Labour’s vision for a green economic future

Unlike the Conservatives, a Labour government would make sustainable energy a major national priority and give business the confidence to invest.

Tonight, at the annual Green Alliance debate, I will join an audience of business leaders, environmental campaigners and scientists to discuss Britain’s energy future.

Ten years ago, if you were attending a meeting of environmental campaigners and big business, you would have planned for a stand-off. Not anymore. The scope and breadth of the consensus across business and the environmental lobby is striking - something that would have been impossible to imagine a decade ago.

Of course, there are still big debates about the details. But everyone from Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace to the CBI, Alstom and Siemens agree that ensuring sustainable, affordable and reliable energy needs to be at the heart of any economic policy.

Getting energy policy right for the next 20 years is one of the biggest challenges – and the biggest opportunity - our economy faces in this generation. Nobody seriously questions that in the coming decades all countries will have to generate much more energy using renewable sources. The alternative is devastating climate change, ever rising prices and energy insecurity.

That is why business has been gearing up to deliver this energy revolution. As Green Alliance has confirmed today in a new analysis of UK infrastructure needs, our country already has planned investment in low carbon infrastructure of £180bn between now and 2020. Offshore wind alone is worth more than planned spending on gas, roads and airports combined.

The business view is clear: we can and should unlock major investment, huge numbers of jobs and secure our energy future over the next few years. Major firms tell us they are poised to make significant investments here in the UK that would generate vital domestic expertise and supply chains as well as the exports and jobs of the future. And the UK has a potentially world leading position in offshore wind, wave and tidal power.

Failure to invest will mean not just lost jobs but higher energy bills too. As Ofgem warned earlier this year, without new investment in renewable energy, we could well see a growing reliance on imported gas ramping up energy bills for consumers. And delaying the transition to a low carbon economy will also mean an expensive rushed transition – with the extra costs again pushing up energy bills. But needed investment and reform depends on leadership from government. And time and time again, I hear from business and green campaigners alike that this leadership is currently absent.

My fear is that the UK currently risks snatching defeat from the jaws of potential victory. At the heart of this failure is Chancellor George Osborne’s unholy alliance with his troublesome backbenchers. Faced with the choice between short-termist nods to hard-line Tory opinion or the strategic leadership that Britain needs, the Chancellor has chosen the politically easy but economically reckless path.

By refusing to agree a decarbonisation target in the Energy Bill, by raising the prospect of a new 'dash to gas' instead of renewables, by shackling the Green Investment Bank, and by failing to implement the scale and certainty of policy needed to effectively de-risk investment, the government has actively undermined business plans to create jobs and growth.

In 2010, the UK was third in the world for investment in green growth - but we have since fallen down the league tables. The danger is that we will see investment and manufacturing expertise which should be based here in Britain going to other European countries instead.

First, the government has failed to set the clear long-term targets that business needs to invest with certainty. Yes, it remains formally committed to carbon targets for 2050 through the Climate Change Act passed with cross-party support under Labour. But the independent Committee on Climate Change has made clear that this target will require largely de-carbonising electricity by 2030. And yet George Osborne has blocked the government from making a clear commitment in law to this 2030 target. Meanwhile, in Europe, the government is blocking moves to set ambitious renewable and efficiency targets for 2030 at an EU level.

Worse than that, George Osborne has fostered exactly the kind of policy uncertainty that scares away long-term investment. By talking up the possibility of an implausible shale gas bonanza to justify tacking away from renewables after the 2020 targets run out, he has cast further doubt on the government’s long-term commitment to a low carbon future. Business is being denied the confidence of knowing they will have a market and a price structure they can rely on over the investment horizon they need.

Second, the government has failed to play its part in supporting new renewable and clean technologies. Carbon capture and storage, where the UK once led the way, has stalled again. And while Ministers try to claim the credit for setting up the Green Investment Bank which Labour proposed, the government has undermined it from the start. Giving the Bank the power to borrow on the open market would lever in several times more capital and get considerably more bang for the government’s buck.

Perversely, the Chancellor arbitrarily tied this decision to him meeting his target on the national debt. Now, thanks to his wider economic failure meaning he is now not set to meet that target until 2017, the Bank has been left in limbo with neither co-investors nor the sector able to plan ahead. It is an opportunity that George Osborne seems incapable of grasping.

And third, on energy efficiency, the government has failed to deliver. The construction industry is crying out for clarity on the next steps in Labour’s successful zero-carbon homes strategy. The Green Deal, which replaced previous successful domestic energy efficiency schemes, has so far helped just four households this year.

What Britain really needs is leadership, policy certainty and a cross-party consensus to match the one that exists in industry to deliver an economy with strong and sustained prosperity. We need a clear plan for the future of energy generation, energy efficiency in the home, nuclear, gas, renewables and carbon capture and storage.

Labour’s approach will seek to deliver that. Ed Miliband, Caroline Flint and I have all said the government should commit now for a 2030 energy decarbonisation target. Delaying any decision on a commitment until 2016 is a huge missed opportunity. And because the UK should be leading and not following on the global stage, the government should be working with our EU partners to set clear goals and lead from the front in the run up to the Paris 2015 global talks, as we did in the run-up to Kyoto and Copenhagen. That is the way to lead and win the 'global race' that Conservative ministers talk about, rather than trying to turn it in a race to the bottom.

We will also put an end to the mixed signals that are causing confusion and deterring investment by posing a false choice between gas and renewable energy. We support efforts to secure new domestic gas supply, although there are real environmental concerns that must be addressed. We will need a secure gas supply in the decades ahead. But while 'fracking' has had a major impact on energy prices in the US, most experts believe any impact in Europe is uncertain at best. Any balanced and low-carbon energy strategy for the years ahead will need gas, renewable energy and, in our view, nuclear too.

We need clarity on the Green Investment Bank too – to support new technologies and to support energy efficiency. So the government should end the current uncertainty and commit now to giving the Green Investment Bank borrowing powers in 2015. If it fails then the next Labour government will do so as soon as possible after the next election, so that the Green Investment Bank can help to raise our ambition on energy efficiency to insulate homes, cut fuel poverty, bring down bills, create jobs and stimulate the economy in the process.

So the green economy and low carbon energy will be central to Labour’s plans in government. Andrew Adonis’s work for us on industrial strategy will also have energy and environmental policy at its heart. So will Sir John Armitt’s review into the way in which we make our infrastructure decisions. Without a low carbon infrastructure plan and economic strategy, in the modern economy you simply don’t have an economic plan.

Our vision is for a race to the top – to secure a world-leading position for British businesses in helping the world meet the low carbon challenge – and in doing so create prosperity and jobs for people in this country.

US President Barack Obama, in his recent speech on climate change, called for those worried about how he would deliver on his climate goals to have faith in "American ingenuity". I believe this is a challenge that Britain can and must rise to as well. The country that led the industrial revolution shouldn’t simply look on as our competitors press ahead.

And it is because we have faith in British ingenuity that a Labour government would make sustainable energy a major national priority and give business the confidence to invest in the UK. The costs of failure to our environment are well known. But the costs to our long term prosperity and security are just as great.

Ed Balls is the shadow chancellor and MP for Morley and Outwood

"The UK has a potentially world leading position in offshore wind, wave and tidal power." Photograph: Getty Images.

Ed Balls is the shadow chancellor and MP for Morley and Outwood

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Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.