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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

Carwyn talks Brexit in Dublin

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Carwyn Jones: Discussed Brexit with Irish PM

WALES and Ireland need to work together to overcome post-Brexit trade challenges – that was the message from First Minister Carwyn Jones when he met with the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, in Dublin on Monday, February 12.

The First Minister said the creation of a ‘hard’ maritime border between Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, because of the UK government’s insistence on leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, would be a very real threat to the Welsh and Irish economies.

Ports make a huge contribution to the Welsh economy, supporting around 11,000 jobs and providing an economic hub and trade gateway with Europe and the rest of the world.

80% of goods carried in Irish registered HGVs between the Republic of Ireland and Europe pass through Welsh ports. In 2016, 524,000 lorries passed through major Welsh ports to and from the Irish Republic.

The First Minister recently launched the Welsh Government’s post-Brexit trade paper, which set out the challenges facing Welsh ports. It identified the most pressing issue for Welsh ports is maintaining the efficient movement of goods and people via seamless customs arrangements.

The First Minister said: “Changes to customs rules that add cost, time and regulation at Welsh ports would greatly reduce their efficiency and might encourage goods to be diverted away from the sea routes between Wales and Ireland. This would be hugely damaging to our economy.

“The Welsh Government is fully committed to playing its part in supporting the Good Friday Agreement, but I cannot support any outcome which would divert traffic away from Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke Dock in favour of other parts of the UK.

“There must be a level playing field between Britain and Ireland. I don’t want to see a hard border on the island of Ireland but neither do I want to see customs posts at Welsh ports.

“That is why the best option is for the whole UK to have continued participation in the Single Market and membership of a customs union. This removes this problem entirely. It is also in the best interests of the Welsh and the Irish economies and, indeed, the economies of the whole of the UK. And, as we have been clear, leaving the EU must not affect the arrangements for the Common Travel Area.

“I have looked forward to meeting with the Taoiseach to discuss this issue, as well as the importance of maintaining close links between Wales and Ireland as the UK prepares to leave the EU.”

Ireland holds a key position in terms of Welsh inward investment, with over 50 Irish-owned companies in Wales employing 2,500 people. Ireland is also a top Welsh export destination with Welsh exports to Ireland worth £902m in 2016.

While in Dublin, the First Minister attended a round table on Infrastructure and Brexit chaired by the British Irish Chamber of Commerce and hosted by Trinity College Dublin Business School, visited Irish Ferries and met with British Ambassador, HE Robin Barnet CMG and British Irish Parliamentary Association Members.

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Consultation opens on Welsh Parliament’s future

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Announced consultation: Elin Jones, Llywydd

PEOPLE across Wales are being encouraged to respond to new proposals to reshape Welsh democracy published by the Assembly​ ​Commission.

The consultation has been drawn up in anticipation of new powers given to the Assembly in the Wales Act 2017.

The Act gives the Assembly the power to make decisions in relation to the institution’s size and how Members are elected.

Last week, the Assembly voted in favour of the Commission’s decision to consult on the recommendations of the Expert Panel’s report on Assembly Electoral Reform, ‘A Parliament that Works for Wales’.

Speaking in the debate, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire AM Angela Burns emphasised the importance of effective scrutiny of government business and the need for more Assembly members to discharge that duty.

She also said that it was important to ensure that the Assembly listened to the people of Wales: “The call to review the tools we have at our disposal, is of great, great importance now. But it’s a difficult one to explain to people, and we’ve got to make very, very clear that the people of Wales understand that, and then, once they’ve made their decision, we must absolutely listen to it and abide by it, because, after all, this is nothing if not their Parliament.”

Anticipating the criticism that more AMs meant ‘more politicians’, Simon Thomas, Plaid’s Mid and West AM, observed: “I would like to describe it as more politicians but less power for the Government, because the Government that has to face a more powerful Parliament is a Government that can be more accountable—that has to be more accountable—to the people of Wales. We are also losing politicians in Wales. We’ll be losing Members of the European Parliament, and we’re talking about losing Members of Parliament at Westminster through parliamentary reform.”

Simon Thomas continued: “It’s important to Plaid Cymru that we strike the right balance between local accountability and the fact that votes across Wales should be reflected as much as possible in this place in the way that people vote.”

That enthusiasm for increased proportionality was more muted in the response of Vikki Howells who, while welcoming the recommendation for greater equality of the genders in the Senedd’s make-up, remarked​: ​“The Labour group has had an initial discussion on other areas of the report, and we will continue these. We will also feed into the consultation that our party has committed to during 2018 before reporting to our conference in 2019.”

The Labour Party is, not unreasonably from its point of view, determined not to have any dilution of its grip on power undermined by a more proportional system of voting.

Gareth Bennett for UKIP suggested that any change to the numbers of Assembly Members should not proceed without the benefit of a referendum, suggesting that: “It would be unwise to proceed, particularly with the expansion of the Assembly, without securing that popular consent by means of a referendum.”

Mr Bennett also rejected any idea of gender quotas and votes for 16 and 17 year-olds.

Elin Jones AM, Llywydd of the National Assembly for Wales said: “I welcome the unanimous support of the Assembly this afternoon, which enables the Commission to consult on a series of possible reforms to the electoral system, capacity and organisation of the Assembly. I would like to thank my fellow Members for the positive nature of our discussion on a series of complex and challenging issues.

“The powers that will be transferred from Westminster to the Assembly by the Wales Act 2017 will enable us to make our own arrangements for elections and the legislature for the first time. Now, we will start a conversation with the people of Wales about their hopes and ambitions for their Parliament.

“I heard a strong message from Members about the importance of explaining the plans thoroughly and clearly to the people of Wales, and about the importance of creating a Parliament which reflects the communities we represent, including the voices of young people and women. Our consultation reflects these priorities.”

Following a detailed analysis of evidence, the Panel recommended that the Assembly needs between 20 and 30 additional Member selected through a more proportional electoral system with diversity at its heart. It also recommended lowering the minimum voting age for National Assembly elections to include sixteen and seventeen year olds.

The consultation on the recommendations will run from 12 February for an eight week period ending on 6 April.

In addition to the recommendations made by the Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform the consultation also includes other potential changes to who can vote in Assembly elections and who can be an Assembly Member, as well as changes to the law relating to electoral administration and the Assembly’s internal arrangements.

The Commission has already consulted on changing the Assembly’s name, and as a result of that consultation the name will be changed to Welsh Parliament.

The Llywydd, Elin Jones AM said: “The Wales Act 2017 marks the start of a new phase of devolution in Wales, giving us the opportunity to make profound changes to our legislature. We now have the opportunity to forge the national parliament that the people of Wales deserve to champion their interests.

“This consultation is the beginning of a conversation with the people and communities of Wales about the institution that they want their Welsh Parliament to be. I look forward to hearing their views.”

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Politics

Jacob’s dream’s crackers

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Cult: Jacob Rees Mogg

WAS it just his imagination running away with him? Was there a ball of confusion instead of clarity? Whatever it was, Jacob Rees Mogg succumbed to the temptations of the television cameras in the House of Commons and gave an insight into the thought processes in the Brexiteers’ psychedelic shack.

In what was a clearly planted question intended to elicit a scripted response from a government minister, Mr Rees Mogg – leader in waiting, evangelist of the Brexit-ultras, and all-round cult – asked his fellow Brexit enthusiast Steve Baker, a minister in the Department for Exiting the EU, to confirm that a Europe expert had told him Treasury officials ​’​had deliberately developed a model to show that all options other than staying in the customs union were bad, and that officials intended to use this to influence policy​’​.

Mr Baker enthusiastically confirmed his fellow-believer’s contention.

The Minister said he was sorry to say the account of the conversation was ​’​essentially correct​’​.

There are two issues in tandem here: the first is that a minister of the Crown should not impugn the impartiality of civil servants upon whose advice he depends, for the very good reason they are no free to answer back in public.

The second is more fundamental. Mr Rees Mogg’s account was not ‘essentially correct’. It was a total fabrication.

The expert was, it transpired, a very senior expert in Europe indeed, Charles Grant, the director of the Centre for European Reform and an expert on EU negotiations. And the conversation referred to was one between Charles Grant and Mr Baker which others witnessed.

An audio recording of the conversation was released which totally refuted Mr Baker’s response and undermined the credibility of Mr Rees Mogg’s suggestion of Civil Service bias. As he was not a party to the conversation between the minister and Mr Grant, the interpretation upon which Mr Rees Mogg’s relied to frame his question could only have been fed to him by someone who was.

That person could not have been Mr Baker, of course, who stood before the despatch box the following day and sort of apologised for being caught out misleading the House. He would not, of course, have done so intentionally and, of course, nor would Jacob Rees Mogg.

Mr Rees Mogg is not required to apologise. Which is just as well. In the days of yore, after which Mr Rees Mogg hankers (he has been described as the MP for the 18th Century), he would have been left in a room with a glass of scotch and a revolver and expected to do the decent thing. Instead, in the teeth of being caught out as party to what was – putting it exceedingly generously – an error of memory and what could be – putting it more contentiously – an outright lie, Jacob Rees Mogg did the gentlemanly thing.

He doubled down and repeated the slur.

He claimed: “With the referendum and with the EU, the Treasury has gone back to making forecasts. It was politically advantageous in the past. It is the same for them now. I do think they are fiddling the figures.”

In an atmosphere when words such as ‘treason’ and ‘treachery’ are common currency, the power of words cannot be underestimated. When it comes to Mr Rees-Mogg’s affectation of being an old-fashioned gentleman, one very old-fashioned word stands out when it comes to describing his conduct iin continuing to attack those who are not allowed to defend themselves.

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