Who runs Britain’s energy policy?

A smaller cut in wind power funding comes at the cost of a commitment to decades more of dirty and expensive gas.

Who runs Britain’s energy policy? We have a Department of Energy and Climate Change – you might think from their name that they do. Or perhaps it’s Chancellor George Osborne’s Treasury that calls the shots? Now you’re getting warmer.

This week's announcement by the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, that he had secured only a 10 per cent cut in wind power funding, was heavily spun as a victory for the Lib Dem-run department. Given that the Treasury had been demanding 25 per cent cuts, this seemed a victory indeed – but one with a huge hidden cost. Because, as payment for this victory, Davey has been forced to quietly concede to another of the Treasury’s demands: a commitment to decades more of dirty and expensive gas.

We know this to be the Chancellor’s wishes, because on Monday someone leaked a letter – effectively a ransom note – that he had sent to Davey outlining his position. In it, Osborne demanded that the Energy Secretary issue “a statement which gives a clear, strong signal that we regard unabated gas as able to play a core part of our electricity generation to at least 2030 – not just providing back-up for wind plant”.

Acceding to this outrageous demand would mean seriously jeopardising the UK’s fight against climate change. As the Government’s independent advisors, the Committee on Climate Change, stated in response: "This would all lead to a second dash for gas. This would be incompatible with the government's climate change goals."

But on Wednesday, DECC dutifully trotted out a press release stating that “the Government… is today confirming that it sees gas continuing to play an important part in the energy mix well into and beyond 2030”. Some victory.

The exchange has also highlighted the hypocrisy of the Treasury in its assessment of what merits public subsidy, and what must go without.

Osborne stated in his letter to Davey: “While your proposals [on renewables funding] achieve some savings we will still be paying more than £500m more to support renewable generation in 2013-14 than we collectively agreed was affordable”. No-one disputes that as technology costs come down, public funding for renewables should decline; the renewables industry itself was offering up 10 per cent cuts.

But wait; what’s this? On Wednesday, as DECC announced its cuts to renewables funding, the Treasury simultaneously unveiled £500m of tax breaks for offshore gas drilling. What’s unaffordable to spend on clean energy suddenly becomes eminently affordable to spend on drilling up the dirty stuff.

Enough is enough. The Chancellor must be prevented from undermining the UK’s green economy – as the CBI recently stated, it’s one of the few parts of the economy still growing. A high-carbon energy system will lock the UK in to a high-cost as well as high-polluting future. So in whose interests is the Chancellor acting?

It’s now up to David Cameron and Nick Clegg to back their Energy Minister over the Chancellor. They should insist that the Energy Bill includes a target to decarbonise the UK’s electricity system by 2030 and unlocks support for clean British energy. The alternative energy strategy that George Osborne would have us follow is a dirty and dangerous dead end.

Guy Shrubsole is an Energy Campaigner at Friends of the Earth. For more information on Friends of the Earth’s Clean British Energy campaign: www.cleanbritishenergy.co.uk

 

Photograph: Getty Images

Guy Shrubsole is energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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