The north of England could benefit from decarbonisation – but the government must avoid the mistakes of the past

Wind turbines next to Drax power station in Selby, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The Northern Powerhouse, quite literally, powers the country. Between 2005 and 2014, the region produced an impressive 48 per cent of all renewable electricity in the UK; it’s home to the largest number of coal and gas power stations in England, too.

When it comes to energy policy, however, communities in the North are no strangers to challenge. And the challenge of decarbonisation is one which will need to be dealt with thoughtfully by the national government.

Climate change is the single biggest threat facing our planet. Decarbonisation is therefore a vital and urgent part of the action needed to mitigate the effects of global warming. However, it is clear that steps must be taken to protect the livelihoods of those people who work in carbon-based energy, because decarbonisation stands to have a profound impact on the landscape of the Northern energy sector and the people and communities it supports.

Last week, IPPR published a report which estimates that – as we move to a future in which we see a transition from carbon based to clean energy – 46,000 new green jobs could be created in the north of England by 2030. However, 28,000 carbon-based jobs could also be lost in this time.

It is imperative that the government recognises and prepares for the risk of job losses by ensuring a ‘just transition’ for workers in carbon-based industries. This involves securing the future and livelihoods of people and communities whose jobs are at risk, by supporting workers to access new green, high quality jobs.

Of course, this just transition is particularly important when we consider that the jobs losses in manufacturing and coal in the 1970s and ‘80s devastated whole communities. The impact has been particularly long-lasting because of a lack of policy support. In fact, in 2014, one in seven adults of working age in coalfield regions were out of work, well above the UK average.

As many northern communities continue to the feel the lasting effects of these jobs losses and closures, the transition to a low carbon economy cannot be allowed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

To avoid these mistakes, there are three key policy areas which the government must urgently address. In IPPR’s upcoming energy skills report in March 2019, we will be exploring each of these issues in more detail and provide in-depth policy recommendations for each; but the nature of the challenges must urgently be recognised and discussed here and now.

Firstly, the government’s Clean Growth Strategy and broader Industrial Strategy is not ambitious enough and needs to provide greater long-term certainty to renewable developers. Without this certainty, the opportunities for job creation will not be realised in the first place.

Secondly, the concept of a just transition must be embedded in the heart of decarbonisation policy. While the Scottish government has set up a Just Transition Commission to consider and mitigate the negative impacts of decarbonisation, the UK government does not mention it once in either its Industrial Strategy or Clean Growth Strategy. This must be urgently rectified.

Thirdly, the skills system is currently ill-equipped to provide retraining for workers in carbon-based generation who do not have skills that are readily transferable. In fact, according to IPPR’s Skills 2030 report from 2017, the adult skills budget is set to be cut in half between 2010 and 2020. This trajectory must be reversed and skills training must be better aligned with the demands of local economies.

The inadequate skills system is also problematic in the context of Brexit, where freedom of movement, and hence employment, of EU workers could be restricted. If renewable developers cannot acquire the skills they need in the UK, there is a risk that they will not invest here.

The North has the proud history, the capability, and the potential to continue to power the country far into the future. But this will only happen if the government takes the critical policy action needed to ensure that the transition to a low carbon economy is one which works for the people and communities who, quite literally, power the powerhouse.

Joshua Emden is a research fellow at IPPR. He tweets @joshemden.


The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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