Bill payers are being fracked over by misleading claims from Cameron

Even if shale gas does bring down bills, we may need to wait 15 years for it to do so. The government's narrow focus is selling the public short.

Fracking made the headlines yesterday as Caroline Lucas was among protestors apparently outnumbered by police in Balcombe. As Lucas was being dragged off to sit in the back of a police van and reflect on her part in the "mass civil disobedience", protestors elsewhere were superglueing themselves to the London offices of PR agency Bell Pottinger, representatives of energy company Cuadrilla.

The protestors have focused largely on the environmental consequences of fracking but many others will be interested in the potential for fracking to bring down their bills, as David Cameron has claimed it will. But this claim is misleading: even if shale does bring down bills, which is highly uncertain, we may need to wait 15 years for it to do so. With the right conditions in place, fracking has a place in the UK but it offers no protection to bill payers from the high and rising cost of energy.

It makes no sense to import gas we can produce at home, especially if the process creates thousands of jobs and billions of pounds in tax revenues. For this reason we should back fracking as a way to develop the UK’s vast shale gas reserves. According to a recent study, there are shale beds containing 40 trillion cubic metres of natural gas in the north of England.

Support for fracking should not, however, be accompanied by a weakening of the UK’s commitment to reduce its carbon emissions. Gas has a vital role to play for years ahead as a bridging fuel on our way to a near-zero carbon energy system and as a back-up to renewable forms of generation. As long as our legislated decarbonisation targets stay in place and are adhered to, fracking can have a part to play.

While fracking could bring benefits, it will not help households who are feeling the pinch from high energy bills, at least not any time soon. There are two main reasons for this. First, it is not clear how much it will cost to develop shale gas in the UK. The peculiarity of UK shale reserves is a key factor here. Also important is how communities respond to the prospect of fracking in their area: if developers face protests nationwide as they have in Balcombe then clearly costs could be high. Second, and crucially, the price of gas in the UK is set by the price of imports through international markets. One analysis suggests we may need to drill 10,000 wells to offset the need for imports, which, if achievable, could take 15 years.

So, what about householders, who have their seen their energy bills rise by £360 or 60% from 2004 to 2011 and face yet another round of bill increases before the year is out? The government’s preoccupation with all things shale is selling them short.

To be protected from bill increases, householders need to improve the energy efficiency of their properties. The main policy that should support households in doing so, the Green Deal, is not delivering: 130,000 households were expected to sign up to the scheme this year but so far only 306 have. The government should be doing everything it can to get this scheme moving, which means introducing more incentives to simulate demand, looking at ways to reduce the cost of loans that are available and supporting area-based schemes as much as possible.

Some households, the 'fuel poor', struggle with high energy bills more than most. Locating these households is hard and to do so the government should adopt an area-based strategy, centred on local authorities. Local health bodies could also play a key role in these schemes.

Debate on the role for shale gas will not die down any time soon but the government’s argument that it will help bill payers won’t ring true for many years to come.

Protesters form a blocade outside a drill site operated by Cuadrilla on August 19, 2013 in Balcombe, West Sussex. Photograph: Getty Images.

Reg Platt is a Research Fellow at IPPR. He tweets as @regplatt.

Photo: Getty Images
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David Cameron’s starter homes: poor policy, but good politics

David Cameron's electoral coalition of buy-to-let retirees and dual-earner couples remains intact: for now.

The only working age demographic to do better under the Coalition was dual-earner couples – without children. They were the main beneficiaries of the threshold raise – which may “take the poorest out of tax” in theory but in practice hands a sizeable tax cut to peope earning above average. They will reap the fruits of the government’s Help to Buy ISAs. And, not having children, they were insulated from cuts to child tax credits, reductions in public services, and the rising cost of childcare. (Childcare costs now mean a couple on average income, working full-time, find that the extra earnings from both remaining in work are wiped out by the costs of care)

And they were a vital part of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. Voters who lived in new housing estates on the edges of seats like Amber Valley and throughout the Midlands overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives.

That’s the political backdrop to David Cameron’s announcement later today to change planning to unlock new housing units – what the government dubs “Starter Homes”. The government will redefine “affordable housing”  to up to £250,000 outside of London and £450,000 and under within it, while reducing the ability of councils to insist on certain types of buildings. He’ll describe it as part of the drive to make the next ten years “the turnaround decade”: years in which people will feel more in control of their lives, more affluent, and more successful.

The end result: a proliferation of one and two bedroom flats and homes, available to the highly-paid: and to that vital component of Cameron’s coalition: the dual-earner, childless couple, particularly in the Midlands, where the housing market is not yet in a state of crisis. (And it's not bad for that other pillar of the Conservative majority: well-heeled pensioners using buy-to-let as a pension plan.)

The policy may well be junk-rated but the politics has a triple A rating: along with affluent retirees, if the Conservatives can keep those dual-earner couples in the Tory column, they will remain in office for the forseeable future.

Just one problem, really: what happens if they decide they want room for kids? Cameron’s “turnaround decade” might end up in entirely the wrong sort of turnaround for Conservative prospects.

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