Neighbouring Conservative MPs in different corners on barrage UPDATE

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By Prue_Reid | Friday, November 23, 2012, 12:20

North Somerset MP Liam Fox has launched a campaign to block the Severn Barrage which puts him slightly at odds with Weston MP John Penrose who gave it a 'cautious welcome' 12 months ago.

Dr Fox who lives a few miles from the Bristol Channel coastline at Clevedon said he was against the barrage  as it puts at risk thousands of jobs in Bristol and North Somerset, threatens the local economy, and will be disastrous for the environment in the Severn Estuary. 

Yet in December last year Mr Penrose issued a cautious welcome to a new draft proposal for the Severn Barrage made by a consortium of private investors. 

The plan's backers claim it would produce up to five per cent of Britain's energy needs from clean, green tidal power and provide a vital rail or road links from Weston to Cardiff. 

Costing between £34-50 billion to build all money would come from private investors rather than Government funding. 

Mr Penrose said: ""I've already spoken personally to the former Cabinet Minister for the Environment, John Gummer (now Lord Deben) who is heavily involved in this project.

"It's an interesting and daringly entrepreneurial proposal to finance such an enormous project entirely with private funds, and could make a huge difference to Britain's capacity to generate green, renewable energy. 

"Not only that, but putting Weston at one end of a major new transport link to Cardiff could transform our local economy. 

"But it might have a serious impact on the Severn Estuary's unique wildlife habitat, and could potentially cramp growth and jobs at Bristol's port too, so it's vital we understand all the implications before we make a decision which our children and grandchildren will have to live with forever."

Dr Fox however in a statement released today, Friday, November 23, is more outspoken in his opposition.

He said The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, local businesses, the Bristol Mayor and other MPs with constituencies upstream of the barrage – and on both sides of the estuary – have voiced concerns.

Dr Fox wants them to join him in forming a concerted opposition to the project.

Plans for the barrage between Cardiff and Weston had initially been shelved but now are to be re-considered by the Energy & Climate Change Select Committee. 

The decision to re-open these deliberations was taken very recently and has given under a month for businesses and environmental groups opposing the project to submit their evidence. 

Dr Fox argues that this is an entirely unrealistic timeline for a project of this scale and will oppose the plans vigorously should the Select Committee move in favour of the barrage. 

Dr Fox has also made enquiries with the parliamentary authorities on the Hybrid Bill proposed by Peter Hain MP to advance the cause of Hafren – the umbrella company for the consortium of construction companies hoping to build the barrage. 

He understands that no such bill has yet been tabled, but has vowed to oppose the bill in the House of Commons for as long as it takes to block the project for good.

Dr Fox has also welcomed a report by RegenSW, to be published on Monday, looking at all renewable energy options for the Severn Estuary and the Bristol Channel. 

The report is expected to confirm that there are viable tidal range, tidal stream, wave and offshore wind options for energy production in the region but that the numbers just don't add up for a Cardiff to Weston barrage.

Speaking today, Dr Fox said "the proposal from the Hafren Consortium is not at all clear, especially on the impact on water levels at Avonmouth.

"Independent estimates suggest that water levels may be as much as two metres lower which will have a profound impact on the ability of Bristol Port to handle modern cargo ships. 

"This threatens 500 jobs directly and 7,500 jobs in the wider Bristol/North Somerset economy but especially in Portbury, Portishead and Pill.

"The economic interest is compounded by the environmental impact of any such projects and I will be looking to meet with the RSPB soon so that I can fully understand the damage the barrage will cause to the salt marshes and mud flats that are used by 69,000 birds each winter.

"Bristol has had a thriving port for centuries and the Severn Estuary is an essential habitat for hundreds of species of fish and birds. 

"The economic and environmental damage caused upstream of a Severn Barrage threatens both and these arguments need to be made in parliament and, if necessary, in the courts.

"Energy security is vital to our national interest and Green Energy will play a role in that, but there are better, more modern, technologies that could harness the power of the estuary without damaging the environment or our local economy."

"The campaign to Block The Barrage begins today."

STOP PRESS: North Somerset MP Liam Fox has welcomed a new report that says technology could generate significant low carbon energy and economic benefits from the Bristol Channel, without the need for a large scale barrage.

The report has been issued by renewable energy experts Regen SW and consultancy firm Marine Energy Matters.

The discussion document Bristol Channel Energy: A Balanced Technology Approach proposes a new strategy to harness the massive energy potential of the Bristol Channel in a way which balances the imperative to generate low carbon energy with the protection of the environment and communities on both the Welsh and English sides of the channel.

Dr Fox said: "I very much welcome the report from Regen SW on the opportunities for low carbon energy production in the Severn Estuary and Bristol Channel.

"I am excited about what the proposals in this report could mean for jobs and investment in the South West and South Wales and as a contribution towards our national energy security. 

"I also endorse fully the report's conclusion on the need to develop a balanced approach to harnessing the energy production opportunities in the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary.

"There would appear to many fantastic technologies in development that could harness this potential without the environmental or economic threats posed by the Cardiff-Weston Barrage."

The multi technology strategy outlined in the report would utilise new concepts such as tidal lagoons and tidal fences, deployed in conjunction with tidal stream technology, wave and wind power.

The report authors highlight that the key advantage of the multi-technology approach is to enable the incremental roll-out of a series of large scale energy schemes as technologies are proven and their environmental impacts can be properly managed.

The balanced technology approach, which has strong backing from industry groups including the Bristol Tidal Energy Forum, West of England Local Enterprise Partnership and South West Marine Energy Park, builds on the strength of the marine energy technology sector in the UK, and could provide a more sustainable route to economic growth and job creation.

Friends of the Earth south west campaigner Mike Birkin said: "We very much welcome this approach.

"We have a huge potential clean energy resource around the Bristol Channel coast and it's essential we find ways to harness it to tackle the problem of climate change.

"Our recent report from Plymouth University showed that this can be done in ways that don't just minimise the harm to nature, they can bring about positive benefits.

"We'd like to see businesses and environmental organisations working together to secure both clean energy and a thriving environment for the Severn and the Bristol Channel."

He is backed by RSPB senior policy officer Mark Robins who said: "The RSPB welcomes this discussion document and we believe its publication marks a good starting point for a more conscious strategy for building up renewable energy outputs that build in the high nature value of the Bristol Channel and Severn estuary."

As well as helping to address environmental concerns the Balanced Technology approach also questions whether a big barrage option is the best way to generate sustainable jobs and economic growth.

While the barrage would certainly create jobs during the construction phase previous analysis commissioned by DECC suggests that the new jobs created would largely be offset by the job losses due to the impact on Bristol Port and other marine users, including the manufacturing and distribution companies which depend on the port to support global trade.

Having been rejected as a strategic option by the government as recently as 2010, the question of whether to support a large scale barrage in the Bristol Channel will once again be reviewed by the Energy and Climate Change Parliamentary Select Committee in the new year. 

The report authors hope that the renewed focus on the Bristol Channel as an energy resource will lead to a wider review to look at all potential technologies.

Regen SW is a leading independent, not-for-profit, centre of expertise in sustainable energy.  

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