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E-scooters at a crossroads
E-scooters at a crossroads

Posts Tagged ‘WA Public Affairs’

Powering up?

Yesterday’s Powering Up Britain announcement had been trailed as a gamechanger for the country’s energy transition: the UK’s response to IRA in the battle for green investment. But to what extent does it shift the dial on the government’s priorities and give confidence to investors? WA’s energy team reflects on what it means and looks ahead to what’s coming next.

1. Yesterday’s announcements mark an important albeit incremental drive to ‘power up Britain’

Much of the commentary following yesterday’s package has focused on the relatively limited nature of the announcements: there was very little in the way of new funding announced, many policies from existing strategies and publications repurposed, significant reforms that are urgently needed – for example on planning reform for onshore wind – pushed into the future, and the number of specific projects backed on the low scale of expectations.

All this is true, but the fact that ‘Powering up Britain’ was neither radical or fast enough to meet key national ambitions, doesn’t mean it’s not welcome or important. Industry repeatedly calls for a renewed focus on ‘delivery’, with key targets and objectives already agreed. Yesterday’s announcement represents movement on ‘delivery’ – the hard policy grind that is necessary to move progress to targets forward.

Upcoming announcements on grid connections and onshore wind will also be critical to increase the pace of renewables deployment.

2. Picking winners (and losers)

Governments – particularly this one – dislike being seen to be ‘picking winners’ and choosing which businesses thrive. However, it’s a core theme of yesterday’s package, particularly picking the early leaders within technologies. Yesterday showed that government is committed to backing a broad range of technologies – as the Energy Minister Andrew Bowie reiterated at a dinner hosted by WA earlier this week. However, not every project within those technology types will progress – there will be winners and losers.

Across different sectors – from new nuclear to CCUS and hydrogen – government is using competitions between projects and firms to identify which they will back. This isn’t new – in effect this has happened with the CfD regime within renewables for some time – but it’s now been embedded across the sector. This very starkly exposes that within the UK energy market, project developers and investors are dependent on government permission and support to progress. There are clear commercial consequences – the impact on the share price of both the winners and losers of CCUS and hydrogen competitions yesterday neatly demonstrates this.

One critical consequence of this is that it makes it even more essential for those wishing to progress projects to make a strong case for their individual investment and to be able to differentiate it from competitors. As well as having a strong technical case, this means telling a story. How will this specific project or technology tangibly improve the local community by delivering economic growth jobs and a strong supply chain? How will it meet the government’s ambition for low cost, homegrown power more effectively than other solutions? Do you have influential champions for your project? It’s no coincidence that Teesside was a big winner on CCUS and hydrogen yesterday, with a Mayor in Ben Houchen who has made this a priority. In an election year, showing the political ‘win’ as well as technical competence is critical.

3. Home decarbonisation is the piece of the puzzle policymakers still struggle to solve

The one part of the decarbonisation challenge that arguably lost out yesterday was home decarbonisation and domestic heat. It’s a problem that successive policymakers have struggled to grapple with, but the measures announced yesterday will not yet do enough to fundamentally address the scale of the problem.

Take the government’s announcement on the establishment of a Great British Insulation Scheme. The 300,000 homes this will focus on are just a drop in the ocean of the number that need to be improved. Unlikely power decarbonisation, addressing this is much more piecemeal and requires significant consumer engagement and behavioural change.

The second big challenge is the choice of technology to heat those homes. This is one area where the government is – perhaps understandably – less keen to pick winners, worried about the political consequences of mandating higher cost solutions that will require significant disruption to consumers.

However, yesterday’s announcement conceivably gave the biggest steer yet that the government is leaning towards electrification over hydrogen as the primary solution for homes (albeit ultimately there will need to be a mix of technologies) with an extension to the Boiler Upgrade Scheme and a vision that in the future, “people’s homes will be heated by British electricity, not imported gas”.

4. Bigger things to come?

This package of announcements is important, but not enough. It is a critical step in providing clarity on the competitions, policy frameworks and future schemes required to encourage external investment but it won’t be a gamechanger.

Industry will be looking ahead to see what’s beyond this that might fundamentally shift the dial, and there’s two things to consider:

Greater financial firepower at the Autumn Statement?

The Chancellor has promised that the government’s full response to IRA will come in the Autumn, arguing that it will be ‘different – and better’. Those looking for a game changing moment – matching the simplicity the IRA mechanism – have the next six months to make the case for what this looks like.

While we’re currently in a fiscally constrained environment, the government has signalled that it will turn the spending and tax cutting taps on ahead of the next election. The argument needs to be made – partly through Lord Harrington’s review into foreign investment – as to how deploying it to support the green transition will give the government the greatest political impact. However, the delay in getting this full response to IRA and the Chancellor’s insistence that the UK isn’t about to enter a subsidy race, should constrain confidence amongst the industry.

A future Labour government?

In stark contrast to the incrementalism of this government, is the radicalism of Labour’s plans on energy. In his speech earlier this week, Ed Miliband highlighted the differing approach a Labour government would take – more ambitious targets, greater public spending (£28bn in borrowing per year and a new national wealth fund),and a much more muscular and interventionist role for the state (including a public sector energy company, Great British Energy). The ambition and pace can’t be doubted, but there remain questions over the deliverability and the solidity of this level of public spending in a challenging financial context.

WA’s upcoming report into Labour’s energy plans will delve much deeper into this, looking at the outstanding questions that remain.

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E-scooters at a crossroads

E-scooter manufacturers, providers, schemes and riders have been left waiting for certainty on their future.  

After last year’s Queen’s Speech, Ministers confirmed their intention to legislate on e-scooters, moving beyond the time bound and limited role e-scooters currently have. Two Prime Ministers and 3 Transport Ministers later, the future of e-scooters is back up in the air.  

The Transport Bill – that would have been the vehicle for legalisation and legislation – has been a casualty of upheaval at the heart of government. Now Ministers and officials are left having to bid for parliamentary time again, with even fiercer competition for time in the last King’s Speech of this government before an election.  

Despite the transformational role e-scooters could play for travel, particularly in urban areas, there is a risk that new decision makers have lost track of e-scooters’ congestion busting, cost saving and carbon cutting benefits. The Ministers, advisers and champions that secured the announcement from government have moved on, and the new crop have yet to make a full throated endorsement.  

In the face of this challenge, WA’s latest transport temperature check polled public attitudes to e-scooters to analyse the challenges in the road ahead.  

Whilst there is still a route to legalisation and legislation, we have found that more of the public is opposed to e-scooter legislation. It means advocates start on the back foot, and need to both convince the sizeable number of ‘don’t knows’ (one in four people) and address the concerns of opponents. Safety risks to other road and footway users is the most commonly cited reason for opposing legalisation, driven by persistent coverage of dangerous incidents.   

If these and other concerns are not addressed, the case for legalisation will diminish. Ministers, advisers and officials will either be unwilling or unsuccessful in their bids for time to act in the King’s Speech later this year, with Number 10 instead deciding to focus on less controversial and easier to deliver policies. 

In turn, Labour has been able to stay largely silent on the e-scooter debate. There is a narrow window to ensure Labour’s transport team prioritises e-scooters, to keep pressure on the government now and ensure it does not drop off the agenda completely should they win. 

The next 6 months are critical if the industry wants to escape the legal limbo it is in. Only by delivering a gear change in engagement can the industry secure its long term future and make sure that the key political decision makers in both the Conservatives and Labour understand the benefits e-scooters will deliver for their agendas.  

Doing so will help build a new consensus on the future of e-scooters, but missing this opportunity means the wheels could fall off completely.

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A tale of two speeches

Just three working days into the new year we have been treated to set piece speeches from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer on consecutive days. Both had similar objectives: seize control of the news agenda; establish their domestic policy priorities; and persuade the electorate they are the right choice to tackle the very significant challenges the UK now faces.

However, they were coming from two very different starting points. Sunak is rushing to catch up with events, having rapidly and unexpectedly secured the Premiership in the midst of a political and economic crisis which has quickly been succeeded by an NHS crisis. Starmer has been building towards this moment for the last three years and has a significant lead in the polls he is looking to protect.

So how did they do and what are the implications for businesses planning their political engagement in 2023?

Structure and delivery

Sunak

The unorthodox nature of Rishi Sunak’s rise to power left him with the tricky task of trying to set out the defining principles that will guide his premiership while simultaneously acknowledging the short term priorities required to address the crisis in the NHS. He also tacked on a series of specific promises that he is aiming to deliver around the economy, the NHS and the small boats issue. This resulted in a speech that jumped across a number of different topics but lacked a core theme and clear narrative. His delivery of the speech itself was a little wooden but he performed relatively well in the extensive Q&A that followed.

Starmer

Starmer’s core message was simple: Labour is a credible Government in waiting that will devolve power, working in partnership with local government and business to tackle the UK’s long term challenges. It was a relatively well crafted and delivered speech that served as an effective critique of ‘sticking plaster politics’ from the current government. Unlike Sunak, Starmer has had the benefit of three years to prepare for this moment and he was able to draw on a lot of principles and ideas that have already been previously set out.

Policy content

Sunak

The Prime Minister set out five ‘promises’ that will frame the Government’s immediate priorities in the coming months: halving inflation this year; grow the economy; falling national debt; falling NHS waiting lists; new laws to stop small boats carrying migrants across the channel. While some have noted that these are largely in line with what independent forecasters are already predicting, the promises on inflation and growth in particular risk being significant hostages to fortune given how little control Government has on external, often global, events that drive economic trends.

Beyond this, the headline pledge was for all students to study maths in some form until the age of 18, with the implementation details yet to follow. Other significant sections of the speech on innovation, law and order, education and the NHS all lacked any new policy announcements, though referenced measures detailed in last year’s Autumn Statement.

Starmer

Starmer’s speech had a major focus on how Labour would take a different approach to running the country based on devolution of power and partnership working with local government and business. However, there was only one significant new policy announcement: a ‘Take Back Control’ Bill that would form the centerpiece of his administration’s first King’s Speech. The Bill will devolve powers over employment support, transport, energy, climate change, housing, culture, childcare provision and council finances with a further ‘right to request’ power for local communities also built in.

In addition, he nodded towards a series of ‘national missions’ to be published in the coming weeks that will frame Labour’s policy platform in more detail. Also of note, there was a very clear message that Labour won’t fall back on a ‘big Government cheque book’ approach in an effort to assert fiscal credibility.

Impact and implications for engagement

Sunak

There was some criticism that Sunak did not focus more on the immediate challenges facing the NHS and the industrial relations issues that are crippling the UK’s rail system. However, the five promises he set out do provide a litmus test against which he can ask voters to judge him. If he can demonstrate progress in these areas in twelve months from now, then he can start to build narrative of delivery that serves as platform for an election campaign.

Ultimately, this speech underlined just how much the next election is starting to dictate the Government’s approach. Sunak set up a small number of simple, measurable goals and it is clear that anything that can’t be shown to contribute to meeting them between now and the election will be far less likely to receive time and attention from Government. There was also a reminder of his personal focus on innovation as a key to driving productivity and growth – companies that can demonstrate a positive story on innovation are more likely to have success attracting the attention of No 10.

Starmer

The short term headlines that Starmer’s team would have hoped for have largely been torpedoed by the leaks from Prince Harry’s book. However, expect the ‘Take Back Control’ slogan to feature heavily as a core theme in Labour’s narrative this year as they seek to demonstrate to the electorate that they have taken the lessons of Brexit on board. While this was a speech that demonstrates progress in his mission to become a credible Prime Minister in waiting, there is plenty of work still to do. Labour’s current comfortable poll lead comes on the back of a terrible few months for the Conservative Party and with the electorate facing extremely challenging economic circumstances. If the economy improves and Sunak is able to claim some credit, then Labour will need to show much more of a positive alternative agenda in order to maintain such a strong lead.

That places a lot of emphasis on the forthcoming ‘national missions’ to add further definition to Labour’s offer. Business should be prioritising its Opposition engagement on influencing how these missions are framed and the detailed policy ideas that will be needed to support them. Starmer boldly stated that he wanted to change the ‘old game of passionately identifying a problem’ without providing solutions. His biggest risk is falling into exactly this trap himself and his team will need the help and expertise from business to avoid it if he wants to build a truly robust alternative programme for Government.

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Cabinet reshuffle: who’s who?

Rishi Sunak has reshuffled his Cabinet, looking to restructure government round his key priorities.  

With little positive movement in the polls and his government hit by a series of distractions in recent weeks, one hundred days in, this is Rishi Sunak’s attempt to regain momentum and refocus government on his core aims.

The Prime Minister has remodelled government to reflect the areas he wants to make progress on in the next 18 months. Taking over as Prime Minister at a time of economic crisis, making radical machinery of government changes before steadying the ship would have been difficult. He has long articulated his belief that the UK is lagging behind on science, innovation and technology, reflected in what is in effect intended as a new ‘department for growth’. On energy – the policy area that dominated BEIS – it has been clear for some time that the government’s focus is on energy security and resilience.

These reforms – and the ministerial appointments that accompany them – might theoretically be the right thing to do but the big question for the Prime Minister is whether they improve his political standing heading into the crucial election period. Major departmental and personnel changes take time and focus to bed in. They’ll be judged on whether they help meet the ‘five priorities’ the Prime Minister has set out, including driving economic growth.

This reshuffle provides an opportunity for businesses: making their case against these core priorities and helping the government meet their urgent need to show positive news and progress on delivery in these areas. New departments – and the ministers and advisers in them – will look for high impact, well-packaged ideas that align with government (and voter) priorities and create early wins.

To download the new cabinet chart, click here.

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Who’s in charge of resetting Government policy?

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Back from the brink? (And a brink it was.)

As Conference got going on Sunday, one MP reflected in expectation of the PM’s speech later in the week that “The best she can do is just drone on for an hour”.

Liz Truss did an awful lot better than that in her speech on Wednesday. After what had been a torrid few days up in Birmingham, it looks like she has possibly just about clawed things back from the brink – though exactly how much breathing space it has really brought her very much remains to be seen. It is unlikely it will have done enough to completely reset where the Conservative Party currently finds itself – which, for the avoidance of all doubt, is certainly not in a happy place – whilst the polls remain so completely dire.

However, the mood in the hall as she delivered her closing note yesterday to CPC22 was positive, buoyant even, and there was plenty of enthusiastic clapping during her speech. She had an incredibly tricky three-fold task to pull off: reuniting warring Tories who are at sixes and sevens over the 45p tax U-turn and benefits uprating; convincing the public the Government is on their side, and steadying the markets.

It’s the economy, stupid

To work backwards through the three – that last one she has seemingly pulled off. The overall economic backdrop remains pretty grim. ONS figures put growth at 0.2% (we are mercifully not in recession – yet), inflation is running at 9.9% and the Bank of England interest rate is 2.25%. But the pound is – at the time of writing – remaining somewhat steady at around $1.13. Those markets received this speech an awful lot better than they did the ‘mini-Budget’ a couple of weeks ago. The clearest possible message was sent to them as the PM unequivocally committed to the Bank of England’s independence in setting interest rates, and that she and the Chancellor would continue to work together ‘in lockstep’.

To some degree it is her own fault that there has been so much speculation over the last few days that Kwarsi Kwarteng would have to ‘fall on his sword’ – she after all had told broadcaster Laura Kuenssberg on Sunday that scrapping the 45p was a ‘decision the Chancellor made’.  He is safe for now, but over the last few days has certainly shown little of the ebullience that is his leitmotif, and it will be indicative to see how quickly it returns.

His own keynote speech on Monday was extremely flat and without any announcements. He spoke again, as the PM did in her speech, of the commitment to fiscal responsibility and running a tight ship. But we don’t as yet have any more detail as to how and where more paring in public spending might land. The ‘lean state’ that Truss spoke of yesterday arguably already looks pretty skinny, and former Civil Service colleagues in various departments are extremely nervous about the ‘efficiency savings’ they are expecting to be asked to make.

In terms of total managed expenditure, the three big beasts are the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Health and Social Care and the Department for Education. Looked at in the round, the only real place to go for potential ‘savings’ is DWP (of which more later). Any savings from other departments – a few hundred million here, a few hundred million there – will not be sufficient to cover what the Government’s mini-Budget set out, but will still be painful.

‘We have got your back’

There were some very solidly traditional Conservative messages in the PM’s speech: the Party will always be one of low taxes; when the state plays too big a role, people feel smaller; backing business to the hilt; hard work must be rewarded and our children given a better future; our greatest days lie ahead.  It just about avoided slipping into pure sloganism bingo. There was nothing here to scare the horses, and it will have been of reassurance to the Party faithful, and the Government will hope, to the wider public.

Because it’s otherwise been an oddly policy-lite Conference – with the announcements that have been made being of a slightly motley nature, and largely in any case overshadowed by negative headlines about internecine warfare.

There was some ‘red meat’ stuff about expanding tagging for offenders and maintaining protecting single sex spaces in prisons – and the proposed curbs on public sector strikes have gone down well with the faithful and right-of-centre/middle ground media. Expanding the small business threshold from 250 to 500 employees should help cut the costs of regulation for nearly 40,000 businesses – though it is slightly less clear what replacing the existing GDPR regime with a British data protection scheme might yet achieve.

Notable by absence was anything of great note in the energy/environment space. A commitment to delivering a ‘world-leading first fusion energy programme’ by building a prototype fusion power plant by 2040 felt quite small-fry, in the scheme of things. There was also an announcement about increasing the Environment Agency’s maximum fines for water companies that illegally release wastewater and sewage from £250,000 to £250 million – but very little mention of Net Zero.

It should be noted, also, that the Government’s three priorities have changed. They used to be growth, energy bills and the NHS.  They are now ‘GROWTH GROWTH GROWTH’ – though the Health Secretary and Deputy PM Thérèse Coffey did come in for a good dollop of praise from the PM, and a reiteration of the commitment to two-week GP waiting times. There has also remained throughout Conference a (verbal at least) commitment to the Levelling-Up agenda.

Keeping the show on the road

Many MPs just didn’t bother to go to Conference, and some of those that did (and are certainly not usually of the rambunctious variety) were a mixture of bitterness, anger and something akin to resignation (“it’s fatal, the damage has been done”).

These are the same folk who will be returning to Parliament on Monday – and will be needed to support the PM’s agenda as it further takes shape. If planning reform – as the PM yesterday intimated – is to be one of the first big ticket items, the whips are going to have their work cut out. On that front, enforcing Party discipline seems rather much focused on the ‘stick’ side of things at present. If a few carrots don’t materialize, things are going to fall apart very quickly.

Even leaving aside the backbenchers (it was only ever a matter of time before big beasts Gove and Shapps went rogue) the fact Cabinet at this point seems to be only somewhat loosely keeping things together is extremely problematic.

Admittedly the PM was the one who drove a coach and horses through the notion of collective responsibility when she let drop that Cabinet hadn’t discussed the 45p rate.  But even so, to have a serving Cabinet Minister in the form of Penny Mordaunt apparently pre-rebelling over the benefits reform (and whether uprating is pegged to wages or inflation – the former amounting to a cut in real terms) before any decision has been announced is quite something.

The latest YouGov polling puts Truss at minus 59 approval rating (Boris’ at the end was minus 53).  So, the Conservatives have three options. One: leave her there and hope things get ‘better’. Two: somehow engineer a coronation replacement and cross fingers that the country wears its fifth PM in six years. Three: throw it all up in the air, call a General Election, force Labour to take control and deal with the world as it is, with the gamble of it ensuring they only serve one term.

Options two and three do as yet still feel drastic, but the Conservative Party does somewhat, at times, have the propensity to shoot itself in face rather than the foot.

Conference might be over, but the PM’s problems certainly have not gone away.

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Former Special Adviser Amy Fisher joins WA Communications

Following 45% year on year growth across the agency, Amy has joined WA as a Director in the Strategic Communications practice, as WA continues to broaden its political insights and strategic counsel.

Amy will play a key role in servicing client accounts across the business, with a focus on providing insight and senior advice for clients on around issues and reputation management and crisis comms.

The creation of the Strategic Communications practice last year came amid not only strong growth for WA, but also with high profile new business wins including Novo Nordisk, Newcastle University, Landmark Information Group, Roadchef, Edenred, and Simplyhealth. The new offering draws on the strengths of both Corporate Communications and Public Affairs teams to further strengthen WA’s reputation for outcome-based results for clients.

Amy has joined WA after spending time, since 2010, in senior roles in government as a Special Adviser in four different Whitehall departments (Northern Ireland Office, Home Office, Ministry of Justice, Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs), and as Director of Communications for the Conservative Party.  Latterly, she has joined WA from the think tank Policy Exchange, where she was Director of Policy and Communications.  Amy has worked previously in the private sector, including at Google, but laid her roots in Westminster, working in Conservative HQ’s press office, at the outset of her career.

Marc Woolfson, Partner and Head of Public Affairs, WA Communications, said:

“Amy is a hugely respected political figure and we’re delighted to welcome her as we build our senior team. She will bring unparalleled insight to our Strategic Comms practice, both from a political and media standpoint. This unique blend of expertise is a perfect fit for WA as we continue to develop our team of experts and create more holistic offerings for our clients, rooted in deep insight.”

Amy Fisher, Director, Strategic Communications, said:

“It’s clear that there are significant challenges ahead for the country; at such a time, it’s even more important that clients receive properly integrated PR and PA support, and carefully thought-through advice.

“I hope to add significant value to WA’s pedigree in the public affairs landscape, and combined with my experience in communications, and crisis comms, contribute to WA’s truly blended offering across the market. I look forward to helping clients navigate their way forward.”

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Who’s in charge of fixing crisis Britain?

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