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Energy policy and the environment

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LAST WEEK The Herald looked at the energy market and the ways in which different parties have approached the question of rising domestic energy bills.

That article discussed the ways in which taking advantage of existing energy efficiency schemes and the use of the most competitive tariffs would reduce bills far more than a simple price cut on the most commonly used domestic tariff.

Labour has claimed it will create over 300,000 renewable energy jobs throughout the country and put modern low-carbon industries at the heart of a £500 billion investment strategy, championing ‘a new green industrial revolution’.

One of the big ideas underpinning that commitment is to promote the growth of local energy companies and support the development of 1,000 community energy co-operatives. That’s accompanied by a commitment to 65% renewable electricity by 2030, aiming for 85% as technology improves and diffuses.

All of which will sound very familiar to Plaid Cymru, whose Shadow Environment spokesperson, Simon Thomas AM, has called for the creation of Ynni Cymru to promote Wales’ own self-sufficiency in domestic energy. It sounds like Plaid’s clothes have been lifted by Jeremy Corbyn’s promises to invest in similar schemes and raise investment across the UK.

Labour has set out a radical commitment to set up publicly-owned energy supply companies in every region focused purely on cutting prices. Under the same proposals, Government would take ‘control of the natural monopolies of the transmission and distribution grids’ currently run by the National Grid.

The Labour leader has made big promises, and the cynical might think that Labour may as well shoot for The Moon, given the remote chances it has of forming an administration under Jeremy Corbyn as PM.

“We’ve got a real opportunity to drive the green economy – to have green jobs, green growth, and make sure that we have our share of the industries of the future. Clearly there’s the climate change agenda, where we’ve got to get back on track, both nationally and internationally. And third, there is the issue of energy security, which I think is vitally important, which we need to do a huge amount of work on.”

Those were big promises, too. They were made seven years ago by David Cameron at the outset of his first term as PM, when he pledged to lead the greenest government ever. By 2013, David Cameron was keen to ‘get rid of all the green crap’, as the hopes of 2010 smashed into the economic and political realities of Treasury austerity.

The rug was pulled from under the renewables industry: following through on the pledge to virtually ban onshore wind, and slashing the feed in tariff. Overall UK carbon emissions had been falling but the growth in renewables deployment stalled, and solar companies employing thousands of people around the country went bust.

Five years later, at the outset of his second term, David Cameron pulled the Green Deal for UK homes.

On every single one of those policy decisions, commitments, and staggering reversals Theresa May went along, bobbing along like a cork on the tide of Cabinet collective responsibility. The number of times she has spoken out on energy policy in public can be counted on the fingers of one thumb. However, she merged the Department of Energy and Climate Change into a new Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in July 2016.

While that suggests a rather less overtly ‘green’ approach to the PR side of politics than her predecessor, it is noteworthy that Theresa May has expressed consistent and strong positions on the issue of energy security. Her first noteworthy public policy decision was to initiate a pause on the development of Hinkley B, ostensibly due to concerns of increasing UK reliance on Chinese investment in its energy infrastructure.

In addition, in a complex and volatile international energy market, there are clear attractions for the PM in adopting measure which enhance energy security and the reduction on the reliance of overseas energy. Her concerns on energy supply were echoed in the 2015 Conservative manifesto, which said: ‘Without secure energy supplies, our country becomes less safe and less prosperous’.

And, in 2008, Mrs May said: “I am thrilled to see that after years of Conservative pressure, we have finally passed a necessary and ambitious piece of legislation on Climate Change. Britain is the first country in the world to formally bind itself to cut greenhouse emissions and I strongly believe this will improve our national and economic security.

“To stay reliant on fossil fuels would mean tying ourselves to increasingly unstable supplies which could endanger our energy security and the Climate Change and Energy Bills mark an important step for both the health of our economy and the health of our nation. It is now vital that we stick to these targets.”

The logic of Mrs May’s evident and consistently expressed concerns on security of energy supply is to make the UK more self-sufficient. There are two sides to that issues: firstly, the extension of green energy generation; secondly, the extension of fracking and nuclear power.

The second limb of that proposition is the most contentious. Fracking is a public relations disaster waiting to happen and the first time it is scheduled to take place in a Conservative-held marginal seat is when we will see just how committed the Conservative party is to its use. As for nuclear power, it requires considerable public support and subsidy to make it even marginally viable for the long term.

The only large energy project requiring anything like the level of price support as nuclear power is the Swansea Tidal Lagoon, which for all its carbon-saving claims involves quarrying stone in Cornwall, building new jetties extending into the Bristol Channel and transporting the stone over by barge to Swansea by the thousands of tonnes to build a tidal barrage affecting marine life and habitats across the whole of Swansea Bay.

For someone as sensitive to polls as Theresa May it is worth noting that the BEIS tracker surveys on consumer views shows significantly higher support for renewable energy (at around 75-80%) than for other options. Opposition to renewables was very low at 4%, with only 1% strongly opposed.

However, and this is where energy policies and political judgement come into play, support for renewables was lower amongst those in social grade DE (72%), aged 65+ (73%), and social renters (75%).

The first two of those groups are key electoral demographics whose support Theresa May is actively courting. The triangulation of Conservative policy on energy, which now appears to have abandoned the notion that competition delivers the best results for energy users, might not swing a lot of votes, but the Conservative leader will not be shy of using every gimmick in her arsenal to court wavering voters looking for a way to justify voting Conservative.

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Ceredigion MP supports calls on UK government to address energy crisis

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BEN LAKE MP, Co-chair of the APPG on Fuel Poverty and Energy Efficiency, has signed a cross-party letter to the UK Government calling for a range of financial support measures to address the current energy crisis. 

Following a record increase in October 2021 to the price cap, energy bills are set to increase again significantly in April across the UK, and could reach as high as £2000 for the average household, an increase of £700 compared to today’s prices.  Experts have also said that these prices are likely to be sustained for two or more years. 

Polling conducted by YouGov has shown that 6 out of 10 British households say they would reduce their heating use by a fair amount/great deal if the cost of heating doubles. 

Ben Lake MP said: “The hike will be a disaster for those who were already struggling to pay their bills and could leave over 6 million households in fuel poverty across the UK. These price increases will impact all households. But for those who were already struggling to pay their bills, it will be catastrophic. Without any additional support, millions will sink further into debt, and many will turn off the heating, leaving them at acute risk of serious ill-health and putting further strain on our stretched health services.” 

The cross-party letter calls on the UK Government to ensure that any support package to address the crisis works in the best interests of fuel poor households, for example, by increasing the support available through existing schemes such as such as the winter fuel support scheme in Wales or an additional targeted rebate which could be delivered this winter.  

The letter also adds “that any effort to reduce energy bills should not include the removal of green levies.”  

Ben Lake MP added: “While there are arguments about whether green levies should remain on energy bills or be added instead to income tax, there is no justification for removing them completely. To do so would be to compound the gas crisis which we face by exacerbating fuel poverty and further delaying the transition away from fossil fuels. 

“I will continue to work alongside colleagues to ensure the most vulnerable households are protected as far as possible from the current threat of significantly increased domestic energy bills.” 

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Removing Plan B rules ‘a headline to distract from Boris failings’ says Drakeford

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FIRST MINISTER Mark Drakeford has said the decision to end “Plan B” restrictions in England next week is not part of a “careful, long-term plan” but it’s a “headline to distract people’s attention from the Prime Minister’s failings.”

Wales will complete the move to alert level zero on 28 January First Minister Mark Drakeford has confirmed unless the public health situation changes for the worse.

He said the phased plan to gradually relax the alert level two measures and move back to alert level zero will continue.

The Welsh Conservatives have called for the immediate removal of the vaccine passport scheme, restrictions on businesses such as the rule of six in pubs,  ditch all social distancing and the removal of mandatory face masks in schools.

Critics have questioned the Welsh Government policy to ease restrictions at a slower pace than England.

Boris Johnson announced earlier this week that England’s Plan B measures are to end from next Thursday, with mandatory face coverings in public places and Covid passports both dropped.

But that announcement came as the Prime Minister faced mounting pressure to resign amid allegations of parties held at Number 10 during lockdown.

Mark Drakeford said the move in England to ditch those restrictions was not part of a carefully thought-out plan, speaking to BBC Radio Wales he said:

“I don’t think anybody watching objectively at what has happened in England could imagine that their decisions have been made by careful attention to public health advice and with some sort of long-term plan in place.”

“Their announcements this week are entirely due to the astonishing mess that they find themselves in and an effort to find some other headline to distract people’s attention from the Prime Minister’s failings.”

Mr Drakeford said: “Here in Wales we’re in a very different position, we’ve got a government that is capable of making decisions in line with the advice, to do things in the way we’ve done throughout the pandemic, step by step following the science, making sure that we are keeping people in Wales safe.”

Speaking to Sky News this morning, Mark Drakeford said it was “very hard to see how the Prime Minister survives.”

“Even if he were to survive, he will just limp on because he’s never going to escape the damage that this week has done to his reputation.”

“From my point of view, the thing that worries me the most is the fact that the UK Government is frozen by the impact of what has happened to them.” He said.

WHAT’S HAPPENING IN WALES?

Welsh Government have said the latest public health data “suggests Wales has passed the peak of the omicron wave and coronavirus cases are falling back to levels similar to those seen earlier in the autumn” adding “There have also been reductions in the number of Covid-19 patients in hospital”.

From Friday 21st January, Wales will move to alert level zero for all outdoor activities.

This means:

  • Crowds will be able to return to outdoor sporting events.
  • There will be no limits on the number of people who can take part in outdoor activities and events.
  • Outdoor hospitality will be able to operate without the additional measures required introduced in December, such as the rule of six and 2m social distancing
  • The Covid Pass will continue to be required for entry to larger outdoor events attended by more than 4,000 people, if unseated, or 10,000 people when seated.
  • The Covid Pass is required in all cinemas, theatres and concert halls which are currently open.

First Minister Mark Drakeford said: “The latest figures show we have passed the omicron peak and we can continue to lift the alert level two protections as part of our careful and phased plan.

“We will lift the limits on the number of people who can gather for outdoor events. We remain cautiously confident the public health situation is heading in the right direction and next week we will be able to complete the move to alert level zero unless the situation changes for the worse.

“We are in this position thanks to the efforts of everyone in Wales and our fantastic vaccination programme. It is important that everyone continues to follow the rules and the guidance to help keep themselves and their loved ones safe, including taking up the offer of a booster vaccine if they haven’t already done so.”

On Friday 28th January, Wales will complete the move to alert level zero.

This means:

  • Nightclubs will re-open.
  • Businesses, employers, and other organisations must continue to undertake a specific coronavirus risk assessment and take reasonable measures to minimise the spread of coronavirus.
  • The general requirement of 2m social distancing in all premises open to the public and workplaces will be removed.
  • The rule of six will no longer apply to gatherings in regulated premises, such as hospitality, cinemas, and theatres.
  • Licensed premises will no longer need to only provide table service and collect contact details.
  • Working from home will remain part of advice from the Welsh Government but it will no longer be a legal requirement.
  • The Covid Pass will continue to be required to enter larger indoor events, nightclubs, cinemas, theatres, and concert halls.

The self-isolation rules for everyone who tests positive for Covid and the face-covering rules, which apply in most public indoor places will remain in force after 28th January. The next three-weekly review of the coronavirus regulations will be carried out by 10th February, when the Welsh Government will review all the measures at alert level zero.

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Boris Johnson apologises over latest No.10 party revelations saying it was ‘work event’

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THE PRIME MINISTER says he thought party in March was a ‘work event’ but concedes he should have stopped the gathering on May 20, 2020.

In Prime Minister’s questions on Wednesday (Jan 12), he apologised to the public and said that “I wish that things had been done differently on that night.”

But Boris Johnson said that Labour will have to wait for the outcome of an inquiry to know the exact details of what happened that night.

Labour Leader, Keir Starmer said Matt Hancock resigned when he broke the rules, and Allegra Stratton resigned for laughing about rule breaking. Why does the PM think the rules don’t apply to him. Boris Johnson says that is not what he said.

Starmer said the PM originally said he had been assured there were no parties. Then the video landed, and he pretended he was sickened by the parties. Now it turns out he was at the parties. Starmer added that it was his opinion that the public think he is “lying through his teeth”.

Tory MPs objected, on the grounds that MPs should not accuse each other of lying. Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, defended Starmer, saying he is talking about what the public think.

Johnson said he does not accept that. He added a laywer should wait for the facts.

Keir Starmer said that he spoke last night to a woman, Hannah, whose father died last May. She met Johnson last year, and Johnson told her that he had done everything possible to protect her dad. Hannah now knows her father’s death certificate was signed on the day of the party. Does the PM understand how she feels?

Johnson said he understands how she feels. He wanted to apologise. But the government has been doing what it can to protect people. It has the most tested population in Europe. And it has had the fastest vaccine rollout in Europe, and one of the fastest in the world. Apologising again, the PM said: “Whatever mistakes have been made on my watch, for which I apologise, that is the work that has been going on in Dowing Street.”

Simon Hart MP: We have to get to the bottom of this

Simon Hart, the Welsh Secretary, and MP for South Pembrokeshire and West Carmarthenshire, has become the first cabinet minister to publicly express concerns about the latest partygate revelations.  Simon Hart said this morning: “We’re in the middle of an investigation, that was set up by the PM to get to the bottom and to get to the truth about what was reasonable at the time and what wasn’t. It’s frustrating to have to rely on the investigation and we must be careful to not pre-judge that or what the PM will say in a few minutes’ time.

“The one thing I’m not going to do is make light of something that is unquestionably something of a significant public concern.

“I don’t live on a different planet. The frustration and the hurt and indignation and the incredulity that emerging stories like this produce. I’ve got, like everyone, family and friends asking me these questions. We have to get to the bottom of this.

“Judgment will need to be made about what happens next.”

There is some excellent detail about the No 10 party on 20 May 2020 in the Times today. The paper reports that Martin Reynolds, who sent out the email invitation to around 100 staff as the PM’s principal private secretary, became “panicky” in advance of the event, because staff were concerned it was against the rules, but decided cancelling the event would make things worse. The paper reports: “That afternoon, staff began preparations. A row of tables was set up on one side of the garden to act as a bar. In the garden itself more tables were set up in a layout to encourage people to observe social-distancing rules.

“Officials and advisers began arriving shortly after 6pm. While many stayed away, about 40 came. Many took up Reynolds’ suggestion in his email that they should “BYOB” — bring your own booze — taking a trip to the Tesco Express next to Westminster station. The drinks table was well stocked with gin, rosé, red wine and white wine, and guests began to arrive and mingle.

“Two sources said that the prime minister attended, with one saying he was “wandering round gladhanding people”. His fiancée Carrie Symonds, whom he married last year, also attended and was said to have been drinking with Henry Newman, then an adviser to Michael Gove and now a senior figure in No 10.

“The Times has been told that one senior official at the event joked about the risk of surveillance by drones, which was viewed as a tacit admission that the rules were being breached.”

Police in England issued 118,419 fines for breaking lockdown rules between 27 March 2020 and 17 October last year. That included 800 fines in the week when the No 10 party was held on 20 May 2020.

In London 17,745 fines were issued between March 2020 and October last year, including 113 for holding illegal gatherings of more than 30 people.

Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, said: “Thousands of Londoners have been fined for flouting lockdown rules during the pandemic. It would be double standards of the worst kind for the police to turn a blind eye when those in No 10 have done the same.”

Carmarthen East and Dinefwr MP, Jonathan Edwards, questioned the British Government on the floor of the House of Commons this week with regard to the ongoing allegations facing the Prime Minister and his Cabinet.

Allegations of a party held by government members and officials during May 2020 continue to plague the Conservative administration, with pressure mounting on the British Government over the past few days.

With an investigation into these claims commissioned, Jonathan Edwards MP questioned the government on what they believed would be an appropriate political sanction should the investigation conclude that a party was held and that the Prime Minister, or other Ministers attended.

The response came that it was not appropriate to comment on this hypothetical situation, and that they would await the results of the independent investigation.

Speaking outside the Chamber, Mr Edwards said: “I have been contacted my several constituents in the past few days outlining their shock, their disappointment, and their anger at the current allegations that this Government faces.

The stories they have shared with me of enormous personal sacrifice, of funerals held over video calls, and of elderly family members unable to see their loved ones in the flesh, have been emotionally powerful, and I thank them for sharing those experiences with me.

Should the allegations of Government Ministers attending a party at this very same period prove to be true, it will fly in the face of the collective struggle that everyday people have endured for almost 2 years now, and it will finally confirm what many of us here in Wales have already theorised: that the political ruling class in Westminster do not care about the citizens that they represent.”

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