Labour sidesteps 2017 manifesto pledge favouring publicly-owned energy

(Title Image: Wales Online)

The Issue

With a decision due imminently from the UK Government on whether or not to support the Swansea Tidal Lagoon (widely anticipated to be a “no” from London), Plaid Cymru used their weekly debate to argue in favour of a publicly-owned energy company for Wales.

Labour made commitments in both their 2016 Assembly Election (pdf – p7-9) and 2017 UK General Election (pdf – p20) manifestos to support community generated energy and public ownership of energy respectively.

The Motion

The Senedd:

  • Notes Plaid Cymru’s long-standing proposal for establishing a publicly-owned energy company, Ynni Cymru.
  • Notes the Welsh Labour party’s 2017 manifesto commitment to support “the creation of publicly-owned, locally accountable energy companies and co-operatives to rival existing private energy suppliers, with at least one in every region”.
  • Calls on the Welsh Government to establish a publicly-owned energy company.

Key Points

Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales)
For (the motion): Wales can guarantee its energy security for decades to come.

  • Wales is a net-exporter of energy, with the capacity to produce far more from renewables, yet prices are amongst the highest in Europe; Wales should aim to become self-sufficient in renewable energy by 2035.
  • Most financial and infrastructure decision on energy is made by the UK Government even though powers over projects with a generating capacity of 35MW or less have been devolved.
  • A national energy company (Ynni Cymru) can address fuel poverty, cut carbon emissions by developing renewables and expanding energy storage, come to joint agreements and can sponsor energy research.
  • Work for the energy company can be undertaken by local companies (possible community owned) working under a national umbrella.
  • The Tidal Lagoon “isn’t outrageously expensive” and is asking for less subsidy than Hinkley Point C nuclear power station; it shouldn’t be a choice between Wyfa and the lagoon, it should be both to provide a proper energy mix.

Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd)
For (in principle): The trend is towards re-nationalisation.

  • Re-nationalisation of public utilities is “inevitable”; privatisation has been an absolute disaster and 77% of people support re-nationalisation of energy.
  • Public ownership could save the UK £3.2billion by cutting fuel poverty and cutting real term prices.
  • Some senior Conservatives have received donations from and had jobs with, private energy companies.

Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales)
For: Let’s learn from the rest of the world.

  • Uruguay, which has a population similar to Wales, has set a goal for 95% of its energy to be produced from renewables in less than ten years.
  • EDF, Vattenfall and Statkraft – all involved in energy projects in Wales and the UK – are majority or at least partly state-owned. Some of these were established to prevent exploitation of their own natural resources by multinationals (….ironically).
  • There are steps being taken in Wales to form local not-for-profit energy companies, such as Bridgend and Wrexham.

David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central)
Against: We need reform, not re-nationalisation.

  • Energy efficiency and more competitive prices won’t be achieved with further state involvement but through reform of the energy market.
  • A nationalised company taking over National Grid operation would make it difficult for any private company to compete; it’s “happy salad days thinking” to assume nationalised energy companies created efficient investment, good service and low prices.

Bethan Sayed AM (Plaid, South Wales West)
For: “Kick in the teeth etc.”

  • Expected rejection of the Swansea Tidal Lagoon – and the chance to develop a world-leading technology – would be the latest in a long line of examples of the UK Government ignoring Wales and South Wales West.
  • We should be encouraging local authorities to expand the use of solar panels on public buildings and social housing and also follow the example of Aberdeen City Council’s “Heat and Power” not-for-profit company which has reduced energy costs for some residents by up to 50%.

Sian Gwenllian AM (Plaid, Arfon)
For: Help communities generate energy themselves.

  • Ynni Cymru could give a clear focus to community energy initiatives.
  • Ynni Ogwen hydroelectricity scheme raised £500,000 from locals in two months – who now own an 85% share – and it’s not the most wealthy area.
  • People behind these schemes call for better-structured support from local and Welsh governments as they often don’t have engineering or energy expertise.

Welsh Government Response

Environment Minister, Hannah Blythyn (Lab, Delyn)

  • Labour’s 2017 manifesto pledge was to take ownership of energy networks at a UK level.
  • A Wales-wide energy company has been ruled out following workshops held last summer.
  • There wasn’t a strong case in favour of creating a national umbrella company as publicly-owned energy companies are often still reliant on public support; Bristol Energy made a £7.7million loss and recently lost a contract to supply Bristol Council.
  • The Welsh Government shares Plaid Cymru’s vision for renewable energy, but it’s down to the UK Government to support lower-cost onshore wind and solar schemes – their withdrawal of support has increased the cost of energy.
  • The Welsh Government has backed loans to community energy schemes which were deemed too risky by commercial lenders and there’s an expectation from the government that all renewable energy projects from 2020 have some element of community ownership.

Vote & Did Labour break their promise?

As is becoming the case in these debates, despite some support for the motion on the Labour backbenches they voted with the whip to reject it. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that if they’re going to vote against something they tell us why.

UKIP had a free vote: Neil Hamilton and David Rowlands voted in favour, Gareth Bennett and Caroline Jones abstained and Michelle Brown voted against.

Following hot on the heels of signing a contract to create a for-profit rail operator (albeit subsidy/profit capped), is this another broken Labour manifesto promise?

The 2016 manifesto (which Labour AMs were elected on) made no clear reference to public ownership of energy, just supporting “community-based” schemes.

The 2017 manifesto explicitly promised nationalisation and public ownership, but doesn’t count as Labour didn’t win. However, the Welsh branch signed up to the UK party’s 2017 pledges in good faith and have the power to deliver its policies.

I said this at the time:

“As the most senior Labour-led administration in the UK they’ll now be expected to deliver some of UK Labour’s manifesto commitments in Wales, like nationalisation of the railways and free university tuition. Carwyn’s not going to like that – not because he doesn’t support it, but his favourite argument: “No money, no policy”.

“If they try and brush it off in the Senedd chamber, people will be right to ask if Welsh Labour have just conned them and, as has been the case for generations, taken their vote for granted?”

As the title suggests, “sidestepping/avoiding/ignoring” is more correct than saying Labour has broken a pledge but it’s open to interpretation.

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