Tom Burke’s Political Commentary: All ‘joined-up’ for another move of the deckchairs?

Published in the ENDS Report (Issue 405, p49), in October 2008.

Ours is a government with a taste for populist gestures that work better in the headlines than they do in the real world. The last 11 years have witnessed constant moving of the Whitehall deckchairs. This provides a reliable stream of work for the graphic designers charged with creating the new logos. It also has the convenient benefit of concealing past mistakes.

The nightmare that was the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food did not really disappear when it morphed into the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) – it just disappeared from the headlines. The same stubborn commitment to archaic policies and financial incompetence continued apace. DETR’s demise (the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions for those who have forgotten) allowed some politically challenging, though rather good, transport policies to become the victims of a sly u-turn.

The recent Cabinet reshuffle saw yet another shifting of the deckchairs with the creation of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). This was deftly designed to appease the energy industry leaders who want more vigorous action from government, and the environmentalists – who also want more vigorous action from government.

Now both have the department they wanted. We can expect to hear business leaders talking about the energy department and environmentalists talking about the climate department. One can only speculate about the depth of passion and subtlety of argument deployed to determine where ‘climate’ and ‘energy’ appear in the Department’s title. But it is easy to see who won.

The fact that the vigorous action both lobbies want points in opposite directions is now Mr Miliband’s problem. Look forward to much talk of ‘joined-up government’. Indeed, the Sustainable Development Commission was quick to comment that “the change will make it far easier to make joined-up decisions.”

They were not alone in seeing what they wished. Some thought this would now give climate change its own seat at the table – which must make Hilary Benn wonder what he has been doing for the past few years. Others thought it would deal with the civil servants who have “blocked progress” as if they were independent agents pursuing their personal agendas without a politician in sight.

Ironically, it was left to the business commentators to grasp the reality more firmly. The Confederation of British Industry pointed out that “ultimately it is sound, timely policies that matter most, not departmental names or structures”.

But the Institute of Chemical Engineers told the truth first. “There Is a fundamental conflict between energy and climate change and this new arrangement, while attractive on the surface, won’t fix the problem,” it said. And then quite remarkably, it added: “If you get the climate policy right, the energy policy will follow naturally”.

Best of all was the laconic comment from the National Farmers Union. “We wish Ed Miliband the best of luck in his role”.

The downsides are clear. The policy conflicts remain unchanged. Officials from both original departments will now be distracted from the urgent task of resolving them by the intricate challenge of building the new department. This sort of merger works no more easily in government than it does in business.

Not least among their preoccupations will be ensuring that the parent departments do not leave them with an empty budgetary cupboard. You can be sure the Business Department (BERR) will be eager to get the annual £2.5 billion bill for cleaning up our existing radioactive waste mess off its books. But as those costs continue their relentless rise it will be DECC that now has to fight the Treasury for the funds to pay for the increases. This will not make it easier to argue for more money for climate change.

Furthermore, effective and committed ministers with an informed understanding of the issues and established relationships both at home and abroad have gone, to be replaced by novices. As the Prime Minister recently pointed out, this is not a time for novices, especially on issues with big and complex technical agendas.

So, what of the upside? This all depends on Mr Miliband, an able and intelligent minister, close to the Prime Minister. It is the latter attribute that might be most important.

Civil servants do not go to war with each other whimsically. They do so because their political masters wish them to pursue policy goals that conflict. Individual officials may indeed block progress from time to time, but most inter-departmental conflict is a result of disagreements between politicians. Resolving those is Mr Miliband’s task.

We will know if he is succeeding if he achieves the following:

• Finds some long grass in which to toss the Kingsnorth decision.

• Throws out the existing BERR work on carbon capture and storage and replaces it with a properly financed programme of three demonstration plants in the UK.

• Initiates a crash programme to replace the 6-9GW of stand-by diesel generation in Britain with combined heat and power.

• Gets the money to finance the installation of smart meters in every house in Britain as part of a fiscal stimulus programme responding to the economic crisis.

• Drives through the upgrades in the national grid to maximise the role of wind as part of the same fiscal stimulus package.

• Announces jointly with the transport department a programme to eliminate the dependence of Britain’s logistics systems on oil.

I could go on. The point is all these measures will increase both our energy and our climate security. The likelihood, however, is he will find all his time and political capital taken up in managing the headlines on fuel poverty. Now, there’s a thought – we should merge DECC with Department for Work and Pensions.