The real questions about the UK government’s decision to cancel the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon

An artist’s impression of the tidal lagoon. Image: Tidal Lagoon Power.

The UK government’s refusal to support the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon pathfinder project says much about how Britain proposes to face the challenges of the 21st century. Although the decision was widely expected, it still came as a severe blow to the communities in and around Swansea Bay.

But over and above the local reaction, the decision speaks volumes about the UK government’s commitment to three larger questions: mission-led innovation, rebalancing the UK economy and sustainable development.

Thanks to the popularity of Mariana Mazzucato’s work on mission-led innovation policy, the UK government has adopted this rhetoric when presenting its industrial strategy to support the technologies and industries of the future. At the heart of the new industrial policy paradigm is a joint effort between governments and business to engage in a constant dialogue to generate information about the scope for, and the barriers to, innovation. Governments play an enormously important role in catalysing new technologies and helping launch new industries by mitigating risk, an important consideration when dealing with sectors like renewable energy.

A map of the proposed project. Image: Atkins Global.

Given the need for close collaboration between government and industry, the most extraordinary aspect of the SBTL saga is that, according to Keith Clarke, the chairman of Tidal Lagoon Power, the company behind the project had heard “next to nothing” from the UK government for the past two years. So where was the partnership approach that ought to lie at the heart of mission-led innovation policy? 

The Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon was described as a “no regrets” project by the Hendry Review that was commissioned by the same department that rejected the project last week. The Review concluded that tidal lagoons would help to deliver security of energy supply; help meet our decarbonisation commitments; and stimulate a new UK industry. The cost of a small scale pathfinder project would be about 30p per UK household per year over the first 30 years.

But the costs and the risks need to be framed over a 120 year lifespan, which makes it a totally different proposition to wind and solar (which have shorter operational lives) and nuclear (which has large waste disposal costs) – all problems that are absent from the tidal option.

The compelling vision of tidal lagoons is that the Swansea pathfinder was designed to be the first in a series of larger lagoons in which costs would certainly have decreased – as Charles Hendry suggested – through scale effects and through learning-by-doing. The UK government thus seems to have lost its ambition for mission-led innovation in the renewable energy sector.


Another policy to which the UK government is ostensibly committed is the rebalancing of the economy. This commitment was widely interpreted to mean sectoral and spatial rebalancing to render the UK less dependent on sectors like financial services and less tilted to South East England. The SBTL project was an ideal candidate to meet these twin goals because it both created a new global industry (with manufacturing located across the UK), and is located in West Wales, a “less developed region” in the EU regional classification. Creating a new industry in an old industrial region would have signalled that the UK government was genuinely committed to rebalancing the economy ahead of Brexit – but there is little evidence to suggest that such benefits were taken seriously.

Finally, the decision raises major doubts about the UK government’s commitment to sustainable development.  The Welsh Government is duty bound to take sustainability seriously because it is a requirement of the Well-being of Future Generations Act, the most innovative piece of legislation ever passed by the National Assembly for Wales. The Future Generations Commissioner, Sophie Howe, has said that the SBTL pathfinder was a perfect example of the kind of project that should be supported on sustainability grounds because of its multiple dividends in terms of environmental, social and economic benefits. What does it say about the UK’s commitment to sustainability if it is unable or unwilling to harness the power of the second biggest tidal range in the world, a power that is as predictable as it is sustainable?

The rejection of the SBTL pathfinder is also a challenge to devolved government. The Welsh Government offered to part-fund the pathfinder project to the tune of £200m to demonstrate its political commitment to the project. That commitment will now be tested like never before because it will need to ask itself how, if at all, is it possible to proceed without the support of central government.

As things stand, the rejection of the SBTL project will further embitter inter-governmental relations at a time when the level of trust between London and the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales is already at an all-time low.      

The authors are Professors at Cardiff University.

 
 
 
 

What does the fate of Detroit tell us about the future of Silicon Valley?

Detroit, 2008. Image: Getty.

There was a time when California’s Santa Clara Valley, bucolic home to orchards and vineyards, was known as “the valley of heart’s delight”. The same area was later dubbed “Silicon Valley,” shorthand for the high-tech combination of creativity, capital and California cool. However, a backlash is now well underway – even from the loyal gadget-reviewing press. Silicon Valley increasingly conjures something very different: exploitation, excess, and elitist detachment.

Today there are 23 active Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites in Santa Clara County, California. Its culture is equally unhealthy: Think of the Gamergate misogynist harassment campaigns, the entitled “tech bros” and rampant sexism and racism in Silicon Valley firms. These same companies demean the online public with privacy breaches and unauthorised sharing of users’ data. Thanks to the companies’ influences, it’s extremely expensive to live in the area. And transportation is so clogged that there are special buses bringing tech-sector workers to and from their jobs. Some critics even perceive threats to democracy itself.

In a word, Silicon Valley has become toxic.

Silicon Valley’s rise is well documented, but the backlash against its distinctive culture and unscrupulous corporations hints at an imminent twist in its fate. As historians of technology and industry, we find it helpful to step back from the breathless champions and critics of Silicon Valley and think about the long term. The rise and fall of another American economic powerhouse – Detroit – can help explain how regional reputations change over time.

The rise and fall of Detroit

The city of Detroit became a famous node of industrial capitalism thanks to the pioneers of the automotive age. Men such as Henry Ford, Horace and John Dodge, and William Durant cultivated Detroit’s image as a centre of technical novelty in the early 20th century.

The very name “Detroit” soon became a metonym for the industrial might of the American automotive industry and the source of American military power. General Motors president Charles E. Wilson’s remark that, “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa,” was an arrogant but accurate account of Detroit’s place at the heart of American prosperity and global leadership.

The public’s view changed after the 1950s. The auto industry’s leading firms slid into bloated bureaucratic rigidity and lost ground to foreign competitors. By the 1980s, Detroit was the image of blown-out, depopulated post-industrialism.

In retrospect – and perhaps as a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley – the moral decline of Detroit’s elite was evident long before its economic decline. Henry Ford became famous in the pre-war era for the cars and trucks that carried his name, but he was also an anti-Semite, proto-fascist and notorious enemy of organised labor. Detroit also was the source of defective and deadly products that Ralph Nader criticized in 1965 as “unsafe at any speed”. Residents of the region now bear the costs of its amoral industrial past, beset with high unemployment and poisonous drinking water.


A new chapter for Silicon Valley

If the story of Detroit can be simplified as industrial prowess and national prestige, followed by moral and economic decay, what does that say about Silicon Valley? The term “Silicon Valley” first appeared in print in the early 1970s and gained widespread use throughout the decade. It combined both place and activity. The Santa Clara Valley, a relatively small area south of the San Francisco Bay, home to San Jose and a few other small cities, was the base for a computing revolution based on silicon chips. Companies and workers flocked to the Bay Area, seeking a pleasant climate, beautiful surroundings and affordable land.

By the 1980s, venture capitalists and companies in the Valley had mastered the silicon arts and were getting filthy, stinking rich. This was when “Silicon Valley” became shorthand for an industrial cluster where universities, entrepreneurs and capital markets fuelled technology-based economic development. Journalists fawned over successful companies like Intel, Cisco and Google, and analysts filled shelves with books and reports about how other regions could become the “next Silicon Valley”.

Many concluded that its culture set it apart. Boosters and publications like Wired magazine celebrated the combination of the Bay Area hippie legacy with the libertarian individualism embodied by the late Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. The libertarian myth masked some crucial elements of Silicon Valley’s success – especially public funds dispersed through the U.S. Defense Department and Stanford University.

The ConversationIn retrospect, perhaps that ever-expanding gap between Californian dreams and American realities led to the undoing of Silicon Valley. Its detachment from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans can be seen today in the unhinged Twitter rants of automaker Elon Musk, the extreme politics of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and the fatuous dreams of immortality of Google’s vitamin-popping director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. Silicon Valley’s moral decline has never been clearer, and it now struggles to survive the toxic mess it has created.

Andrew L. Russell, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of History, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.