The Treasury: Destroying Britain’s world leadership in green technology

cop 21 carbon capture

Carbon capture from Cop21

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There has been much said that Britain doesn’t capitalise on its own innovation – and leaves other countries to do so. Much of the blame is put on companies not wanting to invest – but it is often acknowledged that the state has a role to pump prime innovation.

In green technology Britain is seen to have surrendered the lead it once had on wind farms – with nearly all the technology now being imported.

What has not been really reported is the role of the Treasury in encouraging or discouraging green technology. Until now.

A report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee in the dying days of Parliament shows just how baleful the Treasury has been in destroying Britain’s world prospects coupled with writing off taxpayers money. And the main culprit in the last six years must be George Osborne and to a lesser extent, former Liberal democrat energy secretary, Chris Huhne- despite the Liberal  Democrats green image.

Officially the report was on the abandonment of carbon capture technology. –

The Commons  criticised the handling of decisions by the last coalition and Conservative governments to waste some £168m by cancelling competitions to develop new carbon capture technology before its potential could be realised.

The Mps concluded: “ The UK has now missed opportunities to be at the forefront of a growing global industry” but say this is part of the pattern where the Treasury halts projects for short term financial gain over the last decade.

“The UK may now have lost any competitive advantage to export CCS technology to countries that are seeking options to reduce their own carbon dioxide emissions, which could have created engineering and R&D jobs in this country. This is reminiscent of government decisions in the 1980s not to develop renewables, meaning the UK lost its position as the world leader in emerging technologies such as wind power.

“Neither the Department nor the Treasury evaluated the potential benefits for the UK’s economy of having a globally competitive CCS sector prior to the competition being cancelled.”

What is more damning is how MPs go on to provide a shopping list of failure to support green technology.

“These included cutting feed-in tariffs for solar and onshore wind; scrapping the zero-carbon homes regulation; withdrawing the grandfathering support policy for biomass projects; privatising the Green Investment Bank; and cutting subsidies for low-emission vehicles.”

The original decision to halt the first attempt at carbon capture technology was made by Chris Huhne when he cancelled an experiment at Longannet power station in Scotland. Then George Osborne halted for short term savings a development at Drax coal fired power station in 2015.

Mean while in the rest of the world 20 projects are going ahead. As Mps conclude:

“Halting CCS’s deployment means that the UK will have to pay billions of pounds more to meet its decarbonisation targets, has missed opportunities to be at the forefront of a growing global industry, and has damaged investors’ confidence in working with the government on CCS in the future.”

Given we are supposed to be proudly standing alone -post Brexit – and need to develop new technologies here, this is doubly damaging. But then it seems politicians are more interested in rhetoric than action.

I have written a piece in Tribune on this.

 

Is George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse about to hit the buffers?

George-Osborne

George getting out in time before the Northern Powerhouse runs into trouble

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My last post on the national repercussions of the Great Western electrification shambles has elicited some very interesting information about why Network Rail got into such a big overspend. (£1.2 billion on a £2.8 billion project)

If the information is accurate – and it seems to be based on some sound sources – it would suggest that George Osborne’s strategy to boost the North through better rail connections is about to come to a grinding halt because it has not been properly costed.

Through Tim Fenton well known for his caustic comments on the media oligarchs on his Zelo Street blog , I have become acquainted with an extraordinary obscure debate about the  safe clearances needed to install overhead electrification.

Ever since the electrification of the West Coast mainline in the 1960s Britain has had narrower clearances than the bigger gauge continental railways. We even had a derogation under the EU. But according to rail expert Roger Ford a serious blunder during the privatisation of the rail engineering which meant all the papers justifying the narrower standards were lost. So we now have no derogation because we lost all the paperwork to justify it.

Why this is important is that the higher clearances will add huge costs to ongoing rail electrification projects in every tunnel and under every bridge on the line. They will have to be higher margins between the top of the train and the wires.and the structures  They will  also have to raise the height of every planned pantograph- to protect people and staff coming into contact with it.

Now it appears that if each situation is given a special risk assessment it might be possible to get round the rules – but that will add to delays and costs and will have to be approved by British regulators – the Office of Rail and Road- even if we have left the EU.

As Roger Ford wrote in his December bulletin: “When all this was reviewed by the relevant British Standards committee it was agreed that, while the previous  2.75m clearance  was not justifiable as a minimum limit in a standard, it might be justifiable subject to a risk assessment.  So, according to Network Rail, electrical clearances below 3.5m are possible – with risk assessment.

” What’s really infuriating about this safety-by-diktat, is that the engineers concerned know that it is irrational and yet they go along with it. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of bureaucracy over common sense is that good engineers should do nothing.’

Great_Bentley_station_geograph-3890553-by-Ben-Brooksbank

Picture of Great Bentley station by Ben Brooksbank

Now obviously this is going to effect more lines than just the Great Western – and this is where George Osborne’s plans  turn to dust.

Already costs are rising on the Midland main line electrification from Bedford to Nottingham and Sheffield. With a critical National Audit Office report likely it is possible that electrification  will stop dead in its tracks at Kettering and Corby – nowhere near the real North.

And the Trans Pennine electrification – another Osborne  project -might stop altogether.

No wonder George Osborne is now going to be editor of the London Evening Standard – he will want to be well clear of the North. This is just a brilliant example of how our incompetent and overrated political amateurs  don’t properly assess what they are  doing.

And the public are  always the losers – in this case the travelling public.

 

Spending Review: Caveat Emptor- Buyer Beware

George-Osborne1

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Today the Chancellor, George Osborne, launched the autumn spending review.

From the statement you might guess that he has climbed down over welfare spending cuts by abolishing his plan to cut tax credits, climbed down over big cuts to police budgets and acted to save the mental health budget and save the NHS from further cuts. All terribly good news along with more money for defence equipment, the security services, already announced.

But if you look at the figures he still planning  the same  huge level of cuts  but apparently with no pain.

For a start we are going to have no changes to the tax credits – yet there is going to be a change to the new universal credit which will replace a whole series of benefits. So the government will still be cutting the welfare bill by £12 billion. No details yet but it will be sneaked through when the figures are announced much later, hitting another group. And he is proposing to sell 20 per cent of the Department of work and Pensions estate- selling off  Jobcentres and benefit offices.

The NHS is getting more money but will have to make £22 billion of efficiency savings and provide a 7 day a week service. How? No details.

The police may not get their budget cut but the budget is not protected against inflation which is expected to start rising – so there is a hidden cuts inside this announcement.

And  the government claimed it had protected the science budget – but within hours engineers were announcing that a major demonstration project into carbon capture – which could save some coal fired power stations from closure – had been cancelled.

And both the extra money for defence and spending by HM Revenue and Customs – on equipment and tackling tax evasion- is going to be financed by axing thousands of civilian jobs in defence and closing down almost all local tax offices.

And while there is a £600m fund for mental health inside the NHS many voluntary organisations looking after the mentally ill and handicapped will be hit by the huge cut in local government funding.

There is more privatisation on the way – the rest of air traffic control, ordnance Survey and the Land Registry.

So what looks like a series of good announcements are often little more than smoke and mirrors. And in this budget it will depend more than most on the small print hidden in government announcements. Journalists are often fooled into first believing the initial message only to find it starts to unravel over the next few weeks when the policy bites. This is a Caveat Emptor Spending Review- buyer beware.

 

Revealed: The Treasury mandarin who said losing £1bn for the taxpayer was value for money

john kingman, second Permanent secretary at The Treasury Pic Credit: worldellows.yale.edu

john kingman, second Permanent secretary at The Treasury Pic Credit: worldellows.yale.edu

CROSS POSTED FROM  BYLINE.COM WHERE SOME OF MY WHITEHALL AND WESTMINSTER SCOOPS WILL NOW APPEAR FIRST AS PART OF A NEW CROWDFUNDING DEAL TO WIDEN THE SCOPE OF THIS BLOG

There has been enormous outrage about the £1bn loss to the taxpayer caused by the sale of the first tranche of Royal Bank of Scotland shares. An article in The Guardian on August 4 reported not only expected criticism from Labour but concern from a banking analyst that the share price of RBS was too low to justify the sale.

What was only briefly mentioned was that the second most powerful mandarin in the Treasury had also given the go ahead. You might expect him to bow and scrape to the Chancellor but actually he has more powers than you might think and he needn’t have followed his instructions.

If an accounting officer believes that a government minister is about to make a decision that will lead to a big loss to the taxpayer he can refuse to approve the action.

These actions are not taken lightly – one of the most recent examples being the refusal by Richard Heaton (soon to become Permanent Secretary at MoJ) who requested one, on value for money grounds, on 26 June over extra funding for the Kids company charity. He was overruled by ministers who have now seen to have made a big mistake as recent coverage reveals.

John Kingman could have done the same thing. He would face being overruled by George Osborne but it would have caused a furore and triggered an eventual Whitehall investigation.

John Kingman Letter Instead as this letter above shows he has positively embraced the sale.

“ I am satisfied that a sale at this time would offer good value for money for the taxpayer and meets all other requirements in accordance with the principles of Managing Public Money,” he wrote to George Osborne.

Really?  Now John Kingman is one of the cleverest mandarins in Whitehall. He hates holidays, lives in Leicester Square and one former colleague describes him in these words: “His arrogance is only marginally ahead of his considerable intelligence, whereas with most ambitious men of his ilk the gap is rather larger.” A profile in 2009 by political editor George Parker in the Financial Times says it all.

He writes “If he can achieve the goal of unwinding the taxpayer’s stake ( in RBS) at a profit, his route to the top of the civil service is clear, even if some question whether he has the patience to manage such a huge, traditional organisation. “

Well at the moment he hasn’t – he has acquiesced in a £1 billion tax loss. And I am not the only one who has noticed this.

The National Audit Office, Parliament’s financial watchdog, which reports on state asset sales, confirmed to me “We are watching the situation”.

They will have to make a report on this. This will lead him to have to appear before the House of Commons public accounts committee to justify why he approved what was done.

No doubt the government would like Parliament to take its time – perhaps not report until the entire sale is over – but that won’t be until 2020.

I say the huge loss to the taxpayer should not go unchallenged for years. Bring it on now!

Distorted and Massaged: How the dole claimant figures show a divided nation

George Osborne at the Despatch Box in Parliament pic credit: video snatch from www.csmonitor

George Osborne at the Despatch Box in Parliament
pic credit: video snatch from http://www.csmonitor

George Osborne’s great claims that the UK is on the road to jobs recovery has already been attacked for producing a mass of new low paid jobs, zero rated contracts and a boom in part-time working.

A closer analysis recently provided by the House of Commons library breaking down unemployment by constituency reveals a rather different disturbing and divided picture. And it officially shows the current claimant count is being massaged by Iain Duncan Smith, the works and pensions secretary, to underestimate the number of dole claimants on benefit.

As I report in Tribune magazine the figures reveal huge differences in the claimant rate between constituencies with up to 25 times more people on the dole in the worst parliamentary seats than the best. It shows that the “recovery” is by no means universal despite the creation of hundreds of thousands of low-paid jobs.

The worst place in the United Kingdom is undoubtedly the Foyle constituency of Mark Durkan, the SDLP MP. Here there are more than 6,600 on benefit representing 13.2 per cent of the population.

The recovery has by passed Foyle – with a drop of just over 5 per cent in claimants in the last year – compared to an average drop of 30 per cent in the UK and more than 45 per cent in Epsom and Ewell, the Surrey seat of Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary.

The best place in the UK is still fuelled by the Scottish oil boom – the West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine constituency of Liberal Democrat MP, Sir Robert Smith – with just 0.4 per cent on benefit – 221 people claiming benefit with only 30 unemployed for more than a year.

Other unemployment blackspots are Birmingham, Ladywood and Hodge Hill, all over 11 per cent and falling at a lower rate – some 20 per cent -than the national average.  There is a similar picture in Belfast North and West;Bradford East and West, Middlesbrough and Birmingham, Perry Barr.

But there are areas where unemployment claims have disappeared. Among those with benefit claims of 0.7 per cent and less are Stratford-on-Avon, Henley-on-Thames, Mid Sussex, North Dorset, Kenilworth and Southam and North East Hampshire.

But there is also a disturbing picture that has gone unnoticed because of the debacle by works and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, in launching universal credit. At  the moment it covers about 0.3 per cent of the population.

The Commons library  reveals that currently statistics are not being collected from people on universal credit to find out whether they are in work or unemployed when they claim the benefit.

As it says : “Some new jobseekers are claiming Universal Credit rather than Jobseeker’s Allowance since the commencement of the Universal Credit pathfinder on 29 April 2013. These jobseekers are not included in the claimant count. ”

“…As a result, the claimant count will understate the total number of jobseekers in the constituencies affected.
ONS (Office for National Statistics) intends to include jobseeker Universal Credit claims within the claimant count statistics “as soon as possible”.”

However the ONS website says :  “No timetable is currently available as to when this will occur.”

This affects claimants at 40 jobcentres. The worst example is the Oldham West and Royton seat of Labour MP Michael Meacher where 1240 people are on universal credit.

The number of JSA claimants in his constituency is 1530, down  51 per cent over the last year but if the figures do not include those on universal credit instead – they are bound to be an underestimate of the real number of claimants on the dole.

A similar situation exists in  Wigan, the seat of Lisa Nandy, where 1020 people are claiming Universal Credit and is recording a 46 per cent drop in the number of people claiming  JSA over a year.

Now it would be remarkable if Wigan and Oldham could post  bigger cuts in dole claimants than Epsom and Ewell in Surrey. It is obviously not true.

So I think Mr Osborne better be very careful if he starts talking up the big drop among the unemployed in the North before the next general election based on these massaged statistics. If he does he will be telling the electorate at best only a partial truth and at worst lying through his teeth.

Coulson: The £275,000 ” Red Top Shaman” who bewitched David Cameron

Andy Coulson, Cameron's Red Top Shaman

Andy Coulson, Cameron’s Red Top Shaman

I am rather surprised in the wake of Coulson’ s conviction for conspiracy over phone hacking none of the commentators have picked up the extraordinary passages about his appointment  to the Tory Party in  Matthew D’Ancona’s revealing book In It Together, The Inside Story of the Coalition Government.

In a series of purple passages he describes the determination of both George Osborne and David Cameron to woo him to become the £275k  Conservative Party’s director of communications on 9 July 2007 – so soon after he resigned from the News of the World as editor over the conviction of Clive Goodman for phone hacking.

It is quite clear from Matthew’s account that Coulson himself had reservations about taking the job – which led him to become the Downing Street press secretary by 2010 at a salary of £140,000 a year – and in hindsight might suggest he was worried about further fall out over the phone hacking scandal.

But what is more extraordinary are the purple passages about Cameron’s passion for his professional abilities.. George Osborne is portrayed as a hard-headed strategist – Matthew describes his view of Coulson as ” a street fighter who could take the battle to Labour and win in a media knife-fight.”

But Cameron comes over as besotted with Coulson. According to Matthew ” Cameron..was awestruck by his communications director, whom he privately described in lyrical language.”

” He treated Coulson as a red top shaman, a source of secret knowledge about the world of tabloids, Essex and kitchen- table politics. The phone hacking story refused to go away but Cameron was determined not to yield to those who urged him to ditch Coulson.”

Matthew later adds – and remember that this written before the trial verdict – that Cameron was determined he must follow him into Downing Street and as a result didn’t want ” to ask too many questions.”

He writes:” Coulson had the talent of the outsider, and exercised a quietly magnetic influence upon his privileged bosses, bringing Billericay to Bullingdon.”

All this makes Cameron’s badly timed apology for appointing him show Cameron up as shallow turncoat. While it may not  quite rank as an equivalent of Peter thrice denying Jesus, it says something about how a man who treats Coulson as a Messiah figure to connect with the working class and then distances himself as fast as he can when he is down and out. Particularly when it is clear from Matthew’s account that Coulson more than once offered to resign because of his Murdoch past.

Coulson has had a bad time – his trial and subsequent conviction – has led to a jury hearing about his  ” love cheat “affair with Rebekah Brooks , his bullying manner from co accused  Royal reporter Clive Goodman, and how he listened to the David Blunkett love tapes before publishing the story.

Don’t get me wrong,  I am not sorry for Coulson or his fate but I do think the Prime Minister is being let off far too lightly. Peter Oborne has already exposed flaws in his apology statement, Matthew D’Ancona,a Tory insider himself, to my mind, exposes flaws in Cameron’s own character.

 

Parliament: How an Old Etonian triumphed over an anti Establishment right winger

The election victory of Rory Stewart, over Julian Lewis  by 14 votes for the chairmanship of the Commons defence committee had all the hallmarks of  a well  orchestrated  Conservative Establishment manoeuvre. The full result is here.

It meant that one Old Etonian replaced another. James Arbuthnot, as  Tory chair of the defence committee, stood down. Rory Stewart. replaced him. It also blocked a troublesome Tory who helped humiliate Cameron by stopping  him arming the rebels in Syria, which could have let jihadists obtaining chemical weapons. 

The voting – using the single transferable vote- among the most sophisticated electorate in the country – allowed loyalist Tories two stabs at the post.

 The first choice was probably ” safe pair of hands” Keith Simpson, Mp for Broadland, but when it became clear that Lewis had garnered enough support  from Labour to overtake Simpson.they had another figure up their sleeve, Rory Stewart.

Stewart, who had military experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, has been a tutor to Princes William and Harry and is regarded as a rising star. He attended recently along with George Osborne the influential Bilderberg Group. And significantly a very busy Chancellor took time out yesterday to vote. David Cameron himself did not have time.

Lewis who has encyclopaedic knowledge of defence matters  might not be so good as  Rory as a TV presenter but he would have been trouble.It will be very interesting to see how Rory handles the chairmanship of the committee and whether he makes waves or even wants to make waves.

 One fascinating fact: We have a new chair of defence who has tabled only one question on defence to the government in the last year. He’ll have to ask a lot more now to make an impact.