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.