Welsh Ambitions Are Powering Ahead of Scotland’s

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.

13 thoughts on “Welsh Ambitions Are Powering Ahead of Scotland’s”

  1. Penny Edwards

    Thanks Keith. Its a depressing story which is becoming familiar through reading Common Weal news. I gather Wales also has a Minister for Future Generations and they have legislation in place, with all-party backing, to consider future generations. Seems they are more forward thinking than Scotland.

    1. Thanks Penny! I didn’t know that 🙂

      I’ve been hugely impressed with Mark Drakeford and the way WLab and Plaid have been working together (and my mum’s met Mark and says he’s a very nice bloke 🙂 ).

  2. It’s so frustrating watching the SG deliberately (or incompetently) derail the interests of the people of Scotland in favour of who? I think we all know who. We need independence as much to save Scotland from the SNP and find something left to save as any other factor.

    1. Agreed!

      And there lies the big question – how much more of the SNP’s incompetence are we prepared to accept to get indy over the line? (If, of course, you believe that the top brass actually want it).

  3. Hi Keith,
    Great article. There can be no energy security without nationalisation at least to 51% shareholding. We must have control. We’ve seen what happens when we don’t.

    1. Thanks! 🙂
      And the same goes for community energy companies. We’ve got a great paper on this based on work by one of my students that’s long overdue. Ownership is absolutely critical.

  4. Hi,
    Sorry if I am showing my ignorance, but I am rather new to all this. In your very interesting article you said,

    “We’ll publish any response we get but I think we all know the real reasons, and they’re carrot-shaped.”

    What do you mean? Have I missed something?

    1. Hi Laura,
      It’s a common dig at Nicola and certain members of the SNP who repeatedly promise things that would benefit Scotland (like a public energy co) to keep people voting for them and believing they’ll deliver a second indyref, but then those promises get dropped or turned into something very different (e.g., the SNIB and the National Care Service). Maybe it’s not so well known outside twitter 🙂

    1. We have a big piece of work coming soon and that is more or less what we’re proposing Len. On the whole electricity generation and retail is a fairly straightforward business and doesn’t have any need for direct political interference. That is particularly the case in Scotland where we would want to use all-renewable energy, which in turn means the cost of generation is not reliant on global markets and so does not fluctuate wildly. A cooperatively owned system also helps to get round a few potential state aid issues (though those are largely voluntary now we’re outside the EU).

      The problem with the cooperative model is similar to that of the OurPower model (the mutual, non-profit Scottish attempt to create a retail energy company). It’s a problem of scale – you need to get big enough fast enough to become sustainable. In the Welsh model that is easier because (as we’ve been proposing) they’re also going to include generation which can subsidise the period when the customers base grows. In the book we’re proposing the idea of a ‘National Mutual’ where everyone is a shareholder. That creates scale fast.

      But either way, what I think it means is that it needs public intervention and almost certainly at the national level. Trying to put together a cooperative that is capable of taking on BP or Ibedrola is very difficult.


      1. Thanks for that Robin. It would be a great help to work together on this and, indirectly, help us to make the case to the Welsh Government and Senedd members. You have my email address I think and we can make arrangements to talk further and I could include other comrades and colleagues in Wales. The bigger they the harder they fall:)

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