Wales politics

MPs debate "fish-friendliness" of Severn barrage

For Welsh hacks of a certain age it felt like deja vu all over again. I spent the first six and a half years of my time at Westminster covering the debates about the Cardiff Bay barrage.

Hugely controversial, the initial Bill was blocked after a mammoth filibustering exercise involving a speech lasting several hours by the then Labour MP for Cardiff West, Rhodri Morgan - the original rebel without a pause.

Eventually, the government had to take over what had been private legislation to gets its way - and parliamentary procedures were changed as a result.

The proposed Severn barrage is equally controversial and many of the arguments are familiar. Its supporters say it will bring jobs - its critics say it will damage the environment. Its impact is so great, parliament will have to pass a special law before it can go ahead.

This morning, MPs on the energy and climate change committee began their inquiry into the scheme, taking evidence from supporters such as Neath MP Peter Hain and opponents such as the National Trust.

The sharpest divergence of views came over the impact of the scheme on fish in the Severn estuary. Peter Hain said the scheme's turbines would be "fish-friendly" although he couldn't guarantee that no fish would be hurt in the making of this barrage.

Martin Salter, a former Labour MP who now works for the Angling Trust, told the committee: "Peter talked as if it was a good thing that the turbines would be operating 24/7 - well that's 24/7 fish-mincing." Mr Salter said the impact could be devastating and to argue that the barrage would be fish-friendly was "absolute guff".

I guess you could debate how "fish-friendly" angling is but the committee appeared sceptical about what he felt was a lack of detail provided by the schemes's promoters, Hafren Power and about the price the consortium would want for the energy generated.

Barrage supporters hope the UK government will give the go-ahead for the scheme this year, amid fears that the Middle East money backing the scheme may not be on offer for long.

Welsh Secretary David Jones, said after the meeting: "The government is open minded on using the Severn barrage to generate renewable energy and my position has not changed. There are a number of projects being proposed, all of which need to consider affordability, long-term sustainability and value for consumers. I've agreed to speak to Peter Hain and already met with other interested parties."

Several MPs asked whether public opinion is supportive of the barrage. Bracknell Tory MP Phillip Lee - who stood for election in Blaenau Gwent in 2005 - said: "I would suspect that it probably is because of my experience of accruing my 816 votes back in 2005." Mr Lee said something needed to replace collapsed industries in Wales.

Mr Hain suggested Mr Lee deserved a medal for getting so many votes and said there was "almost universal support across Wales" for the project.

Phillip Lee was not the only Tory committee member with Welsh political experience. Chair Tim Yeo reminisced: "I also fought a seat in south Wales, in 1974. Amazingly, there was a recount but I did come second. The recount was to save my deposit."

The seat was Bedwellty, where Mr Yeo won more than 5,000 votes, coming second to the Labour candidate, Neil Kinnock. Whatever happened to him?