Tuesday, 23 September 2008

The most important part of Gordon Brown's speech

Most of the commentary on Gordon Brown's speech will no doubt be about what it means for his future, what the plotters will make of it etc. But when history looks back at his speech there will be one section which I believe will be of lasting significance.

In his speech, Gordon Brown said he would be asking the Climate Change Committee to report 'by October' on whether the CO2 cut target in the climate change bill by 2050 should be increased from 60% to 80%. The significance of this is that MPs are due to debate the bill in mid October and until now there was a risk that we would not by that stage have known what Adair Turner and his colleagues were going to recommend. This was the fig-leaf behind which the Tory decision to keen abstaining on this issue was hiding. But if the Government can now ensure that we have seen what the independent Committee have to say before MPs vote then the Tories will have to make their minds up. And if the Tories back my amendment on 80% and the Labour rebels who have signed similar amendments in the past do the same, then we will win!

An improved target for 2050 is not the be-all and end-all, but it does mean that the five-yearly carbon budgets which are to be produced will be aiming at a more adventurous goal from day one. If today's speech makes that more likely then it is to be welcomed. All we need now is the rest of Government policy - eg airport expansion, new coal power plants etc. - to come into line....

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Lib Dem conference - the first 24 hours

One of the things that no-one warns you about when you are first appoint to speak for the Liberal Democrats on an issue is the party conference. Watching the conference on TV you could be forgiven for thinking that all we do is sit in a large conference hall listening to speeches and voting on motions. The reality is that most of the action takes place around the fringe, with meetings literally morning, noon and night. When I looked at my diary for this week I reckoned I had 18 separate speaking engagements on everything from the melting of the polar ice caps to the need to capture carbon emissions from power stations. One or two of these are in the main conference hall but most are in fringe meetings attended by keen delegates, many of whom are experts in the field. At previous conferences I did the round of fringe meetings on pensions and benefits, then on health and now on environment and energy. There is a huge amount of material to get your head round and there's always someone in the room who knows more about the subject than you do. The good thing is that you learn from the other people on the panel and from the questions and so the next time the topic comes up you feel a bit more prepared. But the first year of fringe meetings on any topic, as it is for me this year with the environment, is always pretty daunting.

This afternoon I took a break from fringe meetings to hear Nick do a Q&A session in the main auditorium. As leader you really do have to be ready to deal with everything that people throw at you. Nick was at his most passionate denouncing the Tories' lack of substance and expressing the view that the British public are not willing to hand over the keys to Number 10 to someone who is not prepared to tell them what he will do with that power - and when the Tories do start to come clean, many people will realise that the Cameron transformation is only skin deep. Nick stressed his commitment to internationalism as a solution to many of the pressing issues that we face, including climate change and international terror, and contrasted our policy of constructive engagement in Europe with the Tory plan to leave the European Peoples' Party and band together with what he called "a bunch of nutters". The final question linked the fact that Nick and his wife Miriam are expecting their third child in the New Year with the difficulties of combining family life and politics. Nick confirmed he would be taking paternity leave and said that he generally preferred spending time of an evening at home reading books to his children than hanging out with MPs in Westminster bars. Doesn't sound like much of a contest to me!

Thursday, 11 September 2008

A 'bleak mid winter' faces millions

Today's announcement by Gordon Brown of the Government's response to soaring fuel bills is wholly inadequate. Whilst it's quite right to get more action on energy efficiency (and interesting to see a bit of a u-turn on 'Warm Front' funding having challenged the PM about it months ago), many pensioners and families still face a 'bleak mid winter'. The average combined gas and electricity bill used to be around £1,000 a year. Following the latest round of increases it is likely to rise to over £1,250. Against the backdrop, the increases in winter fuel payments for pensioners (announced earlier in the year) of £50 / £100 will still leave many people heavily out of pocket. And don't forget that this year's bills are already steeply up on last year's and have been causing real harship already.

It's clear the Government tried to get a deal from the energy companies on cash help for consumers and the energy companies told the Government where to go. This is the heart of the problem. Even a sober organisation like OFGEM says that the energy companies got a windfall of £9 billion from free pollution permits under an EU scheme. Why not force the companies to spend a good slug of this money on a mixture of energy efficiency, better prices for needy customers and upgrading the meters we all use so that we all have more information about our consumption?

Just as the Department of Transport seems to be a wholly-owned subsidiary of the British Airports Authority, the Department for Business seems to be just a bit too pally with the energy companies. It's time we had a government that sided with the public for once.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Tackling flooding

Thanks to the wonders of technology I'm writing this on a late train back to Bristol from the East Riding of Yorkshire and from Hull, where I have spent much of the day hearing first hand experiences of last summer's flooding. One of the most alarming conclusions I have come away with is that many of the factors which caused problems last summer have still not been addressed.

The flooding in the villages of the East Riding was not primarily to do with the rivers or with coastal flooding - it was surface water flooding caused by too much rainfall in too short a time with nowhere to go. The land had become saturated and the drainage systems (where surface water drains into the sewerage system) simply could not cope. Thousands of households were flooded at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds to put right, and some people are still out of their homes. For a long time people in whole streets were living in caravans in their front gardens.

I asked many people what they would do if they controlled the levers of power in terms of national policy. One interesting response was that we should abolish the system of what is called 'riparian ownership', where individual householders are responsible for the few yards of culvert or river bank adjacent to their property. Many people don't know about their obligations, some aren't in a position to fulfil them and others simply fail to do so. The result is that drainage systems get neglected. One person likened it to giving each household separate responsibility for a few metres of tarmac in the road outside their house.

There are plans for a flooding bill in the Queen's Speech, and rightly so, but progress is slow and too many people are still very vulnerable. And whilst the Government has promised action to ensure that people can still get insurance, I heard today of people being offered policies with an excess of £10,000 or more. Worse still, councils are still finding that when they turn down planning applications because of flooding fears they are still being over-ruled by Government inspectors!

I think we might need many more 'questions in the House' over this whole issue.