So Cameron has wound up party conference season with a solid, nothing-too-blinding speech, that made him look like a prime minister, but didn’t really tell us very much else.
To his credit, he did actually refer to greentech issues, saying: “We’re number one in the world for offshore wind. Number one in the world for tidal power. The world’s first green investment bank…” This is better than Ed Miliband last week, who didn’t even refer to climate change. (Apparently it was in his original speech – but he forgot!) If this was the only thing that had been said about environmental issues all conference, I would be feeling pretty good. Sadly, that is not the case.
We can now get a much clearer picture of the positions of the new Tory ministers, for example; Owen Paterson at Defra, and John Hayes at DECC. After all the rumblings about them being climate sceptics and anti-wind farm, it was interesting to see them in action, and obvious that, as usual, they are not just straight forward anti-environmental baddies. The truth is a bit more nuanced than that.
John Hayes, who has come from skills and business, is particularly interesting. He has replaced the universally well-liked Charles Hendry, and is still a relatively unknown quantity. In person he is acute, funny, and surprisingly charming. His speeches to various meetings around the conference did nothing, as far as I could see, to rebut charges that he is opposed to wind farms (he repeatedly falls back on the idea that he will include “aesthetic” factors in his decisions on these issues), but he was also scathing about the delays and prevarications that leave the UK with a potential energy gap looming ahead.
He is bullish on the idea of including a decarbonisation target in the upcoming energy bill: “We won’t be dragooned into taking a position.” He told the audience at one meeting that he has ordered reviews of a number of issues, including carbon capture and storage, so that he can make his own mind up on these issues: “Why would I become the energy minister and merely parrot policy from others?”
When his statements are taken together, they should cause some gloom in the renewable sector… and yet there is something very pragmatic about him that causes optimism. You can’t help but feel that if Hayes does review these issues, – and then moves even slightly more towards renewables – he will be the most powerful type of ally imaginable.
Owen Paterson, the new secretary of state at Defra, has been stomping all over delicate environmental sensibilities this week, with boyish enthusiasm for shale gas (he’ll have a one-stop shop to make applying for permits easier) and badger culls (yay! He loves them!). And he reportedly told a meeting that he wanted to see an end to green subsidies because “if you start having subsidies you end up with a Soviet-style system, where politicians make decisions that might actually be better made by the market”. He has not, however, discussed how he feels about subsidies for the nuclear industry.
Above their heads, meanwhile, the rumours have it that there is some tension between David Cameron, who is, reportedly, still a little bit green at heart, and George Osborne, who is firmly playing to the right wing of the party on all this, and who in his own speech announced tax breaks for shale gas – reinforcing his dash-for-gas plans. The months ahead are going to be a colossal tussle for our long-term future, as the energy bill goes through parliament and the energy minister publishes his strategy.
Will he lay out the support that our fledgling renewable industries need? Will ministers put in place the measures that will encourage businesses to create the green jobs that are floating out there?
I’m torn between depression and optimism about the outcome… but I am certainly riveted.