The Social Impact of Local Energy Developments: Our research on Tidal Lagoon Swansea Bay

The tidal power scheme proposed for Swansea Bay (Tidal Lagoon Swansea Bay) has been in the news today due to the government’s announcement that it is discussing subsidising the ambitious £1bn project.  Questions are being raised in the media about the levels of subsidy on offer and the potential impact on household fuel bills, and about whether the government’s willingness to back the project is intended to distract attention from its attempts to reinvigorate the North Sea oil industry.  However, what is missing from the current debate is what the impact of this project on local people might be. Our research has used the tidal lagoon as a case study for exploring the social and economic impact of local energy infrastructure, and the role of local communities in energy developments.  Whilst there is a pressing need to develop new energy infrastructure in the UK to meet low carbon targets and future energy security, questions remain about what role is played by local people in terms of consultation, and to what extent they might be expected to benefit from local energy infrastructure developments.  Broader questions are raised about what responsibility the private sector has (or should have) to benefit local communities, and about good practice for democratically engaging the public in decisions relating to infrastructure developments.

The proposed development involves a range of community benefit activities, including the provision of local medium- and long-term employment; recreation and sports facilities; arts and culture funding; skills training and educational programmes; contributions to coastal flood defences and mariculture/ marine restocking programmes.  The company is also working to develop a supply chain for major turbine component parts in Wales and the rest of the UK, and aims to provide cheaper energy tariffs for people living in the local area.  So as well as providing a clean and reliable source of energy over an estimated 150 year lifespan, this development aims to have a positive social and economic impact.  It could go some way towards replacing lost local industry with a new, cleaner industry which does not bring the kinds of environmental degradation historically seen in places like the Lower Swansea Valley.  As such, at this stage the development would seem to have potential to address some of the long-standing problems associated with postindustrial cities like Swansea, in which many people are reliant upon precarious, low-paid service sector work and where the disappearance of local industry has had widespread social and economic effects.

A key aim of our research has been to explore the potential role of the private sector in contributing to, or undermining, local resilience, and to develop insights into good practice for community involvement and community benefit.  Over a two year period, we studied the consultation undertaken by Tidal Lagoon Power, which was notably extensive for the sector, and which utilised a range of innovative methods to engage with and inform local people about the proposed development.  Local feedback helped to inform the development, particular in terms of the community benefit strategy, and ensured that the concerns and priorities of local people were taken into account.    As a case study, the tidal lagoon development has provided useful insights into how processes of consultation and benefit activities are played out at local levels, and given examples of good practice in community involvement for private sector energy developments.  When speaking to us as independent researchers, local people’s responses to the proposals were unusually positive for such a large-scale development, and this was seen to be due in part to the consultation process and because people felt that the tidal lagoon would provide local benefit.  This included the provision of jobs, facilities and economic value, but also the proposed development was seen as a potential source of local pride.  Of course, certain sections of the local population and local stakeholders have had misgivings and concerns from the beginning, as is to be expected for a development of this scale and ambition, particularly one which is unfamiliar and which will utilise new – and to some extent untried – technologies.  The extent and nature of the impact is also yet to be seen.

Whilst the national debate is rightly focused on the potential scale of the investment from the UK government, our research highlights the need to consider the social impact of energy infrastructure, and how local people can be meaningfully engaged in decision making processes.  Going forward, the debate perhaps needs to includes questions of how to balance national needs with local needs and preferences, and how to ensure that social, economic and environmental factors are all taken into consideration in developing strategies to meet our future energy needs.