Should we follow New Zealand and nationalise consumer energy sales?

There's much more to be done in the energy sector, writes William Wallace.

Kia ora! New Zealand; stunning mountains, untouched coastline, rugby madness – but also a policy goldmine. British politicians love “borrowing” ideas from our Australian and New Zealander cousins (Scandanavia always serves well in a pinch). From welfare reform to free schools, through family law and prisoner rehabilitation, we’ll take it. So could there be the potential to add energy policy inspired by the Kiwi left to the mix?

A conversation with a friend in the New Zealand energy sector alerted me to this policy announcement from the New Zealand Labour Party. Could the proposal to create a new, independent body, "NZ Power", to act as a single buyer of wholesale electricity inspire the UK parties to revisit their troubled consumer energy policies? With the Energy Bill stumbling into a new parliamentary session and Ofgem announcing a new, complex, tariff comparison service there is certainly scope for fresh policy thinking.

At first sight, as a New Zealand Minister has said, it all sounds a little “North Korea like”. And it is. But reading the policy in more detail, the power of a new regulator to take a unified approach to development, the energy mix, set prices based on operating costs and a fair return on investment and encourage competition in the interests of consumers might pique more interest among policy makers. The policy comes with claims that prices for the average household will drop by £150, business prices will drop between 5 per cent and 7 per cent and 5000 jobs will be created. All hot air? Maybe, but it sounds politically attractive enough to give some food for thought.

Energy is shaping up to be one of the defining issues of the next general election like never before. But despite the current Energy Bill going through its parliamentary stages, neither Caroline Flint (with her slightly light pronouncements on abolishing Ofgem announced on a whim at party conference) or Number Ten’s disastrous counter-attack announcing un-workable plans that everyone would get the lowest tariff have come up with a way to address persistent energy price rises. With Labour viewing energy through the prism of consumer fairness and the Coalition through the prism of growth, there is certainly scope for  some fresh thinking on the issue.

In reality, this policy isn’t going to happen in the UK. It’s clearly politically toxic, with the Coalition likely to reject it on ideological and competition grounds and any Labour temptation towards nationalisation tempered by long-memories of Michael Foot and co. But what this does serve to show is that there is a paucity of ideas in this electorally significant area and as the Energy Bill continues to stall in Parliament, manifestos develop and the parties move to a war footing, that fact is becoming ever more politically relevant.

William Wallace is a Consultant at Fishburn Hedges.

Getty
Show Hide image

Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.