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Politics

Energy policy and the environment

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LAST WEEK The Herald looked at the energy market and the ways in which different parties have approached the question of rising domestic energy bills.

That article discussed the ways in which taking advantage of existing energy efficiency schemes and the use of the most competitive tariffs would reduce bills far more than a simple price cut on the most commonly used domestic tariff.

Labour has claimed it will create over 300,000 renewable energy jobs throughout the country and put modern low-carbon industries at the heart of a £500 billion investment strategy, championing ‘a new green industrial revolution’.

One of the big ideas underpinning that commitment is to promote the growth of local energy companies and support the development of 1,000 community energy co-operatives. That’s accompanied by a commitment to 65% renewable electricity by 2030, aiming for 85% as technology improves and diffuses.

All of which will sound very familiar to Plaid Cymru, whose Shadow Environment spokesperson, Simon Thomas AM, has called for the creation of Ynni Cymru to promote Wales’ own self-sufficiency in domestic energy. It sounds like Plaid’s clothes have been lifted by Jeremy Corbyn’s promises to invest in similar schemes and raise investment across the UK.

Labour has set out a radical commitment to set up publicly-owned energy supply companies in every region focused purely on cutting prices. Under the same proposals, Government would take ‘control of the natural monopolies of the transmission and distribution grids’ currently run by the National Grid.

The Labour leader has made big promises, and the cynical might think that Labour may as well shoot for The Moon, given the remote chances it has of forming an administration under Jeremy Corbyn as PM.

“We’ve got a real opportunity to drive the green economy – to have green jobs, green growth, and make sure that we have our share of the industries of the future. Clearly there’s the climate change agenda, where we’ve got to get back on track, both nationally and internationally. And third, there is the issue of energy security, which I think is vitally important, which we need to do a huge amount of work on.”

Those were big promises, too. They were made seven years ago by David Cameron at the outset of his first term as PM, when he pledged to lead the greenest government ever. By 2013, David Cameron was keen to ‘get rid of all the green crap’, as the hopes of 2010 smashed into the economic and political realities of Treasury austerity.

The rug was pulled from under the renewables industry: following through on the pledge to virtually ban onshore wind, and slashing the feed in tariff. Overall UK carbon emissions had been falling but the growth in renewables deployment stalled, and solar companies employing thousands of people around the country went bust.

Five years later, at the outset of his second term, David Cameron pulled the Green Deal for UK homes.

On every single one of those policy decisions, commitments, and staggering reversals Theresa May went along, bobbing along like a cork on the tide of Cabinet collective responsibility. The number of times she has spoken out on energy policy in public can be counted on the fingers of one thumb. However, she merged the Department of Energy and Climate Change into a new Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in July 2016.

While that suggests a rather less overtly ‘green’ approach to the PR side of politics than her predecessor, it is noteworthy that Theresa May has expressed consistent and strong positions on the issue of energy security. Her first noteworthy public policy decision was to initiate a pause on the development of Hinkley B, ostensibly due to concerns of increasing UK reliance on Chinese investment in its energy infrastructure.

In addition, in a complex and volatile international energy market, there are clear attractions for the PM in adopting measure which enhance energy security and the reduction on the reliance of overseas energy. Her concerns on energy supply were echoed in the 2015 Conservative manifesto, which said: ‘Without secure energy supplies, our country becomes less safe and less prosperous’.

And, in 2008, Mrs May said: “I am thrilled to see that after years of Conservative pressure, we have finally passed a necessary and ambitious piece of legislation on Climate Change. Britain is the first country in the world to formally bind itself to cut greenhouse emissions and I strongly believe this will improve our national and economic security.

“To stay reliant on fossil fuels would mean tying ourselves to increasingly unstable supplies which could endanger our energy security and the Climate Change and Energy Bills mark an important step for both the health of our economy and the health of our nation. It is now vital that we stick to these targets.”

The logic of Mrs May’s evident and consistently expressed concerns on security of energy supply is to make the UK more self-sufficient. There are two sides to that issues: firstly, the extension of green energy generation; secondly, the extension of fracking and nuclear power.

The second limb of that proposition is the most contentious. Fracking is a public relations disaster waiting to happen and the first time it is scheduled to take place in a Conservative-held marginal seat is when we will see just how committed the Conservative party is to its use. As for nuclear power, it requires considerable public support and subsidy to make it even marginally viable for the long term.

The only large energy project requiring anything like the level of price support as nuclear power is the Swansea Tidal Lagoon, which for all its carbon-saving claims involves quarrying stone in Cornwall, building new jetties extending into the Bristol Channel and transporting the stone over by barge to Swansea by the thousands of tonnes to build a tidal barrage affecting marine life and habitats across the whole of Swansea Bay.

For someone as sensitive to polls as Theresa May it is worth noting that the BEIS tracker surveys on consumer views shows significantly higher support for renewable energy (at around 75-80%) than for other options. Opposition to renewables was very low at 4%, with only 1% strongly opposed.

However, and this is where energy policies and political judgement come into play, support for renewables was lower amongst those in social grade DE (72%), aged 65+ (73%), and social renters (75%).

The first two of those groups are key electoral demographics whose support Theresa May is actively courting. The triangulation of Conservative policy on energy, which now appears to have abandoned the notion that competition delivers the best results for energy users, might not swing a lot of votes, but the Conservative leader will not be shy of using every gimmick in her arsenal to court wavering voters looking for a way to justify voting Conservative.

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Politics

‘Sort finances before service changes’

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Proposals must be financially sound: Dinah Mulholland, Ceredigion CLP

ONE ​of​ ​w​est Wales’ Labour Constituency Parties has called for the Health Board not to proceed with its plans for major health service change until its long-standing financial crisis has been resolved.

On Friday, May 25, Ceredigion Constituency Labour Party passed a motion calling on the Board to think again.

In the last financial year the health board overspent its £760m budget by £70m, or ​9%​, and the board itself describes its regular overspends as ​’​growing year on year​’​.

Ceredigion Labour Party points out that although the changes in service provision which are being proposed may provide better patient care, they cannot also be expected to deliver savings if standards of care are intended to be maintained.

Dinah Mulholland, spokesperson for CCLP, said: ​”​We welcome all attempts to improve local health services. But acceptable proposals must be based on sound financial projections and dependable financial commitments.

“For instance, all three of the board’s alternative proposals for the delivery of clinical services involve the building of a new major urgent and planned care hospital `between Narberth and St Clears’, to replace other hospitals that would be closed or downgraded. Yet the Welsh Government has offered no commitment to provide capital funding for this scheme.

“We are calling for a `Stop and Fix’ approach because unless the financial arrangements are stabilised we see a very real threat that at some point during the next few years progress with major changes in service provision could be overtaken and overwhelmed by a sudden financial collapse.

“And if the board is preoccupied with delivering major changes in service provision it will be paying less attention to managing its ongoing financial problems.

“We would welcome a commitment from Hywel Dda not to proceed with any major reconfiguration of clinical services until it has secured resources to remedy the chronic and ingrained underfunding of health services in mid and west Wales. This proposed reconfiguration cannot and should not be expected to solve Hywel Dda’s long-standing problem with underfunding.”

Last week (May 23) the Welsh Health Secretary announced an annual increase of £27m in Hywel Dda’s revenue funding, but CCLP describes this as “sticking plaster” as it represents only 39% of the deficit in the last financial year.

The Health Secretary has said that this new funding puts Hywel Dda on a “fair funding basis”, but CCLP points out that if the board’s funding has only just become “fair” this raises additional questions about how much the local NHS budget has been “short-changed” in every year since the National Assembly began.

A review by the Welsh Government, as part of the Targeted Intervention support provided to Hywel Dda Health Board, found that two factors, demographics and scale, generated excess costs that were unavoidable to the Board.

The review, undertaken by Deloitte LLP, confirms the view held by many people in Ceredigion and mid and west Wales that Hywel Dda faces a unique set of healthcare challenges.

Hywel Dda is consulting the public on three alternative proposals for providing clinical care, closing and/or downgrading Withybush Hospital, Prince Philip hospital in Llanelli and Glangwili hospital in Carmarthen. In all three proposals community care would be strengthened so that more people can be treated and supported closer to home. In all versions Bronglais hospital in Aberystwyth would remain as a District General Hospital.

The 12-week public consultation began on 19 April and will end on 12 July. Ceredigion CLP is also critical of the board’s plans for obtaining the views of the public, which it points out do not include any meetings with platform speakers open to the general public. CCLP says this is unacceptable.

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Politics

WG to miss climate change targets

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Changing climate: NASA chart shows 'Global Temperature Anomalies'

THE WELSH G​OVERNMENT​ will miss its own targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, says a National Assembly committee.

The Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee examines the issue in its first ever climate change annual report.

In its Climate Change Strategy published in 2010 the Welsh Government set out its target of reducing greenhouse gases in Wales by three per cent year-on-year, and at least a 40​% reduction by 2020.

The Committee was given three reasons for the failure – the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, the economic make-up of Wales and weather patterns.

But the Committee concluded that these variables should have been taken into account when the policies were developed and targets set.

The Welsh Government is being advised on its new approach, framed by the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, by the UK Committee on Climate Change, which has recommended it set new, lower targets in the short term.

The Assembly committee believes this is regrettable but necessary given the lack of progress by the Welsh Government.

Members also learned that the level of engagement in the Welsh Government’s Cabinet on climate change was insufficient, with a lack of joint-working across different departments.

Even though the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme may be a reason for missing emissions targets, the Committee notes there is still no sign of a new scheme to take its place after the UK leaves the EU. The Committee concludes there needs to be a greater sense of urgency on addressing this matter.

“The Welsh Government’s targets on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Wales were ambitious, but attainable,” said Mike Hedges AM, Chair of the Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee.

“That the Government will miss these targets by some margin is deeply disappointing, and the Committee is not convinced by some of the reasoning behind the failure.

“We believe there needs to be a much more co-ordinated approach across government departments if Wales is to truly become a greener, more sustainable nation.

“In the short term we accept the view of the Committee on Climate Change that the Welsh Government revise down its targets.

“We have made a number of recommendations in our report around agriculture, forestry, housing and transport which we believe will ensure ministers will deliver on their climate change commitments and obligations.”

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Politics

Conservatives crank-up calls for Carwyn to go

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Since you gotta go, you'd better go now: Andrew RT Davies says Wales can't wait for Labour

THE CONSERVATIVES have called for Carwyn Jones’s replacement as Labour leader in Wales to be chosen sooner rather than later.

Andrew RT Davies, leader of the Conservatives in the Assembly, has raised fears of legislative inertia and lack of progress on key projects while uncertainty continues around the identity of Mr Jones’s successor.

Mr Davies has warned that Wales faces a period of ​’​rudderless leadership​’​ in Welsh Government, if the process to select Carwyn Jones’ replacement is allowed to drag on until December.

The Conservatives say that internal wrangling within Welsh Labour over the electoral system used to elect leaders could delay a contest by months, with some Labour members calling for the introduction of ‘one-member-one-vote’.

But Mr Davies is concerned that a ​’​vacuum at the heart of Welsh politics​’​ could have serious consequences for public services in Wales.

He said: “The First Minister’s decision to stand down has created an immediate vacuum at the heart of Welsh politics, and we now face a period of rudderless leadership whilst the Labour Party works out how to elect his replacement.

“They need to get a move on, for the sake of our public services and public confidence in devolution.

“Welsh NHS waiting lists are spiralling, we have a teacher recruitment crisis, and take-home pay is the lowest in any part of the UK.

“It is simply unacceptable for the country to be left in limbo until the end of the year.

“Frankly, the majority of the public are unconcerned by the mechanism used to determine Carwyn’s replacement, but we need to see a new First Minister with a mandate to take Wales forward in the coming weeks – not months.”

Mr Davies’ words were subsequently given more force when the outgoing First Minister refused to commit the Welsh Government to its preferred ‘Black Route’ for the M4 relief road.

Speaking in First Minister’s Questions, Carwyn Jones refused to back the route, despite his government having spent millions of pounds in preparatory work for its development – and having taken that route through to public consultation.

A number of routes have been proposed, but First Minister Carwyn Jones and the Welsh Government’s favoured option has always been the ‘black route’.

In May 2016 Carwyn Jones confirmed that the Welsh Government would not support the alternative – the ‘Blue Route’.

The First Minister said at the time: “One thing I will say is we wouldn’t support the blue route. There are a number of reasons for this.

“First of all, the blue route is dual carriageway, not a six-lane motorway, and that seems to me to defeat the whole object of a new road.”

Yet, when asked to reaffirm his government’s commitment to an M4 Relief Road, the First Minister refused – even claiming that he’d never publicly expressed a preference.

Speaking outside the Chamber, Leader of the Welsh Conservatives – Andrew RT Davies – said: “It looks like the M4 relief road is going to be the first casualty of Labour’s leadership contest.

“Despite spending millions of pounds preparing for the project – and despite having repeatedly backed the black route – the First Minister has now distanced himself from taking a decision.

“This is just the first major decision that will now be parked until a new leader is in place.

“This is why we need to see a swift resolution of the Labour leadership crisis, before the sense of inertia takes hold.

“On the current timetable, the new First Minister is unlikely to be in post before Christmas – just weeks before we leave the European Union, and several months after the public inquiry into the M4 relief road has reported.

“These decisions cannot simply be parked, and the Welsh public can’t be held to ransom because the Labour Party cannot agree on how to elect a new leader.

“That’s why we need to see a new First Minister with a mandate to take Wales forward in the coming weeks – not months.”

Meanwhile, the Conservatives’ shadow spokesperson on local government, Janet Finch-Saunders has drawn attention to the potential for the First Minister’s impending departure to leave other major reforms in limbo.

Ahead of a Conservative debate on local government in the Assembly on Wednesday (April, 25), Ms Finch-Saunders, warned that the uncertainty was having a negative impact on already creaking frontline services.

She said: “Just weeks ago the Welsh Government announced its third major set of proposals to reform local government in just a few years.

“They’ve spent considerable amounts of taxpayer money, and wasted several years discussing disruptive plans which have led to a sustained period of uncertainty for local authorities.

“With the First Minister’s impending resignation you have to wonder where the latest reincarnation of forced mergers is heading – after all, there’s no certainty that the same Local Government Secretary will even be in post under a new leader.

“What is clear is that the vast majority of Welsh councils are firmly against these disruptive and counter-productive plans.

“We all want to see the cost of politics reduced, but councils are already exploring collaboration on a regional level, and we would not back mergers without the consent of local residents and taxpayers.”

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