Time to push the boat out on Wales’ blue economy

The news that Charles Hendry has recommended the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon to the UK Government today has been met with delight by those of us who back the project.

When Hendry met with a group of AMs a few months ago, we left him in no doubt of our commitment to the lagoon – both as a means of tackling climate change and as a potentially major contributor to Wales’ economy.

Modern Wales was built on energy and clean tidal energy technology could be Wales’ next big industry. And the 100 year commitment the first lagoon brings to the Swansea Bay regional economy could be a catalyst for major economic development in sectors which support lagoon technology and construction.

Wales is a tidal nation. Its long coastline and high tidal reach are a major asset. Outside the UK, Canada and France are amongst the few countries with a comparable natural advantage – and countries which don’t have this advantage can’t develop it either. It makes good sense for us to focus on developing sectors of the economy where we can offer something most other countries can’t – and sectors where success doesn’t depend on our membership of the European Union.

The bad news is that the global potential of this technology is well understood by others and our competitors are not going to hang around and wait for Wales and the UK to gain the advantage. So it is imperative now that we have swift action from the UK Government to agree a strike price for lagoon electricity and swift action from Natural Resources Wales to grant a marine licence, to avoid further delays.

If these steps are not taken promptly, we will lose our “first mover” advantage to some other location and a golden opportunity may be lost.

I have some sympathy with local angling clubs who have genuine concerns about the effect on local salmon and sea trout stocks, though the actual impact is hotly disputed. But what isn’t in question is that one of the biggest threats to marine biodiversity is climate change, which developments like the lagoon can help tackle.

But today’s decision has much bigger implications. It signals a huge opportunity – a step towards  turning one of Wales’ most abundant natural resources, our seas, into one of its biggest economic assets. To grow the “blue economy” of Wales.

The Welsh Government has been backing the marine economy for some time and this year will be consulting on a new Marine Plan. Some of it is still in its infancy worldwide, but whether it is wave or tidal, Welsh Government has €100m of European money set aside for developing marine energy, with some exciting projects already underway in Pembrokeshire and Anglesey. But the blue economy is much more than energy, it’s tourism and sport, fishing, aquaculture and food and marine manufacturing and engineering as well.

The government estimates that economic activity related to the sea is already valued at around £2.1bn in Wales, supporting tens of thousands of jobs, with the potential for thousands more. This is before any really major developments in marine renewables.

So what do we need to do to take best advantage of this opportunity?

The Welsh Government should set out a commitment from all parts of government, with clear goals to harness the potential of our seas, sustainably.

  • An ambitious marketing strategy – showcasing the investment opportunity in the Welsh marine sector backed by a government which is agile and committed to the blue economy on a “whole government” basis (as recommended by the Assembly’s Enterprise committee last year). It could start with hosting an international summit of potential purchasers of lagoon technology in Swansea Bay
  • Stretching but deliverable targets for energy from offshore and marine renewables over a realistic time frame, with a long term commitment to smart innovation funding to support the goal.
  • A commitment to seeking a strike price framework with the UK government for different marine technologies – tidal, wave and offshore wind for example, to minimise the scope for future delays.
  • Ensuring the new National Infrastructure Commission is tasked with an early assessment of the transport, energy and other infrastructure needs of the blue economy.
  • Ensuring the process for marine licensing and consenting is fast, transparent and fit for purpose.
  • A commitment to utilise any new powers over ports it may get though the Wales Bill as part of a ports policy which supports the blue economy.
  • Undertaking a blue economy skills audit – both in terms of engineering and manufacture but also service sector needs.
  • Pressing the UK government to make good any shortfall in EU funding for the marine sector as a result of leaving the EU and make sure the Brexit process does not involve any reversal of the Welsh Government’s devolved competences in marine policy.

The blue economy is a major opportunity for Wales. Let’s not miss the boat.