Two of the key topics that slipped under the radar at conference this year were energy and transport. With the conference news-cycle seemingly fixated on Brexit discussions (or lack thereof), a lot of the key domestic and policy issues felt like they did not quite receive the front-and-centre attention that they deserved.
However, dotted along the Brighton coast were fringe events that featured some essential and detailed discussions on the future of energy and transport, and more to the point, how a Labour Government would or should address the issues facing these two industries.
The IPPR’s Cities of Tomorrow fringe event featured significant speakers, such as CEO of EON UK, Mike Lewis, as well as the Shadow Energy Minister Alan Whitehead. The key message from Labour here was the importance of, and their commitment to, the decentralisation of energy. Dr Whitehead pledged to low carbon energy closer to the consumer, devolving energy to cities to allow them to run their own energy arrangements.
There was the admission that this move would require a lot of government support and legislation at first, however the Labour Shadow minister was keen to highlight that before the Second World War, local authorities had control of their own energy systems, with up to 45% of their income stemming from this responsibility.
Former BBC journalist and Labour advisor, Polly Billington, told the panel that sustainability officers in local authorities are too used to being ignored and that there is real potential for change if localities are given access to finance and businesses to work with.
From the energy industry perspective, EON’s Mike Lewis described how far energy has come in the last two decades, with the need for political consensus at the heart of the issue. Using the example of electric vehicles, he talked about the need for collaboration between localities and businesses when it comes to developing and enhancing infrastructure and improving sustainability in cities.
At a fringe event led by the Labour Energy Forum, Shadow Transport Secretary Rachael Maskell outlined her vision for the future of transport. She criticised the government for failing their air quality targets and response, arguing that although electric vehicles would help, it was not an isolated solution. In addition, she called for long-term spending plans to provide higher standards of services, such as digitalisation, suggesting that the sporadic nature of funding currently means that a lasting vision cannot be realised.
Finally, another essential debate that took place was the DONG Energy/IPPR Future of the North event. Mayor of the Liverpool City Region, Steve Rotheram, was focused on the idea of devolution of energy responsibility, matched with digital connectivity. He discussed his plans for the future of Liverpool’s energy, including key targets for renewable energy. This was followed by Chi Onwurah, Shadow Secretary for Industrial Strategy, who emphasised how the idea of industrial strategy was “back in vogue”. She discussed Labour’s “values-based” strategy for industry, focused on the ‘innovation nation’ which would see a considerable uptake in investment for research and development as well as the creation of one million high-skilled jobs. Unsurprisingly Onwurah ended her speech outlining how Labour’s strategy would deliver “for the few, not the many”.
In conclusion, for the Labour Party, decentralisation and giving power back to local areas is the central point to their energy focus. Discussions on the stage featured talk of nationalisation of utilities, but the finer detail of this would see the mass redistribution of energy responsibility, the reform of Ofgem and councils becoming in charge of their own energy futures.