In the second part of his energy review Philip Johnstone explores the areas of energy policy Scotland needs control of.
The starting gun for the race for the General Election has fired. The only thing predictable about this election is its unpredictability. With a kaleidoscope of different coalitions predicted daily, incessant polling and continuing constitutional rumbling there is a danger that specific detail on policies is drowned out amongst the white noise.
The reason the independence referendum so invigorated people was the focus on issues and policies, it wasn’t as tainted by the tribal nature of party politics as elections are. Of course the referendum was fundamentally different to an election but political parties of every hue must trust the public to debate serious politics and not resort to soundbites. Simply saying more nurses = good doesn’t cut it anymore the parties must lay out detailed proposals of what they intend to do in power.
One area which needs more examination is energy policy which is not given the priority it deserves when the various parties are pitching themselves to the electorate. A good energy policy should benefit society economically, environmentally and provide security of supply. This is something Westminster has singularly failed to provide, with a privatised industry charging exorbitant prices that lacks the ambition to take advantage of the wealth of potential renewable energy available. It’s for this reason that the devolution of aspects of energy policy could become a key election battleground in Scotland.
It’s now clear that the hastily thrown together Smith Commission doesn’t satisfy anyone. The two main parties in Scotland are unhappy with it (for very different reasons). This coupled with the concessions that would surely follow a strong SNP performance at the election means it won’t survive in its present form.
The Scotland Act 1998 declares energy a reserved matter this includes; electricity(generation, transmission, distribution and supply), oil, coal and nuclear. The Smith Commission recommends that the Scottish Government has a consultative role in designing renewable energy incentives and strategic policies to which OFGEM must have due regard. This amounts to the Scottish Government being allowed to offer OFGEM an opinion… not exactly earth shattering.
Managing the electricity produced from renewable sources will become increasingly important as Scotland makes the transition to producing all it’s electricity in this way. According to a report by engineering consultancy DNV GL “Scotland has plenty of renewables in the pipeline to cut the carbon from its power supply by 2030”.
Whilst gaining control of every aspect of energy policy would be ideal realistically without independence the likelihood of powers over offshore oil being transferred are nil.
So specifically what areas of energy policy does Scotland need control of ?
If a company wants to generate, transmit, distribute and supply electricity in Scotland, England or Wales they must be granted a licence to do so by OFGEM. Not so in Northern Ireland which has the ability to issue licences through a government department called The Utility Regulator. The argument for all of the UK to be controlled by one regulatory body falls apart when confronted with the fact that Northern Ireland has a separate licensing body. This leads to the logical conclusion that Scotland with its unique energy challenges and opportunities should have the ability to issues licences as Northern Ireland does.
Ownership of the network is another area that must be examined closely by policy makers of all parties. In Northern Ireland the transmission and distribution infrastructure is owned by Northern Ireland Electricity Ltd (NIE) which is a subsidiary of ESB a company owned by the Irish Government. Thus we have the ludicrous situation where one nation of our ‘family of nations’ has its grid owned by the government of another country whilst another is denied the powers needed to implement necessary improvements. The onus is on unionist politicians to demonstrate why Scotland shouldn’t have policy control over its grid. It’s difficult to see how creating a publicly owned grid like most European countries is anything other than a massive vote winner and it would be interesting to see if any of the parties in Scotland are willing to campaign on this.
It would be ridiculous to try to pretend the recent (and ongoing) constitutional question won’t influence how Scots approach the coming election. Independence is off the table but extensive powers (home rule?) were promised although this must be tempered with a dose of reality. Westminster will never grant Scotland power over offshore oil but the argument against Scotland having powers already accorded to Northern Ireland won’t be so easily shrugged off by the Unionist parties. Pressure is already being applied to Westminster over the devolution of Corporation Tax but in the long-term having control over electricity is just as important.