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Winter of discontent over energy bills looms again

THE nights are drawing in, soon they will be cold, then freezing. But this winter will not have the government support of 2022 to help with rocketing energy bills. In the maelstrom of world events, focus has lessened on domestic issues, but a perennial problem remains: how are people on average salaries, or trying to make ends meet on benefits, going to keep warm?

Let’s be clear about why bills are high. The Conservatives failed to build gas storage, failed to invest in green energy, and failed to retrofit home insulation. The impact of Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine could have been absorbed more readily if the basics had been done, but they weren’t, because the UK’s energy system is broken.

It’s in this context that Labour announced an Energy Independence Act, designed to protect the UK from external shocks. Further, it will establish Great British Energy – Labour’s publicly-owned energy company run on clean power.

Earlier this year, I travelled to Ukraine for the anniversary of Russia’s invasion along with Conservative MPs Bob Seely and Alicia Kearns. This bipartisan way of working can be replicated. It’s certainly the case on the most pressing issue of our age, climate chaos, and is why I am also on the Climate all-party parliamentary group (APPG).

The war changed what we pay for our energy. If we want energy security in a volatile world, we have to invest in what we know works: we are an island, with plentiful sea and wind power. The cost of renewables is plummeting, so we have to ask why we don’t invest more at home. It will lower bills and create jobs: it’s economic good sense.

Everyone deserves to be warm in their own home in a British winter. That doesn’t mean expecting to walk around in shorts and t-shirts, just warm enough, that can’t be much to ask. People are taking public transport or visiting public spaces just to keep warm while oil and gas companies are posting colossal profits for shareholders. People faced impossible choices last year – and many more will too this year unless action is taken.

Research by the International Monetary Fund at the end of last year showed that British households took the biggest hit in western Europe due to our high gas dependency.

We use gas to generate around 40 per cent of electricity to create warmth in around 85 per cent of homes. And poor insulation means our homes leak heat too easily.

The study goes on to estimate that, if we were on a faster path to net zero by improving housing efficiency, producing more wind power, and deploying heat pump technology a typical household could have saved up to £1,750 last year.

But we are not on a faster path. Remember, no building, no investing, no retrofitting.

This is why we are going into another winter with no plan to make anything better, just knee-jerk crisis reactions. In the meantime, gas prices are at a four-month high.

And data published by the energy regulator Ofgem found that last winter more than half a million pre-payment meter customers disconnected from their gas and electric. This is a 20 per cent increase on previous records and proof that some are so desperate they are leaving the energy system: this is deeply worrying.

The right thing to do is target extra help to people who can’t afford to heat their home so that people can be warm this winter.

Every time this government has ignored or actively stalled the need for a clean energy future, we are left more exposed to global fossil fuel markets, at dictators’ and petrostates’ mercy, while bills remain unaffordable. We are too reliant on fossil fuels, a large contributor to climate change, and the UK is slipping in its response to that. A change is clearly needed in how we get our energy.

A few weeks ago the Government’s own advisers on climate change expressed concerns to Parliament about the pace we are going at to meet the UK’s climate goals over the 2030s. And before that the Prime Minister threw net zero with all its benefits under a bus for a few headlines.

However, this government can change course when it wants to, a particular rail project comes to mind, so let’s hope a similar reversal can be done on one of the most disastrous decisions in years: greenlighting the huge Rosebank oil field. This folly of a project will see 500 million barrels of oil extracted from the North Sea, the majority going into tankers for export. This field will do nothing to boost UK energy security, but it will do a lot for the Norwegian state, the majority owner of Equinor, Rosebank’s developer.

North Sea oil used to be the future, it needs to become the distant past, and quickly.

For people in Leeds, I hope this is the last winter people will worry about putting the heating on, and that a new government can own things again, build things again and deliver home-grown energy so we can all be warm in winters to come.


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