The chorus from business is now deafening: "give us certainty on energy policy and low carbon investment"

Businesses need to know what will happen in the future, writes RenewablesUK's Maf Smith. A government in turmoil can't provide that.

Government traditionally likes to avoid picking winners. Individual businesses are rightly in competition with each other. This creative tension is what drives our economic success. Such disagreements are why government traditionally goes to great lengths to avoid second guessing the market. 

However, there are some areas of the economy, like our energy infrastructure, where government has to stay at the table. Today, most politicians will agree that there are market failures in our energy system, and government needs to play a role to solve our so called “energy trilemma”: making sure that the lights stay on, ensuring we have secure sources of energy available, while also cutting greenhouse gas emissions. 

But even though government accepts it has a role, it cannot seem to agree on what needs to be done. It’s said that if you ask four different economists about the economy you will get at least five opinions. Right now the same seems to apply when asking UK Government Ministers their view on energy policy. The "Quad" of ministers is still debating the issue in the final run-up to the much anticipated Energy Bill. Meanwhile, the industry is reeling from a public disagreement between the Energy Minister John Hayes and Energy Secretary Edward Davey on the future of onshore wind in the UK. This was followed by the revelation that the Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris supported an anti-wind campaigner in the Corby by-election when he was supposed to be running the campaign for the official Tory candidate instead. To those of us getting used to the vagaries of political point-scoring in the Coalition, these spats may look like just part and parcel of day to day coalition Government. However, to the investment community (and especially the increasing number of foreign companies looking to invest for the long term in the UK’s supply chain) they can be unsettling.  

That is because, outside of Whitehall, in business, something interesting is happening. As government goes through the final negotiations before publishing the Bill, business opinion is settling on a shared viewpoint. 

Last week, the British Chambers of Commerce published a survey of 3,500 member companies. 90 per cent of them want the Government to ensure that the UK has a diverse energy mix, capable of avoiding future supply problems, and that the UK “must not find itself in a situation where it becomes more dependent on fossil fuels from overseas or on one technology at home”. 

In the same week as the BCC’s intervention, business leaders from prestigious organisations including Unilever, Kingfisher, EDF Energy, Doosan Power Systems, Heathrow Airport, Philips, Anglian Water and Johnson Matthey jointly wrote to the Prime Minister, expressing their concern that "the on-going divergence of views at the heart of government on the future of this sector…is paralysing investment and undermining the UK’s growth prospects". There have been similar letters and statements from companies as diverse as PepsiCo, Aviva, BT and Marks & Spencer. And recently seven of the world’s top energy companies – who employ 17,500 people in the UK alone – wrote to the Chancellor warning of political risk in current energy policy. 

Added to all this is RenewableUK’s own recent membership survey, in which almost two thirds of companies from the wind and marine renewables sector stated that policy was less favourable to the sector than 18 months ago. Despite this, 90 per cent of those organisations still expect to see growth over the next 18 months, showing the immense opportunity that clearer direction from government could unlock, as well as the furthering of the commitment that over 130 wind energy companies made to Britain via the Wind Energy Charter in May this year. 

For example, investment in offshore wind alone rose by 60 per cent last year. By 2020, the wind, wave and tidal energy industries alone are set to employ more than 88,000 people, from apprentices to highly-skilled engineers. That’s the scale of the prize on offer – as long as the all-important policy framework is right. 

The case being put forward by businesses, who are ready to make once in a generation investments into our economy, is based upon evidence and global trends. But we run the risk that these investments could be delayed. 

They hinge on the agreement of the UK Government’s Ministerial "Quad" – Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and Alexander – who are apparently set to meet to discuss energy policy. Over the autumn, business opinion has got firmly behind the view that our electricity sector needs to decarbonise. Such a shift will protect us against future price rises, open up investment in new technology and manufacturing, and support a new cornerstone of our economy – the green economy – which alone has delivered a third of the UK’s total growth in the last year. Sometimes business opinion settles on a realisation that future prosperity lies in a particular direction. Sometimes it is important that Government can agree that too, that’s why this Energy Bill is crucial for the sector.

Workers build an onshore wind turbine. Photograph: RenewableUK

Maf Smith is the Deputy Chief Executive of RenewableUK, the professional body for the UK’s wind and marine sectors, with 675 member businesses.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.