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In delivering policy the hands of government are often tied by the mood of their public. In the case of the UKs need to drive down the national deficit, which presently stands close to 100% of GDP, the Coalition government found a very simple message which publically resonated and created a shared ownership for the need for austerity – namely a situation where the Government borrows 1 in four of every pound it spends is not sustainable. Though the deepest cuts to public services may be yet to bite, public opinion has on the whole been rather resilient.
At the same time as solving the challenge of the national debt, there is a need to radically overhaul the energy infrastructure of the UK. Though the responsibility for this rests with the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), there is the complexity that this must be delivered by the electricity market. Here the Government ceased to have overall control and ability to deliver change following the privatisation of the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) in the 1990s
Given the private commercial interests inherent now in the way UK generates and delivers electricity, there is a challenge in that the Government needs to be seen to be free from creating market bias – witness the recent European Commission investigation into potential state aid for the Hinkley Point C nuclear power project. Significant investment is required in the energy infrastructure, but at a time of slow economic growth Government has publically been keen to be seen to place the pressure on energy companies to keep prices low. Rather than being overt in the articulation of the challenge around energy the political emphasis has been around mechanistic change, for example the Contracts for Difference (CfD) and allowing councils to keep 100% of business rates from fracking operations.
In the case of nuclear energy, the Government can take heart from a recent ComRes opinion poll on behalf of the newly established organisation New Nuclear Watch Europe (NNWE) which revealed that 58% of British adults support the use of nuclear power to provide nuclear energy, with only 22% being opposed. The approval rating increases to 62% when the link with climate change is established. Rather remarkably the approval rating for nuclear energy in this study outstripped technologies such as solar, wind, shale gas and coal. Historical approval ratings for nuclear energy have typically been around, or below, 40%.
The acceptance by the UK public that nuclear energy is part of the future solution should provide the UK political parties the confidence to be bolder with their leadership in establishing a vision for the UKs energy policy; it is truly remarkable that no political party has seized this agenda.
By Professor Martin Freer, Director of the Birmingham Energy Institute