Are the Tories tipping into anti-business rhetoric?

The government announces more regulation business won't like.

This announcement was always going to be tricky for a Conservative prime minister to make. The relationship between the Conservatives and the business community is stronger and longer established and runs much deeper than the marriage of convenience between business (and the City especially) and New Labour, and stronger than that with the LibDems. While the Labour Party continues to try hard to re-engage and woo business leaders (its top team were out in force at a Labour Party business reception earlier this week, including the one-man charm machine that is shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna) it still has a long way to go.

The Conservatives on the other have been trying to juggle keeping business onside with not being seen to be too cosy with such natural allies as large corporate donors and wealthy business leaders. This balancing act partly explains both the prime minister and his chancellor making so much noise about anti-tax abuse regulations.

At an awards dinner recently one senior FTSE100 executive told me he was fearful that all the aggressive government rhetoric on tax was in danger of tipping into anti-business rhetoric. He was appalled by what he felt was precisely the opposite of the sort of language he expected from a Conservative prime minister, even one leading a coalition government.

The lobbying debate got even more heated when another announcement – that plans to force cigarette brands to adopt generic packaging were to be shelved – was linked to alleged lobbying activities of Conservative Party strategist Lynton Crosby (whose firm counts tobacco giant Philip Morris among its clients).

The rights and wrongs of who asked for what favours from which politicians (which is essentially what lobbying is) matters less than the message the whole affair sends out. While the boisterous, point-scoring politics of Prime Minister’s Questions is a bit of noise and we can enjoy the “banter” of David Cameron being called “the prime minister for Benson and hedge funds” Ed Miliband being accused (again) of sitting “in the pocket of the unions”, these stories continue to undermine public trust and confidence in both politicians and business.

Trust is already at a something of a premium, following the financial crisis. The recession may have been caused more by a reckless few financiers than the business community per se, but for much of the public there isn’t that much to distinguish bankers from big business. It’s a problem business secretary Vince Cable started the week trying to address. He launched a consultation paper at the London Stock Exchange called Trust and Transparency, which proposes a whole raft of measures on areas ranging from beneficial ownership (much of which was announced at the G8 Summit earlier in the summer) right through to a much-needed review of the system for pre-pack administrations.

Cable launched the paper in the City because many of the current problems with trust started in the Square Mile during the financial crisis. As Cable said, there has been “a seemingly endless succession of mis-selling and price-rigging scandals; and accusations of greed and unethical behaviour against leading figures in the industry.”

It’s no surprise that this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer found that UK banking scores some of the lowest trust scores for any sector in any country.

The problem with any trust is that it takes a long time to build, is shattered in an instant and takes even longer to rebuild. If the public mistrusted the relationship between business and politics in 2008 it is not surprising the only thing that has changed since then is that the sense of mistrust and the outrage have grown.

Politicians need to be seen to be tackling these problems and as much as businesses won’t like it, that always means more regulation. Cable is right to introduce measures to give investors more power to influence executive pay. While the details of plans to introduce a register of the beneficial owners and detailed issues such as bearer shares will not be raised by the public when politicians start pounding pavements at the next election, it is essential the public understands that politicians and the business community are taking steps to put their respective houses in order. Without that trust will never be restored.

This piece first appeared on economia.

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.