Friday, May 22, 2009

Thinking big on Severn Barrage plans

With Fr. David Lee covering for me at today's lunchtime Eucharist, I was free to attend a meeting of a group called Churches Action on Sustainable Environment at the R.B. offices to hear a couple of expert presentations about the Severn barrage project options. These focussed on the assessing the varied environmental impacts of the different proposals.

I was disappointed to learn that the prospect of a road or rail link across a full barrage was no more than a dream, not only given the cost, but also the technical difficulties of achieving this given the gradients involved. The one possible combination of road plus barrage would not deliver that much value in terms of power, carbon footprint savings etc., in comparison to its cost. The longest and most costly option isn't even subject to government feasibility study at the moment, (the Aberthaw to Minehead proposal) although, this would deliver most of Wales' electrical energy requirements in one project.

What doesn't seem to have been taken into account is the fact that such a barrage would also serve to enclose and protect the Bridgewater Levels area. This is an economically important area, most of which is only just above sea level. It's going to suffer not only from tidal surges but also from overall sea level rises. Being inside a barrage with sea locks for shipping would mean long term stability for the agriculture and shipping trade of this area, as well as its housing and roads. The greater cost would mean savings on protecting the Levels. The expert view is that the further down the estuary a barrage is located, the less the inevitable environmental impact all round.

However, the present global financial crisis means that there's no queue of investors wanting to sink fifty billion pounds into future-proofing the region's economy. Even if the feasibilty study for the biggest option is costly, it deserves full consideration. I suggested that the Welsh Bishops get together with the Bishops of the dioceses of Bristol and (already watery) Bath & Wells, to make some useful representations. Doing nothing or failing to go for a more ambitious option could prove far more costly in the long term.

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