This is a guest post from Friends of the Earth Scotland’s Energy Campaigner, Beth Stratford.
The Scotsman printed a two page spread in the lead up to the Scottish election warning that the SNP’s target for 100% renewable electricity by 2020 would ‘wreak significant damage on the Scottish Labour market’, citing as evidence a report called ‘Worth The Candle?’ by Verso Economics, which concluded that for every job created in the renewable sector, 3.7 are destroyed elsewhere in the economy.
But this head-line grabbing statistic, which has been picked up at full tilt by nimbies and climate sceptics, deserves some closer scrutiny.
Cutting by 40%… but these campaigners wanted to cut emissions, not spending
I’m at the Labour party conference in Manchester this week, doing the rounds of the climate fringe events and asking whether ‘Red Ed’ will rediscover his previous persona as ‘Green Ed’. Expect a number of posts reporting back over the next few days.
First up, the future of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) itself. This emerged as a key concern at this morning’s Fabians discussion on green jobs, with speakers Emily Thornberry MP (Shadow Energy & Climate team), Michael Jacobs (former environment advisor to Gordon Brown), Alan Whitehead MP, and Tony Hawkhead (CEO of environmental charity Groundwork).
The panel expressed great disquiet about the impact of the looming spending cuts on DECC. The department’s current budget is some £3.2bn; cutting its spend by 40% – as the Treasury asked all departments to model earlier this year – would leave it with just £1.92bn to spearhead the low-carbon transition. But it was pointed out that £1.7bn of DECC’s existing budget is spent on nuclear clean-up: liabilities that have to be taken care of and that Government can hardly divest themselves of. Assuming DECC would still be saddled with this responsibility, a 40% budget cut would leave the department with a paltry £220m to support renewables, energy efficiency, low-carbon cars and all the rest. DECC would effectively cease to function as a meaningful department – and it’s understood that DECC officials have said as much to the Treasury.
Green wood is not meant to burn well. But it appears that the Government is stoking its ‘bonfire of the quangos’ with over 15 environmental bodies, and considering the abolition of many more, blowing another hole in its claim to be ‘the greenest government ever’. At the same time, the confirmed abolition of the Regional Development Agencies will lead to £40m being cut from low-carbon investment programmes.
In Cabinet Office papers leaked to the Telegraph yesterday, it was revealed that 177 non-departmental public bodies (‘quangos’) are set to be abolished, with a further 94 currently under review. Examination of the list reveals that environmental regulatory and advisory bodies constitute a significant proportion of those being culled – despite only saving an estimated £6.75m in public spending, and with many of the bodies operating at no cost to the public purse.
Amongst the bodies for the chop include the Renewables Advisory Board – an expert panel drawn from industry that advises on renewable energy policy; the Commission for Integrated Transport, which researches how to reduce transport emissions and congestion; and the Regional Development Agencies, responsible for £40m of low-carbon research & development over the past financial year, according to recent analysis by the Committee on Climate Change.
Incredibly, bodies as central to the Government climate programme as the Carbon Trust and the Forestry Commission are not yet off the ‘endangered list’ of “Bodies still under review”.
The privatisation of the Forestry Commission has been mootedbefore, but what this would mean in terms of retaining a national forest stock is unknown. It is possible that the Carbon Trust is being eyed up for assimilation into the proposed Green Investment Bank – as suggested by the Green Investment Bank Commission earlier this year – but simply moving funds around, rather than earmarking new money, will be insufficient to stimulate private sector green investment.
Nor is this the last of it. As the Telegraph reports, “Other bodies that are likely to survive but face significant budget cuts are the Environment Agency, the Energy Savings Trust and the Fuel Poverty Advisory Group.” The revelations follow hot on the heels of the announced abolition of the Sustainable Development Commission, and recent concerns that the promised £60m Ports Fund – for developing ports into manufacturing hubs for wind turbines – is under threat.
The cull of public bodies follows a worryingly ideological pattern. It is no secret that the hard-right Taxpayers’ Alliance has been lobbying for years to squash environmental regulation and spending. As I highlighted in July, Caroline Spelman’s decision to abolish the Sustainable Development Commission had been presaged with repeated lobbying by the Taxpayers’ Alliance, who called it “…a Government-sponsored campaign for an increase in green and environmentally aware policy”. The TPA’s Policy Director Matthew Sinclair boasted on Twitter that it was a ‘#tpapolicywin’. In a blog piece posted yesterday, the TPA revealed its desire to see even more green government bodies swept away, stating: “Whilst the news is initially encouraging… the Telegraph also lists a number of bodies still under review. It names the Carbon Trust, The Advisory Council on Public Records and the Energy Savings Trust among others whose future is yet undecided. This shows that there are still lots more quangos that can be added to this growing bonfire.”
Others on the right are clearly rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of rolling back bodies that attempt – heaven forbid – to tackle global warming. Andrew Porter, the Telegraph’s political editor, wrote yesterday: “The abolition of the British Council would be welcomed by many… Critics have accused it of being hijacked and used to promote such causes as climate change.” Imagine!
The irony of such small-statist antagonism towards green quangos is how little they cost the taxpayer, despite their value in providing expert advice to government. By the admission of the Taxpayers’ Alliance themselves, the Renewables Advisory Board cost precisely £0 in 2008-9. The same was true of the Advisory Committee on Carbon Abatement Technologies, and many other similar bodies earmarked for abolition. Interestingly, six quangos that deal with nuclear liabilities appear to have escaped the guillotine, despite eating up over £800m of public funds – and despite the Coalition pledge to remove public subsidy for nuclear.
Nick Clegg claims he did not enter politics to cut public spending, and I am not interested in politics because of some bizarre wish to defend unelected civil servants. But taking an axe to dozens of environmental regulators and funds threatens to choke off the green economy just as it is coming to life. It is quite some irony that, on the same day as the Energy Secretary sings the praises of the nascent British offshore wind industry, the Renewables Advisory Board is abolished and £40m cut from low-carbon funding. If only it were a laughing matter.