Who feels reassured? Your answer may depend on how much capex you’ve already committed to the UK’s net zero transition.
After a turbulent day in No.10 following a leak to the BBC that he was considering watering down green pledges, the Prime Minister seemed intent on casting a reassuring figure as he approached his lectern in the late afternoon on the 20th of September.
Watched keenly by the Westminster lobby, Sunak made his case for “sensible, green leadership”. So what does this look like?
Net Zero, Just Unnoticed
The Prime Minister devoted the most attention to the policies that the Conservatives worry would most keenly be felt by “hard-pressed British families.”
A ban on the sale of new diesel and petrol cars has been moved from 2030 to 2035, infuriating most car manufacturers. He also relaxed the 2035 phase-out target for the installation of new gas boilers and delayed a ban on new oil boilers from 2026 to 2035. And he threw red meat to landlords by scrapping policies that would force energy efficiency upgrades.
That’s tax-free red meat, of course. The Prime Minister also reassured the public that there would be no taxes on eating meat, as well as none to discourage flying, no compulsory car-sharing, and no heavy-handed measures that would require people to sort household rubbish into seven different bins.
Sunak’s play to the ordinary voter, showing them he’s on their side and the side of their household budgets, casts “sensible” leadership on net zero as leadership that goes unnoticed. Despite being frank about the need for change at the beginning of his speech, some of the announced policies just delay conversations that will need to happen between the Government and the public if the transition to net zero is going to be as cheap as both parties wish.
The UK has some of the oldest housing stock in Europe and consequently, some of the leakiest when it comes to insulation and energy efficiency. Research has shown that UK homes lose heat three times as quickly as their counterparts in Germany. The 50% uplift to the Boiler Upgrade Scheme grant announced by Sunak makes heat pumps cheaper, yes, but heat pumps function best when a home is well-insulated, otherwise they become more costly and electricity-intensive to run.
Conversations about these costs may have to wait until after the next General Election.
P.S. Major Infrastructure Reforms Coming
To the delight of H+K’s infrastructure policy experts, Sunak rounded off his speech with new commitments to level up the UK’s infrastructure planning regime. But were these announcements at odds with the first three-quarters of his speech?
The lift on the effective ban on onshore wind has been hinted at before, so the renewables industry will welcome the PM reaffirming his commitment to this. A new approach to delivering connections to the National Grid will be popular with project developers as well – currently, there is almost five times as much capacity in the queue for connections than there is actually generating.
Also announced was a “fast track” for nationally significant infrastructure projects, available for major eligible transmission projects, in order to ensure that they are prioritised, doing more to help businesses and households connect to the grid sooner.
However, the thing about nationally significant infrastructure projects is that they’re usually quite noticeable. Just ask the PM who, in the Q&A portion, had to do somersaults to avoid questions on HS2 from The Sun. This is perhaps at odds with Sunak’s preferred “net zero by stealth” approach.
It’s been estimated that the UK will need to construct five times as many transmission lines over the next seven years than have been built in the past three decades combined. This has already put the cat amongst the NIMBYs. On behalf of her constituents, the government’s Environment secretary has expressed her opposition to the plans to build a 112-mile, high voltage transmission line from Norwich to Tilbury, some subtle, underground cabling but mostly large steel lattice pylons.
Sunak has calculated, correctly or incorrectly, that he can sell the need for nationally significant / significantly ugly infrastructure to his base, but not the potential direct costs for the public incurred by the Government’s previous net zero policies. And he’s calculated that the Conservative party needs to shore up its current voter base more than it needs the support of the energy industry, the automobile industry, and environmental activists.
Only time will tell whether it works.