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.

 
 
 
 

Self-driving cars may be safe – but they could still prevent walkable, liveable communities

A self-driving car, driving itself. Image: Grendelkhan/Flickr/creative commons.

Almost exactly a decade ago, I was cycling in a bike lane when a car hit me from behind. Luckily, I suffered only a couple bruised ribs and some road rash. But ever since, I have felt my pulse rise when I hear a car coming up behind my bike.

As self-driving cars roll out, they’re already being billed as making me – and millions of American cyclists, pedestrians and vehicle passengers – safer.

As a driver and a cyclist, I initially welcomed the idea of self-driving cars that could detect nearby people and be programmed not to hit them, making the streets safer for everyone. Autonomous vehicles also seemed to provide attractive ways to use roads more efficiently and reduce the need for parking in our communities. People are certainly talking about how self-driving cars could help build more sustainable, livable, walkable and bikable communities.

But as an urban planner and transportation scholar who, like most people in my field, has paid close attention to the discussion around driverless cars, I have come to understand that autonomous vehicles will not complement modern urban planning goals of building people-centered communities. In fact, I think they’re mutually exclusive: we can have a world of safe, efficient, driverless cars, or we can have a world where people can walk, bike and take transit in high-quality, human-scaled communities.

Changing humans’ behavior

These days, with human-driven cars all over the place, I choose my riding routes and behavior carefully: I much prefer to ride on low-speed traffic, low-traffic roads, buffered bike lanes or off-street bike paths whenever possible, even if it means going substantially out of my way. That’s because I’m scared of what a human driver – through error, ignorance, inattention or even malice – might do to me on tougher roads.

But in a hypothetical future in which all cars are autonomous, maybe I’ll make different choices? So long as I’m confident self-driving cars will at least try to avoid killing me on my bike, I’ll take the most direct route to my destination, on roads that I consider much too dangerous to ride on today. I won’t need to worry about drivers because the technology will protect me.

Driverless cars will level the playing field: I’ll finally be able to ride where I am comfortable in a lane, rather than in the gutter – and pedal at a comfortable speed for myself rather than racing to keep up with, or get out of the way of, other riders or vehicles. I can even see riding with my kids on roads, instead of driving somewhere safe to ride like a park. (Of course, this is all still assuming driverless cars will eventually figure out how to avoid killing cyclists.)

To bikers and people interested in vibrant communities, this sounds great. I’m sure I won’t be the only cyclist who makes these choices. But that actually becomes a problem.

The tragedy of the commons

In the midsize midwestern college town I call home, estimates suggest about 4,000 people commute by bike. That might not sound like many, but consider the traffic backups that would result if even just a few hundred cyclists went out at rush hour and rode at leisurely speeds on the half-dozen arterial roads in my city.

Technology optimists might suggest that driverless cars will be able to pass cyclists more safely and efficiently. They might also be directed to use other roads that are less clogged, though that carries its own risks.

But what happens if it’s a lovely spring afternoon and all those 4,000 bike commuters are riding, in addition to a few thousand kids and teenagers running, riding or skating down my local roads? Some might even try to disrupt the flow of traffic by walking back and forth in the road or even just standing and texting, confident the cars will not hit them. It’s easy to see how good driverless cars will enable people to enjoy those previously terrifying streets, but it also demonstrates that safety for people and efficiency for cars can’t happen at the same time.


People versus cars

It’s not hard to imagine a situation where driverless cars can’t get anywhere efficiently – except late at night or early in the morning. That’s the sort of problem policy scholars enjoy working on, trying to engineer ways for people and technology to get along better.


One proposed solution would put cars and bicycles on different areas of the streets, or transform certain streets into “autonomous only” thoroughfares. But I question the logic of undertaking massive road-building projects when many cities today struggle to afford basic maintenance of their existing streets.

An alternative could be to simply make new rules governing how people should behave around autonomous vehicles. Similar rules exist already: Bikes aren’t allowed on most freeways, and jaywalking is illegal across most of the U.S.

Regulating people instead of cars would be cheaper than designing and building new streets. It would also help work around some of the technical problems of teaching driverless cars to avoid every possible danger – or even just learning to recognize bicycles in the first place.

However, telling people what they can and can’t do in the streets raises a key problem. In vibrant communities, roads are public property, which everyone can use for transportation, of course – but also for commerce, civil discourse and even civil disobedience. Most of the U.S., however, appears to have implicitly decided that streets are primarily for moving cars quickly from one place to another.

There might be an argument for driverless cars in rural areas, or for intercity travel, but in cities, if driverless cars merely replace human-driven vehicles, then communities won’t change much, or they may become even more car-dependent. If people choose to prioritise road safety over all other factors, that will shift how people use roads, sidewalks and other public ways. But then autonomous vehicles will never be particularly efficient or convenient.

The Conversation

Daniel Piatkowski, Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.