Blame our boom years for today's energy price news

Things get "tight and uncomfortable".

“Life could get very tight and uncomfortable around 2015 to 2018”, said Ofgem’s departing chief executive, Alistair Buchanan to the BBC’s Today Programme this morning.

The “tight and uncomfortable” refers to new energy price rises forecast amid power station closures. Coal is, in Buchanan’s words, “coming off the bars now” and nuclear and renewable sources are still in their infancy. So, in another breath of optimism, Buchanan explains: “We’re going to have to go shopping for gas in world markets... which briefly will be tight themselves, so we’ll have a double squeeze”. Again he emphasises, “Prices are going to get quite squeezy as supply and demand converge”.

Words like “uncomfortable” and “squeezy” from an influential figure like Buchanan are worrying. Although nobody yet knows quite how harsh these price rises will be, there is one certainty – this is unwelcome news.

For once, though, these unwelcome bills are not Coalition policy, they are the direct result of our boom years. International emissions agreements signed between 2004 and 2008, right before what Buchanan labels the “financial tsunami”, take most of the blame. While environmental policy, not the economy was headlining political rhetoric and green protests, not occupy movements were plaguing London’s streets, deals were made to cap emissions. These good intentions have now come back to haunt us as coal power stations are forced to close earlier than expected, and our reliance on gas doubles from 30 to 60 per cent.    

Allocating blame to the past eases the pain. Decisions have been made and we must live by the consequences. But the effects are only short-term: once our wind turbines start spinning, wave hubs start floating and nuclear power plants start...humming, we will surely be back in the black.

Photograph: Getty Images

Oliver Williams is an analyst at WealthInsight and writes for VRL Financial News

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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