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Energy policy and the environment



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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Llanelli AM sets out bold metro vision for west Wales



SHOULD the Swansea Bay area have its own driver-less metro system?

That is the view of Llanelli Assembly Member Lee Waters, who appeared on the BBC’s Sunday Politics show this week (Mar 18),

Lee Waters outlined his vision for the world’s first fully automated metro system, and he says it should serve our local area.

Interviewed by Arwyn Jones earlier today, Mr Waters said: “The key for getting people to replace car journeys with public transport is having what we call a turn up and go public transport system. And that’s clearly not the case in Wales. In parts of Llanelli, the last bus leaves at 4pm – you’re just not going to persuade people to give up their cars under those circumstances. The question then is, how can we realistically create a turn up and go public transport system in Swansea Bay?

“We need to think imaginatively.

“The UK government expect automated vehicles to be on sale in three years time. This is happening quickly. Let’s not try and create a Manchester or a Sheffield type tram system – we’re thirty years behind the curve on that. Let’s try and leapfrog and establish the Swansea Bay Region as a test bed for this new technology.”

The driver-less system proposed by Lee Waters would employ fast-emerging technologies, including driver-less, low carbon bus transit systems. Maps and timetables would be replaced with public transport apps, with vehicles ‘learning’ over the time the most efficient routes to take. And door-to-door services could even feature.

Cautioning against a carbon-copy of the Cardiff and the Valleys Metro, the Llanelli AM called on those tasked with drafting the initial plan to match the boldness of the Swansea Bay City Region bid.

 “The Cardiff and Valleys Metro is moving very slowly, because it’s so complex. For the next five years, you’re not going to see many additional services because of the time it takes to convert track to light rail. All prerequisites to getting a rail system working in a different way. I think what driver-less technology offers us, is a chance to not bother with that and instead having these car-sharing, lift-sharing pods taking us where we want to go.”

Similar plan: A driver-less metro system proposed for Moscow

The Welsh Government have recently agreed to fund the development of a ‘strategic outline case’ for improving public transport provision across the region. The budget allocation is the first step in deciding whether or not to pursue the 10-20 year vision for a Swansea Bay Metro.

Mr Waters welcomed the funding provision, but warned against fixating on journey time savings to London – stating:

 “There’s a broader economic point to this – I don’t want Llanelli and the Swansea Bay area to be a commuting pad to Cardiff. Instead of sending people out of our area, we need a public transport system that creates viable and vibrant communities.”

 In appealing for an ambitious approach to be taken, the Assembly Member contended: “For too long we’ve played catch up. We take ages, and too often the result is pretty shoddy.

 “So let’s not do that again. We’re starting from an almost blank sheet of paper, let’s go straight to the future solution.

 “This change is happening at pace and we need to be all over it.”

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UK Government’s ‘considerable offer’ not enough



Breaking up's so hard to do: A UK single market on Westminster's terms

IN A speech delivered at Airbus’ Broughton HQ, Theresa May’s effective deputy, Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington, has attempted to allay fears of a Westminster power grab of devolved powers following the UK’s departure from the EU.

Mr Lidington, claimed the UK Government had made a ‘considerable offer’ to the devolved administrations with a commitment that the ‘vast majority’ of powers returning from Brussels will start off in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast rather than Whitehall.

Mr Lidington, said his plans marked “a very big change to the EU Withdrawal Bill that is before Parliament and a significant step forward in these negotiations.”

He continued: “If accepted, this offer puts beyond doubt our commitment to a smooth and orderly departure from the European Union, in a way that doesn’t just respect the devolution settlements, but strengthens and enhances them.”

Mr Lidington warned that a “divided country at home” would be “weaker, less secure and less prosperous overseas​.”​

The problem with Mr Lidington’s words is that ‘the vast majority’ is not all powers currently vested in the UKs’ devolved administrations within the EU. Moreover, the clear message that the Westminster government wanted to maintain the unity of an internal market within the UK suggests that powers will have to be taken from the devolved governments and retained permanently by the UK parliament in order to make that arrangement work. However, the UK government’s stance on agriculture, a key issue for the Welsh Government, has been extensively trailed by Michael Gove and Defra ministers for months and cannot have taken it by surprise.

Mike Russell, the Scottish Brexit minister, said: “However they try to dress this up, the UK government is using Brexit to try to take control of devolved powers without the agreement of the Scottish parliament. It is totally unacceptable for the Tories to unilaterally rewrite the devolution settlement.”

First Minister, Carwyn Jones, said: “As currently drafted, the Bill allows the UK government to take control of devolved policy areas, such as farming and fishing, once the UK has left the EU. This is an unacceptable attack on devolution in both Wales and Scotland.

“We now need further progress that goes beyond warm words and I hope the ‘very big changes’ promised in the speech equate to sensible amendments to the bill which respect devolution. We will continue to work with the UK and Scottish governments to that end.”

Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader Jane Dodds commented: “Common frameworks in certain areas will certainly be important after Brexit and we would never want to put the UK’s common market at risk. However, it must be up to devolved Governments to decide if they want to enter common frameworks in devolved areas and to negotiate suitable frameworks. The UK Government cannot and must not impose frameworks on devolved Governments.

“Brexit will have huge implications for sectors such as agriculture. Brexit will cut our farmers off from their key markets and dismantle the financial support they rely on. Decisions on these vital areas must be made in Wales and address the unique needs of Welsh farmers.”

The Welsh Conservative spokesman on Europe, Mark Isherwood AM, said: “Welsh Conservatives have been steadfast in our belief that the devolution settlement must be respected with the necessary changes made to the EU Withdrawal Bill.

“As we’ve stated from the outset, we would also expect that leaving the European Union would not undermine the devolved settlement and would result in more powers making their way to the Welsh Assembly.

“It is vital that we now protect the UK’s single market and that’s why it is imperative the Welsh Government engages positively with the UK Government in this process to ensure the frameworks relating to devolved matters are agreed by all parties.”

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Wales’ housing adaptation system ‘unfair’



Critical report on adaptations: Aims to kick start much-needed improvement

THE CURRENT system for delivering housing adaptations needs to change in order to meet the needs of older and disabled people in Wales. That’s the conclusion of a report by the Auditor General for Wales.

Roughly, 70 agencies deliver housing adaptation services assisting over 32,000 people a year. Annually, over £60 million of public money is spent on these services to older and disabled people. They help restore or enable independent living, privacy, confidence and dignity for individuals and their families. Adaptations also offer an efficient and effective way of making the best use of the existing housing stock in Wales by supporting people to live independently.

The report concludes that high satisfaction ratings mask a hugely ‘complicated, reactive and inequitable system’.

The conclusions include:

Assessment processes are not streamlined or efficient, which lead to delays which can be the difference between people staying in their own homes or moving into specialist care;

The complex systems used to deliver adaptations make it difficult for people to get the help they need and often stops health professionals from using adaptation services;

There is not enough joined up working between agencies and local authorities which is making it harder for those in need to access services; and

The adaptations disabled and older people can receive are often determined by where they live in Wales and who they seek help from rather than their need;

Public bodies are not improving performance because of limited oversight of performance across Wales.

The Auditor General, Huw Vaughan-Thomas said: “Demand for housing adaptations is projected to rise. That’s why it’s so important that public bodies improve how they deliver adaptations and address the many weaknesses in the current complicated and inefficient system.

“People deserve the very best standard of service to help them live independently. Unfortunately, public bodies have failed to address some long standing weaknesses in current arrangements and disabled and older people are the ones losing out. This needs to change. My recommendations are aimed at helping kick-start much needed improvement.”

The Chair of the National Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee, Nick Ramsay AM, said: “Housing adaptations are important in helping older and disabled people maintain their independence, but today’s report shows that due to the complexity of the current delivery system, people get very different standards of service because of where they live and not what they need.

“The report’s findings highlight a range of weaknesses and highlights that the Welsh Government, local authorities, housing associations and their partners need to improve how they deliver services to some of the most vulnerable people in society.

“It is critical that action is taken now to ensure public money is spent wisely and vulnerable people are provided with the help they need.”

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