Monthly Archives: February 2014

Barrage Boosting

By Peter Coates

Sinclair Lewis’ eponymous 1922 novel about George F. Babbitt, the peppiest realtor in the burgeoning Midwestern US city of Zenith, is often credited with popularizing the term ‘booster’. On their lapels, he and zealous fellow members of the Zenith branch of the Boosters’ Club wear buttons that read ‘Boosters – Pep’. Whether you’re mixing a cocktail or pursuing a business opportunity, it’s all about putting some pep into it.

In a large lecture theatre in Bristol University’s Department of Engineering, one recent evening (18 February 2014), Professor Roger Falconer certainly put plenty of pep into a well-attended talk on the Severn barrage. Professor of Water Management and the Director of Hydro-environmental Research Centre at Cardiff University, Falconer is a leading expert on Severn tidal power and prominent advocate of a Severn Barrage – the subject of project student Alexander Portch’s research –  the most recent proposal for which (Hafren Power) was turned down in June 2013 by the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee.

Falconer’s lecture (‘Recent Considerations for a Severn Barrage’) was eagerly anticipated by Bristol-based project team members (three of us had just returned from an outing related to Jill Payne’s project on Somerset’s energy landscapes, which included a visit to the showroom in Bridgwater of EDF Energy, the company building two new reactors at Hinkley Point). We were not disappointed, and those seeking a lively and accessible introduction to the barrage controversy could not have asked for more.

Severn Barrage

Artist’s impression of the Severn Barrage
Source: Wikimedia Commons/David Kerr

Falconer firmly believes that the Severn estuary offers the ideal UK site for the large scale harnessing of tidal energy. His support for a two-way power generation proposal (as distinct from ebb tide generation only) was broadly contextualized within remorselessly rising global energy demand, the imperative to ditch dependence on fossil fuel, and with reference to ambitious EU targets for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (by 80% by 2050) . He then ran through alternative options for harvesting the Severn’s prodigious tidal power, such as a series of tidal lagoons, all of which he found wanting (alternative estuarine sites, such as the Mersey and Humber, also fall well short in his view). Not least, as a Welshman speaking in Bristol, he spoke to how a barrage would act as a magnet for regional economic growth, encouraging a westward shift of population from the overcrowded, water-stressed southeast.

Without mentioning salmon by name, Falconer admitted that the impact of a barrage on fish, especially migratory species, remained a major unresolved problem. And he quashed hopes that barrage construction would provide a magic bullet to keep at bay future inundation of the nearby Somerset Levels. Toward the end of his lecture, he conceded that he may not see a barrage built in his lifetime (he’s in his early sixties). But he feels that the time and energy he has devoted to boosting the project (most recently as a member of Hafren Power’s regional board and expert panel) will all have been worthwhile if he has managed to bring the project a bit closer to reality.

Severn Barrage with windmills

Artist’s impression of a Severn barrage (2008). Courtesy of Ecotricity

Falconer wrapped up his presentation with some footage of a bit of barrage promotion by the prominent environmentalist and writer, Jonathon Porritt. The former chair of the UK Ecology Party (forerunner of today’s Green Party) and former director of Friends of the Earth UK is a staunch booster of renewable energy development. Perched on a rock at what looked like the northern, Welsh terminus (Lavernock Point, south of Cardiff) of many recent barrage proposals, Porritt argues that, in a world of climate change that must rapidly decarbonize its energy supply, the benefits of a barrage outweigh its costs. (I’ve not been able to establish the exact source of the footage, but it could have been taken from a 30-minute programme Porritt presented on proposals to barrage the Severn that aired on BBC Wales’ ‘Week In, Week Out’ programme in October 2008, a time when he was chair of the Sustainable Development Commission, a government advisory body.) Porritt’s support for a barrage also meshes with his criticism of nuclear power: one of the statistics Falconer cited was that a barrage could generate power equivalent to the output of four nuclear power stations.

As you can imagine, a forest of hands went up at the start of the question and answer session. Project team member Marianna Dudley got hers up early and asked about the fate of the charismatic Severn Bore. Falconer readily concurred that the Bore would effectively disappear if a barrage was built. I got mine up a bit too late and just missed out on being called on to pose the final question. What I had wanted to ask about was how, precisely, the barrage would create the fresh recreational and tourist opportunities he’d touted. What was going to compensate for the loss of the recreational and tourist resource represented by the Bore and the sport fisheries of the Severn and its tributaries, the Usk and Wye? Luxury hotels on the banks of a placid, pellucid, lake-like inner estuary?

Though he opened his lecture by stressing that the beauty of tidal energy from an engineering standpoint was its complete and utter predictability, one area of barrage debate that Falconer’s lecture did not address was aesthetics. Babbitt opens with a paean to the ‘towers of Zenith’, which ‘aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods. They were neither citadels nor churches, but frankly and beautifully office-buildings’. The breath-taking ‘high modernist’ aesthetic of dams, visible in places such as the Elan Valley of mid-Wales, Kielder in Northumberland and Hoover Dam  on the border between Arizona and Nevada, can also be detected in artists’ impressions of the barrage. Whether an appeal to the technological sublime in future barrage advocacy will win over sceptical hearts and minds remains to be seen.

The humanities and Engaging with Government

By Marianna Dudley

The Power and the Water is an environmental history project.  We are investigating how our twenty-first century understandings and experiences of place and community have been shaped by historical environmental processes. But, in creating the project and shaping its research path, thoughts of current and future environmental challenges were never far away.

We want, from the outset, to connect our research into the pasts of our project sites with possibilities for their futures.  Working with external partners such as Northumbrian Water and engaging with local independent experts such as Dr Jim Rieuwerts (a sough historian working with Carry and Georgina in Derbyshire) is helping us identify research questions and think about how our research will be useful for government, energy and utilities companies, heritage bodies, and local interest groups. Our interest in water management and infrastructure feels particularly timely in the wake of the extensive flooding here in the Southwest and other parts of Britain.  Now, questions of the impacts of climate change, discussions of best practice and planning for the future in water management and infrastructure, and the evident power of water to impact on lives and livelihoods have made many of the issues we are investigating part of widespread public debate and put them firmly on the policy agenda. The AHRC-Institute for Government’s ‘Engaging with Government 2014’ course that Post Doctoral Research Assistant (PDRA) Carry van Lieshout and I attended in London 11-13 February couldn’t have come at a better time.

The Institute for Government (IfG) sits just off the Mall, deliberately close to the centres of power in Whitehall. The UK’s leading independent charity and think tank promoting more effective government, it works with cross-party and Whitehall governance to increase government effectiveness and promote good policy making, with an emphasis on the use of evidence to support policy. As academics, the key way to influence or engage with policy is by presenting our research as evidence to inform decisions.  The course taught us that it matters how we go about doing this, and imparted some techniques for doing so. Being aware of the changing political landscape, for example, is helpful: crisis points and changes of office create windows of opportunity, for it is at these times that new approaches are often taken, and policy-makers are looking for experts (us!) and new ideas.   It also matters how our research itself is presented.  It must be accessible, succinct, direct – and, with the preference of civil servants for statistics – full of usable data.  For us arts and humanities scholars, this presented some issues that we worked through over the course –  more on which later.

Jill Rutter is programme director at the IfG and led the course, which was specifically for Arts and Humanities scholars working in areas with the potential to engage with policy. Before working at the IfG, Jill was director of strategy and sustainable development at DEFRA; previous civil service roles include policy lead on tax, development and local government finance.  She was able to explain to us the structures of government and processes of policy-making that are necessary to know in order to engage meaningfully with decision-making.  This crash-course in the theories and realities of politics and policy-making was one of the most useful aspects of the course.  What was made clear, across the three days, was that in order to be heard by civil servants you have to know who to target.  You essentially have to do your homework by mapping out where the power lies, and who makes the decisions.  This is one area of engaging with government that we, as researchers, should all be able to do.  We are well-versed in doing our background reading and establishing key research questions.  By extending early project research to include stakeholder mapping – identifying key figures and networks in your subject or case study area – not only are you better placed to connect with relevant decision makers, but you have a usable working picture of relationships and decision-making in your area that can aid your research too.  Stakeholder mapping in this respect is a win-win exercise that I suspect many of us do to some extent anyway, but that benefits from a rigorous and focused approach.

IfG brought in a range of people working at the heart of government to speak to us, including Stephen Aldridge, Director of Analysis and Innovation at the Department for Communities and Local Government. Stephen was convinced of the importance of the humanities (especially history) to his Department’s policymaking, but recognized that there was a heavy preference for statistical evidence. If government ultimately wants neat stats and big data, how can we – who work with narrative, long-term change, visual and textual documents, testimonies and case studies – hope to register on the short attention span of a time-harried civil servant?

There are ways, and the responsibility lies with us.  We need to make it easy for non-academics to quickly understand our research.  By quickly, I mean, in a paragraph. Producing regular newsletters and blog posts (tick) creates a flow of information through which we can create an audience for our work, from stakeholders we already work with to those we think should be taking notice. But in this form of communication, brevity and clarity are key.  We can (and do!) save methodological concerns and academic debate for journal articles and extended dialogues. When we take our work into the public, non-academic sphere, things like presentation and design can also make a real difference to how it is received, and are worth budgeting for where possible.

If we are looking to engage with government and gain a voice in decision-making processes, we must be prepared to raise our own profiles as academics. We are looked to as experts in our field.  A public profile and willingness to engage with media outlets are part of this. The IfG’s director of communications, Nadine Smith, impressed upon us the power of networking, through twitter – gaining info on public lectures, events etc. – and in person.  Though using social media was a predictable suggestion, the reminder to use it proactively (seeking out key figures, gaining public voice) and intelligently (directing people to our website and blog posts, where they can learn more about our project) was useful. The course achieved the impossible, and got me to finally join Twitter: @DudleyMarianna; project feed: @envirohistories.

Hearteningly, several speakers confirmed the value of a good case study.  We already know this: part of the previous, AHRC-funded ‘Local Places, Global Processes’ research network (part of the Researching Environmental Change programme) was to explore why the local can convey global narratives such as climate change in a meaningful way. This new project, having grown out of that research network, is enacting those convictions by placing local case studies at the heart of the research methodology.  But it is great to hear that those within (or with the ear of) government agree.  This is an area, I think, where arts and humanities scholars have a real chance of communicating change and perceptions of change, where numbers and data cannot.  Case studies, connecting pasts and futures, the local with the global, the personal with the societal and environmental, are the secret weapon in our toolkit.

The last word on this (bearing in mind my point about brevity) I give to Wayne Martin, a philosopher whose Essex Autonomy Project is influencing how government deals with issues of patient autonomy in mental healthcare.  Wayne gave us a masterclass in how to connect with multiple external partners and influence policy.  Yet, he said, at the end of the day it comes down to one thing:  good research.  Really, really good research.  Because if we are researching the things that matter, producing work that deserves to be heard, and working hard to make sure it is disseminated, then people will take notice. And that, I think, we can all do.

With thanks to the AHRC and the Institute for Government for running the course; and for Jill Rutter, for delivering it with indomitable energy.


The Power of the Water: Surfing in the Severn Estuary

By Alexander Portch

This blog post was very nearly never written. Setting an alarm for 5:30 the night before my heart was already beginning to sink at the prospect of such an early start on a Sunday morning, and thus it was no surprise when I eventually emerged from beneath the covers at five past six. A scolding shower and a brisk trot down the road to my waiting steed, a loyal if somewhat ageing Rover 416, both served, however, to refresh my body and awaken my still-slumbering mind to the reason for such peculiar behaviour in the half-light before dawn. Today, Sunday 2nd February, is a key date in the diary of surfers, “severnsiders” and half-mad PhD students alike; a once a year occurrence that, for a matter of minutes, transforms sleepy Severnside into the heart of a media circus (by Gloucestershire standards at least): a 5* Severn bore.

Bore silence

Peace and tranquillity on the river prior to the Bore’s arrival, as seen from the water’s edge near Arlingham looking towards the church at Newnham.
Photo: Alexander Portch


No mere 2 stars this time. Whilst the bore of the 6th December 2013, witnessed by myself, PI Coates and PDRA Payne, was undoubtedly spectacular and an experience both to savour and remember, its lone avian passenger was testament to its relative insignificance in contrast to the real star of the show (pun intended). Admittedly, when seen first-hand there is little to differentiate a 5* bore from its lesser cousin the 4*, an example of which has already occurred this weekend, with a repeat showing first thing tomorrow; and should such a wave coincide with the right conditions, namely strong south-westerly winds and a sizable swell from the Irish Sea and the Bristol Channel, a lower rating can quickly become something much more substantial. But it is the 5* that draws the crowds, including surfers, kayakers, paddle-boarders and smartphone-wielding spectators, and it is that unorthodox congregation that generates a wholly unique and inspiring atmosphere.

Not that I would know as, in anticipation of queues of traffic and masses of tourists, replete with screaming children and yapping dogs, I decided against the Severn surfing hub of Newnham as my bore-watching site of choice, opting instead for the quieter and more remote location of The Old Passage Inn near Arlingham on the opposite shore. Arriving shortly before 07:30 I was gifted with a tranquil half hour to enjoy a flask of tea whilst listening to the dawn chorus and the muffled conversations of the handful of surfers and spectators who had already made their bleary-eyed way to that spot on the banks of the Afon Hafren. After only a brief stroll upriver to stretch cramped limbs and breathe the fresh morning air, the waterside was already filling with spectators as the last few available parking spaces were rapidly secured and the first groups of surfers made their tentative way down to the water’s edge. By eight o’clock a sizable crowd had gathered after all, including the occasional screaming child and the less occasional yapping dog, but it was clear from the gathering on the far shore that the majority of committed bore-watchers were merrily welcoming the first rays of sunlight (yes the sun really did shine) closer to Newnham.

Crowds gather on the riverbank

Crowds gather on the riverbank at Newnham whilst surfers make their way down towards the frigid waters of the Severn.
Photo: Alexander Portch

Thereafter a seemingly long and tense wait ensued. In reality it was only another 30 minutes until the bore came thundering around the Arlingham horse-shoe from the direction of Frampton-on-Severn; the roar of its crashing waves and surging white water audible long before it reached the point at which I stood, camera poised, finger fixed to the shutter release, but the handful of minutes prior to its arrival were characterised by a remarkable sense of anticipation, excitement and even uncertainty. Only hours before, warnings had been issued by the Environment Agency and the Severn Area Rescue Association (SARA – the Severn’s equivalent of the RNLI), advising against surfing the bore, or even witnessing it as a mere spectator, due to concerns over the likelihood that the rising waters that succeed the passage of the bore wave would overtop the banks and potentially sweep the unwary bystander off their feet and into the clutches of the River Goddess herself. Given the recent flooding throughout much of the Severn valley and the Somerset levels there was every reason for the emergency services to be concerned. Thankfully, however, no such disaster befell the onlookers and water sports enthusiasts at Arlingham and Newnham this morning. The bore proved to be every bit as awe-inspiring as expected, with waves perhaps as high as two metres or more propelling those in the water with great force far up-river whilst simultaneously pounding against the cliffs of Newnham and the handful of boats resting on the banks nearby.

First sight of the bore!

First sight of the bore!


Despite its turbulent and unpredictable nature; the bore still provides an ideal wave for surfers, enabling them to remain upright for much longer than would ever be possible on the breakers of Fistral Beach or Polzeath.
Photo: Alexander Portch

Twice a day throughout the year the River Severn is transformed, in these estuarine reaches, into the Severn Sea; but to witness that process taking place quite so rapidly and in such a spectacular fashion is a privilege and a delight. It is also particularly heartening to see so many enthusiastic people, both local and those drawn from much further afield, being brought together along the shores of the Severn on a crisp morning in the middle of winter. Whilst the river can often seem windswept, lonely and almost forgotten by the fast pace and high tech of the 21st century, the bore is a clear reminder of just how central it can be to the lives of so many people. The recent proposal to construct a barrage across the estuary may have been rejected for now, but if the past century or more is anything to go by it is far from being taken off the agenda and the estuary is still the focus of on-going efforts to harness the power of the tides in British coastal waters. What will be the implications of such developments for the one truly natural feature of the modern Severn estuary and for the future of bore watching and bore surfing in the British Isles?


Is this a river, or the Sea?
Photo: Alexander Portch