Getting real on renewables

We need to replace the can’t-do culture when it comes to to green energy, argues Labour's Peter Hain

Labour has achieved a tremendous amount to accelerate renewable energy. But, despite spending constraints, we will have to do much better in future.

Strong leadership will be needed to overcome obstacles placed in the way of progress by officialdom and by those environmentalists and politicians who parade their green credentials but then oppose practical projects. We need a can-do culture to replace the can't- or won't-do culture around renewable energy among civil servants and other public officials.

As secretary of state for Northern Ireland in 2005-2007, I introduced bold measures such as changing the building regulations. From next month, all new developments will be required to have micro-generation schemes designed in. If that were to be extended across Britain, it would create a vibrant market for small-scale renewables, create jobs, cut energy bills and reduce emissions.

I also created a substantial new fund of grants to enable green technologies to be installed in people's homes, including free solar panels for pensioners in social housing. At £60m for a population of 1.7 million, that would be £2.2bn for the UK as a whole.

The government needs to do more of this kind of spending. It has also to face up to opposition from officials. A classic example in Northern Ireland was the planned marine current turbine in Strangford Lough, which has a fast and furious tidal flow. Against considerable resistance, I insisted on proceeding. It is hugely exciting - the first of its kind in the UK - and should be a prototype for other coastal locations.

It is excellent that the government is proceeding with a feasibility study into a barrage across the Severn Estuary, which would generate fully 5 per cent of UK electricity needs, the biggest renewable energy project by some distance on our island. But this, too, has met with resistance from the Environment Agency, Liberal Democrats and Friends of the Earth, who favour tidal lagoons that would generate barely half the energy.

Similarly, David Cameron parades his green credentials, hugging huskies in the Arctic and so on. But, given a serious practical project such as the Gwynt-y-Môr windfarm ten miles off the North Wales coast, with 250 turbines capable of powering half a million homes, he denounced it as a "giant bird blender". Clean energy projects - especially wind - produce "nimby" reactions from local people, MPs and councils. They speak green but act otherwise.

Government at all levels has to raise its game. Decisions need to be taken more quickly; streamlining planning for energy projects is vital to overcome nimbyism. This is not about riding roughshod over local views. It is about prioritising renewables. Britain has an abundance of natural resources, with a coastline and landscape that lend themselves to a variety of off- and onshore wind and other renewable energies such as wave and tidal.

It is time we got real about renewables.

Peter Hain is MP for Neath and a former Labour energy minister

Numbers that don't add up

£470m cost of building Sellafield Mox nuclear fuel plant. Opened in 2002, it has produced almost nothing since

2:1 ratio of building costs for Sizewell B nuclear power station to wind turbines for same energy output

150 kWh/m2yr energy consumed by a UK "ultra-low energy" home

140 kWh/m2yr energy consumed by average German home

8m tonnes of CO2 will be emitted each year by planned coal-fired plant in Kent - the first to be built in 30 years

Research by

Edmund Gordon

Peter Hain is a former Labour cabinet minister and was MP for Neath between 1991 and 2015 before joining the House of Lords.

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times