Reshuffle if you want to, but the real change green businesses require is a shift in government priorities
Having manfully resisted for nearly two and half years, David Cameron is about to succumb to the irresistible temptation of the ministerial reshuffle. The admirable pledge to keep ministers in place for longer than became the norm under the reshuffle-happy Brown and Blair administrations has been largely kept, with changes in government personnel limited to the minor rejigs necessitated by the controversies that befell Chris Huhne, David Laws and Liam Fox. But with almost half the parliament gone and the coalition desperate for anything that will distract from abysmal economic news, Cameron has finally decided to demote under-achieving ministers and find space for some new bright young things.
With various reports suggesting the imminent reshuffle will be more wide-ranging than had been previously thought, it seems likely that some ministers with a green economy remit could be clearing their desks by this time tomorrow. But what changes, if any, are necessary and how will shuffling the ministerial deck provide some much-needed vigour to the government's green growth plans?
As any chief executive will tell you, there is only one way to judge a management reshuffle: will the new people coming in do a better job than those being moved out? If you cannot provide a confident answer in the affirmative then you are engaged in nothing more than counter-productive window-dressing.
This is the crucial question the prime minister must answer and as you look across the departments with responsibility for the green economy it is hard to find too many positions where you can make a genuinely compelling case for significant changes.
Starting with the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), Ed Davey has not been as visible as many green campaigners and business leaders would have liked since he took over from the more combative Chris Huhne. But he is still yet to reach his first anniversary in the job and is in the midst of steering the highly complex (and controversial) Energy Bill through parliament. He is a close ally of Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, secured a creditable score draw in facing down George Osborne's assault on renewable energy policy this summer, and is continuing to oversee a steady increase in low-carbon investment – it would be madness to move him now, particularly when the biggest complaint from energy investors is a lack of political and policy stability.
The rest of the DECC team – Charles Hendry, Lord Marland and Greg Barker – are similarly halfway through the deployment of important policies and each can make a pretty strong case for being allowed to finish the job.
There are undoubtedly some critics who would like to see Barker pay for the mishandling of cuts to solar feed-in tariffs with his job, but if he was to face the chop for taking decisions that ultimately landed the government in court it surely would have come by now. Instead, lessons have been learnt and a significantly improved, if still imperfect, subsidy regime has been introduced. Barker deserves the chance to try and deliver on his bold predictions for the Green Deal energy efficiency scheme, while the government cannot afford to lose one the most enthusiastic and committed Conservative advocates of a greener economy.
With policy plans largely in place for the second half of the parliament, the department still adjusting to life following the resignation of permanent secretary Moira Wallace, and the energy sector having been burdened with a revolving door for energy secretaries over the past 15 years, it is hard to see how a reshuffle would benefit DECC or the businesses it works with.
The picture is significantly more complicated, however, at the other departments with green economic responsibilities.
Her principled opposition to the revived campaign for a third runway at Heathrow means it is all but impossible for Cameron to move Justine Greening from the transport brief without it being interpreted as the start of a U-turn. But at the same time it would be good to see the ministerial team provide more vocal support for low-carbon transport and start delivering on a green transport strategy that looks as if it has been pushed into a siding. Greening should be safe, but could some new faces introduce a bit more rigour into the department's low-carbon agenda?
In exactly the same mould, Vince Cable's popularity with the Lib Dem base means he is all but unsackable and he is unlikely to accept a sideways move (unless it was to the Treasury, which it won't be). But again, with the exception of the still under-powered Green Investment Bank, the department has been too quiet on the topic of green growth and it would be great to see the promotion of junior ministers with more of an affinity for the success being enjoyed by low-carbon businesses.
There are plenty of people within the waste and renewables industries, not to mention green-minded councils, who would love to see the back of Eric Pickles and his Neanderthal campaign against fortnightly bin collections, but with the secretary of state for communities and local government popular with the right of his party he is only likely to move in return for a significant promotion.
The "green" department where ministers will be waiting most nervously by the phone has to be Defra, where the U-turn on the proposed forest sell-off, and slow progress on issues ranging from waste to air pollution and fishing to natural capital have caused considerable frustration among the department's stakeholders.
I'd maintain that the complete dominance of the department by ministers with extremely close ties to the farming industry, coupled with the slavish adherence to a light-touch regulatory model, is less than healthy.
But at the same time environment secretary Caroline Spelman is said to be an effective, conciliatory voice within cabinet and she has undoubtedly grown into the role since the embarrassment of the forestry U-turn. The department urgently needs to make more policy progress, but Spelman is known to have sided with the "green wing" of the government in its high-profile fights with the Treasury and is on the record with her support for the concept of green growth. Cameron can only make a compelling case for change if he can identify a replacement who would oversee a genuine ramping up of ambition at the department. In contrast, some of the department's junior ministers have singly failed to tear up many trees (pun intended) and some new blood could help strengthen Spelman's hand.
All of which leads to the inherent flaw with this reshuffle from both an economic and a green economic perspective. While some underperforming ministers probably deserve demotion, the UK's current economic problems lie not with the personnel, but with the policies.
There have been some ministerial snafus at DECC, Defra and other departments over the past two years, but almost all the major problems have their root in George Osborne's Treasury and its barely concealed hostility to the idea of green growth.
I can only imagine how renewable energy executives spluttered into their cornflakes while reading David Cameron's platitude-fest in the Mail on Sunday and his plea for an end to the "dithering" that holds the country back. After all it is Osborne's politicking, interfering and, yes, dithering over renewable energy policy that only this summer delayed shovel-ready projects by several months and undermined investor confidence. It is Cameron's refusal to take a bold stance on low-carbon energy policy and provide sufficiently vocal support for the sector that has increased the political risk surrounding projects and driven up the cost of capital. And it is the Treasury's dithering around yet more opaque plans, loan guarantees and infrastructure banks, while refusing to properly back the Green Investment Bank, that is delaying much-needed investment in low-carbon infrastructure and innovation.
Cameron can reshuffle his team if he wants to, but if he really wants to build on the five per cent a year growth currently being delivered by the low-carbon economy and use it to drive the UK's urgently needed economic recovery, then the only change that matters is a change in strategy at Numbers 10 and 11.
That means an end to the Treasury blocking every innovative green proposal from plastic bag taxes to the complete decarbonisation of the electricity sector and an end to Tory bad-mouthing of green growth. And if a reshuffle that incorporates Osborne is required to deliver this shift in strategy, then so be it.
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