“Advisers advise and ministers decide,” observed Margaret Thatcher in her ultimately fatal dispute with Nigel Lawson over her personal economics guru Sir Alan Walters in 1989. True enough of Mrs Thatcher in her day but hardly true today as the Government turns dithering into an art form.
A third runway at Heathrow? After more than 40 years of wrangling over expanding airport capacity in the South-East, a decision about the rival merits of Heathrow and Gatwick has been delayed (again) until the autumn. A £24 billion nuclear power station at Hinckley Point in Somerset? Just as the French energy giant EDF was about to crack open the champagne, our new Prime Minister Theresa May decided it was time for a second look – more than a decade after the project was first mooted. Even the £56 billion HS2 rail line to Birmingham and the north looks far from a certainty.
It is not my purpose to pronounce on the wisdom or otherwise of these projects. Certainly, if post-Brexit Britain is truly to flourish, turning its face towards the trading opportunities in the wider world, we are going to need greater airport capacity. The most detailed study of the options under Sir Howard Davies backed expansion at Heathrow a year ago only for ministers to prevaricate, promising an answer by this summer, a deadline that has been further extended by Mrs May.
On the face of it, Hinckley C looks a thoroughly bad deal. The technology is unproven, the cost to consumers of the electricity to be generated is more than twice the current market price of power, and the involvement of Chinese investors and constructors raises questions of national security. Mrs May’s chief adviser Nick Timothy has said that the shape of the deal would give Beijing the power to shut down Britain’s energy production at will. The costs of the project have already spiralled from £9 billion to £24 billion and every year of delay adds further to the bill.
But Hinckley C is not a decision can be endlessly postponed. Authoritative studies warn that by 2025, less than a decade away, Britain will face an energy gap of 40-55 per cent, meaning in plain English that before too long the country is going to run out of electricity. Even now the National Grid is warning that this winter the UK will have only 5.5 per cent spare capacity. Under the baleful, nay suicidal impact of the Climate Change Act, we are committed to reducing our carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. Coal-fired stations are closing along with the old Magnox nuclear ones. The obvious solution – building new gas-fired stations, which emit only half the carbon dioxide of coal-fired plants – means breaching the terms of the Act. Other nuclear options exist, such as building small nuclear reactors like those powering Trident submarines or switching to the more efficient, proven design of the reactors South Korea is building for the United Arab Emirates.
But such solutions require decisions – and fast. Ministers like to talk of taking tough decisions. But the reality is far, far different. Remember the long-term economic plan of little more than a year ago as the Conservatives ground their way to victory in the general election? Even before he was sacked, George Osborne abandoned the pledge to balance the nation’s books before the planned 2020 election.
Delay and dithering are the hallmarks of the modern politician. Terrified of upsetting one interest group or another, they duck and fudge rather than make a decision and stick to it. The power generation crisis has been slowly building up for years as successive governments have preferred to put off the moment of reckoning, safe in the knowledge that their successors will have to carry the can. And years of hiding behind the skirts of Brussels have not helped to shape ministers capable of sticking to their guns.
The energy gap is staring us in the face. Its first casualty should be the Climate Change Act. With that repealed, we can get round to keeping the lights on.
(Image: Robert Cutts)