Mooted tidal energy project across ‘UK’s most important wild bird estuary’ damned by green groups

Plans for a major tidal energy and flood infrastructure project which would see a hydroelectric dam built across one of the UK’s most important estuaries for wild birds have emerged, prompting push-back from green groups.

Redshank, Tringa erythropus, one of the birds the Wash estuary is home to.

The developer behind the scheme, Centre Port Holdings Ltd, has published initial plans for a major £2 billion project which if successful will involve building a hydroelectric dam across The Wash estuary in the north of East Anglia, linking south east Lincolnshire with north east Norfolk.

The developer is currently seeking investment, stating in its prospectus that the project would create enough green tidal energy to power approximately 600,000 homes in the region, “with night-time surpluses being used to create green hydrogen to power industry and high-power requirements in farm vehicles”. A deep-water port is also included in the plans. Typically, this type of port allows access to large and heavily loaded vessels and generally require the water to be 30 feet deep or more.

This is not the first time plans for a barrier across the estuary have been proposed, with plans previously brought forward in 2008. However, they were abandoned after outcry from conservation groups, who have come out again in opposition to the hydro-dam plans. 

A coalition of green groups including the RSPB, Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), and Wild Ken Hill Estate have said that as well as being the UK’s most important estuary for wild birds, The Wash is also home to England’s largest common seal colony, and is an important fishery.

According to Centre Port’s prospectus, the project will bring about improved flood protection for the Fens, and would in fact protect the “unique ecology of The Wash by controlling storm surges and inland flooding.” 

However, the green groups have disagreed on this point. “A tidal barrage would fundamentally alter the nature of the intertidal habitats on which this wildlife depends,” read the joint statement, which added that the construction of a barrier across the mouth of the estuary would “displace the flow of tidal water in and out of the estuary, raising concerns this could lead to greater - and more frequent – flooding, and cause significant coastal erosion."

The conservation groups added that the shallow waters of The Wash would make a deep-water port difficult to build, as the rivers flowing into the estuary deposit huge amounts of sediment into it. According to the green groups, about 20% of England’s landmass is drained by rivers flowing into it, and as a result, maintaining a deep-water port would require “intensive dredging” to maintain.

“It is unclear what effect this might have on nearby ports in Boston and King’s Lynn,” they said.  

Dr James Robinson, director of conservation at the WWT added that building a barrage “wouldn't address the energy crisis as it would take years to construct”.  

He continued: “It would, however, cause permanent damage to one of the UK's most important wetland habitats with devastating effects on biodiversity at a time when we are facing a biodiversity crisis in the UK and worldwide. 

“It would also destroy saltmarsh, a vital carbon store that helps combat climate change. If the UK government is truly committed to recovering nature it must oppose any plans for a barrage across the Wash." 

According to Centre Port, the timescales of the project mean it is expected to be five to eight years before it is completed. 

In its prospectus, it claims to have received “strong, albeit informal, institutional support for the core development”, and does not anticipate difficulty in securing the development capital needed “at a time when renewable energy projects are so topical in government after COP26 and sought after by major financial institutions”.

However, the firm is yet to carry out a feasibility study, which would include “all the information on the project, the seabed, landside connections, equipment, construction requirements, wind and wave studies, Environmental Impact Assessments, [and] detailed design etc”. This is estimated to cost £5 million, with the environmental clearances budgeted at £3 million. 

Centre Port did not respond to a request for comment.

This article was updated to say that plans were previously brought forward for a barrage across The Wash in 2008. The piece orginally said 2018.