The Week

The Week, 8 April 2022

This week the Government published its British Energy Security Strategy. The stories emerging from the policymaking process behind the scenes tell us a lot about how central government really works.

First, there is a clear lesson here about what it currently takes to motivate rapid policy action in Westminster and Whitehall. Amid the circulating stories of public announcements being needed to “bounce” the civil service into speedy work, the fact is that most of the moves set out by this strategy would already have been underway if this Government and its predecessors had been thinking ahead.

There is a broad and fairly long-established consensus around both the objectives and the best approaches for achieving energy security and transitioning to a lower-carbon system — but this has not been enough, in itself, to motivate decisive policymaking. This suggests a real lack of long-range thinking at the heart of government.

The result is that it instead takes a triple crisis to get things moving — an urgent strategic need for energy security, increasing pressure to achieve net zero carbon emissions, and a rapid surge in the cost of living. Policymakers are reacting to, rather than pre-empting, these challenges.

There are also reports of the traditional dysfunction between the Treasury and other government departments, with the result being that the strategy now has a strong focus on energy supply rather than building resilience and efficiency for consumers — an important aspect of security, by anyone’s definition. Despite early efforts to change the dynamic, this Government still has its options and agenda dominated by the Treasury: something to keep an eye on.

Attention will now turn to implementation of this strategy, which has as its centrepiece a number of new national-scale bodies to help keep things on track. Among these are ‘Great British Nuclear’ — responsible for commissioning a new nuclear power station every year until 2030 and a network of smaller modular reactors — and a ‘Future System Operator’ to coordinate the whole energy infrastructure. Notably lacking from the strategy, however, is any sense of the decentralisation and devolution which may be needed to find locally appropriate ways to achieve net zero and overcome planning objections to new sources of power.

The interesting — though vague — exception is in the area of onshore wind generation, where the paper announces a period of consultation to identify specific localities with an interest in playing host to turbines — and hints that such communities could see particular benefits from their YIMBYism, such as lower energy bills.

This week’s recommended reads...

James Kirkup’s latest piece in The Times is an important read, setting out why we should be turning our attention to the wellbeing of children and young people as we shift from pandemic response to recovery. For a long time, we have been focused on the considerable risks COVID-19 poses for older people. But in terms of mental health and educational prospects, the young are the vulnerable constituency — and they have sacrificed a great deal over the last two years. Look out for Reform’s new research in this area next week. And perhaps read alongside Jonathan Wolff’s philosophical reflections on the ethics of pandemic response over different timescales.

Think tanks Onward and IPPR have come forward with useful new reports this week. Onward offers ideas for improving apprenticeships, identifying them as a key way to build young people’s skills, support the the levelling-up agenda, and promote social mobility. IPPR, meanwhile, sets out proposals for ensuring the wellbeing of people with complex needs within the universal credit system. This work touches on a crucial part of any functional benefits system, which is the ability of on-the-ground decision makers to assemble the information they need and use their discretion in individual cases.

UCL’s Constitution Unit, meanwhile, has shared the detailed conclusions of the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK. Participants are calling for strengthening parliament’s ability to hold government to account, wider usage of participatory and deliberative approaches, and more. Government’s reaction will itself be an important test of the efficacy of these deliberative approaches in our system.