Keith Baker – 28th October 2022
Llongyfarchiadau i lywodraeth Cymru!
(I hope I’ve got that right – I was born in Wales but sadly my grasp of the beautiful language is limited).
Fantastic news from the Welsh Government this week. As reported by the BBC, Wales is to get its own asset-owning public company that will focus on developing windfarms on Welsh government-owned woodland, with the intention that profits from sales of electricity will be ploughed back into local communities. And if you’re thinking that the proposals look remarkably similar to what we set out in our Powering Our Ambitions policy paper then you’d be right. Behind the scenes, we got wind of the plan early on (excuse the pun), and our work has informed the development of the company.
I don’t think we can understate just how important this news is, both for the people of Wales and as an example of what Common Weal and all our wonderful supporters can do. It’s just a pity that it’s not happening in Scotland.
And things could’ve been so different here. When we started work on that paper, a process that took almost a year from start to finish, we were riding the start of a wave of public and political support. We saw that the Scottish Government’s thinking was vague and ill-defined (plus ça change) and set out to put flesh on the bare bones of an ideal with huge potential to help tackle climate change and fuel poverty. We mined our expert networks. We met with representatives of their Energy and Climate Change Directorate. We attended a workshop that happened to coincide with the news that Our Power would be ceasing trading (whose assets we speculated would be absorbed into a national company). We built support amongst the membership of the SNP and Scottish Greens, resulting in three successful motions to their party conferences, and with that support extending to our proposals for establishing an Energy Development Agency to strategically manage our transition to a zero-carbon energy economy (including a commitment in the Scottish Greens’ 2019 election manifesto).
And then somewhere along the way, things started going wrong. Having publicly committed to establishing a company, our First Minister saw fit to spend almost £500k of public money on a feasibility study for a retail-only company – something any expert could’ve told her was a non-starter for free. Indeed, you wouldn’t need to be an expert to have looked at the number of retail-only energy companies that were hitting the wall to conclude that a retail-only company would be, at best, a very risky investment, with limited benefits to our country.
As we’ve repeatedly pointed out, any public energy company needs to own its own assets in order to do basic things such as leveraging investment and maximise benefits to local communities. The Welsh Government clearly understands this but the Scottish Government clearly doesn’t unless, of course, you think that the latter’s plans for independence are underpinned by the selling off of our most valuable national assets. Need we point to the Scottish National Investment Bank or the ScotWind debacle?
And then followed probably the lowest point in this shambles. Following Sturgeon’s second commitment, and second U-turn, on the company, the SNP and Scottish Greens voted against an amendment to the Net Zero bill tabled by Scottish Labour MSP Monica Lennon to revive the pledge. Junior Minister Lorna Slater MSP got the job of delivering the coup de grace even though it fell outwith her ministerial remit, presumably because Junior Minister Patrick Harvie MSP, whose remit it does fall within, didn’t want the bad PR. The exchange also revealed that Slater hadn’t done her homework when she claimed that the Scottish Government was in favour of ‘public energy companies’, leading Lennon, quoting our paper, to inform her that our proposals state we support a “company or companies”.
What they are now in favour of is a public energy agency, the proposals for which were so vague and poorly developed that in our joint consultation response we commented that “in future, [the Scottish Government] puts out concrete proposals rather than asking us to waste time commenting on a set of actions that history leads us to expect may be dropped or changed on a political whim”.
That public energy agency is now, sort of, up and running in a ‘virtual’ form, albeit launched a month late and with very little fanfare. We stand by our criticisms.
Things could’ve been so different. If the Scottish Government had listened to us and done what the Welsh Government has done we would’ve considered it job done and now be lining up to praise them. Instead, we have been met with excuses as to why it can’t be done, invariably along the lines of Scotland not having sufficient powers. So, I’ve now written to the First Minister to try to get a definitive answer as to exactly which powers the Welsh Government has that the Scottish Government doesn’t that have enabled them to establish an asset-owning energy company, and to ask what the Scottish Government has been and is doing to secure those powers.
We’ll publish any response we get but I think we all know the real reasons, and they’re carrot-shaped.
And never fear, we won’t be letting this lie. So I’ll end with a big thank you to everyone who believes this can be done. With your support we can, and we will, ensure that Scotland will one day own its own energy assets.