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The energy crisis: the £4,266 question

By Douglas Johnson
09 August 2022

By Douglas Johnson

Another day, another story about rising energy prices – this time, Cornwall Insight’s forecast that the energy price cap will reach £4,266 a year in the first three months of 2023. This has understandably provoked calls for the government to help households struggling with the cost of living.

It’s also opened a new front in the Conservative leadership election, with Rishi Sunak pledging to fund a new energy bills support package through efficiency savings. Writing in The Times this morning, Dominic Raab, a supporter of Mr. Sunak, has described Liz Truss’ policies on the matter as an ‘electoral suicide note’.

Away from the focus on the immediate problem of household costs, it’s worth noting what the candidates are saying on how they will address the underlying issue of keeping the UK securely and affordably supplied with energy.

So far, this all sounds a bit 2013. At a hustings last week, Ms. Truss argued that, ‘our fields should be filled of our fantastic produce,’ rather than solar panels, pledging to focus on extracting North Sea gas and to ‘allow fracking where local communities support it.’ Mr. Sunak, meanwhile, has hinted at restricting the use of farmland for solar farms and continuing the moratorium on onshore wind.

What’s notable here, is that very few of these pledges are likely to work – or even really address the reality of the situation. Ms. Truss has said, for example, that she will change planning rules to prevent high-grade agricultural land from being used. In reality, this would merely strengthen the status of existing guidance issued to developers. There is also a good case that new onshore renewables will come onstream quicker than fracking.

The pledges are arguably more interesting as an indication of a direction of travel. Both candidates’ comments on the use of farmland for solar panels, for example, reflect the position of a growing number of Conservative backbenchers who publicly oppose solar farms in their constituencies – visible in recent Westminster Hall debates on the matter.

That both candidates are being led by the position of backbench MPs is unsurprising. Either is likely to face a challenge managing a divided parliamentary party and supporting MPs in opposing development within their constituencies may seem like an easy win during the campaign. In the longer term however, this may create a risk for whoever succeeds in winning the Conservative leadership – and an opportunity for Labour.

Conservative MPs may well not get on board with the energy solutions proposed by the candidates. Limited local acceptance was one of the key reasons fracking stalled in England in the first place – and some MPs have already raised concerns about its re-emergence as a potential solution to the energy crisis.

Public opinion is also firmly on the other side of the matter, with research consistently showing that a majority of people support the deployment of new renewables. Taken with the role of energy in driving the cost-of-living crisis, this should be an open goal for Labour.