Wales-England ‘Western Gateway’ group to seek investment for tidal energy and rail projects
Alex Seabrook, local democracy reporter
A cross-border group of councils that aims to bind Wales and England closer together will seek investment next year for tidal energy and rail upgrades.
The Western Gateway, which is made up of councils in the south of Wales and the west of England, has been billed as a counterpoint to the Northern Powerhouse, for attracting major government funding for region-wide infrastructure schemes.
Including Cardiff, Swansea, Newport, Bristol, Bath and Swindon, the Western Gateway group has now set out its priorities for next year.
These include tidal energy—which could mean a barrage built across the Severn estuary—as well as enhancing the Great Western mainline railway, and boosting the regional economy.
Cardiff council leader Huw Thomas sits on the board of the Western Gateway and is its political lead on tidal energy. He said tidal energy in the Severn estuary could provide as much as seven per cent of the total energy needed across the UK.
He said: “The UK government has so far refused to support a scheme due to a perceived requirement for high levels of public investment and concerns over the environmental impact on designated areas in the Severn estuary.
“However, the changing landscape of the climate emergency, energy insecurity, rising costs, and rapid technological improvements indicate that many of these policy, cost and environmental barriers may no longer be as significant. We want to find out what could be done to harness this incredible energy resource.”
In October the group revealed it was setting up a new commission to explore building a barrage across the estuary, as well as exploring other options for tidal energy. A barrage had previously been looked at in depth about a decade ago but ultimately dropped as it was seen as too expensive and harmful to the environment.
Regional groups such as the Western Gateway, and the more established Northern Powerhouse, are viewed by some as key to attracting huge levels of investment needed for major infrastructure projects, like improving the railways, as well as foreign direct investment.
Spending per person on infrastructure construction is about 26 per cent higher in the Northern Powerhouse than across the Western Gateway region, Cllr Thomas said, without including the benefits from HS2.
He added: “HS2 represents a significant improvement in connectivity across other parts of the country, putting the Western Gateway at risk of becoming worse off. South Wales and the west of England have not enjoyed the levels of rail enhancement investment experienced elsewhere in the UK over the past 30 years.
“This underinvestment has led to relatively less attractive services, attracting fewer passengers, and leading to higher subsidies compared to the rest of the UK.
“HS2 will put Cardiff and south Wales at a significant disadvantage. While the UK economy is predicted to receive a £15 billion benefit from HS2, south Wales’s GDP will lose an estimated £200 million per year. There are similar negative impacts for the southwest of England, with Bristol losing £100 million per year, and Gloucester, Bath and northeast Somerset another £100 million annually.”
To counter this, the Western Gateway is seeking investment for a range of railway upgrades. These include upgrading the South Wales Mainline and Great Western Mainline, running from Swansea through Cardiff, Bristol and eventually leading to Heathrow and London. This could mean faster speeds, new stations, and full electrification.
‘Other rail upgrades’
Other rail upgrades include improved links between Cardiff Central and Bristol Temple Meads, with express and local commuter services, potentially with four services an hour between the two stations. Another upgrade would be to improve the links between Cardiff and Birmingham via Gloucester, connecting to the HS2 network.
Cllr Thomas said improving connectivity was “vital” in meeting climate goals and boosting the regional economy, by decarbonising transport and making jobs available to people living in rural areas.
Katherine Bennett, who chairs the Western Gateway, said: “This is an exciting time for the Western Gateway. We believe that our area could become the UK’s first green energy supercluster and are working on a programme of work to integrate our strengths and assets across nuclear, hydrogen and tidal to create new opportunities for local communities at risk of being left behind.
“We are looking forward to setting out plans for the powerhouse partnership next month at our first conference, Green Growth in the Western Gateway, where leaders from business, research and the public sector from both sides of the Severn will help shape how these plans are brought to life.”