The Guardian, January 14 2013

Protests both for and against an offshore windfarm gathered on Swanage seafront on Sunday, in an unusual demonstration of pro-windactivism in the UK.

About 400 protesters turned out in response to plans for a 100-330 turbine project called Navitus Bay, with approximately 100 for and 300 against, all bundled up against an icy wind coming off the sea.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Luc Kerley, watching from the door of his coffee shop. “And I’ve lived here all my life.” Tempers occasionally flared, with a few heated exchanges, but there were no arrests.

Developers EDF and Dutch energy company Eneco are proposing a site which will be about nine miles from shore, over an area of more than 60 square miles, with a capacity of 0.9-1.3GW.

“Poole harbour is the second biggest natural harbour in the world, with an internationally important bird migration route through it, and the marine life and birdlife will be devastated by these plans,” said local artist Charlie Sanderson, who organised the anti-demo, Challenge Navitus. “This is one of the worst possible locations for a windfarm. We’re not all anti-wind, but this plan is a disaster.”

Another local resident against the windfarm, Pam Johnson, said: “This is a seaside resort and the local economy is really dependent on tourism. You’ll be able to see the turbines very clearly from here, and people may come once to see them, but will they want to come here for a beach holiday?”

The pro-wind group was also local, made up of a mixture of Dorset-based green groups including Friends of the Earth in East Dorset, the local Green party, Greenpeace, Wind for Dorset and the Transition Hub. “We’ve been talking for a while about the need to work together more,” explained Theresa McManus, who helped co-ordinate the pro-demo.

“We’ve done a couple of local surveys about wind power, and you always get over 50% saying they’re in favour, but the anti-groups just seem to be much more vocal. And then someone mentioned that Challenge Navitus would be demonstrating today, and we thought, okay, there’s plenty of support for the windfarms, let’s make it a bit more visible.”

Graham Horne, who was also in favour of the windfarm, added: “There are no power stations in Dorset, and we put bugger all into the national grid. We really want to challenge the nimby mentality. Dorset isn’t pulling its weight.”

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Protesters going underground for the “second battle of hastings”

The Guardian, January 7 2013

(this is the full length version by the way… it got cut a bit for the paper)

Under a blue tarpaulin at the foot of the protest camp, Simon Sitting Bull is having a brief break from tunnel digging.

“There are three different types of tunnel that you use in anti-roads protests,” he explains, kindly moving aside to let the Guardian have a peer at his work so far. “Opencast, Doored and Shored, and Tight and Nasty. This one is Tight and Nasty.” He points his head-light in the right direction and lights up about four feet of tunnel, which divides at the end to the left and to the right. “Not going to tell you how much further it goes. Sorry!”

Forty feet or so above us, Owl and George are practising making ropewalks between the trees. “I didn’t know how to do this two weeks ago,” says Owl, nonchalantly bouncing around the boughs. George, on a neighbouring tree, is rather anxiously testing the rope. “Isn’t that tree leaning over a bit too far?” he asks. And further down the road three protesters are dangling around a giant oak like christmas decorations, while beneath them the contractors rev their chain saws with pantomime-like menace and a long line of security guards in high-vis jackets chafe their hands against the January cold. It’s the first day back at work since Christmas, and progress is going to be slow.

“The Second battle of Hastings” as it has called itself, aims to halt the construction of the Bexhill-Hastings link road in East Sussex. The road will be just over three miles long, linking up two other roads, and will cost, according to most estimates, at least £86m, although the costs of security are already being estimated upwards.

There is plenty of local support for the link road. Local MP Amber Rudd (also George Osbornes parliamentary private secretary) claims it “will be an important part of the regeneration of the town, opening up a new area for employment and houses”. Denis Haffenden, a local resident watching the to-ing and fro-ing, says everyone he knows in the area really wants the road; “It will ease up the traffic through here, it gets really bad sometimes.” In one of the most deprived parts of the South East – nearly 29% of children in nearby Hastings are classed as living in poverty, according to figures by a local charity – some argue that absolutely any economic investment is a good thing.

But campaigners argue that the money – nearly half of which must come from local taxpayers – would be much better invested in public transport, housing infrastructure or other local projects. The county council is “already planning to cut £34 million from adult social care, and £14 million from children’s services,” points out protester Abby Nicol.

The Bexhill battle is, moreover, just the beginning of a national anti-roads campaign. In December George Osborne announced a £1bn national road-building push as part of his autumn statement. Meanwhile last year Campaign for Better Transport released a report highlighting 191 road schemes around the country, and held a nationwide conference to bring campaigners together and to organise resistance. The Bexhill road is among the very first to break ground, but, says CBT road campaigner Sian Berry, “it won’t be the last. We warned last year that this was ‘the most environmentally harmful and least economically justifiable road scheme currently being proposed in England’, and that there would be resistance.”

Back at the site Indiana is watching with her jaw clenched as the contractors lop branches off a vast oak. “That tree is ancient,” she says. “You need four people to get your arms around it. I can’t believe they’re just taking it down like this.” Does she think they will be able to stop the road being built? “What you have to understand is that it’s not about just one tree, however beautiful it is, or about one road. We want to stop all of Osborne’s roads. It’s about hundreds of roads and thousands of trees.”

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Interview with Caroline Flint

The Guardian and The Ecologist, December 5 2012

There is a point in her constituency from which Caroline Flint can see both the chimneys of Drax and an array of wind turbines. She mentions this when I ask whether she likes a wind turbine herself (she doesn’t find them “aesthetically terrible”).

And then she goes on to make an interesting reference to the coal mines which pock her area of South Yorkshire. “I don’t want to draw too many comparisons but 100 years ago when people came to Doncaster and said there’s coal under there, well, it’s interesting how 100 years later something which is providing clean green energy arouses such concern when there are many communities – including my own – who for the sake of the whole country took on the responsibility of powering the industrial revolution.”

The anecdote is a little incoherent because, I think, her politician’s instincts to say nothing, and to say it as often as possible, are fighting with her very passionate desire to say “Come on, get over yourselves and just get on with it!” The coal-mining history of Flint’s constituency has given her an unusual perspective on what energy can mean to a community and to a country – both the good and the bad. She knows that something that is ugly can also mean jobs. And it’s precisely this that makes Flint such an interesting recruit to the green cause.

I interview her in her office in Portcullis House, just over a year after Ed Miliband has appointed her shadow secretary on energy and climate change, the latest, as she points out, in a long cycle of cabinet and shadow cabinet positions. “I’ve been in the home office, employment, public health, and housing.” (She’s forgotten Europe.) She is talkative, focused, and as strikingly good-looking as ever.

She is also pretty clear about why Miliband chose her. “I knew he wanted someone who could raise the profile of the area, but also find a way we could move forward. Not just preaching, saying you can’t go on holiday and all of that, but asking how do we anchor this so that people can see there’s a real personal interest there, both in term of their bills, but also their jobs and their futures.”

She is, she says, “a very practical person” and adds that: “trying to give people the means to help themselves is very important to me”. Environmentalism of the ‘deep green’ variety is not her thing, and she doesn’t talk about any great moment of revelation where environmental issues became important to her.

I don’t get the sense of a deep knowledge and understanding of environmental issues but rather of a competent shadow secretary’s mastery of her latest brief. And her voting record shows a complete lack of interest in the subject until 2005 or so (she is usually absent or abstains on green votes). But when the Stern report came out and the scientific evidence was, in her words, “captured so that you couldn’t ignore it”, she began to vote fiercely in favour of action and was sometimes, after that, to be found amongst that minority urging ‘stronger, faster and more immediate’ action at that.

To a practical mind, an issue like this is, after all, fairly simple. I ask her if she personally worries about climate change, and she exclaims “of course! My own youngest child is 24, and like all parents, I want to leave the world a better place. I joined the labour party so that I could leave the world in a better place than I inherited and for me being in politics is all about that.”

And for Flint, once you’ve made up your mind, you just get on with it. She can’t understand why the government has not, for example, included a decarbonisation target in the energy bill. To her, the government should be setting the direction of travel and naming the challenge, so that industry can rise to it. “When I was in Housing and we were setting the zero-carbon targets for housing, the construction industry was saying well, okay we don’t know much about that, but we’re going to get behind this. Once you have the target you have this dynamism, this energy.”

The official Labour position is pro-nuclear, pro-community energy and wind, and pro-decarbonisation targets. Flint would like to see far tougher regulation, and she also favours an energy pool instead of the current system of vertically integrated companies where the large companies own the power stations and are invisibly selling to themselves. Her position is extremely close to the place where a number of green campaign groups and writers are gathering and she admits to finding Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth surprisingly sympathetic to her views.

She is pretty unimpressed by recent Tory shenanigans around the newly-published energy bill. “The protagonist-in-chief in all this seems to be George Osbourne… but you know the prime minister is David Cameron, he has invested a huge amount of personal capital into this, the husky photos and everything. Where’s his leadership, where’s No. 10 knocking heads together?”

Alright, she admits that there is some comedy value to it all. It was Flint who compared events to The Thick of It, and she was caught on camera laughing aloud at one Commons’ performance by the energy minister John Hayes (although she suspects that things are rather going to his head now).

She is more concerned however about the long-term impact on the green sector and on British business. “In the last month or so we’ve started to really see businesses who normally like to have these discussions behind closed doors and the fact that they’re now flexing their muscles and coming out and saying we are really worried about what’s going on, that’s really worrying.”

For Flint it’s should be all about opportunity. After the Climate Change Act in 2008, she points out, there was a huge upsurge in growth in the green sector which is now on the point of stalling again. For her the government bickering has been damaging both in its effects on business, and in the message it sends to the public. “We have to find a way to bring the public with us – and that’s why my emphasis has been on, we can do right by the planet, but we can also do fantastic things for opportunities for people in this country as well if we’re willing to be leaders rather than followers.”

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Cheap energy? Yes please!

The Ecologist, November 21 2012

It’s one of the first questions many people ask when they hear that a wind turbine is being put up near them; “Will I get cheap energy?”

The answer, finally, may be yes. For now, however, you’ll need to move to Cornwall to qualify. In a Goliath-style challenge to the Big Six, the small renewable energy company Good Energy earlier this week announced a lower tariff for people who live within two kilometres of their Delabole wind farm.

The tariff will save users about £110, and they will also receive a windfall of £50 for every year that the windfarm’s production levels exceed expectations. Good Energy hopes to roll it out in other parts of the country if it works out.

Price rises well above inflation rates from the big six energy companies have made energy prices a hot political topic this year. Last week SSE announced a rise in profits of almost 40%, just a few weeks after announcing a price rise of 9%.

Fuel poverty – where energy bills eat up more than 10% of household expenditure – is predicted by government research to hit nearly 10 million by 2016. The conservatives are particularly sensitive to these issues after a blunder by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons a couple of weeks ago, when he wrongly announced that the upcoming energy bill would force energy companies to offer customers the lowest available tariff. The department of energy and climate change (DECC) has been trying to explain his statement away ever since.

The tariff however is also aimed at the problem of community attitudes to onshore windfarms. Research has repeatedly shown that if communities were seeing any financial advantage from having a power station nearby, acceptance would be easier. Onshore wind is proving to be one of the most divisive issues for the coalition government, but DECC has signaled support for community schemes.

Good Energy’s tariff, however, is a step beyond anything suggested by the government.  “We’ve been thinking about how to do this for a couple of years now, after we did some big consultations in 2010,” says GE chief executive Juliet Davenport. “When you sit down and talk to people one of the things they always want to know is Can I get cheap energy?”

Good Energy will finance its tariff through some small saving measures, such as using an uncertified tariff rather than a certified one. “There are also very small benefits we get if we supply locally because you reduce the losses in the system,” explains Davenport. “And we’re using part of the profit from the wind farm, about £25K which will also go to support the tariff. If it’s a windfall year, the extra cost will probably be about £5-10 thousand on top.”

She admits she is now hoping the Big Six will take up the idea. “What’s in it for them? Well, goodwill for a start, and then they might pick up a few more customers and hold onto existing ones.”

Does she think they’ll take up the challenge?

She laughs.

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Sky magazine tax loophole saved up to £40m a year

The Guardian, p.1, November 19 2012

With David Leigh

A magazine for satellite TV customers published by BSkyB was used as a tax avoidance scheme that saved the company up to £40m a year.

The broadcaster had been saving millions in VAT by charging satellite customers a nominal £2.20 a month for the Sky magazine, using a tax loophole that has now been closed. Magazines, along with books and newspapers, are normally zero-rated for VAT, and this meant Sky could avoid VAT on a small but significant percentage of revenue. The saving, at about £3 to £4 per person, would have amounted across Sky’s 10 million subscribers to at least £30m to £40m a year.

A court battle involving Debenhams at the beginning of the decade highlighted the problem of VAT avoidance through the artificial splitting of services between different parts of a corporation.

But in 2005 UK courts ruled that cable companies were allowed to deduct VAT on “cable guide” magazines and similar publications, if they structured them so that customers did receive a genuine product from a separate company, delivered at a fair price.

In 2005 Sky relaunched BSkyB Publications with James Murdoch on the board, and in 2007 they took production of Sky magazine in-house and also began distributing Sky Sports magazine and Sky Movies magazine. A small note on the Sky magazine masthead in 2011 told readers: “£2.20 of your package price is paid by you to BSkyB Publications Ltd for this magazine.”

Some readers raised objections on online talkboards to the fact that when they had tried to cancel the “crap” magazine they had been told that their subscription was discounted by the magazine’s price, and if they opted out they would no longer get the discount.

“What Sky are doing is saving themselves some VAT. It’s perfectly legal and it’s something any efficient company would do,” wrote one poster.

BSkyB Publications’ accounts show that most of the income from the supposed monthly price of the magazine was recycled back to Sky TV, described in its books as payments for “customer data” and “support services”. This left only a modest apparent profit on BSkyB Publications’ accounts. But in December 2010, apparently as a sop to Liberal Democrat and UK Uncut campaigning on the issue of tax avoidance, the Treasury minister David Gauke announced a variety of anti-tax avoidance measures, to be enacted in the following spring. This included legislation against VAT “supply-splitting”.

In February 2011, when the legislation was published in the same form despite energetic lobbying, Sky said it would end publication of Sky Movies magazine and Sky Sports magazine, and downsize Sky magazine, with a potential loss of 20 jobs. Coming in the middle of the financial crisis, it was widely perceived as a cash-saving exercise.

A fresh inquiry launched by the Metropolitan police into phone hacking was also occupying people’s minds. By October all publications had been pulled, and BSkyB Publications was also being wound down. A footnote in Sky’s quarterly report for September 2011 noted that Sky had previously recognised benefit from the zero-rated VAT treatment at about £3 to £4 per head, but that this had now been “restated”.

A spokesman for HM Revenue and Customs told the Guardian it was not possible to comment on individual cases. “If there is some kind of contrived scheme or vehicle, ie it’s obvious that the purpose of the scheme is to avoid paying VAT and it’s taking advantage of a loophole and we consider that tax is actually owed on the scheme, rather than just being a case of sensible tax planning … we can make the judgment that this is not legitimate tax planning. And if we consider that somebody has not applied the rules we will then go back three to four years and if there is back tax owing we will ask them for it.”

Sky said in a statement: “The TV listing magazine that Sky used to publish was, in common with all newspapers and magazines, zero-rated for VAT. Sky directly contributes more than £1bn a year in tax – a total of 1.4% of all taxes paid by the 100 largest FTSE companies. We’re proud of the significant – and growing – contribution we make to the British economy.”

John Christensen of Tax Justice Network said: “Tax avoidance is deeply engrained in Britain’s corporate culture. While the government’s proposed general anti-avoidance rule will go some way to remedying this, more needs to be done to put pressure on accountants, tax advisers and tax lawyers to build tax compliance into their professionals norms and guidelines. Tax avoidance is now a high-risk activity, not just to the companies involved, but also to the reputations of their professional advisers.”

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Why does wind turn people into maniacs?

The Ecologist, November 19 2012

We’ve witnessed yet another week of the sort of politics that makes ‘furriners’ click their tongues when they look at the UK.  On large swathes of the continent wind farms are built with very little fuss. Up they go, clumped together like penguins, happily generating more than 15% of the country’s power in Spain, or 18% in Denmark.

Jobs? Yes thanks; at least 96,000 in Germany where more than 50% of wind farms are owned by local communities, plus Greenpeace thinks that wind energy could provide more than two million jobs worldwide by 2020.

But here? Here, in the actual birthplace of wind power, just the mention of the phrase causes frothing at the mouth. You may not be aware that the world’s first ever wind turbine powered generator was built in Scotland in 1887, by professor James Blyth (when he offered the surplus power to his neighbours; they refused, calling electricity ‘the devil’s work’. Plus ca change etc. etc.). But even though British engineers and innovators have been at the forefront of wind from the very beginning, even though we should bloomin’ be used to it by now, it is still one of the single most divisive issues in modern politics.

Last week a Greenpeace undercover filming operation revealed that all our most paranoid conspiracy fantasies were spot on. Tory grandees like Lord Howell and Peter Lilley were filmed telling people they thought to be anti-wind farm campaigners that, yes, Osborne hated wind, yes, John Hayes the energy minister had been put into office in order to help the anti-wind movement along, and yes, there is a big chunk of the party plotting how to water down the Climate Change act.

The sting was set up because Greenpeace were getting more and more worried by the messages they were hearing out of Whitehall about a militant anti-wind faction that had cabinet support. Being Greenpeace – a bunch of slightly over-energetic folk who can’t just sit around and moan about this stuff like the rest of us, but instead, feel compelled to go out and actually do something about it – they decided the next logical step would be to set up a undercover filming sting.

The resulting story – a Tory backing an independent anti-wind candidate in order to get the issue higher up the agenda – was splashed across the front of the Guardian last Tuesday evening. The story rumbled back and forth over Twitter at the same time as Paul Staines, the right wing blogger behind the Guido Fawkes blog, floated another conspiracy theory that the BBC had held a meeting in 2006 about climate change (it’s quite hard to work out what the actual conspiracy was but he seemed very, very excited about it).

Okay. So our worst fears are confirmed and we now know for sure that a big chunk of the Tory party, right up to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is so rabidly opposed to onshore wind that they want to make legislative changes to slow its expansion.

I find myself at a loss to understand this. Wind farms are not beautiful, but neither are coal and gas-fired power stations. There are about 130 operational power stations around the country and 357 operational wind farms. What, exactly, is the difference? Yes, wind dips and rises, but gas, as Lord Howell admitted, needs to be bought from sometimes dangerous sources. Noone in the anti-wind group disputes that we need to build new power stations. If wind farms dominated the landscape from one end of the country to the other, that would be one thing, but 357 wind farms is not enough to dominate anything. There are certainly enough stretches of not particularly overlooked farmland on which a few more turbines can easily be slotted. So what’s the real reason for this visceral, frothing hatred?

I don’t know. But if I were a wind company looking for somewhere to invest and I happened to catch sight of these snarling, drooling goons, I know I’d have the good sense to steer well clear.

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If we want renewables, we’re going to have to accept nuclear

The Ecologist, November 9 2012

After weeks of arguments and confusions, the mood was amazingly frolicsome at the Energy and Climate Change select committee this week, when the Energy minister John Hayes came before them to talk about nuclear power.

Hayes has caused no end of trouble for this government, whether deliberately or not, by giving anti-wind comments to the Mail and Telegraph and blowing up a huge storm (sadly one that powered no turbines). But a great thing about him – whether you share his views or not – is that, like Boris Johnson, he is refreshing unbowed by criticism.

We’re so used to seeing politicians bowing low before the press, and even though I’m a press it makes me uneasy, like seeing someone backing down in front of a bully. I’ve always thought that one reason people love Bozza so much is because he’s so freewheelingly unbothered by what papers say about him – he seems to have fortunate access to a longer perspective where he realises that today’s headlines too will fade.

And Hayes shares this happy viewpoint, jauntily sitting down in front of the committee, merrily brushing aside any little jabs about the wind farrago, and carrying on with his endearing habit of flannelling anyone and everyone he meets. (Sample line; “I am blessed with wonderful civil servants who bring joy to my heart each and every day.” Delivered drily enough to make a few people laugh aloud, including his civil servants.) I must admit I really do warm to him, although I suspect he could be forceful if crossed.

But charm only goes so far. In the Times this week Rachel Sylvester reported rumours of plans to cap renewable energy, in particular on-shore wind. In BusinessGreen James Murray added that apparently, for Secretary of State Ed Davey, offshore wind is the priority, and Davey might regard the cap as a price worth paying if it meant more money was released for other low carbon projects.

There is a bewildering feeling that on-shore wind – a proven technology, the cheapest form of renewable energy we have, easily available to local communities at low cost, and a massive and growing market around the world – is somehow being written out of the picture here. Hayes says he will judge it on “aesthetic grounds”; will he also be judging applications for open cast coal mines or gas pipelines on that basis?

Meanwhile plans for nuclear are, apparently bouncing ahead.  Hayes told the committee that he’d met with Vincent de Rivaz, head of the French company that owns all our current nuclear reactors and is planning to build our next lot, the day before, and that he’d told him that he expected to have the deal more or less done by the end of the year.

How will they manage the finance, given the no subsidy promise? Hayes has a cunning answer to this. “The strike price [the price guaranteed to the power station for the energy they produce] for different technologies cost different amounts – on shore and offshore wind for for example.” In short, if you have a problem with nuclear energy receiving a higher strike price than say, gas, you also need to defend the fact that renewables get more money too. It’s neat.

In short, if we want renewables, then we have to accept nuclear. It’s close to blackmail really, but they’ve got the renewable lobby over a barrel – which is perhaps why some of it teamed up with the nuclear lobby this week to ask the government to hurry up and get its act together.




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Conspiracy theories r us

The Ecologist, November 2 2012

After weeks of bonkerness around the energy bill, I decided to collect all the conspiracy theories I could lay my hands on, in an effort to get to the bottom of what on earth was going on…

Leaving aside Cameron’s defeat onEurope (never been a good look for a Tory leader), ash dieback (too depressing to even think about) and the comments by the wonderful Dame Helen Ghosh – at one point the most senior woman in the civil service and now the new director of the National Trust – that Cameron has a “clique” and that women tend not to thrive in Old Etonian cliques  (although I’d be happy to just repeat that, over and over again, like tory party tiling), most policy watchers were actually pretty bemused to see energyshambles, as it is now fondly known, hitting the headlines again.

Even as the Daily Mail and Guardian argued about whether energy minister John Hayes had really promised an end to all wind farms before being told off by the secretary of State, Paul Waugh, editor of PoliticsHome, mused on Twitter; “It takes a particular kind of political genius to give a second showing in a fortnight.”

But how has this happened? Why did David Cameron sack the apparently popular Charles Hendry and bring in anti-wind John Hayes instead, leading to a row that surely any half sane person could have seen coming a mile off? Didn’t the CBI tell the government to sort itself out and get its energy policy organised? I, like most people, was under the impression that the CBI ran the country.

So what is going on? In my quest for enlightenment (you don’t work for Satish Kumar without picking this sort of phrase up) I emailed all my favourite energy and politics wonks and promised them anonymity if they would tell me their favourite conspiracy theories for energyshambles. They kindly responded. And so, in no particular order… the main theories are that:

- Hendry was too pro-wind and the Chancellor wanted him out so that he could carry on with hisDash-for-Gas. Hendry, my industry expert mate points out, has been working on energy for six years now and has far more expertise than most politicians in this area. The fact that he (and Greg Barker and Ed Davey too) are all enthusiastic about renewables is based on empirical evidence of their usefulness. But the Chancellor just lurves gas …

- Another theory about Hendry, however, is that actually perhaps he had made a right mess of the energy bill? Although he’s much loved by the industry, perhaps number 10 looked at the bill over the summer and realised that it is – as it is – a terrible mess and felt that Hendry had messed up? “There is some credibility in this when you actually look at the bill and realise how many problems there still are with it,” says one observer. “But it is also very strange as the single best person to try and finalise it – and clear up the mess once and for all – was the one minister who really understood it – Hendry.”

- What about John Hayes? Why on earth was he chosen for the job? One theory is that Cameron is simply politically stupid and “truly thought that by adding an anti-wind, pro-gas and pro-nuke junior minister like Hayes he’d create ‘balance’ at DECC (Department of Energy and Climate Change) and get Osborne and all the Tory anti-renewables people off his back. Now, what he actually gets is an embarrassing cat fight, which makes the government look untrustworthy to energy investors of all stripes.”

With this theory, Hayes was not supposed to make too much actual difference – simply please the right-wingers and keep everybody happy. But obviously, if this was THE PLAN, then it has all gone horribly horribly wrong, with Hayes making the front page of the Mail and Telegraphwithin weeks of getting into the job. At least one expert sees this as just a terrible miscalculation. “Hayes was meant to be the cuckoo in the nest at DECC. But he may become a victim of his own ‘success’. His comments were worthy of a few column inches on page 5, but were hardly Front Page News. His stated comments should jeopardise his position as a Minister – they certainly marginalise him in the Department – but will have no impact on Coalition policy.”

But is that right? Or was there a more devious agenda at work?

Cameron is “rumoured to have told John Hayes to ‘deliver a win for our people on wind farms’”. Was he supposed to defeat the whole wind agenda? A few people are wondering if the whole thing was cooked up to undermine onshore wind altogether. And one expert points out that Hayes does have a hold over Cameron, because he has delivered him the Cornerstone group – an ultra-conservative group of politicians whose website promises: Faith, Flag and Family.

According to this pundit, the most worrying thing is that “The more you look at it, the more clear it becomes clear that we have the weakest prime minister since Callaghan. Even Major managed to win an election and get his party to occasionally do as he said”.

Any clearer? A little…but definitely no more reassured.


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Politics? Or naked mudwrestling?

The Ecologist, October 19 2012

What happened? The week started so well, with David Cameron coming over all Yoda and trying to stretch healing hands over the increasingly toxic bickering between the treasury and the department of energy and climate change over renewables, nuclear and gas.

It was going to be beautiful. They were all going to meet together, have a statesmanlike chat, say sorry for the rude things they’d said about each other (“Say sorry properly George!”), and find common ground. Turbines and power stations would miraculously spring – like Brigadoon – into being. George and Ed would stroll off hand in hand, boyishly punching each other in the shoulder. Ah shucks! And then, as so often with the entertaining soap opera that is government in the modern world, it all went bosoms up.

First Cameron appeared to be actually making energy policy up as he went along in Prime Minister’s Question Time. As he said “I can announce that we will be legislating so that energy companies have to give the lowest tariff to their customers” there was the all-too familiar sound of hands slapping foreheads all round Whitehall – he said what? Frantic questions all round ensued. Did DECC know about this? As their officials asked for a bit of time to answer press questions it became clear that they did not. Did the energy companies know? Yet again their press officers pleaded ignorance. And annoyance, frankly.

Then it got still worse as the Independent ran a story about George Osbourne’s favourite nickname for the green lobby groups; apparently he affectionately refers to them as “the environmental taliban”. After giving a speech at the Confederation on British Industry the following day, DECC secretary of state Ed Davey was unable to stop a micro-expression of irritation crossing his face when one journalist prodded him with this.

Back at the house of commons, shadow energy secretary Caroline Flint was merrily laying into the government and the energy minister John Hayes (Davey was still at the CBI) sitting opposite her. “Did he know about the announcement yesterday? It’s like something out of the Thick of It,” she said. “Millions of people deserve better”. Hayes, given a rubbish job, rose to the occasion quite magnificently, even coaxing a laugh from Flint, as he said: “She asks if we knew what the Prime minister has been considering? Of course we understand what the prime minister has been considering…” In other words no, then.

Meanwhile Mark Lynas was telling George Osbourne to be very ware as “the environmental taliban is on the move”. And the green NGOs were banding together, for the first time since Copenhagen, to reinforce that message, with a demonstration outside the treasury even as questions were being asked in the house. “Dear minister,” one NGO wrote to Osbourne, “If the story is accurate, please could you be specific about which individuals, MPs, Ministers or organisations you are likening to the Taliban?”

So. For a week that, Cameron must have hoped, might quiet down general anxiety about the direction of “the greenest government ever”, it’s been a bit of a mess. Where is it all headed? Davey made one telling, and revealing comment at the CBI: “No one will be happier than me to see the politics taken out of energy”.

Actually, after a week in which energy politics look more like mudwrestling than government, I should think quite a lot of us would be pretty happy too.



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Where the Tories stand

The Ecologist, October 10 2012

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.

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