Government urged to look before taking £15 billion Severn Barrage leap


Ministers should think very carefully before subsidising a Severn Barrage costing in excess of £15 billion, the RSPB has said. The charity has today reiterated its serious concerns over the possible impact of a Barrage as a two-year study begins into whether the Government should support the scheme. The study, announced by John Hutton, Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, will seek to answer the question: "Can the Government support a tidal range power project and if so on what terms?"

Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB's Director of Conservation, said: "Ministers are right to be cautious about a Severn Barrage. Government is just waking up to the potential problems associated with its bio-fuels policy and so it is only right that it thinks long and hard before committing itself to a barrage. Supporting this scheme to the tune of £15 billion would not leave much spare change for alternative projects should it fail to deliver, so the Government has to be sure it is the right place to risk so much taxpayers' money."

Pintail (Photo: Kev Joynes)

The RSPB hopes to participate fully in the review, but on the evidence available, remains deeply concerned by the potential environmental impact of a barrage, as it will fundamentally change the nature of the Severn estuary. The Severn estuary is unique in Europe because of its 45-foot tidal range - the second largest in the world after the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. Outgoing tides leave large areas of mudflats, saltmarshes and rocky islands, and food for an average of 65,000 birds in winter. The area hosts internationally important numbers of several species, including Bewick's Swan, Pintail, Shelduck, Curlew, Dunlin and Redshank.

Bewick's Swan
Bewick's Swan, Slimbridge WWT, Gloucestershire (Photo: Ian Butler)

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Dr Avery said: "It's clear that there is a long way to go before the Government can give a green light to build a Severn Barrage. Even before a project can be developed, it will have to investigate whether there are alternative energy solutions which might cause less harm to the natural environment and deliver better value for money. It will have to consider how to it would compensate for the damage to the Severn if a barrage was built and it will have to decide whether this is the right project to receive Government support. If, during the study, it becomes clear that there are no satisfactory answers to these challenging questions, then it should pull the plug quickly and look again at other energy solutions such as the efficient use of heat from conventional fuels, enhanced on-shore wind capacity and upgrading the grid to enable decentralised energy."

Shelduck (Photo: Richard Bedford)

The RSPB believes that this study is an opportunity for the Government to develop a more transparent appraisal framework to make decisions about our future energy needs.

This might involve:

  • Using analysis derived from current market conditions to identify the technologies capable of meeting climate change, energy security and fuel poverty objectives
  • Making a transparent comparison of the costs of these technologies, both in terms of direct costs to the customer, and the wider environmental costs and benefits
  • Evaluation of alternative government interventions to promote those options that are the most sustainable and cost effective across this spectrum

Common Redshank
Common Redshank, Severn Beach, Gloucestershire (Photo: Paul Bowerman)

  • A recent study by the Sustainable Development Commission, Turning the Tide, concluded that there was a strong case for construction of a sustainable Severn Barrage but only if part of a radical package to tackle climate change and only if publicly funded.
  • It is estimated that a barrage could contribute 4.4% of the UK's electricity needs.
  • A barrage would cut the Severn’s tidal range by half reducing the amount of land and food for wildlife. Many birds could starve and the condition of birds attempting to breed would be too poor for them to be successful.
  • The Severn Estuary is a Ramsar wetland site under international law and a Special Protection Area under European law. It has just been proposed as a EU-protected Special Area of Conservation by Defra because of its importance to lamprey fish. There are a number of Sites of Special Scientific Interest in and on the banks of the estuary, all protected by UK law.
  • It is also important for many fish including lampreys, salmon and eels. Wild salmon swim from the North Sea into the Severn and up the River Wye to spawn. A barrage would block the path these fish take and studies suggest a worst-case mortality of 100%. Young eels are born in the Atlantic and follow their parents back to the Severn Estuary and on to rivers to feed. The estuary should soon be a Special Area of Conservation because of its importance to lampreys.