Restless disposition in energy policy

Ian Marchant

Ian Marchant FEI Immediate Past President

In preparing for a conference on energy policy, I came across this quote from Walter Bagehot – ‘If you keep altering your house, it is a sign either that you have a bad house, or that you have an excessively restless disposition – there is something wrong somewhere’. As a constitutional expert, he was talking about the problems of Government in the 1800s but his comment is so true today.

It was the phrase ‘restless disposition’ that caught my eye, as it is theme that Professor Anthony King uses in his book, Who governs Britain, to describe one of the problems with 21st century politics.  All new ministers want to make an impact; want to be seen to be doing things; want to make announcements that attract headlines. They are always in a hurry.

Energy policy has been a notable victim of this syndrome. This century we have already had nine ministers with cabinet responsibility for energy (counting both DECC and the various forerunners to the Department for Business). It’s even worse at Minister of State level where we are on number 14.  All this change means that the new minister, who arrives with a restless disposition, is also in a tearing hurry as they only have one to two years to make their impact; less time than it takes to build any assets in the energy industry. This timescale precludes thoughtful consideration, proper consultation and assessment of the impact of any change on the whole energy system before action, and completely rules out any learning from the results of previous activity.

The civil service used to act as the brakeman to the ministerial bobsleigh but senior officials change almost as often as ministers and rarely build up expertise in one policy area, seeming to need to switch departments to get promotion. It is no wonder that we have such a patchwork of interventions and plethora of changes and amendments and no wonder that we do not have a joined up, robust energy policy. We are getting what the politicos system is designed to produce – ‘something wrong’ to quote Bagehot.

And EI members agree with me. The EI’s inaugural Energy Barometer  survey reports that EI members see policy continuity as an essential component to reduce investment risk and encourage a longer-term view.  In fact, EI members deem it to be one of the biggest challenges facing the energy industry in 2015. The complexities of the energy system require clearly communicated policies that are consistent over time and with each other.

If we are to have a thought through, robust and enduring energy policy we need a fundamental change to the governance and political arrangements that determine this policy. The stability, longevity and independence of the Governor of the Bank of England is the sort of role we need. And no; I am definitely not interested in doing that job!

 

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