest and on birds are very important. Biodiversity matters very much indeed. Every care should be taken to minimise damage and to compensate with biodiversity offsetting measures. However, the major gain in relation to climate change surely outweighs those other ecological considerations. There are also legitimate and important business interests for Bristol port and for the aggregates industry, but these should be a matter of negotiation and the Government should actively broker a resolution of the differences that exist there. We need vision; we need decision; and we need leadership.

I was disappointed that the previous Government were not persuaded of the strategic case for building a Severn barrage, and DECC, under this Government, continues to equivocate and dither. The Secretary of State, we are informed, told a Liberal Democrat conference that the consortium’s numbers,

“aren’t in the place that they would need to be”.

He suggested perhaps looking at smaller lagoon projects, and he went on to say, tellingly:

“But government isn’t spending a huge amount of our own time developing those projects”.

Quite so.

The benefits in relation to climate change are vital, but the benefits in relation to the construction industry and the engineering industry in terms of jobs and pioneering technology would also be very great. Contrary to what the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said to us,

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I believe that there would be flood protection benefits and that there could also be benefits in terms of transport links. There would be benefits for communities on both sides of the Severn estuary and the Bristol Channel.

If the evidence that has been made available so far is insufficient, the Government should get on and establish the evidence. If, having done so, they have decisive reservations about the credentials of the Hafren consortium or the specifics of this particular project, if the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee gives this project a thumbs down or if problems emerge in terms of the capacity of a private consortium to finance the cost of the barrage—perhaps some £25 billion—then the Government should take the lead and put together a scheme that would work. If necessary, the Government themselves should borrow to help to make this investment. They can borrow at exceptionally advantageous rates in present markets, and I believe that the markets would applaud capital investment by the Government in this kind of infrastructure.

The inertia of Whitehall, of Parliament and of the European Parliament in relation to climate change is one of the factors that cause so many people to despair of politics and to take a gloomy view of the future. I would go so far as to say that it would be a crime against the planet if the Government passed up the opportunity to identify and drive forward an ecologically acceptable and financially robust Severn barrage scheme.

6.49 pm

The Earl of Courtown: My Lords, this has been a fascinating debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, mentioned the Cardiff Bay barrage and how that changed Cardiff. I gather that it is a much better looking place than it used to be. On the other hand, she actually said that there were environmental advantages to the work that was done there. In fact, what has happened is that the shelduck and other shore birds that were based in Cardiff Bay have now left that area. Initially, they were found in local areas, but they have now totally disappeared. In addition, common redshanks that moved from Cardiff Bay and then went to the Rumney estuary now have much lower body weight and their winter survival has dropped enormously.

I agreed entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, when he said that there was no way that any scheme could possibly be put in place to mitigate against environmental damage. Many millions of tonnes of sediment go up and down the Severn on a daily basis in the spring tides. I gather that 68,000 migrant birds go to the Severn every winter. There are 24,000 hectares of Severn estuary, 20,000 hectares of mudflats and sandbanks and 1,400 acres of salt marsh. Neither must we forget the many different species of commercial fish that use the estuary in their life cycle.

Noble Lords might have already guessed that the environmental issues are the ones that concern me most. We have to consider not just the possible vandalism to the part of the estuary directly affected by the construction of the barrage but the environmental

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blight to the whole estuary as well as the river catchment area—the Severn, the Teme, the Usk and the Wye to name but a few. The barrage is to have more than 1,000 reversible turbines, claimed to be fish-friendly, to be built by a company that has not yet been chosen to a design that has not yet been made or tested. I understand that the turbines will have a tip speed of 9 metres per second, which I imagine would be fairly lethal to any migrating fish.

We have heard what the Environment Agency has to say about this. The turbines will be operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Highly protected species under the habitats directive such as twait shads—an endangered species—lamprey and salmon would be vulnerable and species such as the sea trout protected under the UK biodiversity action plan would also be in great danger. All this would be happening in a catchment area that contains 25% of the salmonoid habitat in England and Wales. The Angling Trust reminds us that the sea trout and salmon fishing industry in the Usk and Wye is worth £10 million alone.

I consider myself to be extremely lucky. I live fairly close to the Severn estuary and regularly walk along the banks of the tidal Severn opposite Newnham. I regularly visit the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and I just feel that we should be looking at another way of getting our renewable energy as opposed to this present scheme.

6.53 pm

Lord Touhig: Like many noble Lords I have had an interest in a Severn barrage for many years. Indeed, when I was a member of Gwent County Council we strongly welcomed the previous scheme for it and some years later when I visited the Rance barrage I was greatly impressed by the power and the way that the whole operation worked.

Britain now finds itself with an energy crisis as a result of a lack of forward planning. Some 25% of our generating capacity will close in the next few years. We are facing potential blackouts by the mid-2020s unless we invest in large-scale energy projects. I believe that a Severn barrage is a sound form of forward planning because it will provide generations of Britons with cheap electricity.

The construction of a barrage will be a massive boost to our economy and provide thousands of jobs during construction and afterwards. Previous schemes have foundered on two issues—the need for large amounts of public money and the significant environmental impact. But if the developer, Hafren Power, is to be believed, its proposal will not require any money from the Government at all. It is up to Hafren Power to demonstrate and prove that. I hold no brief for the developer, but it claims that it has learnt from earlier studies and proposes a new type of barrage, which will put environmental considerations first. The ambition is to build an 11-mile line of more than 1,000 slowly spinning turbines, housed in massive concrete blocks, between Brean in England and Lavernock Point in Wales. It is certainly worthy of our consideration. Such a barrage will generate electricity as the tides go

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in and out, so the natural tidal flows can be maintained. The turbines will be spread right across the estuary, so the currents and navigation will not be affected. Looking at other options, I believe that the barrage is superior to wind farms, if only in reliability and predictability. I have first-hand experience of wind farms; when I was Welsh Minister, I travelled to Scotland to visit a new wind farm. The only trouble was that, when I got there, there was no wind.

A barrage, unlike wind farms, brings with it a substantial legacy of flood protection, cheap electricity and economic renewal. A Severn barrage will help defend against tidal flooding and storm surges caused by sea-level rises, and will help to reduce flooding upstream, saving billions of pounds in damages. It has already been mentioned that construction could take more than nine years, and 20,000 jobs could be provided. Those things should not be easily dismissed. Opponents of the barrage, including the Port of Bristol and some environmental lobby interests, have raised proper concerns. These concerns have to be taken seriously, listened to and taken into account so far as that is possible. But they should not be allowed to become a barrier to progress in developing a Severn barrage.

Over the past decades, we have seen report upon report written on the subject of a Severn barrage. These reports have been considered, debated, amended and then forgotten. Indeed, if the trees cut down to provide paper for these reports had instead been floated across the Severn, they would probably have covered the 11 miles from south Wales to the west of England. It is time to resolve the issue of a Severn barrage, and to be brave and bold and commit ourselves to this great enterprise. Frankly, I do not mind who builds and operates the Severn barrage, but I would like to see it built, and built in my lifetime.

6.57 pm

Lord Grantchester: My Lords, any proposal that presents the opportunity to harness tidal power, and in doing so generate 5% of the UK’s electricity needs, while also bringing in much-needed inward investment to the south Wales, Bristol and Somerset region, is one to be considered very seriously. The many and varied contributions to the debate today highlight not only the interest but the extent of the effects that building such a barrage shall have, bringing lasting energy, economic and environmental changes. It is on these three parameters that any scheme must be assessed, with extensive effects not only on the estuary but throughout the region. The clear conclusion of the debate is that the Hafren Power scheme is unsatisfactory. On that basis, however, the balance of the debate was to try to find some scheme to capture the advantages, albeit with an understanding that there are inherent difficulties. Even the noble Lord, Lord Cope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, hinted that better was to come.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change reported on initial feasibility studies in October 2010. The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, highlighted the background canvas against which the energy assessment can be made. The report assessed five potential schemes to be feasible. As the Government’s feasibility study and

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Hafren Power’s own plans highlight, the barrage has the potential to generate up to 5% of the UK’s electricity generation, around 15 terawatt hours a year. As well as having the advantage of being entirely free, the reliability of the tides that power the barrage also removes the problem of intermittency that affects other renewable energy sources. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, suggested a second tidal scheme. However, it could not be constructed in time to contribute to the UK’s 2020 renewable targets.

On economic considerations, the potential gains to the local area could also be very significant. The expansion of the steel works at Port Talbot and Bristol, and the new factories that Hafren proposes to build in south Wales and Bristol to make the innovative bi-directional turbines that the barrage could hold, could lead to a much broader economic regeneration in the area, which is much in need of inward investment of this magnitude. Indeed, one of the highlights of this project is that, if it were to go ahead, it would be almost unique as one of the few large-scale infrastructure projects not planned for the south-east. But as well as having many positive effects, the designs as they currently stand raise several notable economic concerns that would need to be thoroughly addressed: notably the effect of the barrage on Bristol’s docks, which support up to 8,000 local jobs, is crucial.

My noble friend Lord Courtown reminded us that the environmental consequences of the barrage are even more challenging than the economic or energy impacts. My noble friend Lord Berkeley said that something of this sheer size and with this kind of design has never been tried before. As the government study makes clear, among other things it is unclear how the current regulatory framework would apply to such a structure in an environmentally sensitive area. The 200 or so turbines that would power the barrage still need to be designed, tested and built; something that will take nearly a decade alone.

The Severn and its many tributaries are internationally recognised natural heritage conservation sites. Many characteristics of this unique environment will be changed by the presence of a barrage. Hafren’s controversial suggestion of allocating £1 billion for providing compensatory habitats for affected wildlife, while seemingly attractive, will go no way towards the value of such a unique habitat. The department’s report concluded that tidal power in the Severn estuary would be at high cost, high risk and at a value of money less attractive than other renewable energy technologies.

My noble friend Lord Whitty asked what other schemes were still under consideration. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, despite being against, still wanted further and better schemes to come forward. Rather than embark on a massive scheme, my noble friends Lord Berkeley and Lady Jones, and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, asked whether there were some smaller schemes worthy of being undertaken to gain expertise and experience that could, by small steps, provide insights into the future, albeit that they may appear less than attractive on their own merits. As the noble Lord, Lord German, and my noble friend Lord Howarth suggested, the lead should be given by her department.

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The noble Lords, Lord Hylton and Lord Jenkin, asked whether we should not learn from such overseas experience.

While making reservations, the Welsh Government are essentially positive to a scheme. Will the Minister explain what discussions have taken place recently with the Welsh Government, how valuable these discussions have been and whether her department has a shared pathway towards supporting the Welsh Government’s in principle approval in the near future?

7.04 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Baroness Verma): My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Cope for introducing this debate in a very thoughtful and informative way. We have heard a wide range of views. During the debate, they edged towards one end of the argument more than the other, but again it allows me to lay out the Government's commitment to renewable energy.

We are number one in the world for installed offshore wind capacity. We are also the world's leader in marine energy, with more devices deployed in the UK than in the rest of the world combined. The Government have been a proponent of exploiting our rich marine energy resource and making the most of the jobs and growth that it can bring. There are a number of questions that I need to respond to. Given the shortness of time, I will undertake to write to noble Lords if I do not manage to respond to questions that have been raised.

Harnessing power from the Severn estuary could clearly be a significant asset for the UK, but this has to be done sustainably. That is why my department led a two-year cross-government study investigating the potential of Severn tidal power schemes. The study concluded in 2010 that it did not see a strategic case for a publicly funded tidal power scheme. The Government have remained open to the possibility of a privately funded project coming forward. Our study has provided us with a wealth of evidence on the potential effects of the Severn barrage. In particular, it highlighted how little we knew about the dynamic environment of the estuary itself. It concluded that environmental impacts, particularly on fish, birds and habitat, are likely to be larger than expected and extremely challenging to mitigate and compensate for.

The study demonstrated that a barrage might provide a net benefit to the regional economy, with net value added to the economy and jobs created. However, these would come at the expense of a potentially large negative impact on the current ports, fishing and aggregate extraction industries. The study also identified the likely cost of the Severn tidal schemes to be as much as £34 billion for a barrage at a time when there are easier and cheaper alternatives. Despite the extraordinary amount of work produced, the government study barely scratched the surface of the potential effects of a Severn barrage. Any specific proposal for a barrage would need extensive and credible evidence on the effects of its particular design.

This brings me to the current Hafren Power proposal for the barrage. We have received an outline proposal from Hafren Power and have had some discussions

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with the company. However, the information provided so far does not allow us to assess whether the proposal is credible. Nor does it demonstrate if the project can achieve the benefits that Hafren Power claims. There are a number of issues that Hafren Power will need to explore in much greater detail before we could take a view as to the whether its proposal warrants further interest from the Government.

In particular, we need to see credible, clear evidence of the likely effects of the proposal, including evidence on the environmental impacts; that the project is affordable and good value for consumers; of the effects of the proposed turbine on both the environment and energy output; on the impact on upstream ports and navigation, and detailed mitigation plans; detailed evidence around flooding impacts; and detailed evidence to support job creation figures. Those are questions that a number of noble Lords have already raised here today. Crucially, the project will require substantial revenue support to provide a return on the investment. It is therefore vital that Hafren Power provides robust evidence that the level of support sought for the project compares well with the expected future cost of alternative low carbon technologies, such as nuclear power or offshore wind, that a barrage would most likely displace.

The Hafren Power proposal has not gone far enough in providing the evidence required at this stage for the Government to justify endorsement of the project. That said, as is the case for any similar project, should Hafren Power develop its proposal further, and in particular provide credible, robust evidence to substantiate the claims in its outline proposal, the Government are prepared to consider it further.

The House of Commons’ Energy and Climate Change Committee is currently running an inquiry on the Hafren Power proposal. The inquiry has raised much interest and the committee has received a lot of input and information. Only a few weeks ago, my ministerial colleague, the Minister of State for Energy and Climate Change, gave evidence at that inquiry, making the points that I have made today. I look forward with interest to the conclusions that the committee will reach within the next few weeks, based on the evidence it has received. I am sure that noble Lords will join in reading its conclusions with interest.

I quickly turn to some of the points raised by noble Lords. My noble friend Lord Cope asked if we would agree to introduce this, as Hafren Power has asked, as a hybrid Bill. The noble Lord knows the complexities of introducing legislation. Given we do not have enough evidence and are not fully confident that the project as it stands is viable or affordable, the case has to be much better made. As I have explained, Hafren Power’s current proposals fall very much short of that.

My noble friend asked about the Government being privy to the financial details of Hafren Power’s proposal. As my ministerial colleague in another place showed to the Select Committee, we have received only an outline of the proposal and this mainly focuses on detailing the work programme in advance, rather than on providing detailed information about the proposal itself, and that includes finance.

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The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and my noble friend Lord German asked about alternative ways of using the Severn estuary. That is why we welcomed the recent Regen South West report on a balanced technology approach in the Bristol Channel. There is a huge amount of energy in the channel, and it is only right that we should be seeking the best ways of extracting that energy. Any proposal or set of proposals will have strongly to demonstrate, as with Hafren Power, that they are viable, good value for money for the consumer and environmentally responsible.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Cope that a barrage would produce intermittent energy. Despite its intermittency, the highly forecastable nature of tidal energy could provide strong system-balancing benefits. However, as my noble friend made very clear, these need to benefit the overall scheme including climate change, energy and economic, environmental and cost impacts.

7.11 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

7.23 pm

Baroness Verma: My Lords, I swiftly resume my position in responding to the questions raised by noble Lords. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, is not in his place, but I will respond to a question that he asked about developing other technologies in place of the proposed barrage. We are committed to looking at all types of marine energy technologies. We have provided sustained and targeted support for the development of the wave and tidal stream sector, enabling it to move from initial concepts to prototypes, and are now looking to support the first array of support packages for the programmes.

My noble friend Lady Miller asked about support of lagoons. I think the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, also alluded to them. Lagoons were a subject of the Government’s 2010 study. Our position remains the same. We are considering all credible privately funded proposals. The department is aware of the proposal to build a 250 megawatt tidal lagoon in Swansea bay. The project is in the pre-application stage in the Planning Act consent process. We expect a formal application for the consent to be submitted later in the year.

My noble friend Lord Courtown asked about the impact on wildlife. Whatever proposal we have—whether it is that of Hafren Power or any other proposal—the Severn tidal power feasibility study highlighted how little we know about the dynamic of the Severn’s environment. Therefore, we need a better understanding of the impacts that the projects will have on wildlife, and Hafren Power needs to provide further details of the proposal and the work it is going to do to mitigate any impacts on the environment, and particularly on wildlife and habitats. Currently, we do not see enough evidence to support that.

My noble friend Lady Miller also asked about the flood risks of the barrage. The Hafren Power proposal suggests that a barrage would create a positive effect by reducing flood risks, but we have not yet seen enough evidence to substantiate those claims.

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The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, is still not back in his place but I will respond to a question that he asked concerning the need to build a barrage in order to meet our 2020 targets. Given that the construction of the barrage would not help us to meet those targets because the proposal is a long way even from concept stage, we need to look at other plausible pathways for low carbon energy, several of which do not include tidal or marine energy.

The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, asked about our discussions with the Welsh Government. We have had discussions at an official level and I know that the Welsh Government would support a credible proposal. However, the key to all this is that the proposal has to be credible.

There are a number of questions that need to be answered. However, I see that my 12 minutes are up, so I shall close by reiterating that we want a more detailed proposal from Hafren Power. Any proposal that it

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puts forward needs to substantiate the claims of environmental benefits as well as good value for money for consumers and socioeconomic benefits. Should this power be harnessed, it must be done sustainably, as any plans going forward will need to take account of the unique ecology of the Severn estuary, its existing social and economic activities, and all the costs associated with harnessing its power.

This has been a very full and interesting debate and one that I suspect we will come back to as further proposals from Hafren Power come forward. I should like to end on a positive note. My noble friend Lord Cope, who introduced the debate today, has, through the tie that he is wearing, educated me a little further on the importance of knowing about Bristol port and its history. The tie illustrates the ship, “The Matthew”, which in 1497 sailed from Bristol port and discovered America.

Committee adjourned at 7.29 pm.