Severn Barrage: Time to 'grasp opportunity', says Hain

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Media captionSupporters say the £30bn barrage would provide 5% of the UK's electricity, but opponents say it would harm the environment

Former Welsh Secretary Peter Hain has said the time has come to press ahead and build the Severn Barrage as the proposal has been "studied to death".

The project would create thousands of much-needed jobs and help tackle climate change, the Labour MP told a House of Commons committee.

Supporters say the £30bn barrage would provide 5% of the UK's electricity.

But opponents say it would harm the environment and that the costs outweigh the benefits.

Mr Hain, who quit the shadow cabinet to back the barrage, appeared before the Energy and Climate Change committee on Thursday.

'Considerable benefits'

He said the barrage would bring "considerable benefits" to the UK - creating about 20,000 jobs and generating 30,000 more in the supply chain and other parts of industry, giving an economic boost to south Wales and south-west England.

The electricity generated would be equivalent to three or four nuclear power stations and thousands of wind turbines, he said.

The Neath MP said he understood the controversy around the proposal, which has sparked opposition from environmental groups and suggestions that it would hit the port at Bristol.

However, Mr Hain said a Severn Barrage was a "win-win" project for ports in Bristol and Port Talbot and maintained it had attracted almost universal support from the Welsh public.

"This has been studied to death," he said.

"We could carry on researching this for decades to come, meanwhile we are not achieving our climate change objectives and missing out on the massive economic benefits.

'Act big'

"We have to think big, act big and grasp this opportunity. This is natural power which in the long term will produce incredibly cheap electricity for the UK and has many other benefits."

Andy Richards of the Unite union agreed there was "significant" public support in Wales.

He said it was time to move on from the "scaremongering" and start to examine the detail of the proposal by Hafren Power, the firm behind the scheme, which has been in talks with UK government ministers and environmental groups.

Prime Minister David Cameron last year instructed officials to examine plans for the proposed barrage, which would stretch about 18km (11 miles) between the Vale of Glamorgan and Weston-super-Mare.

The UK's Energy Secretary Ed Davey has said if the right proposals were submitted, the UK government would look at them.

A special Act of Parliament would have to be passed for the plans to go ahead.

Objectors say the project is not financially viable, and there are environmental concerns, particularly for birds and wildlife.

Martin Salter from the Angling Trust said Mr Hain's claim that the barrage would be "fish-friendly" was "guff" and that its turbines would be "24/7 fish mincers".

Friends of the Earth Cymru says the falling cost of wind and solar energy will soon leave the business case for the barrage "dead in the water".

Its director Gareth Clubb gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee at Westminster on Wednesday.

Before giving evidence he said: "Building a huge barrage across an important habitat makes no sense for jobs, for energy, or for the environment."

Martin Spray, chief executive of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, told MPs: "There is potential for energy generation but we have to come up with environmentally sustainable, acceptable and sensible solutions."

Kate Jennings, the RSPB's head of site conservation policy, added: "The official government study into the Severn Barrage proposal in 2010 showed that there would be significant effects on the populations of 30 species of birds, and that in addition to the Severn, it would also have negative impact on at least five other internationally important wildlife sites nearby."

'Open minded'

Hafren Power has said it has improved on previous plans for a barrage that were rejected in 2010 by using smaller turbines that can generate power on both the rising and falling tide and at slower speeds.

The changes, the company has said, mean its plans are more fish-friendly and will reduce the amount of inter-tidal mud flats that will be lost to feeding birds.

Welsh Secretary David Jones said the UK government was "open minded" about the barrage.

"There are a number of projects being proposed, all of which need to consider affordability, long-term sustainability and value for consumers," he said.

"I've agreed to speak to Peter Hain and already met with other interested parties."

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