Gareth Clubb argues that the Silk Commission’s recommendations on energy have done Wales a disservice

March 21st, 2014

Speakers were falling over themselves to congratulate Paul Silk on his Commission’s recommendations for further devolution at a conference organised by the Changing Union project in the Pierhead Building in Cardiff Bay on Monday. I was not one of them. In relation to the devolution of energy, the Silk Commission has done us all a phenomenal disservice.

There is no clear rationale for the paucity of ambition displayed in recommending raising the Welsh Government’s competence for dealing with electricity generating infrastructure from 50 MW to 350 MW. The given rationale is as follows:

“The best way of balancing responsibility, clarity, cohesion, subsidiarity and effectiveness would be through changing the present limit of 50 MW on land and 1 MW at sea, and that responsibility for determining permission for all energy generation projects under 350 MW should be devolved”.

It follows a muddled bit of reasoning, in which the only arguments against devolving full energy consenting powers were:

  • Full devolution would be contrary to the principle of ‘effectiveness’ and would raise problems in terms of security of supply.
  • It would be inefficient for the Welsh Government to take on responsibility for infrequent, complex applications – notably nuclear.

I’m left at rather a loss for the breathtaking timidity of the Silk Commission on electricity (for there is no mention of any further devolution of the gas, oil, petrol, diesel or coal consenting or permitting regimes).

Three of the four political parties in Wales have long-standing commitments for devolving full powers over electricity generation. Carwyn Jones himself has described as “anomalous and impractical” that the power station consenting regime is the only major infrastructure development in Wales that is not the responsibility of the Welsh Government (http://wales.gov.uk/docs//decisions/2012/environment/120711dlenv209doc4.pdf). And the Welsh Government has concluded – contrary to Silk – that there are “no credible technical or engineering objections” to devolving electricity powers to Wales (http://wales.gov.uk/docs//decisions/2012/environment/120711dlenv209doc5.pdf).

The fact that the Silk Commission has recommended devolution of powers only up to 350 MW suggests either that the Conservative representative on the Commission played an astonishingly tough rearguard action, or that the issue was so inconsequential to the Plaid, Lib Dem and Labour representatives that the failure to take an ambitious stand on energy slipped through unnoticed.

But what difference would the new threshold actually make? If we look at the electricity generating infrastructure that has been commissioned over the past 20 years, 76 per cent of the capacity would still have been the purview of Westminster. It means that almost all the dirty, polluting fossil-fueled power stations that Whitehall appears to be obsessed with stuffing into Wales would – and will – be determined by a Secretary of State more concerned with the needs of England than those of Wales. And given that electricity comprises just 16 per cent of Wales’ energy needs, the new threshold will take in a whopping 4 per cent of the energy portfolio of Wales. I find it impossible to reconcile this with a situation where Northern Ireland has control over 100 per cent of its energy portfolio, given that one of the principles of the Silk Commission was to ensure consistency between the devolved nations.

In practical terms, the Welsh Government will presumably need to establish a new electricity consenting/planning department to deal with the relatively few applications that come between 50 and 350 MW. And the Silk Commission was worried about efficiency? How about the new Welsh Government staff members who will be twiddling their thumbs, waiting in hope for the next mid-sized scheme to be processed?

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of Silk’s response on energy is that it confines the political classes to the irrational and poorly thought-out ceiling of 350 MW. Political parties will find it more difficult to commit in manifestos to full devolution of powers given that the cross-party Silk Commission came to a decision that 350 MW was an appropriate response to Wales’ energy policy requirements. It means years, perhaps decades, of further discussions over energy consenting, rather than getting on with the real business of propelling Wales to the forefront of the renewable revolution.

We can only surmise as to the reason for such pathetic lack of ambition. But this quote from the Welsh language version of the Silk report provides a clue:

“Wales is a net exporter of electricity, and an energy strategy that focused on Wales would not perhaps fulfil the needs of the wider United Kingdom, and England in particular” (translation of Welsh language version of the Silk Commission Part II report, section 8.2.13).

The Silk Commission’s consideration of energy was never about Wales’ interests.

Tags: , , ,

Gareth Clubb is Director of Friends of the Earth Cymru. Its response to the Silk Commission consultation called for full devolution of all powers to consent, licence and permit energy developments in Wales (http://www.foe.co.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/submission_to_the_silk_com.pdf ).

6 Responses to:“Timidity on Welsh control of power stations”

  1. Jeff D says:

    The converse argument of course is that increasing the limit to 350 at the very least gives Wales control over the kind of projects it wants in Wales – wind, solar, tidal etc. Not having contol over gas, coal and nuclear (althrough local planning consents and NRW rullings still apply) does not really matter as the Welsh political parties have openly backed a move away from those energy forms for the most part.

    The real reason behind the resistance to full consents is that the UK Govt does not think the Welsh Govt is to be trusted to deliver. Especially when agreements have been made on emmission reduction etc which are bound to the UK as a whole.

    (Report comment)

  2. Urien says:

    ‘“Wales is a net exporter of electricity, and an energy strategy that focused on Wales would not perhaps fulfil the needs of the wider United Kingdom, and England in particular” (translation of Welsh language version of the Silk Commission Part II report, section 8.2.13).

    The Silk Commission’s consideration of energy was never about Wales’ interests.’

    Wales is a colony. The British establishment (and that includes Labour MPs and AMs) will never allow Wales to rule its own recources or energy. Owen Smith’s Labour party voted with the Tories to deny the Assembly (which Labour run!) from having control over Welsh water.

    And they then turn round and say we’re ‘too poor’ to be independent.

    You couldn’t make it up.

    (Report comment)

  3. Gareth Clubb says:

    I absolutely agree, Jeff. Any increase in powers/responsibility is to be welcomed because it enables Wales to push ahead on the renewables agenda (where we are woefully behind trailblazing Scotland). But the Silk Commission had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to really push forward on this issue, enabling Wales to refuse fossil power once and for all. And Silk bottled it.
    You may be right on the reasons for resistance to full consenting powers. But there is more. Wales is regarded by Whitehall as wholly inconsequential to the UK. As Gerry Holtham put it to the House of Lords: “On the whole, the Welsh have no cards, so they will get what they have always got, which is nothing”.

    (Report comment)

  4. John Dixon says:

    Jeff D says “Not having control over gas, coal and nuclear (although local planning consents and NRW rulings still apply) does not really matter as the Welsh political parties have openly backed a move away from those energy forms for the most part.”

    I think that’s questionable, to say the least. Politicians from all four parties have supported new gas-powered stations as well as Wylfa B. The Lib Dem/Conservative coalition is committed to new nuclear build, and the Welsh Government seems to be welcoming the jobs it provides. Plaid’s split on the issue needs no further comment here.

    It’s surely at least conceivable that another interpretation would be that all the parties might really prefer not to have a power which might expose the difference between their rhetoric and the reality when it comes to renewable energy.

    (Report comment)

  5. Britnot says:

    It has absolutely nothing to do with the UK government not trusting the Welsh governments ability, it is about the coverteous and greed obsessed desire of the UK government to hang on jealously to every iota
    of power. Wales should be fully in charge of all its resources so that we can stop the UK government exploiting us as they are doing and have done in the past. The rest of the UK should be paying for the resources it takes from Wales and there will never be fairness until this and many other anomaies are addressed.

    (Report comment)

  6. Chris Sutton says:

    The 350 Mw has some logic as we see growing interest across Wales in small but powerful gas fired power stations designed to slip under the 300Mw ‘carbon capture’ threshold (which impacts upon land take, operating costs and efficiency). Under Silk’s proposals the existing 299Mw proposals currently in planning would therefore come into Welsh Government’s remit.

    (Report comment)

Have your say

Please let us know in your message if you do not want the IWA to contact you in future or related IWA activity.