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20 July 2016

The end of DECC - threats and opportunities


Press and Journal 19/07/2016 10:39 am by Stewart Stevenson

You don’t have to be an expert to recognise that the best time to repair the roof is when it ain’t raining. And that generally means summer rather than winter.

So it is perplexing in one sense, understandable in another, that one of the first major policy actions of the new UK Prime Minister has been to abolish her climate change department.

The practical effects of climate change are well understood but the timings at which they come into play less so. A succession of floods over the last few years is suggestive of greater difficulties to come.

So if the calculation has been that we reduce expenditure designed to delay, remove or diminish the effects of climate change because we have other economic issues to deal with, then there may be such a case. The Treasury commissioned “Stern Review on the economics of climate change” in 2006 suggested otherwise.[1] That the costs of addressing climate change are far less than the costs it would bring. But costs there would be either way.

The real issue for an economy facing significant challenge is quite different. And the abolition of a government department focusing on climate change has the potential to remove, certainly to diminish, a key economic opportunity for future jobs and growth.

Whatever one’s attitude to financial services, an industry whose recent failures have hobbled the economy, it is far from clear that it presents significant opportunities for future growth, innovation and jobs as it has in the past. We must look elsewhere.

In a global economy, manufacturing will flee to the cheapest competent workforce, and that is unlikely to be here. The countries of the far east have all but captured the making of electronic devices. Continental Europe is the byword for quality car manufacture.

We can be reasonably certain that there will be a shift in energy production towards renewable sources. Oil and gas will gradually shift towards being the primary feedstock of chemical industries and away from being a source of power.

For the UK, there is a looming crisis in electricity production. The planned Hinkley Point nuclear station is the “let’s put all our eggs in one basket” solution that locks in high future prices for generations to come at levels uncontemplated for any other energy source.

And the dependence on an increasing reluctant French, and perhaps Chinese, nuclear industry shows how far the UK has surrendered its early technology lead in this business and the dangers that flow from that.

Being a world leader in climate change technology remains an option for this country. And provides long term opportunity if we develop and control the intellectual and engineering resources that come with that leadership.

And we have considerable advantages right now.

The biggest immediate, predictable and long term source of energy lies off our coast. Our seas. The longest coastline in Europe gives us unique access to that energy. And the diurnal pattern of the tides is both predictable and variable around our coasts to the extent that, there can be sufficient available round the clock and round the year.

But being near the sea is far from our only advantage.

Forty or so years of exploiting oil and gas from under our seas leaves us with top to bottom offshore skills in our workforce. Gives us a commercial and support infrastructure able to redeploy its skills and knowledge in this sector. Means that there are educators ready to train future generations. Human capital that it would take competitors decades to acquire.

Critically it is a perfect sales pitch to other countries when we seek export opportunities. Proven experience, technology leadership and delivery capability that can be inspected. Not just paper promises.

Maintaining climate change as a policy priority should remain central to government decision-making, not just for the environment, but for a vibrant future economy.

Before the winter settles in, before the rains start in earnest, let’s repair the roof.

Notes:

[1] 2006. Stern Review on the economics of climate change. ISBN 0-521-70080-9. Cambridge University Press. http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/independent_reviews/stern_review_economics_climate_change/stern_review_report.cfm : accessed 16 July 2016.

19 July 2016

Listening's better than talking

One of the things I did when I was a Minister in the Scottish Government, was to continue using public transport. And that had immense benefits that stand me in good stead to this day.

I continued, then as now, to meet with and engage with the people who paid my wages.

A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting on the train from Huntly organising myself for my 4 hour journey to Edinburgh. The conductor casually says to the couple on the other side of the table, “Any complaints, just speak to this man”, pointing at me. 'Cos lots of the rail staff know me from my time in charge of transport.

That was the start of an interesting conversation about the world, Scotland, and trains. And an action on me to find out about a timetabling quirk that was irritating them.

Yesterday it was a conversation with two lads from the North East of England about the EU. I had thought they were both “Geordies” but now know that it's a grave error to describe someone from Sunderland – about 12 miles south east of Newcastle – in that way.

We soon had an animated discussion going and had drawn in a lass from Belfast sitting across the aisle who contributed her bit on the Good Friday agreement that has kept the peace in her area but which now might be threatened by Brexit.

No surprise that we didn't agree about everything. But, and this is the big but, they said if the SNP came down to stand in their area they'd vote for them. And that's simply because they saw me, and my colleagues, as listeners.

If there is one thing that matters to folk, it is being listened to.

And that seems to be at the heart of vacuum which is the two largest parties at Westminster – Tories and Labour.

The Tories created the Brexit mess – not simply by holding the referendum – but by doing so for internal party reasons unconnected to the interests of the people on the train, on the bus, in the supermarket, by simply forgetting to listen.

The Labour party paid the price in Scotland at elections in 2015 and 2016 because they had stopped listening.

And today – we may have seen the death throws of a party that a century ago had shifted politics from merely being the concern of the great and the good to become where everyone's voice mattered.

But which on Wednesday at Westminster saw people elected in their name heckle their own leader, elected with a massive mandate by their members, simply because he spoke to the truth documented by Chilcot. We thought that day might be about Blair and the many deaths that flowed from his decisions. Instead it was about the death of a political party.

I don't support the Labour party. But I support its right to exist.

All politics is diminished by the manner of its death. Personal interest above supporters' interests. Talking down to ordinary people instead of listening.

5 July 2016

A turbulent world

In the recent referendum, Aberdeenshire voted strongly to remain in the EU. Surprisingly for those of us who attended the count and added up the votes, for and against, we found the fishing communities a bit less “Out” than we had imagined. In fact Banff and Buchan had under 1,000 more “Out” votes than our neighbours in Gordon constituency where that issue was of lower priority.

But the test of a democracy is perhaps how we treat our minorities not simply how we chose our majorities.

At the Scottish Parliament election in May all candidates standing in our area, Conservative, Labour, LibDem and myself for the SNP, supported staying in the EU. We now share a duty to the minority who voted to leave.

I have attempted to contact the representatives of all the lead organisations representing fishermen across the UK.

The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, whose membership comes from across England, recognises that in any renegotiation of quota for fishermen, “it is realistic to expect that there will be a price of some sort.”

Scottish associations seem more bullish and I look forward to hearing how we retrieve vessels and associated quota sold by us into foreign ownership.

But with Scotland very substantially voting to stay, our Parliament has voted to empower our First Minister to work with the countries and institutions of the EU to protect our interests. No party opposed this, albeit the Conservatives – authors of the current chaos – abstained.

Since they last represented our area in Parliament – ending in 1987 – we have, under successive SNP Parliamentarians, moved from being in the worst quarter for unemployment into near top of the league. Standing up for people actually delivers. That is what all political parties must now do.

The current power and policy vacuum at Westminster cannot, must not, continue. Although I fear for – I never imagined that I would put it this way – the character of public life after David Cameron. We must rebuild.

More optimistically, I have just left the Parliamentary chamber after an enthralling address by the Irish President. He talked of our shared heritage and the need for an inclusive world.

In our corner of Scotland, we have received new friends into our communities from all over. Just as many of our friends and relatives have relocated to other countries – for example I have a great many relatives in the USA.

My Boy Scout patrol leader, Spigniew Skrodski was the half Scots son of a Free Polish Army soldier who came here to help in our time of need in the 1940s. Spigniew subsequently died as a pilot in our air service.

There is no greater disgrace than if we tolerate current attacks on “new Scots”.

I think Irish Poet W B Yeats got it right 100 years ago when he wrote:

“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

Stewart Stevenson
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