Infrastructure, politics and the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon – a sorry saga!

As the UK Government refuses to back the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon project and the fallout and recriminations continue, Ed Evans, Director of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) Cymru, questions the way we currently test the viability of infrastructure investments across the UK and whether or not Wales, through its Wellbeing of Future Generations framework, can lead the way in assessing social and environmental benefits as well as economic ones.

What do the following have in common : mainline electrification to Swansea, Circuit of Wales, Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon? All have failed to get political support over the last 12 months. There may be more to follow!

However, the outcry over the latter is set to last for quite some time. No shocks really. The UK Government has been preparing the ground for this announcement for quite some time. But the disappointment is palpable.

Disappointment with the decision first of all. High costs and value for money have been cited by UK Government Ministers, including the Secretary of State for Wales, Alun Cairns, who is facing considerable pressure from opposition parties to step down for not championing the needs of Wales within the UK Cabinet. But, according to Charles Hendry’s report, this was a pathfinder project which would potentially pave the way for others and create a new industry and expertise which could be exported. He used the words “no regrets”. Surely the whole point of a pathfinder is to explore the risks and long-term viability before pursuing a broader strategy which would benefit from economies of scale and the private sector innovation that comes from government pump-priming to stimulate the market? It’s what’s happened with wind, solar and nuclear power. Why not tidal? Arguably, this approach also calls into question the UK Government’s commitment to its own Industrial Strategy.

And what about the way we evaluate the viability and benefits of long term renewable energy projects like this (and other types of projects too). Given that we have new legislation in Wales, the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, is it not incumbent on us to look at viability through a different lens? I suspect this will cause tensions between the Welsh Treasury and the UK Treasury sooner rather than later. Who knows though, as climate change becomes a greater focus for all of us, how long will it be before the UK Government follows suit?

The second disappointment is with the way the whole decision-making process was managed and the time it’s taken to get to this stage. In the infrastructure sector we’re well used to politicians playing with major projects despite the cost of delays to the economy and the loss of value to the public. But this project took it to another level. Brexit was no doubt a factor. Not the decision to leave the EU, but rather the way Brexit issues and negotiations have totally consumed this UK Government and taken their eye off the ball of all the other issues facing the UK. But perhaps it’s just the disrespectful way that this sector and Wales as a whole is viewed in Westminster?

Contrast all of this with the Wales and Borders Rail Franchise and the early “spin-offs” coming from this long-term project. Ok, it has some way to go to prove itself but the early signs are encouraging with CAF UK setting up in Newport to assemble new trains and a rail centre of excellence being touted for the Dulais Valley. A “made in Wales” solution to address specific Welsh issues using the devolved powers that we already have. Perhaps things could have been different if Wales had greater powers over its energy resources?

Anyway, there is, perversely, a sense of relief that the waiting is over and we can, maybe, move on to finding another way forward for tidal power in Wales. Given the abundance of coastline and the exceptional tidal range it would feel wrong not too somehow!

Ed Evans is Director of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) Wales Cymru.

CECA Wales Cymru represents 60 of Wales’ largest and smallest civil engineering contracting businesses with a cumulative annual turnover in excess of £1bn and employing over 6,000 people. These businesses play a huge part in supporting communities across Wales and make a significant contribution to the economic prosperity of our nation. Our members are also major providers of training and apprenticeship opportunities.

On a more fundamental level it is our members who will build the infrastructure that our nation needs to prosper.