Baroness Finn is a former government adviser on industrial relations, efficiency and civil service reform.
Conservative support for the world’s first proposed tidal lagoon power station at Swansea Bay is no secret. The project has been in our national and Welsh manifestos. It was given early encouragement by David Cameron and George Osborne, and planning permission by Amber Rudd. Conservatives throughout Wales and across both Houses of Parliament continue to campaign for this game-changing infrastructure project.
I grew up in Swansea, a short walk from the magnificent Swansea Bay with its incredible tidal range – one of the highest in the world. The proposals hold out the promise of huge and badly-needed regeneration in South Wales and other deprived coastal regions. They bring the very notion of industrial strategy to life, with a new global sector that will be dominated by British manufacturing, steel and engineering. Indeed, many such companies have claimed that a tidal lagoon sector will throw them a ‘lifeline’, and the nearby Port Talbot steelworks could be a major beneficiary. The proposals also offer a welcome chance to signal to the world that not only is Britain still in business, but that it’s still a far-sighted and bold leader.
The tidal lagoon cannot and should not come at any price. But the Government should now be prepared to name its price.
Charles Hendry’s independent review concluded that at full scale, tidal lagoons can compete on price with the alternatives and offer rich national benefits. So what is an acceptable price for the pathfinder project that unlocks that economic, social and environment value?
With investment already offered by the Welsh Government, it has been suggested that power from the Swansea lagoon need cost no more than power from Hinkley Point C. The lagoon is a small project carrying a small cost for the bill payer. The Hendry Review estimates it would add 30 pence to annual bills. That seems an acceptable investment for the future. But if that is still too high a price to ask consumers to pay in a world of falling wind and nuclear prices, we should seek to achieve the right number, and structure a deal that gets us there.
The UK has led the world in devising innovative ways to finance exciting new low carbon infrastructure, and it can undoubtedly do so again. As long as government is willing. At a time when more and more of us are worried by the impact of pollution from fossil fuels – or the morality of sourcing hydrocarbons from some of the less salubrious parts of the world – power from a tidal lagoon project has obvious advantages.
Over thirty years ago, the late, great Lord Crickhowell cut through procrastination and fierce opposition to secure funding for the Cardiff Bay barrage. This scheme, rightly described as one of the greatest pieces of urban regeneration in the country, transformed Cardiff Bay and achieved an economic legacy far greater than even he envisaged.
The tidal lagoon proposals have huge support across all political parties. The case for clean energy is clear – lagoons have no legacy of pollution or waste disposal. The Swansea lagoon bequeaths future generations the option of low cost and eventually free power, as well as socially and economically useful infrastructure and the creation of thousands of manufacturing jobs.
We are enormously fortunate to have an energetic and committed team of ministers in the Welsh Office. Alun Cairns is not just an experienced marathon runner but also a powerful advocate for Welsh interests in government. The abolition of tolls on the Severn Crossing is but one example of recent action to benefit communities in South Wales, as well as of course the other side of the Severn Estuary.
It takes a Conservative Government to have the vision and courage to make that kind of difference. But on the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon there’s a huge danger that we miss an enormous opportunity. So the Government must name its price and find a way to make it happen.