Not playing those lagoon blues
As someone once said, a week is a long time in politics. It’s even longer when you’ve a column to write.
Last Monday’s announcement about the scuttling of the Swansea tidal lagoon came just hours after my deadline. Since then, I’ve been monitoring the fallout.
I was told over a year ago by a respected lobbying group – with no involvement in the project either way – that Treasury officials had already designated it as “nice idea but no chance”. Thereafter it was just a matter of waiting for their political masters to summon up the necessary bottle.
When it finally happened, ministerial explanations came across as worthless political flannel; mostly, I guess, because they were worthless political flannel.
What’s more, it was all designed to get everyone running off in the direction of value-for-money; rather than allow any serious focus to settle on the key issue.
You see, what can’t be obscured by the official-sounding spin and bean-counting is that the same costs and imponderables all applied in 2015.
That’s when the Conservative manifesto stated the project would “create thousands of jobs and attract millions of pounds worth of investment”.
So what’s changed? Well, the inconvenient truth isn’t that tidal is too expensive or won’t create enough jobs; it’s that the production of clean energy has fallen right off the government’s agenda.
With all the cash now going to nuclear, it’s no longer policy to subsidise renewables. As incentives dwindle, the number of new installations (wind, solar or whatnot) drop accordingly. It was inevitable that the lagoon would be caught up in the same sea-change.
As you’d expect, we saw a bit of softening up work in readiness for the bad news.
Key aspects of the Hendry Review were belatedly challenged while the people backing the project faced hostile questioning from remarkably well-briefed MPs – most of whom usually have trouble remembering which committee they’re in.
You can rant as to whether the impact of the South Wales Metro project or scrapping of the Severn tolls went through the same rigorous financial scrutiny – or you can argue that a facility able to produce 320 megawatts with just 28 people is exactly the kind of productivity that ministers bang on about; it doesn’t matter.
Whitehall minds have been made up and neither facts or Welsh cross-party consensus will change that anytime soon.
I’ve no patience for the gesture politics of no-confidence votes. Political angst will soon get overtaken by other crisis. The only thing that matters is how this latest government rejection affects future investment in the region.
The signs aren’t good. I personally know of two business ventures who have abandoned potential expansion plans. I’m sure there are many more.
At this rate it looks like the boost from City Deal investment will only be sufficient to keep us afloat rather than lift the region out of economic dependency.
Let’s be clear though. This isn’t a time for more futile flag-waving or networking solutions that smell of snake oil. We don’t need cheerleaders. We need ideas and commitment.
As such, I’d say the proposal by Swansea council leader Rob Stewart to look at a not-for-profit outfit that can sell power directly to the national grid sounds like something worth considering. After all, what have we got to lose?