Severn Barrage Plan has dazzled generations of engineers
O NE day in 1919, John Pannell, who worked at the Great Western Railway company's chief engineer's office in Paddington, dropped a note into the suggestions box.
Like any well-run firm, GWR operated a staff suggestions scheme, with a modest financial reward for the best ideas.
Mr Pannell's thoughts were scrutinised by the management, who thought there might be something to them. They were passed further up the chain of command until they were passed on to the government.
The Ministry of Transport was a new creation, made necessary by the First World War and the need to co-ordinate the movement of huge quantities of soldiers, munitions, food and war materials.
The men from the Ministry passed Mr Pannell's suggestion on to the Minister himself.
This was Sir Eric Geddes, a personal friend of Prime Minister Lloyd George. Geddes was a successful businessman who had been brought into the wartime government as one of Lloyd George's "men of push and go" to bring some energy and talent into the war effort.
Geddes looked at Pannell's suggestion and was enthralled.
We don't know if Mr Pannell was ever awarded the prize for GWR's brightest idea of the year. But just as it captivated Sir Eric, so it has bedazzled and besotted generations of engineers, business people and politicians ever since.
In almost 100 years, the idea of using the tidal power of the River Severn to generate electricity has lost none of its charisma. Men (it is always men) have fallen madly in love with the idea, some spending entire lifetimes drawing up and perfecting plans.
Pannell's idea was nothing airy-fairy. It was visionary, yes, but it was a hard-headed product of necessity. As a GWR engineer he knew the company had a problem. At this time, there was little road transport worth talking about; most passengers and goods in Britain were moved by rail; the coastal shipping industry had been devastated by U-Boats, and now the rail system was struggling to cope with demand.
The Severn Tunnel, linking South West England and the Midlands with South Wales was no longer adequate. So, he reasoned, why not put a barrier across the Severn to carry railway lines. This could then also be used as a huge hydro-electric scheme generating power.
It would also impound a vast amount of water upstream, creating an immense artificial lake. Locks on the barrage would enable the largest ships in the world to enter this huge basin, creating the world's largest floating harbour.
The Men from the Ministry, along with the men from GWR did some sums. The cost of the scheme would be something in the region of £7 million. The sum cannot easily be translated into modern terms, but since this was a time when a skilled working man might earn £5 in a good week, we are talking about tens of billions.
Plans were sketched out.
To get over the problem of variations in tidal flow at different times of day, some of the power at peak times would be used to pump water up to a reservoir high up the Wye Valley. At slack times this would be allowed to flow back down to drive the turbines to generate power. An official announcement from the Ministry said:
The attractions of the scheme would appear to be limitless. They open up a vista which is little short of a revolution in the industrial life of the West and Midlands of England. It effectively solves the problem of congestion for all traffic between South Wales and the West of England both by road and rail, and brings within reach of all classes of the community the blessings of light, purity and power.
It would save the nation three or four million tons of coal each year and would generate electricity at a cost of just over half a penny per unit.
And then, setting a pattern which has been repeated intermittently ever since, the plans got kicked into the long grass. The Treasury, doing its job properly, said that the whole thing would have to be costed out properly. A feasibility study would have to be carried out.
The scheme also had political opponents with agendas of their own. The saving of three or four million tons of coal per annum was not at all welcome in South Wales, one of the main centres of Britain's coal industry.
By 1921, it was completely off the agenda. The economy was struggling, men who had fought in the trenches were not all returning to "homes fit for heroes" but to growing rates of unemployment. The government undertook a major round of public spending cuts which came to be known as the "Geddes Axe" because now, ironically enough, Sir Eric was in a new job, supervising a committee on national expenditure.
This episode rarely appears in accounts of the Severn Barrage. It remains mired in obscurity, though it shouldn't be. This was the first time a Severn power generation scheme was seriously considered, and it set the pattern which has been followed ever since.
It goes like this: People start seriously talking about it, the government starts thinking about it, the government then commissions a study into it, the government decides it's probably a good idea, but we can't afford it. The idea goes dormant for a few years, and then it returns again.
The first time around, the barrage was back on the table pretty quickly, as a suggestion in the mid-1920s. This was a time of high unemployment, and so in addition to the other benefits, it would keep an estimated 10,000 men in work for seven years.
The government commissioned a report. Then it set up a committee.
It didn't report until 1933, but when it did it had an extensive plan. It would be built close to the site of the present-day Second Severn Crossing, it would take 15 years and employ an average 15,000 men during that time. When it finished it would provide 7 per cent of the entire country's anticipated electricity needs in 1941 at two-thirds the cost per unit of electricity from coal-fired stations. It would cost £38million.
Very interesting, said the government, which then did nothing.
And then a World War got in the way.
Incidentally, there is a persistent legend that had Hitler managed to conquer Britain, he would have built the Severn Barrage, presumably using slave labour. Maybe he did say something about it; the Fuehrer was notorious for blathering on about grand schemes, but the Nazi archives have yet to yield up any blueprints for Der Severn-Staudamm. And they probably never will.
Before the War had ended, though, the men from the Ministry (Fuel & Power this time) were looking at it again. They rightly anticipated a huge surge in demand for electricity in the postwar years and said the scheme was both practical and necessary.
At the same time, a group of architects and surveyors looking at plans for postwar Bristol said the barrage should be built, and that if it was, the lake upstream of it could be used as Britain's major port for intercontinental flying boat services.
But by 1947 the country had run out of money and was going through a period of austerity which makes our recent economic woes look like the most decadent Roman Emperor's feast.
Through the 1950s and 1960s the government and the (nationalised) electricity industry occasionally commissioned studies, always baulking at the cost. Then, a major oil price rise in 1973 caused by the OPEC embargo led to renewed calls for a barrage. But by 1975, with lower oil costs, the Central Electricity Generating Board was telling a Commons committee that Severn tidal power "offers no prospect of producing electricity more cheaply than other means".
In 1978 Labour's Secretary of State for Energy Tony Benn (also Bristol East's MP at this time) appointed Sir Herman Bondi to head a new committee looking into the barrage.
The Bondi Committee, reporting to the Conservative government in July 1981 said that the barrage was technically and economically viable. It looked at several possible locations but plumped for Brean Down, just south of Weston-super-Mare, to Lavernock Point, between Barry and Cardiff.
It would generate power using large pre-fabricated concrete caissons containing turbines every so often. It would cost £5.6bn, but likely rises in coal and oil prices would justify the investment provided the government didn't opt to build more nuclear power stations instead.
In 1984 the civil engineers Wimpey Atkins put forward a plan which represented a return to the Victorian solution. The Severn road bridge was too busy, and often forced to close in bad weather, and a new bridge was needed.
The firm proposed a shorter, cheaper barrage between Severn Beach and Sudbrook Point in Gwent which would double up as a road crossing, which of course would be the route of the M4 Second Severn Crossing built in the 1990s.
The Wimpey Atkins plan, put forward when Mrs Thatcher was in power, was a radical new departure, even though it is nowadays largely forgotten. It was going to be built entirely by the private sector, it claimed. There would be no need for any taxpayers' investment.
And so it continued. The 1980s also produced the very influential proposal from the Severn Tidal Power Group (STPG), a consortium of blue chip engineering and construction firms (Balfour Beatty, Taylor Woodrow, Sir Robert McAlpine and Alstom). Their plan adopted the Bondi report route from Brean Down to Lavernock, and claimed that the barrage, with 216 turbines, could provide up to six per cent of the UK's electricity needs.
The STPG plan remained the gold standard of barrage plans for almost 30 years, with a widespread assumption throughout the engineering industry that if it was ever built, it would look pretty much like this one.
By now, conservation groups were raising concerns about the likely effect on wildlife, while in more recent years the Bristol Port Company lobbied against a structure which could adversely affect its hugely successful business at Avonmouth, which is inside most of the proposed barriers.
The Bristol Port Company has lobbied against the most recent serious contender, Hafren Power, whose proposal was two weeks ago knocked back by the government on the grounds that its plans "failed to demonstrate economic, environmental and public acceptability".
The same Parliamentary report, however, goes on to recognise – as they always do! – that there may be potential for a barrage at some point in the future.
One thing of which you can be certain is that sooner or later we will be using the power of the Severn to generate power. We may never have a full-blown barrier across the water between England and Wales, but there will almost certainly be other, smaller schemes. Conservation bodies like Friends of the Earth and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, for instance, suggest that a series of artificial lagoons could be built, using turbines to capture power from the inward and/or outward flow of water. Or there may be tidal 'reefs' or smaller barriers and any number of other possibilities.
But the big, bold vision of a vast dam across the Severn will continue to mesmerise many.
The great lesson of history is that the Severn Barrage is never, ever, completely dead in the water. It would be a very daring punter indeed who would bet any money that there won't be another serious proposal on the table again within a few years – and possibly even months.