Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
The current ‘energy debate’ is in danger of descending into little more than an unsavoury slanging match. Ed Miliband’s price freeze proposal was a brilliant opening ploy. But in the vacuum that followed, it looked more like a policy space the Labour Party didn’t know how to fill.
The moment called out for a radically different plan of what tomorrow’s energy market must look like. All it triggered, however, was a debate dominated by the political crazies.
Egged on by the Tabloid Tories, David Cameron’s resurgent right are blaming everything on ‘green’ taxes, and demanding their repeal. Behind a rallying cry of ‘Only pollution can save the poor’, Cameron’s crazies are calling for the deregulation of everything that might make a dirty industry clean up its act. The sad thing is they are getting away with it. Decarbonisation targets are being abandoned, zero-carbon homes are off the agenda, renewable energy is under attack, ‘Warm Home’ grants are replaced by Mickey Mouse ‘Green Deal’ loans… And now they even want to abandon their legal duty to end fuel poverty.
Britain has some of the poorest housing stock in Europe. Around five million households live in government-defined fuel poverty. Every 1 per cent increase in energy bills throws another 40,000 households over the fuel-poverty line. When this year’s figures are published, we will again see ‘excess winter deaths’ of 20,000–30,000 people.
This has become an annual cull: the cold-homes casualties that Britain tolerates because we lack a decent housing renewal policy. It is a scandal dressed up as a statistic.
At one point, it was a scandal the last Labour government looked set to tackle. The Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000 placed a duty on government to ‘eradicate fuel poverty by 2016’. Unfortunately, it also contained the loophole phrase of ‘as far as reasonably possible’. Labour ministers were soon having to retreat behind this phrase as Gordon Brown salami sliced the budget that supported the programme. Even before the economic crash it was clear that the 2016 target date would not be met.
Ministers had not descended to the ‘wear a woolly jumper’ level of policy making, but they did begin to talk about the numbers being helped who were ‘in’ fuel poverty rather than the numbers helped out of it. This parliament was always going to have to come up with a different target date, and more measurable outcomes. What we didn’t anticipate was that the coalition government might want to ditch the duty altogether.
With very little notice, the government slipped in an amendment during the Lords stage of the energy bill debates to remove both the statutory duty and the 2016 target date. In its place will be a new definition of fuel poverty – a movable target that can never be reached – and new duties on ministers to introduce ‘regulations’ that ‘address the situation’ of those living in fuel poverty, and which specify a target date for ‘achieving the objective’.
What objective? What does ‘addressing the situation’ mean? What exactly will the fuel poor get? Woolly jumpers all round? This is waffle of the highest order.
Some 70 per cent of Britain’s fuel poor live in properties with ‘bottom of the barrel’ energy efficiency ratings of E, F or G. A genuine ‘fuel poverty’ strategy would commit to lifting all these properties to band D standards by 2020, and raising the rest of our housing stock to today’s ‘new build’ standards by 2030.
This is precisely what the End Fuel Poverty Coalition of NGOs is pushing for. They want the Lords to move amendments to set new minimum housing standards. The question is, will anyone back them?
Labour’s energy spokeswoman Caroline Flint has already proved to be the most combative of shadow secretaries of state, but the messages from the two Eds’ offices (Miliband and shadow chancellor Ed Balls) are becoming much more ambiguous. So far, Labour peers have been reluctant to commit Labour to anything with ‘targets’ in it. A game-changing opportunity is being lost in the continuing clamour for cuts.
The travesty is that coalition ministers aren’t opposed to public subsidies per se. Their energy bill is about to shovel more than £100 billion of new subsidies into the pockets of big energy in the misguided belief that it will deliver UK energy security. In doing so the UK will cut itself off from all the most exciting energy market transformations already happening around us, especially those that begin from the interests of the poor rather than the rich.
In Hamburg, citizens have just voted to take the local grid off the energy companies and bring it into social ownership. Their starting point will be to sell themselves energy saving (improved housing conditions) before new energy consumption. Generating their own energy, and distributing it locally, may also allow them to cut existing energy bills in half.
The new partners in Germany’s ‘energy transition’ are no longer the energy companies. They are the producers of low energy technologies, decentralised generation and smart communication systems. For them, the eradication of cold homes is the beginning of the clean energy journey rather than something to be dropped from it.
In Britain, the same process would not even be difficult to finance. The crocodile pleadings of energy company executives to ‘lift the burden of green taxation from their shoulders’ should be turned on its head. It may be sensible to take the £500 million Energy Companies Obligation (ECO) budget supporting the installation of energy efficiency measures away from energy companies altogether. But instead of scrapping it, why not take a more creative approach to their responsibilities?
At nil public cost, we could turn the obligation into a duty to buy the same amount of bonds from the Green Investment Bank (GIB). Energy companies could then allocate the bonds as dividend or executive bonus payments. As tradeable assets that still belonged to the company, these would not even count as taxation. This could produce a loan fund for the GIB similar to that operated by the German KfW Development Bank. This is used to drive Germany’s energy efficiency programme, which currently takes more than 350,000 homes a year out of fuel poverty and has created more than 360,000 jobs.
Moreover, if the British government wanted to close the ‘Eurobond exemption’ tax loophole, used by energy companies to avoid paying tax, the money could double the size of a fuel poverty fund. It would provide a platform that could take some 500,000 UK households out of fuel poverty each year, until we reach the 2020 target. The mechanisms of supporting such a programme are not difficult to devise. It is the will and the vision that is lacking.
Of course the Big Six have been milking the public on energy charges and the taxpayer on public subsidies. But cutting green taxes won’t change any of this, and it won’t end the scandal of cold homes. Standing up against the Big Six is not enough. It is the whole wretched game that has to be changed.
Alan Simpson was MP for Nottingham South and a member of the Socialist Campaign Group in parliament from 1992 until he stepped down in 2010
Louis Mendee explains the real human costs of climate change for the global south.
From climate change to automation to demographic shifts, Mathew Lawrence explains the challenges our economy will face in the coming decade.
Fifty years after the Abortion Act, women are still dying from being denied basic services, write activists from Feminist Fightback
We need to tackle the patronising ideology that lets Tory think-tanks sneer at social tenants, writes Emma Dent Coad
Acid Corbynism allows people to imagine a future beyond the paltry offerings of capitalism, writes Keir Milburn
'We wanted to use a shared love of the beautiful game to stand in solidarity with those living under occupation', writes Kate Hadley.
Priti Patel's shady deals are business as usual. Enough is enough, writes Eleanor Penny
Boris Johnson is a local disaster and a national embarrassment. He must go, writes James Clouting
The global elite have been stealing from society on an unprecedented scale, writes Tom Walker
Richard Murphy says that the appropriate political will and understanding of tax can put an end to offshore avoidance and evasion
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes