Guest Blog – Nick Turton: BEIS-t thing to come out of a zombie flick summer?

If 28 Days Later did politics, it would look like summer 2016. Brexit, resignations, leadership contests, reshuffles, even the stop-go of Hinkley Point played into the carnage. But with Parliament […]

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By Sumit Bose

If 28 Days Later did politics, it would look like summer 2016.

Brexit, resignations, leadership contests, reshuffles, even the stop-go of Hinkley Point played into the carnage.

But with Parliament returning next week, the serious business of government resumes and the rubber of the May administration needs to hit the tarmac. Will it be a period of superdysfunctional government, or a defining administration free from any real opposition or manifesto promises?

Having spent a decade communicating energy policy while shuffling around Whitehall (DTI, BERR, DECC…) and now on the outside looking in, my eyes are fixed firmly on BEIS.

Just as May’s first acts as Prime Minister haven’t quite matched the conciliatory tone of her first words on the threshold of Number 10, so in energy and climate things could still go in different ways.

Like the wider challenges of Brexit, BEIS has plenty of square pegs to fit in round holes.

How can ministers convincingly attract the foreign investment needed in energy while simultaneously winching up the drawbridge into Europe? Equally how can they square the circle of signing up to Paris and a tough fifth carbon budget without adequate policies on the ground to meet them?

If one thing survives DECC, it should be the late Sir David MacKay’s refrain – “It has to add up”.

Cautious optimism….

But, amid the red flags, I’m optimistic. As the dust settles around the deckchairs, BEIS could be good news.

In its day, DECC reconciled the warring energy and climate change briefs but it institutionalised a new barrier between energy and the science and industrial strategies that are needed to underpin it.

BEIS brings all of this under one roof. And with a belief in industrial strategy that hasn’t been publicly championed since Mandelson, we have the possibility of keeping the lights on and tackling climate change in a way that builds British capability and retains economic benefit in the UK.

Combine this with some ministerial bright lights.

Greg Clark cut his teeth on the brief in opposition, before being pipped to the Secretary of State post in 2010. Nick Hurd’s track record on climate change within the Tory party is convincing and in Lucy Neville-Rolfe we have someone with real board level corporate experience.

Fresh thinking?

So we should look out for some fresh thinking from BEIS.

We may see more pressure to drape big ticket infrastructure projects in a metaphorical Union Jack. We’ve already seen a willingness to intervene in the national interest.

Ministers may be emboldened post-Brexit to drive industrial strategy behind the next big thing and – in the absence of state aid rules – to be more prescriptive about the level of UK content required. Small Modular Reactors may be a case in point.

With George Osborne’s golden rule out of the window, the purse strings may also be relaxed. One to watch is CCS, with Lord Oxburgh’s recent proposal for a public-private company now being chewed over by BEIS.

And in other areas too we may see the longer term replace the just-in-time. Decentralised energy, storage and heat could all be high up in ministerial in-trays.

All that said, the BEIS story isn’t yet written. And that means this is the time for all of us in the sector to build the case for certainty and strategic direction…and to keep those zombies at bay.

Nick Turton is Director of Energy at Madano and formerly head of press at DECC