Why MPs must block George Osborne’s dash for gas

The Chancellor's plans will cost bill payers £25bn more in the 2020s than developing low-carbon energy and breach the UK's climate change targets.

The next 20 years, starting now, will see colossal investment in overhauling Britain’s ageing electricity infrastructure, as old coal and nuclear power stations are closed, and the grid gets updated. A vote in Parliament this week on a clean power target amendment to the government’s Energy Bill will determine what sorts of new kit we will get.

The battle lines are drawn over competing visions of the future. A fossil-fuelled, Treasury and George Osborne future, involving tripling the amount of electricity we get from gas, or a low-carbon future, involving ramping up the power we get from Britain’s near-limitless resources from the waves, water, wind, tides and sun.

At stake are living standards, jobs and the economy, and climate change. Domestic fuel bills will soar if we stay chained to volatile global gas prices - it is spiralling gas price rises which have been responsible for the majority of people’s electricity and gas bill rises in the last decade. The independent committee on climate change’s analysis shows that Osborne’s dash-for-gas will cost bill payers £25bn more in the 2020s than developing low-carbon energy. At a time of squeezed living standards, households are handing over larger and larger shares of their income to the big six energy companies. Only a massive programme of energy efficiency that gets the UK off the fossil fuel hook can protect ordinary people.

There are hundreds of thousands of jobs in the green economy, one of the few sectors to grow in recession-hit Britain. But its future is uncertain. A huge coalition of more than 200 leading businesses, energy investors, trade unions and charities, including household names like Asda and Microsoft, as well as leading manufacturers like Siemens, Mitsubishi, Alstom, are saying a decarbonisation target in the Energy Bill is essential to give companies the confidence to invest in low carbon energy and the supply chains to build it.

If Osborne gets his way, there is no question that the UK will breach its legally binding climate change targets. The difference between the Chancellor's vision and low-carbon power is staggering. Osborne’s plans involve increasing the amount of gas-power in the 2020s to the equivalent of over 30 new gas power plants. This amounts to over 500 million extra tonnes of carbon dioxide: equivalent to every car and taxi on the road for eight years, or every flight for 16 years.

Where will Osborne’s gas come from? North Sea gas reserves are falling fast. So we can either massively increase our energy dependence on gas imports from countries like Qatar, or we can try and plug the gap with shale gas – but for that to provide more than a fraction of our needs we would need thousands of wells across the country. Both these options look like political poison. A recent article on ConservativeHome, "The right-wing consensus on shale gas is about to be blown apart", concluded: "shale gas must also have a huge physical presence across large swathes of rural England. .. it will have political consequences – bigger than wind farms, bigger than HS2 and bigger, even, than greenfield housing development".

All economies need to get off fossil fuels and fast. Electricity is the place to start. MPs get to decide this Tuesday. Nearly 300 MPs from across all parties back the decarbonisation target. The vote will be close. Full turn-out from Labour (who back the target), and a few more Conservative and Liberal Democrats (whose policy it is to support the target but whose leadership is currently siding with Osborne) will help put the UK at the forefront of a clean energy revolution. As Sir John Ashton, the UK’s former climate change envoy said this month: "I can’t myself see how any MP who votes against the target will thereafter be able credibly to claim that they support an effective response to climate change".

Simon Bullock is senior campaigner on climate change at Friends of the Earth

George Osborne makes a visit to the Prysmian Group factory in the constituency of Eastleigh on February 13, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Simon Bullock is senior campaigner on climate change at Friends of the Earth

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation