Energy is one of those policy areas that is and isn’t devolved. It exposes both the poor and uncertain nature of the settlement and how unsure the Welsh Government is about how to deal with the issue.
Energy is a one subject argument for a new clear settlement. The recent report of the Silk Commission probably got things wrong with its recommendation that energy consents for projects under 350mw be devolved. For a clear settlement we probably need to look north to Scotland where almost everything outside of nuclear is devolved. The next new Wales Bill to be published in the autumn will probably tell us more about the thinking of the UK Government and it will be this that forms the basis of the energy policies in next year’s manifestoes. It is likely that Labour will join with the Lib Dems and Plaid in demanding significant new powers in this field whilst the Conservatives, although privately supportive, will support the line taken by the Secretary of State which will be greatly influenced by a Welsh Parliamentary Party that is highly suspicious and generally opposed to further devolution except where absolutely necessary.
Labour’s 2011 manifesto included a commitment that the First Minister would take overall responsibility for energy. In total over the last four years energy policy has been divided between three portfolios and five ministers have taken responsibility for different aspects of delivering the policy at different times. And that does not include responsibility for associated issues like planning. It is no surprise therefore that policy delivery has been hesitant and sometimes inconsistent. The Welsh Government will find it difficult to argue that it has realised the potential and delivered on its vision for energy.
Labour will want to move forward. Many in the party feel frustrated that more has not been done and would like to see the party take a more radical approach such as funding and providing support for community schemes and clearing the way through planning to make these ideas a reality. The Party is generally united on the development of Wylfa and any new Welsh Government formed after the election will continue to be very supportive of the project. The Welsh Government also rushed out a statement opposing fracking prior to the UK General Election. There is little doubt that the new policy was driven more by politics than by an analysis of the technology but the Government will also go into the election next May with a policy that strongly opposes fracking. It may fall short of an outright moratorium but, effectively, that exactly what it means.
Like all of the main Welsh parties, Labour strongly supports the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon and will be actively looking for ways of supporting other marine projects such as smaller-scale tidal and wave projects. But more than individual projects, Labour will be looking for a policy that has both the high level, long term vision but also, and crucially, the mechanics and machinery of delivery.
Plaid Cymru’s approach was outlined clearly in a policy paper published over the summer. They support a major drive to support and expand renewables and especially small-scale renewables. Nothing new there. The late Prof Phil Williams was saying this in 1999. What is less clear is Plaid Cymru’s approach to planning and the tough decisions about on-shore wind farms that have characterised this debate. Their headline policy ambition of creating a new public energy generation company is certainly ambitious and it does demonstrate a level of seriousness about delivering on the policy objectives. They have led calls in Wales for an outright ban on fracking and that will be a key part of their policy platform.
And their approach to nuclear and the development in Wylfa has been inconsistent to say the least. Their leader, Leanne Wood, refuses to discuss the matter and their spokesperson, Llyr Gruffydd, doesn’t miss an opportunity to condemn the scheme. At the same time the local Member and Plaid Economy Spokesperson couldn’t be more supportive.That’s something they will need to get right if they are serious about being a part of the next government. It also may be a fault line between Welsh Labour and the new Leader at a UK level – with Jeremy Corbyn sceptical on nuclear energy, whilst the Welsh party is supportive.
The Welsh Liberal Democrats, like Plaid Cymru, are very supportive of a move to renewable energy generation, although, also like Plaid Cymru, have found it difficult to support project where it has been politically difficult for them such as in Montgomeryshire and other parts of rural Wales. The Welsh Liberal Democrat position has been to support strong schemes such as the Green Valleys initiative on the Breconshire border and to offer support for other similar schemes. They are the only Welsh party who are completely opposed to nuclear.
The Welsh Conservatives energy policy has been mostly centred upon opposition to wind-farms in Montgomeryshire and other parts of rural Wales. They have supported the Welsh Government in developing nuclear in Wylfa and have also supported the Government in their efforts to maintain the viability of the oil facilities in Milford Haven. They will probably be the only Welsh party that will not seek a ban on fracking, influenced by the enthusiasm of the UK Government, they will be more equivocal than supportive.
It is expected that UKIP will join the Conservatives in opposing on-shore wind and supporting nuclear new-build. Since they are the only party to question climate-change they can be assumed to be broadly in favour of generation projects that are cheap in the short-term and enjoy local popularity. Their position on the future devolution of additional energy powers is unknown.
Over the coming months there will be a significant level of agreement between the parties over energy policy, the gaps have been over energy efficiency and how the Welsh Government’s existing schemes should be reinvented – or if they should be re-invented – and also how the policy is delivered in terms of the grid and associated developments – much of which is expensive and sometimes highly controversial. All parties have been compromised in different ways in terms of ambition and political reality. For instance, in spite of each party committing to a low-carbon energy policy, no party will either demand the closure, or create the conditions for the closure of Wales’ biggest polluter in Aberthaw. Each party will take its policy position and will then calibrate it for the electorate that they are targeting. The task for each party and for others will be to test the commitments and crucially test how each party believes those commitments can be delivered in practice and what targets will each party set themselves over the next five year term.