David Cameron’s regime announced with glee today that a multi-billion pound nuclear hazard, turning out radioactive waste that no-one knows how to manage sustainably, is to be built on the north coast of Wessex (on the estuary where the great ‘tsunami’ occurred in 1607). It’s ‘clean’ energy, apparently. It will generate 7% of UK electricity (the same % as is lost in transmission and distribution). And it will all be done, risk-free, by private enterprise.
Right. By companies owned by the French and Chinese governments, to be a little more accurate. (Just how much kowtowing was there in Beijing recently?) Underwritten by UK taxpayers, and subsidised by UK consumers to the tune of double the current wholesale price for electricity? If it’s a good deal it’s only because prices will have more than doubled by the time the electricity starts to flow. Altogether, it’s a brush with future reality we don’t often experience in such frank terms. Politicians would much rather be making empty promises to hold energy prices down.
It wouldn’t be possible for our own public sector to do it for less? It might well be, if we had one, and past experience shows that the region is an excellent geographical scale at which to organise such things as power supply. (Wessex, for example, which once had its own Wessex Electricity Company, has a much more coherent independent power grid than Wales.) Public ownership is also ridiculously popular. With everyone but the London parties.
Why did it happen? Why did politicians decide to evade responsibility for any industrial decision (even those of strategic importance) by selling it all off cheap?
Anyone who remembers the 1970s will know how mired the politicians became in labour relations, having to have a view on exactly how much a miner or a railwayman was worth in weekly wages. But they were at least accountable for such judgements. Now, when stratospheric salaries are set by scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours remuneration committees in the City, no-one else has any redress. The managerialist network of interdependence is how the system really operates, skimming off wealth from employees and shareholders alike.
In 1988 the Chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board, responsible for a successful nationalised industry the size of a small multi-national corporation, was paid twice as much as the Prime Minister. In 2009, the highest paid director at EDF was paid £1 million, about seven times David Cameron’s salary, currently £142,500. The system we live under, totalitarian liberalism, judges money to be above morality. It will take politics, not preaching, to alter that.
The gap between directors’ pay and the PM’s pay has grown as the latter’s authority has shrunk. It’s self-inflicted shrinkage. And it produces the most pathetic consequences. Endless complaining by politicians that voters don’t trust them, that turnout is falling, that folk are losing faith in politics. What do you expect if for 30 years you stand inside the system and tell everyone beyond that it’s their enemy and that for their own good you plan to dismantle it and expect to be rewarded for doing so at the polls? And don’t tell them that your promises will become increasingly meaningless in proportion to the extent to which you have destroyed the means of redeeming them?
One thing we’ve not had over the past 30 years is a consistent long-term energy policy. Instead we’ve had a series of desperate short-term measures. The politically motivated destruction of the deep coal industry, necessitating the sterilisation of tens of millions of tons of workable reserves. The ‘dash for gas’. Lavish subsidies for renewable technologies that haven’t been matched by investments in energy storage and smart grid technologies to store and manage the power generated. At least not on the scale that would win over sceptics who rightly want to know what happens when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. A foot-dragging attitude to the enormous potential of wave and tidal power. And, as Jonathon Porritt is forever reminding us, we need, above all, to push the energy conservation button and keep on pushing.
(We oppose a Severn barrage, which would create as many problems as it solves, but would like to see far more advanced research into tidal lagoons. Currently, renewables are not cost-effective but will become increasingly so as oil declines. We all know this, so even if we aren’t going to start harnessing tidal power for decades yet, we CAN commit now to doing so and thus provide certainty for all those affected. Continuity of nuclear expertise has been lost. Continuity of renewables expertise should not. We should be training now the generation of engineers who will devote their working lives to such projects.)
How would a self-governing Wessex set about doing things differently? We could start by having an energy ministry that also has oversight responsibility for housing and transport, two of the biggest users of energy. We need an end to the current nonsense whereby the Department for Transport sees its job as getting folk and things from A to B as quickly and cheaply as possible, when its real job should be to eliminate the need for that travel. (Apparently, HS2 is needed because, in a competitive economy, businessfolk can’t make rational decisions unless they’re looking the other crook in the eye.) We all have to think through the implications of the fact that the current purchase price of a new house will be less than its lifetime running costs. Higher house prices as a result of sustainable design and construction can be a good thing if they mean lower energy bills. Housing finance needs to be restructured to take more account of this.
We need to use regional networks – the electricity and gas grids, combined heat and power, the railways, telecommunications, etc. – as the framework for a smart, low-energy society. Networks are ‘Level 1’ in this plan and they need action at the regional level to integrate them much better than at present. Let’s end 70 years of talking about integrated public transport and actually do it. Let’s have real, underground metro systems in cities like Bristol, instead of make-believe ones that are just a fancy name for bus lanes. Let’s have a local railway electrification programme that doesn’t leave us as the laughing stock of Europe. Let’s get everyone, everywhere, onto superfast broadband, saving the cost of unnecessary travel in the first place, and enabling smarter two-way domestic energy management as a side effect. Unbelievably, the London regime is still spending money on building ROADS in Wessex. Who in the future is going to be using them?
‘Level 2’ are the places the networks link. We need to think about retro-fitting energy conservation measures into buildings and laying down footpaths and cycleways. Not along disused railway lines that will need to be used again but maybe following similar routes that link local destinations. It will be a lot easier to think about how we retro-fit these things once we’re no longer wasting our time wondering where we’ll put the millions of new homes needed for London overspill. Once effective devolution to Wessex and other regions forces London to solve its own problems, Londoners will have to think twice before causing them. Denying them the automatic right to help themselves to our land, transport, energy and water resources is as much for their long-term benefit as it is for ours.
‘Level 3’ is perhaps the key to success and also the most difficult to organise. Level 3 is all those activities that go on within the regional and local networks that we as a society have created. Activities that need to be re-thought in a low-energy direction, even by politicians. Should we, for example, be funding ‘free schools’ or other educational experiments that involve children being driven in opposite directions across our towns and cities instead of attending an inclusive local school of assured quality within walking distance? We already have as party policy the radical proposition that all publicly-funded schools must be community schools, paid for out of local taxes and accountable only to the community, with Michael Gove’s interfering London-based department abolished.
All of these things require joined-up thinking, something completely incompatible with private ownership of the process. We want a self-governing Wessex for many reasons. We want to be free of the strangling red tape of a London regime whose patronising attitude to local initiative would be bad enough even without imposed policies whose content is irrelevant to our needs. But we also want to use the freedom we win to build something worthwhile for the future. A region whose physical and social infrastructure is resilient to the global changes now inescapable over the course of this century. Our society may never again have as much energy at its disposal as it does today. We can use it to create a sustainable future. Or we can allow the London regime to go on wasting it.
Some will breathe a sigh of relief that the deal on Hinkley C has been done. The lights won’t go out. Not yet. But the fact remains, as energy prices continue to climb several times faster than incomes, that we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.