You’d be forgiven for having a sense of déjà vu with the announcement of a new separate Energy department, with a return to the structure of the Brown and Coalition governments. With Rishi Sunak committing to this change in his summer leadership campaigns, and recent reports from Chris Skidmore and Andrea Leadsom both recommending this, it felt inevitable. It is however unusual to make such a radical change so close to the next election.
So what does this mean for the energy industry, currently seeking to deliver a transformational shift to a low carbon economy?
Major machinery of government changes take time, effort and focus, particularly from senior officials. Establishing a new department creates short-term uncertainty amongst officials and risks urgent policy priorities being deprioritised.
The retention of the current political team – Shapps, Stuart and their advisers – maintains policy leadership and largely ensures a continuation in approach.
One school of thought is that a singular focus from the new department on energy will deliver better results, without the distraction of other business issues and with the whole department aiming in the same direction.
This may well be true, but a new department – even with a competent and respected Secretary of State – is on its own not going to move the dial on key sector agendas, such as planning reform and changes to the grid to speed up offshore wind deployment or establishing a hydrogen market in the UK. Achieving these requires a more radical and ambitious approach to policy delivery, which ultimately needs the support of the political centre, namely No10 and the Treasury.
As the next General Election gets closer, there’s a clear risk for the sector that the singular narrative focus from government on the Prime Minister’s ‘five key priorities’ pushes aside the detailed policy action required for the UK to stand any chance of achieving its 2035 power decarbonisation target. The industry’s priority has to be to frame its case in terms of helping achieve these goals, specifically on driving economic growth and halving inflation.
Government messaging on energy has been shifting to focus on energy security for the last year, with an even greater focus post the Johnson government. The unveiling of the new department does highlight this shift in government focus very starkly: energy security is specifically mentioned in the name, and prioritised over Net Zero; and the absence of any reference to low carbon power or green growth in the government’s overview of the department, focusing purely on security and affordability.
The industry has made a strong case that low carbon power and energy independence are two sides of the same coin, and there needs to be no choice between them. However, there will be a need to double down on this case, and to shift messaging to emphasise the benefits to security of supply when seeking government support.
Climate advocates within the Conservative Party have long sought to frame the case for action on Net Zero through the lens of green growth and jobs. The location of major projects, be that the renewables sector, hydrogen projects or new nuclear sites are in traditionally economically left behind areas of the country. The Net Zero transition is one of the clearest routes to delivering levelling up.
The combination of energy and business policy within one department made it easier to make this case, and for the government to recognise it. That now may become harder. Tying energy to jobs, skills and growth (particularly in the right, electorally important areas) is still the clearest route to securing government backing, particularly from the Treasury. It will be incumbent on industry to make this compelling argument even more effectively, bringing data and human stories to the fore to show why government needs to quickly push the right policy levers that support industry.