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 other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

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Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.