Ahead of the Spring Statement next week, surging energy bills, talk of fracking and Government hesitancy on action to reach net-zero should rightfully make us nervous. What we need is a clear UK-wide commitment to lower energy bills by improving energy efficiency in homes and businesses, delivered through a devolved Shared Prosperity Fund.
Households and businesses across the UK are feeling not just a pinch, but the hammer blow of rising energy bills. Having already risen by 54 percent and likely to rise further due to our dependence on fossil fuels, Wales Fiscal Analysis has calculated that the average Welsh household on a default dual-fuel energy tariff will see their energy bill rise by £693 from April.
Wales is particularly vulnerable to this nightmare. We have the highest poverty and child poverty rate among the four nations, with almost 1 in four people, and 31 per cent of our children living in poverty. Our vulnerability to energy price shocks is compounded by having the oldest, least energy efficient housing stock in the UK with a fifth of homes in Wales built before 1900 and the lowest proportion of dwellings rated EPC ‘C’ or above. This also affects our climate, with housing responsible for around 20 percent of our carbon emissions.
The Chancellor will argue that he has already intervened by providing a de facto loan to UK households which was insufficient even at its initiation, and is even more inadequate now. Rejecting calls by all parties to introduce a windfall tax on cash-rich oil and gas producers – the largest producer in the North Sea just reported $1.7 billion of profits – the Government has instead gone cap in hand to the Gulf autocracies, begging them to pump more oil. They refused.
Several reactionary politicians, including a number of Conservative MPs have fallen back on another tried and tested method – populist politics. Shamelessly forgetting COP26 in November, or even the latest IPCC report on climate change, Conservative MPs have rolled out dubious claims against net-zero, and worse, advocated fracking as the solution to our energy crisis.
The latter is nonsense. Cardiff University recently concluded that 1016 fracking pads would be needed to replace just half of the UK’s gas imports to 2035. This would mean the construction of one shale gas pad approximately every 5 days over the next 15 years across our countryside.
Secondly, more domestic gas production will not translate into lower prices for UK consumers since our prices reflect Europe’s gas markets, with which we are interconnected. An interesting fact for frackers, according to the Green Alliance cross-party think tank, is that the first four days of the current gas crunch in September triggered the greatest gas export from the UK to Europe ever as domestic producers sought the best price for their product.
Finally, there is small matter that fracking is a devolved matter and has been banned in Wales since 2018 following a Plaid Cymru motion – England followed in 2019. Wales has even joined the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance at COP26, but worryingly the UK Government refused to commit this week to respecting devolved powers over fracking.
We therefore need a step-change in our energy system and the Shared Prosperity Fund could be the mechanism. So far UK Government levelling-up funds have been strategically unfocused, fashioned along partisan lines and disjointed. Put bluntly, they have failed to meet the scale, ambition or delivery requirements needed to meet the challenges facing the UK.
Instead, through my upcoming Ten-Minute Rule Bill, Plaid Cymru is advocating using the Shared Prosperity Fund as a means to level-up the UK and deliver wholesale improvement in energy efficiency by funding retrofit measures, combating both the climate crisis and the cost-of-living crisis.
The evidence for and impact of such a measure is clear. Last Budget, we amplified calls for a £3.6 billion investment programme in Wales by the UK Government which would have delivered average savings of £418 per year – savings for UK households, rather than foreign energy company dividends.
This is not party politics – this is about helping those who desperately need help in a responsible and rapid manner. A devolved Shared Prosperity Fund, with priorities and investment set by Wales rather than a net-zero shy Treasury, would allow a transformational programme that would meet our societal, economic and climate needs.
I sincerely hope to be proved wrong, but it seems the Chancellor is uninterested in further measures to address the cost-of-living and energy crises, let alone climate change. We have to act now, while we can, to help who we can. Anything else is a dereliction of responsibility, ambition and duty.