November 7, 2012 7:30 pm

Would-be mayors oppose Severn barrage

Next week’s Bristol mayoral election has thrown up one issue on which all main candidates are agreed – the planned tidal barrage across the Severn estuary.

At a lively public hustings at Bristol City football ground on Monday, all but one of the 15 candidates – and all those from the main political parties – said they would fight to stop the project if elected.

The ambitious £34bn scheme to build an 18km-long barrage from Cardiff to Weston-super-Mare is being championed by Peter Hain, the former Labour minister who resigned from the shadow cabinet in May to lobby for the project.

Mr Hain and Hafren Power, a consortium of engineering and construction companies, claim a barrage will create 30,000 jobs, provide 5 per cent of the UK’s energy needs, and help the UK meet its carbon emissions targets.

But the scheme is facing widespread opposition in Bristol, which is upstream of the planned barrage, amid fears of environmental damage and disruption to the city’s port, one of its biggest employers and the largest car-exporting port in the UK.

As Bristol voters prepare to choose their first directly-elected mayor next Thursday, the barrage dispute looks set to provide an early test of the winner’s political power.

Critics question the economic projections made by the scheme’s backers, pointing out a 2010 parliamentary inquiry that concluded the net additional permanent jobs created by a barrage would be just 120.

They also say forcing ships to use locks to traverse the barrage to access Bristol Port could have a devastating impact on investment and put in jeopardy a £600m plan to build a deep sea container port in Avonmouth. “It would kill off the port,” says Nigel Costley. regional secretary of the Trade Union Congress.

The barrage idea has been considered by government before, but ruled out as too expensive. However, the idea is back on the agenda largely because Mr Hain claims his plans do not involve any public funding, a key consideration at a time of budget constraints.

Downing Street has vowed to “consider the proposals carefully” and the Department of Energy and Climate Change select committee this week launched an inquiry into the barrage.

Sue Turner, a director of the Bristol Port Company, questions how such an inquiry can be carried out when Hafren has been so secretive about the scheme.

On November 5, Elizabeth Haywood, a Hafren director and wife of Mr Hain, wrote to Bristol Port’s chief executive explaining the consortium could not provide details as plans were “inchoate”, adding: “we do not want to risk misleading you in any way”.

It is understood the consortium has said that, in order to secure private finance, it needs a guaranteed electricity price – as enjoyed by other renewables producers – as well as powers to acquire land and fast track planning consents.

“Of course if someone comes to the table with £35bn of private finance to build this project, then the government has to look at it,” says Merlin Hyman, chief executive of Regen SW, a body supported by 250 businesses which promotes renewable projects in the region. “My principal concern is the barrage idea has stopped all discussions of alternative technologies, which we believe are more financially viable.”

Ms Turner says the barrage may never get built, but “just to be talking about is creating a blight on possible investments”, in Bristol’s port.

In a further sign of concern among local businesses, a board meeting yesterday of the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership agreed to “throw its weight behind the opponents of the barrage” and make a submission to the parliamentary select committee.

Four-way race emerges

The 15 candidates fighting for the right to be Bristol’s first directly elected mayor include a part-time puppeteer, a former postman and a pub landlord, writes John Murray Brown .

But the contest on November 15 is boiling down to a four-way race between the three main parties and an independent, George Ferguson, an architect and well-known local businessman.

Marvin Rees of Labour is widely seen as the favourite in a city with a longstanding Labour majority. The former journalist and NHS manager provided the warm-up act before Ed Miliband’s speech at the party conference in October. But he is probably best known for his role in Operation Black Vote, a campaign for better political representation for minorities.

The Conservative Geoff Gollop, a former lord mayor, will poll strongly in middle- class districts such as Clifton, as will Jon Rogers, the Liberal Democrat.

Mr Ferguson, whose assets include the Tobacco Factory Theatre and the Bristol Beer Factory, believes he will pick up votes as “everybody’s second choice” under the proportional voting system.

Labour’s Marvin Rees, considered one of the favourites for the mayoralty, says the barrage is a prime example of an issue where an elected mayor can fight for Bristol’s interest in a national debate. “This is a really big opportunity to have a much stronger voice in our dealings with London,” he says.

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