Answering the curmudgeons, faultfinders and armchair engineers

The Head of Communications at RenewableUK, the trade association representing the wind, wave and tid

When the Energy Secretary Chris Huhne gave his keynote speech to the British wind industry in at RenewableUK's annual conference in October, he rallied the troops by going on the attack. In an emphatic speech, he criticised the "curmudgeons and faultfinders who hold forth on the impossibility of renewables", describing them as "an unholy alliance of short-termists, armchairs engineers, climate sceptics and vested interests who are selling the UK economy short."

He vowed that renewable energy technologies would deliver "a third industrial revolution every bit as profound as the first two". It's quite a vision - and one that the wind industry is determined to realise.

10,600 people already work in the wind energy sector in the UK. A report by Cambridge Econometrics predicts that that will rise to nearly 90,000 people by 2021. That includes not only jobs constructing and maintaining onshore and offshore wind farms, but also the supply chain - manufacturers supplying a whole range of components, and building wind turbine towers by rolling massive sheets of steel into giant cylinders. In the wind industry, it's already being called the rebirth of British manufacturing.

And yet the wind industry receives a great deal of criticism, in some parts of the media at least. Myths abound about the alleged cost of supporting wind energy and how efficient it is. Statistics are plucked from thin air by anti wind farm campaigners and presented as fact by the press. Some national newspapers seem to have taken it upon themselves to launch the most vitriolic attacks on the wind industry as a matter of course, week after week. We can only guess at the agenda lying behind these attacks.

The war of words isn't just being fought out in the media. The battle over Britain's renewable future is taking place at the heart of Government

The recent announcement of a cut in financial support for solar energy (the feed-in-tariff) has highlighted what many of us campaigning on environmental issues already knew: the Coalition Government is deeply divided over the green agenda.

This year's growth figures are below the Treasury's most pessimistic predictions, and there is a sense of desperation in the Government's attempts to eliminate any expenditure it believes can be sacrificed. It is clear that this mood prompted the rapid review of the feed-in-tariff, and the cuts to support for large-scale renewables announced in October. The Government is nervous about the impact of rising energy prices on the economy - and rightly so. Fuel poverty is a growing issue, and especially as we move into the depths of winter, many of the less well-off and more vulnerable members of our society will find it increasingly difficult to heat their homes.

However, in choosing to cut support for renewables, the Government has chosen a target so tangential to the debate as to be irrelevant. According to the independent regulator Ofgem, support for all renewable energy sources (not just wind) adds about £20 onto an average annual domestic dual fuel bill (electricity and gas) of £1200. You don't need to be a mathematical genius to work out that something which comprises just one and a half per cent of your bill cannot be responsible for the near-doubling of domestic energy prices over the last ten years. The blame can largely be placed at the feet of rising fossil fuel wholesale prices - particularly gas.

Within Government, recognition of this fact goes across party lines, and both the Energy Secretary Chris Huhne (Lib Dem) and the Energy Minister Greg Barker (Tory) have been active in supporting technologies which can lessen our dependence on fossil fuel. Both the heavy cuts to solar, and the 10% cut to wind power support announced in October, could have been much worse. The treasury was seeking to remove what it perceived as a cost on consumers, freeing up their money to be spent elsewhere in the economy, generating demand and hence growth. But right now, people are understandably worried about the future, and are saving more disposible income than a year ago.

That growth will come in part from our burgeoning offshore wind industry, which will require tens of thousands of skilled workers, millions of tonnes of steel, and factories at port facilities around our coastline. It will generate demand, at a time when companies are cash-rich but reluctant to invest.
It will help grow our economy, not leave it to stagnate. The armchair engineers should get out of the house a bit more and join the green collar revolution.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.