Nowhere has the government let us down more than in the area of power generation. We have falling to bits Britain on the roads and at the power socket. We have carried on trading on our old nuclear power stations in the hope that something will turn up. We have added a few windmills, and trusted to consultation documents and the promise of a great nuclear debate to keep us warm in future years. I guess the strategy is to let us burn all those consultation documents on open fires as the power winds down as nuclear stations are retired on days when the wind is not blowing.
Itâ€™s strange that the government has been so remiss in this area. It does not take much public money after all â€“ most power stations can be run without public subsidy, and those that need subsidy can obtain it by charging consumers overall a higher price, distributing the proceeds in the way the government demands. The industry needs permissions â€“ health and safety permits, planning permissions and the rest. It also needs guidance on the governmentâ€™s view on how much money should be spent on moving to a lower carbon model and how the excess cost is going to paid for. Thatâ€™s not asking much, you might think, but so far it has eluded DTI and BERR Secretaries of State.
The UK needs to replace more than a quarter of its current capacity in nuclear and coal with more modern plant and possibly with different fuels. It also needs to add a bit to give a better safety margin in an economy where rapid inward migration is raising demand, and here increasing reliance at the margin on wind power will require more stand by plant for calm days. The government is indicating that it wishes to replace nuclear with nuclear â€“ otherwise the carbon output rises if the industry substitutes modern coal or gas stations.
Why doesnâ€™t the government get on with it, and make more rapid progress? Why is there still so much delay in agreeing what is needed with the industry and granting the necessary approvals? Do we really have to wait two years for the new planning system to be introduced before a planning application for a new power station can be considered? Is this yet another device to push these decisions beyond the next Election, so the current Secretary of State knows he is free of the obligation, and the government as a whole will probably be off the hook? Or is this the unintended consequence of a well intentioned idea? Either way, it makes it more likely we will be rationed or short of power before the end of the decade.
This is perhaps the easiest of all the capacity bottlenecks and shortfalls to remedy. Decisions now on the carbon regime, the approved technologies and the sites for new stations would lead to a major new building programme. The UK could then look forward to a future with enough power.