Caroline Flint: A new industrial revolution is coming; we must be its leaders, not left behind

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NEARLY one million people already work in environmental industries in the UK, with the potential to create 400,000 more jobs.

Today, we have an economy without growth, inflation still at 3.6 per cent, unemployment at a 16-year high, borrowing that will be higher every year for the next five years and a Government who are strangling growth and destroying jobs.

Under Labour, Britain was open for green business. When we left office, the UK was ranked third in the world for investment in green business. On this Government’s watch, however, the UK has fallen from third in the world for investment in low-carbon businesses to 13th.

We know that businesses will not invest, build factories or create jobs until the Government end the dithering, stop shifting the goalposts and get behind the industries of the future.

Last week, business after business lined up to say that billions of pounds-worth of future investment is now on hold because there are serious question marks over the Government’s commitment to wind power.

We are on the cusp of a new industrial revolution that is shaking up the old world order. We have to be leaders, not followers, in this revolution. It is about creating a new economy that is cleaner, leaner and more competitive and that provides the energy we need.

We all know that the longer we delay action, the costlier it will become to mitigate and adapt to climate change, and the economic opportunities will slip through our fingers.

Whatever one thinks of the British weather, we are not short of wind. Apparently, we are the windiest country in Europe, and we should be a world leader on wind energy, onshore and off, but last year there was a 40 per cent fall in the amount of new wind capacity being brought online, with only one offshore wind farm being completed.

Where we sought to support offshore wind manufacturing by establishing a £60m fund to attract investment, nearly two years after the Government promised to support the scheme, and only after a string of critical press reports, just one project has been awarded funding. Some 98 per cent of that budget, which Labour initiated, remains unspent.

The UK has the best marine energy resource in Europe. It has the potential to supply 20 per cent of current electricity demand and create 10,000 jobs by the end of this decade, but this Government’s decision to close the £50m marine renewables deployment fund and replace it with a £20m innovation fund dented confidence.

On the 1980s wind developers decided that there was insufficient support from the Government of the time and they went elsewhere. That is why Denmark became the world leader in this area and we missed an opportunity.

Because of those decisions in the 1980s, we have been playing catch-up ever since. We must not destroy the foundations laid in the past five years or so by playing to those who do not understand that the future is a new form of energy and a new way of empowering our citizens to control prices and at the same time have cleaner energy.

The future is not just in new sources of energy, but in adapting and transforming existing energy generation. With carbon capture and storage, we are on the verge of developing a hugely valuable and exportable technology. We know also that new nuclear power stations will need to be built over the next decade. Nuclear is important to us, and Labour understands that. As well has having a coherent strategy to improve the energy efficiency of our existing housing stock, we need new homes to be built to the highest standards.

As such, we need an active industrial strategy to bring about the energy industrial revolution.

First, to unlock the £200bn of private investment, we need clear signals and clear intent from the Government, unsullied by the voice of the Chancellor of the Exchequer playing to the gallery at the Tory party conference.

Secondly, we need better procurement to ensure that public money is spent in a way that supports the low-carbon economy.

The third part of an active industrial strategy is skills. New industries cannot survive with an ageing work force. The people who will do that are already in our education system, and we have to make sure that they are prepared for the future in terms of our energy security.

Fourthly, the Government must help to rebalance our economy. Britain’s industrial heartlands – places like the Humber, the North East and Cumbria – have the business-cluster potential, the skills, the production, the ports and the energy to forge these new industries.

We do not want to be a country that just installs products from overseas; we want to manufacture them. In the 1980s, small wind power developers drifted away from the UK due to a lack of support.

Finally, the Government must empower the public in energy efficiency, and ensure that the public and communities become energy producers as well as consumers.

If we fail to grasp this opportunity, it will be the public who pay the price through jobs and growth going overseas and through higher energy bills, as we become ever more reliant on volatile fossil fuel prices.

We must send out a clear message that a new industrial revolution is upon us and that Britain is determined to lead it.