New Times,
New Thinking.

Alan Whitehead: “Clean energy is no longer on the periphery of policymaking”

The outgoing Labour MP and shadow minister for energy security on attitudes towards climate change, reskilling workers, and local power initiatives.

By Megan Kenyon

When the Indian multinational Tata Steel announced its plans to close the historic blast furnaces in Port Talbot, 3,000 jobs were immediately put at risk. In January, following seven months of gritty negotiations with the unions, Tata decided to press on with a green transition, replacing its existing coal-powered furnaces with a cleaner electric alternative.

Britain’s largest steelworks moving away from its reliance on fossil fuels was unavoidable. The UK cannot meet its legally binding climate targets without eventually stopping fossil fuel production. But what happened in Port Talbot – a Labour stronghold and industrial heartland – exposed a crucial question for the opposition and more importantly, for its climate plans. How can the party achieve its ambitions for “green prosperity” without negatively impacting the livelihoods of voters it has long depended upon?

One person who has given much thought to this issue is Alan Whitehead, the outgoing shadow minister for energy security. Whitehead, who has been in post since 2015, has shadowed eight government ministers. He has stepped down as an MP ahead of the general election on 4 July, which had yet to be called when we met in May at the  New Statesman’s Energy and Climate Change conference in Aldgate, east London.

Dressed in a smart grey suit, Whitehead’s expertise on the competing demands of the green transition is immediately obvious from the sensitivity he affords to the subject. He doesn’t take support for the essential progression towards renewables as a given. “We know there’s going to be a transition – that’s inevitable,” Whitehead says. “But it’s by no means inevitable that it will land well with people…in those industries where they will have to change how that industry works.”

One such industry is North Sea oil and gas. Achieving Labour’s manifesto goal of clean power by 2030 will require a wholesale move away from the extraction of fossil fuels to the prioritisation of renewable alternatives: offshore wind, carbon capture and storage, and green hydrogen. Under Labour’s plans, “home-grown” energy will be distributed via a new, state-owned company called Great British (GB) Energy. Unlike the current government, Labour has committed to not taking out any new oil and gas licences if elected. But with 115,000 jobs in the gas sector alone, there are unavoidable questions around how to secure a just transition for those who work in the fossil fuel industry. Labour’s manifesto makes clear the party plans to deal with this sensitively, stating that it will “ensure a phased and responsible transition in the North Sea” if elected to form the next government.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

[See also: Labour’s climate plans are under more scrutiny than ever]

This means “planning the North Sea properly”, Whitehead says. He is critical of the government’s ongoing lack of direction on this issue. “You’ve got to make sure that no one is left behind in this transition, and what that needs, above all, is a plan to make the transition as good as it can be.” This will require targeted government support, Whitehead explains, which Labour plans to offer. Newer, greener industries must be “matched and allied” with existing sectors, with workers retrained so that their skills can translate into new jobs in renewables.

During our conversation, Whitehead describes the Green Prosperity Plan as the “set piece holding everything together”. But delivering it – particularly the ambitious goal of clean power by 2030 – will be difficult, require ample investment and is guaranteed to take a great deal of time. In February, the party reduced its commitment to invest £28bn a year in the plan to around £24bn over the course of the next parliament. Is Whitehead confident that Labour can achieve its 2030 target without the original price tag?  “The first thing to do is to hit the ground running,” he says. “Don’t spend three or four years working out how to do it.”

Elected in Labour’s 1997 landslide victory, Whitehead – who was the MP for Southampton Test until May this year – is among the more experienced members of Keir Starmer’s shadow team. But on the question of clean energy, he is undoubtedly the expert.

Prior to his 27-year parliamentary career, Whitehead was the leader of Southampton City Council. His election in 1984 coincided with a period when the Department of Energy (now the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero) was exploring a geothermal well in the Hampshire area, which it thought could be harnessed as a renewable means of heating the city. Although the government discontinued this research after it was deemed commercially unviable, the project was taken up by the city council under Whitehead’s direction.

More than three decades later, and the UK’s first and only commercially operating geothermal heat network continues to operate across Southampton. Hot water is extracted from a well underground that is nearly 2km deep, and used to provide heating for the city’s hospital, university, and local businesses.

It is local initiatives such as these that Labour hopes to place at the forefront of its plans for GB Energy. The party hopes its local power plan – capitalised by £3.3bn – will encourage a new generation of locally led renewable energy projects. But again, there will be challenges. Local authorities currently find themselves under persistent financial strain and the threat of local opposition to such projects is ever present.

Whitehead describes community opposition to grid upgrades as the “elephant in the room”. But he is assured that Labour can get nimbys on side by clearly persuading them of the benefits that wholly renewable energy can eventually provide.

“We know local energy schemes are a particularly strong way of nailing the energy revolution to communities themselves,” Whitehead says. Through the vehicle of GB Energy, residents will be able to see a direct correlation between cheap renewable energy, produced locally via onshore wind farms, solar panels on the roofs of public buildings, or a district heating scheme, and a reduction in their heating and electricity bills. Labour hopes this will ease local opposition.

On the question of cost amid a difficult financial landscape, Whitehead recognises that GB Energy will need to help support such projects with funding. “We know that a lot of community projects have what’s called the ‘valley of death’ in the middle of them,” he says, “they don’t have the pockets that larger companies have.”

And Whitehead has form on delivering such projects through his work to support the creation of the UK’s first, and only, geothermal heat network. “It was frankly decades ahead of its time, and hasn’t been bested yet,” he says. Back then “most people thought of low-carbon heating systems as a niche pipe dream”.

There is a clear difference between attitudes to climate change policy now and in his previous decades as an energy shadow minister. Alongside the former secretary of state for climate change, Ed Miliband, Whitehead worked to push through the 2008 Climate Change Act – a moment he describes as “one of the high spots of my parliamentary career”. But even then, action on climate change “wasn’t regarded as particularly mainstream”.

At the age of 73, and after more than three decades as a parliamentarian, Whitehead retires with the reassurance that politicians are finally affording net zero policy the importance and urgency it deserves.

“A lot of the advocacy I was doing in parliament was about saying ‘this is not just a few people tinkering with ideas in sheds’,” he says. But now, with Labour’s plans for clean, green growth a central part of Starmer’s five missions, renewables and low-carbon energy are no longer on the periphery.

“What I’m facing now is actually truly exciting. It’s an absolute culmination of everything I’ve been saying and trying to do for many years in parliament.”

[See also: Caroline Lucas: “The absence of climate policy from the election is unforgivable”]

Content from our partners
The power of place in tackling climate change
Tackling the UK's biggest health challenges
"Heat or eat": how to help millions in fuel poverty – with British Gas Energy Trust

Topics in this article : , , ,