6 Jan 2023
Voicing concerns about climate action in the UK to our MP
The meeting was attended by Philip Dunne (MP), Jane Cullen and Simon Ross represented South Shropshire Climate Action, Jon Cooke and Mike Bourke represented Stretton Climate Care.
Each section of this report begins with the questions/comments we sent to PD in advance, followed (in bold) by a summary of his responses and our discussion.
1. We would like to thank you for your interest and support for our work, and for all that you do with the Environmental Audit Committee to hold the Government to account. We are especially grateful for the question you put to our new Prime Minister following COP 27, which prompted his pledge to the Net Zero Carbon targets, and also for the opposition which the EAC expressed to the proposed expansion of coal mining in Cumbria and Wales.
Because of his responsibilities as Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), PD does not comment on topics which are being dealt with by the Committee and which will be the subject of an official Report. This is why he has not previously shared with us his personal views on oil and gas licences in the North Sea, or on land-based wind generation. These have now been dealt with in the Report “Accelerating the transition from fossil fuels and securing energy supplies”, which has just been published: https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/33366/documents/180604/default/ These Reports have to be replied to by the relevant Government Department(s) within a limited time frame.
2. We are, as you know, very unhappy about the go-ahead given for this new coal extraction and also about the licenses for new oil and gas projects in UK waters. We understand the energy security issues created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and also the argument about jobs. But our concerns are twofold:
· First, they send mixed messages to our own people and to other countries about the wholeheartedness of our commitment to Net Zero Carbon. We face an uphill struggle of public education, and people say, “If the Government isn’t consistent and serious about phasing out fossil fuels, why should we be?”
· Secondly, the time scale involved risks derailing our progress. Dominic Carver’s paper in the House of Commons Library states that the achievement of NZC by 2050 requires a 78% reduction in carbon emissions by 2035. But these new fossil fuel extraction projects cannot be just short-term responses to the present situation. To be viable they must operate profitably well beyond 2035. Can you tell us, please, what you and the EAC see as the implications for the timetable, and the relationship between the present energy security emergency and the longer-term (and greater) climate emergency?
The Oil and Gas Authority (which issues the licences) has now been renamed “The North Sea Transition Authority”, to send a clear message about the intention to phase out fossil fuels in due course. The EAC welcomes this and proposes that now is the time for the transition to begin. However, there is currently a backlog of about 200 oil and gas licenses to be allocated for the period since 2020. Many of these are for the “infilling” of small areas within existing large extraction zones. These licenses should enable extraction to come on stream within 3 years, with a period of 10-20 years before the source is exhausted. Licenses for extraction from new zones may take up to 10 years to come on stream, which means some extraction going on beyond 2050. The official definition of Net Zero Carbon accepts that some fossil fuel burning will continue beyond 2050, but this will have to be offset.
Whether companies will take up these new licenses and invest depends on a combination of price and taxes. Hitherto British taxes on gas and oil extraction have been lower than the international average, but have now been increased to one of the highest, at 75% (Norway has the highest at 78%). The allowances for development and decommissioning which were previously available only for fossil fuels have now been extended to renewables, to create a level playing field.
We expressed our disappointment that these new licences were being considered at all. PD replied that the Ukraine War had created new uncertainties about energy security, and the electorate would not forgive a government which let the lights go out.
3. We welcome the support expressed by leading Conservatives, in the context of the energy security problem, for relaxing the present restrictions on land-based wind turbines which are, as you know, the cheapest and most effective form of renewable electricity generation. We would like to know your own view on this, please.
PD is now clear that a greater use of land-based wind generation is desirable, dependent on public support. One issue is the fear expressed to him by some constituents about the effect of wind turbines on the value of their houses. PD now wants the EAC to work on national guidelines for obtaining public support, including schemes which offer customers reductions in electricity prices. He agreed with us that it would be good to encourage special discounts or benefits for households in fuel poverty.
In particular we would like to ask you if there is anything specific you can do to support the Net Zero project in Bishops Castle which includes a wind turbine, and for which there is strong local support despite the planning difficulties and the omission of the project from the Town Council’s Neighbourhood Plan?
PD will contact Mike Watkins and Dave Green again to discuss support for the Bishops Castle project.
4. The ambition of SSCA is to achieve Net Zero Carbon in South Shropshire by 2030. We recognise the heroic nature of this aspiration, but the urgency is, in any case, the same if we are to meet the Government’s own interim targets. In co-operation with Zero Carbon Shropshire we are building a coalition of committed volunteers and organisations around the themes of Land and Biodiversity, Transport, Energy and Buildings and Communications and Education, and our two half-time project leaders Nick Read and Fiona Morgan are co-ordinating our work into an effective strategy. We would welcome your leadership and public support in making this Constituency a role model for other rural areas.
In particular we have come to appreciate the enormous challenge of retrofitting the many thousands of homes in the Constituency for Net Zero Carbon. Promising developments include:
· the Future Ready Homes project funded by the Energy Redress Fund and managed by MEA,
· the work of Lightfoot Enterprises,
· the policies of Connexus in the social housing sector,
· and the exploration by Sustainable Bridgnorth and Shropshire Council of a heat network scheme involving PV and land-based wind generation in co-operation with local industry.
In short, there is a wealth of initiatives and goodwill. But we find ourselves facing some considerable hurdles, and would welcome your advice and encouragement.
i) A serious retrofit programme will require the upskilling of builders and contractors, and there are few retrofit specialists among our architects and surveyors. Net Zero Carbon are talking with the Colleges and industry bodies, but progress is limited by the lack of a sense of urgency.
Simon Ross shared MEA’s experience of Housing Associations having to employ large national companies of varying quality in their retrofit schemes, and PD agreed with us about the urgency of training local retrofit specialists and upskilling contractors. He is interested in finding out about the work of N-MITE in Hereford in this area, and will explore the idea of convening a Construction Summit with Adrian Cooper and representatives of training institutions like Vicky Ayton at Shrewsbury College.
ii) NZC will require a significant upgrade in the capacity of the Grid. Do you know what local impact this will have on the timetable for domestic retrofit, electric vehicles and the expansion of renewable generation?
A recent meeting with the National Grid (which now owns Western Power) has made PD aware of the substantial increase in electricity consumption which the transition to NZC will involve. This will require the upgrading of the grid at a much higher rate than that allowed under the present investment rules, in order to create the capacity for new solar and wind generation farms to be connected as well as to supply more power to businesses and homes. PD is exploring the possibility of an EAC inquiry into this issue.
iii) Those promoting the Bishops Castle and Bridgnorth schemes find that the planning system does not give the necessary priority to the achievement of Net Zero Carbon.
iv) PD was not aware of the latest position on the Bridgnorth scheme, and will contact Simon Vickers. The planning issues are included in the recent EAC Report.
v) Both householders and businesses find long-term planning and investment frustrated by ever changing Government policies, grants and incentive schemes. We sympathize with the difficulties faced by the Government, but how do we create some stability and a long-term, cross-party approach which will enable us all to move forward with confidence?
PD and the EAC are very aware of the importance of a stable planning and incentive environment for investment decisions by households and businesses and also for the upskilling of contractors and the training of the future workforce. He accepts that recent performance in these areas has been discouraging.