No. 10 refuses to deny that subsidy for nuclear power has broken Coalition Agreement

The PM's spokesman merely says that the agreement on a new nuclear power station is "a very important announcement".

The Coalition Agreement was unambiguous on the question of public subsidy for new nuclear power stations: there would be none. It stated:

Liberal Democrats have long opposed any new nuclear construction. Conservatives, by contrast, are committed to allowing the replacement of existing nuclear power stations provided that they are subject to the normal planning process for major projects (under a new National Planning Statement), and also provided that they receive no public subsidy.

But this pledge is flatly contradicted by today's deal on a new plant in Hinkley, which guarantees the French-owned EDF and Chinese state investors a strike price of £92.50 per MegaWatt Hour, nearly twice the current market rate for wholesale energy, over a 35-year period.

When I put this point to the Prime Minister's spokesman at this morning's Lobby briefing, he replied:

Today is a very important announcement, it's around, as he [David Cameron] described it, long-term planning for our economy, for energy security, actually for jobs as well, there are 25,000 jobs associated with today's announcement, and we need this broad energy market and that's why today's announcement is a very important one.

I replied that this was an explantion of why the investment was needed, not of why the position had changed, and he said:

I actually think that the position around the need for energy security, the need for more competition in the market, that has been the government's policy and you're seeing a very important announcement today in regard to that.

So No. 10 is refusing that deny that the coalition has broken its 2010 pledge on public subsidy, simply because it cannot credibly do so. Should wholesale prices fall or rise at a slower rate than expected, it is the public who will pick up the tab in the form of higher bills (which are expected to rise by around £8 as a result of today's agreement) or higher taxes.

But if it is remarkable that the Tories, who dismiss a two-year energy price freeze as "socialism", are willing to guarantee foreign state-owned companies prices for 35 years, it is even more remarkable that the Lib Dems have gone from opposing any new nuclear power stations to supporting a multibillion subsidy for them.

Energy Secretary Ed Davey and David Cameron examine site plans for Hinkly C nuclear power station at Hinkley Point. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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