Why Whitehall’s addiction to inaction is a threat to us all

Keith Burnett
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Economy And Community Around The Port Talbot Tata Steel Plant
As Edmund Burke said, politicians should represent our interests, not our opinions (Source: Getty)

When I heard last year that there was going be another commission to deliberate on infrastructure issues, I had a Father Ted moment. In one episode, a parody of the film Speed, rather than dealing with a crisis, an assortment of priests stand around a blackboard and someone suggests that they say another mass.

Are we just saying another mass for the infrastructure we need? Why so few decisions? It is mainly because few politicians survive making big, unpopular decisions? In the words of Father Ted, “this isn’t a time for mass, this is a time for action!” Action needs to be urgent, but the National Audit Office warned in January that over a third of major infrastructure projects in the UK will be overdue and over budget once finished.

But let me tell you how Whitehall’s own frameworks make these decisions even harder. Take just one of our big national challenges: making sure that there is electricity when we want to boil a kettle or power the factories we need to reinvigorate industrial production and rebalance our economy.

The people having to keep the lights on have been happy with our warmer (and wetter) winter. The people in flooded York and Cumbria have not.

In my work as a scientist, I am only too aware of the many pressures facing our energy industry to feed the energy grid. By now most of us have heard how close we are getting to a “lights out” moment, and how industries have been asked to switch production off at peak times, because of a policy decision to switch off coal before we have the necessary alternatives in place.

This is like making a decision to sell your old car before sorting out the new one. Car salesmen now have you over a barrel because they sense you are desperate. After all, you still need to get to work.

We know we need reliable large-scale energy production which does not infringe our commitments to low-carbon as agreed in Paris. Again, you don’t have to be a scientist to understand this means we need new nuclear power plants. But why does it seem so impossible to deliver even the nuclear projects to which we are already committed?

The first obstacle is making a decision at all. By this point, we are already stymied by our lack of credible plans to deliver what we know we need.

Our next barrier is an energy regulator, Ofgem, which has a political motive to keep prices down. This is understandable in the short term, often the only timescale of interest to headline-writers and politicians.

Rightly, the UK also wants to sustain its commitment to innovation. And if you want innovation, beginning with price control is simply nuts, as any economist or engineer knows. In order to invest in the development of new technologies such as the small modular reactor, prices start higher. As they embed and economies of scale and production kick in, that changes.

Price regulation means we stick with existing technologies until the ground fails beneath our feet, and then we will surely pay much more for energy in the long term. What this actually means is buying from overseas providers more willing to develop new systems than us. Jobs and economic growth are, therefore, lost to the UK. And when workers are forced onto benefit, the tax payer will need to help with fuel bills.

So we need our politicians to have the confidence to do not what we want, but what we need. As Edmund Burke said, politicians should represent our interests, not our opinions. And that means looking beyond the cycle of promotions or even elections. It means giving up our addiction to the interminable roundabout of commissions, reports, recommendations and further reasons for inaction.

One of the National Infrastructure Commission’s (NIC) three tasks is to deliver future-proof energy infrastructure, and I support the CBI’s call for the NIC to have much greater power to do so.

You and I need a job for our kids and a planet for our grandchildren. We need sustainable electricity that doesn’t lead to further cataclysmic changes to our climate. We need a nation which designs and builds its own infrastructure and then sells products to the world – creating skills and reinvigorating our economy along the way – so that we can afford all the other things we want, like education and decent healthcare.

Look at what’s happening in the steel industry. It is clear that we need a long-term plan for industries to work towards in this country. We are immensely proud of our record on inward investment, but as soon as you place competition before the government’s ability to act towards a national purpose, as countries like France and China do, then you are left vulnerable. We have to learn something very difficult, and perhaps impossible, in a democracy. We must not expect politicians to make this a comfortable world for us. If we force that on them, they will make the world much more dangerous in the long term.