THE BLOG

It's Time for the UK to Switch on to Its Energy Problem

02/07/2015 17:22 BST | Updated 02/07/2016 10:59 BST

After years of planning and protests, wrangling and reviews, Lancashire County Council's decision to reject the application for shale gas exploration shouldn't have come as a surprise.

It highlighted the fact that the UK does not have a long term energy strategy, and for too long we've done nothing about it.

Fracking is just a small part of a wider debate around putting in place a plan to keep the lights on in the UK for the next 50 years. Most of the decisions will involve investment, and many - like fracking - will generate heated debate around the environmental or social impacts. But the top and bottom of the matter is that if governments continue to choose the politically easy route of deferring to committees and local council planning departments the UK will be at a major disadvantage against emerging economies on the global stage. These countries are pouring resources into securing the infrastructure needed to boost competitiveness.

In fact, Britain currently ranks 27th in the World Economic Forum's Quality of Overall Infrastructure rankings. Rising to a place in the top 15 by 2020 must be a key aspiration for this government if we are to achieve the sort of business infrastructure needed to support its aspiration for the UK to become the richest country in the G7, per capita, by 2030.

We have within our grasp the opportunity to develop new sources of energy production here at home. In doing so, we have the opportunity to boost our economy by embracing a high-tech industry, which could be based all over the country.

It has been painfully obvious for decades that the UK is far too reliant on imported energy, and has done far too little to try and build self sufficiency. We have been left in a position where too often planning has taken a back seat to hoping. With the geo-political issues in supplier countries evolving and becoming more complex, that is clearly unacceptable and unsustainable.

North Sea oil is a fast declining resource, whereas demand for energy from a growing population continues to rise. But energy security is more than just protection from being held ransom by suppliers - volatility of energy and resources prices on international markets can have an enormous effect on UK businesses, effectively wiping out profit margins. And we are still in danger of the lights going out if we have a bad winter.

Given the national significance of the issue, the government has no option but to intervene as the Lancashire fracking application, like so many infrastructure proposals before it, heads for a lengthy appeal. For years, we have failed to get to grips with the fundamental, unanswered questions about our future energy supply. We need a long-term, 50 year, energy security strategy. We need to find ways to promote domestic sources of energy production and diversify our supply chain. We need to see all viable forms of energy supported to play their part - traditional coal and oil, nuclear, different forms of renewables and, absolutely, fracking. And we have to be far-sighted, brave and innovative - not ruled by the fear that leads to proven technologies - be it fracking, nuclear or renewables - become the bogey man to local naysayers and those who wish to defer difficult decisions.

Only by building this energy mix, and increasingly sourcing it domestically, will businesses, schools, hospitals, and households have confidence that the lights will remain on in the years and decades to come. The Government has to make it a priority to set out how they will guarantee that. The decisions they take - or dodge - in this Parliament will determine our access to secure, stable energy in 2025, 2045 and 2065. If we carry on as we are the cost of energy will become unnecessarily high, and business, the consumer and the taxpayer will all pay the price.

To make sure that we capitalise on these opportunities, we need political leaders with the conviction and courage to take on opponents, and we need a planning system which considers evidence and local concerns, but does so swiftly. This shale gas application in Lancashire has dragged on and on. How can we hope to attract investment in new, high-tech, industries if we have such laborious and long-winded approval processes? Obviously, that is a major disincentive and shows that, currently, the deck is stacked in favour of opponents and nimbys.

It is also right that local communities receive generous compensation for the disruption they experience. That is why we are calling on compulsory purchase orders to be made at 150% of the market value, and we hope this - alongside generous compensation to those directly affected by infrastructure proposals more broadly - is something Chancellor will address in the Budget.

Ministers face a choice. Take the tough decision and deliver secure energy supplies or see the UK dependent on the whims of others for years to come.