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The Future of Energy

For the past 200 years human beings have depended on fossil fuels, and this doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon. Despite sustained pressure from environmentalist groups, it looks like gas and oil are here to stay. A few light bulbs may be turned off earlier, a couple of cars might run off electricity, but it is hard to imagine a huge shift in behaviour.

As the economy grows, so do our energy needs. Millions have been taken out of poverty by the economic development that relies directly on greater energy consumption. The energy industry is booming – consumption is expected to double by 2050.

Along with this, it is getting harder to source oil and gas, governments are clamping down on carbon emissions, and the economy is moving towards a different vision of how we feed our systems. The challenge for the world’s leading energy companies is to meet the needs of the economy while dealing with concerns from consumers, communities, environmentalists and politicians.

But there is also a challenge for consumers. Patterns of consumption vary across the planet: the average US citizen uses roughly three times as much energy for personal transport as the average European. Without taking a hairshirt approach, it seems possible to change our habits in order to modify energy use. Yet the way we use energy is tied not only to social factors, but to geography: the size of countries, and the way towns are laid out.

A change is coming but it could be a gradual one. Technologies move fast, but vast and established infrastructure is harder to shift. Solar PV, solar thermal technologies, wind technologies can all grow, but it will be some while before they are truly material at the global scale. Innovation is needed not only in design but in deployment, and will come from collaboration between sectors: between industry, government, academia and NGOs. Local changes take a while to filter through globally, so persistence is as big a challenge as the changes themselves.

Without putting a limit on increasing standards of living in the population, demand will only increase.

Shell Head of Scenarios

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.