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Are the lagoon blues overstated?

January 19, 2016

 

There’s been plenty of comment lately on the fate of Swansea’s tidal lagoon project, so I thought maybe I’d stick my oar in, so to speak.

 

Before I do, I should put on record I don’t have any professional interest or remit for the scheme. I admire the scale of ambition involved and I’m generally supportive of green energy, but that’s it.

 

If anything, the following perspective comes from having been around long enough to recognise strategic game playing when I see it.

 

For all the intermittent political & environmental background noise, it’s the mood music coming from the government side which has set the tempo.

 

Quaffing cakes at the Evening Post offices last May, David Cameron was effusive about how the lagoon can transform Swansea Bay. A month later he described the £300m construction deal between TLSB and a Chinese conglomerate as a “win-win” outcome.


When it emerged in October that things had been delayed to a spring 2017 start date, Gower Conservative MP Byron Davies insisted that ministers remained "totally behind" the delayed project.

 

This month however media reports claimed Cameron's enthusiasm for the £1bn project is on the wane. He is said to have told MPs he has concerns over the electricity strike price - a government subsidy for the power generated.

 

It sounds worrying, yet this is one of those instances where it’s important to know what was actually said and the context involved.

 

The PM was being grilled by a session of the Commons Liaison Committee which is made up of chairs of select committees; all of them eager to score points one way or another.

 

During the meeting, and having been asked a question challenging his green credentials, a defensive Cameron talked about his priority of balancing costs with sustainability. As it happens he was trying to justify a government decision to abandon wind-power subsidies.

 

Nonetheless, the doom-mongers readily seized upon his passing reference to comparatively expensive tidal schemes. Swansea is being softened up for a big let-down, in their opinion, How dare Wales’ upstart second city presume to be a world leader in green energy, and so on.

 

I’m not so readily convinced this is the case. I’m not saying that everything is sorted regarding the project, far from it, but if there were insurmountable problems then I rather think we’d have heard about them by now and in some considerable detail.

 

I very seldom make predictions but I suspect there’s a deal in the offing. It may not be agreed on the best of terms or for the best of reasons, but it will shift the initiative back onto the company - which is what both sides want.

 

The worst possible news would be a government statement saying no announcement will be made until after May’s Assembly elections.

 

That would signal that the scheme is dead in the water. Not only that, it could shipwreck a few political fortunes as well.

 

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Time for a comeback

 

We’re in that period where political parties begin setting out their stalls in advance of May’s Assembly elections. In the best bazaar tradition, the idea is to present something eye-catching without getting too pinned down on value for money.

 

What grabbed my attention was the presentation by Rhun ap Iorwerth, Plaid Cymru’s economic spokesman, who set out how public-private sector expertise could be harnessed in a relaunched Welsh Development Agency.

 

Plaid are also pressing for more urgent action to establish a publicly-owned development bank for Wales. This is a long overdue measure which already has Labour support although not the actual wherewithal.

 

I was intrigued to read that the Welsh Government still holds the rights to the WDA name and brand. Like many other observers, I'd be interested to see what happens if an agency comeback coincides with the anticipated return of Adam Price to front line Welsh politics.

 

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Laying the foundations

 

Recent events serve to keep us aware how we constantly need to punch well above our weight as a region. Economic clouds are gathering in Swansea Bay and it occasionally feels like there’s a distinct shortage of silver linings.

 

One bright sign was a joint presentation to the SA1 Waterfront Business Club by Swansea Council leader Rob Stewart and UWTSD Associate Pro Vice Chancellor Jane Davidson.

 

An invited audience at the Village Hotel heard the pair outline an impressive set of developments which the two strategic partnership outfits aim to implement in the next few years.

 

Along with many others in the room, I was impressed by the amount of joined up thinking that’s going into moving things forward. Between them, these public sector bodies are laying down innovative foundations that will enable new and existing businesses to thrive.

 

That’s just as well. The indications are we’ll need every advantage we can get.

 

 

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