Selling The Severn Dream

Peter Hain stepped down from Labour’s backbench last May, but he’s very much on the front foot in campaigning for the Severn barrage to be built. Mathew Beech finds out why

Peter Hain cannot escape the Severn barrage, even if he wanted to.

“When I’m at the gym, I’m always having people come up to me in the shower asking me why it hasn’t happened yet,” says the Labour MP, who is becoming synonymous with the project.

Hain also gets questions on the progress of the barrage in his south Wales constituency of Neath, and on the train up to Westminster, where he is taking up the fight to get the barrage plans moving.

The Kenyan-born MP, who came to the UK after spending his youth in South Africa, has history when it comes to campaigning. In the 1970s he was a staunch anti-apartheid campaigner, and was the recipient of a letter bomb that failed to detonate in 1972.

Having stepped down as the shadow Welsh secretary in May last year, Hain was keen to make the most of his backbench freedom and pick up another challenge – the Severn barrage.

“I wanted to have the freedom to do my own thing and concentrate on where I really felt I could make a difference,” he says. “I thought that in this period up until the next election, the most important thing I can do is take forward the Severn barrage project – there is nothing to compare with it.” He is keen to highlight that the project would have significant economic ­benefits as well as generating renewable electricity.

The latest set of plans envisage an 18km barrage running from Weston-super-Mare across to Cardiff. However, there have been many proposals to build a barrage across the Severn Estuary – dating back as far as the 1920s – and all have failed.

This time, Hain insists, things will be different.

The key departure with the proposals put forward by the Hafren Power consortium, Hain says, is that the developers are not asking for any government funding.

“The rock on which the barrage has floundered in recent times was that the developers wanted government money, and that is not possible in the current climate,” he informs me.

With his sales pitch in full flow, Hain adds: “It is a private power station, so why would you expect government money? Hafren was clear it could do it without that.”

The Neath MP runs over what has become a well-rehearsed narrative, of how the barrage would help regenerate the south Wales economy, providing tens of thousands of jobs (many in his constituency), and also of the potential for massive regeneration for Port Talbot and Bristol Port.

He also knows how to tackle the thorny issue of the significant environmental impact a barrage would have on the Severn Estuary.

At the centre of the case for the defence is the design for a new, bi-directional turbine. The claim that these would be “fish-mincers” is “overblown rhetoric” because the turbines are designed to turn at a third of the speed of existing turbines, and on both the ebb and flow tides.

Hain acknowledges that the multi-billion pound scheme would affect the surrounding area, but he points out that the estuary environment is changing now, regardless.

“The thing that frustrates me the most is a dialogue with the deaf, with critics saying there is a choice between some kind of present paradise and a completely changed future – whereas the present is being changed all the time.

“For example, the Dunlin wading bird – the iconic wading bird of the Severn Estuary – has been in catastrophic decline over the past ten years because of global warming,” says the MP.

What Hafren Power has done to mitigate the impact any barrage would have is a proposed partnership with the RSPB and the Angling Trust to work out the best way to spend the £1 billion the consortium has set aside for habitat compensation.

With the financial and environmental side of the Severn barrage puzzle discussed, there remains one significant issue – political backing.

The battle-hardened – or should that be battle-weary – Hain is convinced he can get this government to support the project, especially, he adds with a wry smile, as “not a penny of Treasury money is required”.

“The government needs to support it in principle and it needs to take a hybrid bill through Parliament, which I’ve offered to help with, but they need to make time to do that,” says Hain, obviously making a nod toward the last Queen’s Speech, which critics labelled an “empty legislative programme”.

“There’s got to be significant movement this year,” says Hain, whose main concern is the project’s opponents will try to “kick it into the long grass” and wait for the funding to dry up. If Hain is to be believed, this won’t happen.

The prime minister, chancellor, energy secretary, and Welsh secretary are all said to be interested in the scheme, but Hain says they “should be welcoming it with open arms” because it is a “bigger investment than anything on the horizon” and will provide tens of thousands of jobs.

Even energy and climate change minister Greg Barker, who lambasted the lack of detail in Hafren Power’s five-page executive summary for the project, “still thinks the project very positive”, says Hain. So why did Barker mock the documents at the select committee, and why were the plans lacking in detail?

“Frankly, he was very mischievous on that,” says Hain, once again aggressively defending the barrage.

He says the document submitted was 130 pages long, its written evidence is “quite extensive”, and that there is “masses of information out there”. In addition, Hain insists there is further, commercially sensitive information available that could be provided once the government gives the scheme conditional approval.

Hain admits he has taken flak for championing the barrage but virulently denies he stands to benefit financially from promoting it.

As for his image, he also denies he is using the scheme to boost his political profile.

“I don’t need that. I’ve been in politics for over 40 years, I have one of the highest profiles of any politician, why would I need to increase that?” he says.

In a reminiscent tone, he adds: “Throughout my time in politics I’ve fought for the anti-apartheid cause, and various other causes.

“In my experience, all good causes attract criticism and then people look back and think, actually there was merit in that case after all.

“When the Severn barrage is built, people will turn around and say why on earth wasn’t this done generations ago,” he adds.

As for what is needed to get the project going, Hain is clear: political will.

“If you look at the two big things that have been done in recent times – the huge construction projects of the Channel Tunnel and the Olympics – they were both heavily criticised but they were right.

“Nobody criticises them now.

“There are too many pygmies in politics and public administration that would have been put to shame by the Victorians and the great construction giants of the past.

“We need some big decisions by big ministers for a Britain that thinks big, not parochial and petty. It’s time we thought big.”

This article first appeared in Utility Week’s print edition of 7th June 2013.