Seven years ago, the Prime Minister bemoaned efforts to introduce wind energy into the UK, snidely remarking that turbines “failed to pull the skin off a rice pudding”. Instead he suggested we do more to harness the potential of shale gas as a future solution to our energy needs.
Fast forward to today, and it is no surprise the fickle Boris Johnson is now attempting to brand himself as the champion of wind energy. This week he has announced plans to invest in offshore wind farms that will aim to provide electricity to every home in the country by 2030.
While Mr Johnson’s hypocrisy is predictably contemptible, the opportunity for investment into the North this project offers is not before time, nor is the commitment to the wide scale use of green energy sources, both of which the Labour Party has been consistently campaigning for this last decade.
Northern towns, including in and around my constituency of Wansbeck in South East Northumberland, have been crying out for meaningful investment since the 80’s when its industry was cruelly dismantled by the Thatcher administration, leaving workers abandoned and left to suffer. Since the financial crisis of 2008 and the program of austerity that followed, the North has only been subject to even further misery.
The UK is Europe’s most geographically unequal country. Since 2010 London has become the richest region in Northern Europe while the UK is also home to six of the poorest ten regions. As households in London and the South East and South West have rapidly increased their wealth since 2010, the regional inequality gap has rapidly become worse. As of 2019 the North East has the lowest average weekly earnings and the lowest employment rates in England.
The prospect of widespread investment bringing employment into the region is long overdue. The Prime Minister claims that an initial £160 million investment in manufacturing will rapidly create 2000 construction jobs and will enable the sector to support 60,000 jobs in ports, factories and on supply chains by 2030.
It is crucial that a substantial amount of these new jobs being created go to the North. The PM encouragingly mentioned areas such as Teesside and the Humber as places to receive heavy investment to upgrade ports and infrastructure. I urge him to pledge support to other northern coastal areas to receive the same investment, for example Blyth in South East Northumberland.
What this should not be is another opportunity for the government to outsource large contracts to their friends working in private companies at the expense of the tax payer. If there was any doubt about the problems of such practises, the disastrous test and trace system outsourced to private companies such as Serco should serve as sufficient warning.
It is therefore imperative that the energy source is under public ownership. The only goal of private companies is to maximise their profits. The goal of this project should be to provide affordable energy to everyone in the UK, and to create well-paying and well protected jobs with trade union membership for thousands who are long overdue receiving them. I fear the Tories may see it differently.
It should also include a plan build colleges in the North that will offer apprenticeships will to train the next generation of world class engineers, giving thousands of young adult’s opportunities and a quality alternative to university when they leave school.
In the meantime, I am wary that the PM has traditionally been big on style and disappointing on substance. Sweeping claims that in a decade wind energy will provide electricity in every household will rightfully be met with scepticism until more details are announced on how this can actually be made possible.
Experts have pointed out such a project would not only require a huge upgrade in our ability to manufacture turbines, but also a massive increase in the capabilities of our current grid system. And although the £160 million initial investment promised is welcome, it is but a drop in the ocean if the Prime Minister is serious about achieving a genuine green future.
Experts estimate that producing 40GW of offshore wind energy, the amount proposed by the PM, would require an estimated £50 billion capital investment, and the construction of a turbine every weekday for a decade.
It will also take a lot more than wind for the government to reach its net zero greenhouse gas target. The Institute for Government suggests huge strides need to be made to make homes more energy efficient and develop detailed and ambitious plans to reduce emissions in transport and agriculture.
It must also be made clear that this should only mark the beginning of a period of widespread government investment and creation of jobs. In the midst of the pandemic we are facing the worst recession in modern history. But it does not have to be another long period of mass unemployment and austerity, a future the Chancellor’s job support scheme threatens.
As laid out in Gordon Brown’s Alliance for Full Employment initiative there is an alternative path through this crisis. This includes levelling up equality investments for small businesses across all regions of the UK, a constitutional pledge to take unemployment as seriously as inflation and a furlough scheme that works for everyone.
Whatever road we take ahead it must be one that works for those living in Northern towns and villages who have long been forgotten and left behind, and one that does not end up leave the workers paying for this recession as they did the last one.
In the interim, it is important not to allow these initial promises distract us from the complete mess this incompetent administration has put us in regarding Covid-19. The quicker we get through this pandemic the more chance we will have of rebuilding successfully on the other side. As it stands, I am far from confident the government is capable of doing so.