Energy crisis demands practical actions, not green platitudes – Brian Wilson

I was half-listening to exchanges about energy at First Minister’s Questions and the words caught my attention: “Patrick Harvie laughs…”

Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs that 'it is not credible to suggest that the short-term solution to the crisis lies in increasing North Sea production' (Picture: Andy Buchanan/PA)
Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs that 'it is not credible to suggest that the short-term solution to the crisis lies in increasing North Sea production' (Picture: Andy Buchanan/PA)

His amusement was in the context of Douglas Ross quoting Fergus Ewing, former SNP energy minister, who committed the heresy of saying “we need all the oil and gas production we can get”. Is that really so funny?

Yet Mr Harvie is entitled to laugh. Sitting on the right hand of the throne, he holds a veto over Scottish energy policy, basking in the Ruritarian title of minister for zero-carbon buildings, active travel and tenants' rights.

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From that lofty position, he is qualified to chortle at anyone who believes increasing dependence on imported gas is not the brightest idea. He is licensed to find it hilarious that Scotland continues to lose baseload on which the growth of renewables depends.

However, as the massive threat to household bills looms, one thing you might think he could take seriously is the need to make people’s homes energy efficient by ensuring every allotted penny is spent on insulation programmes.

Yet with a month to go, just 14 per cent of the insulation budget had been spent. One reason has just been illustrated from the Western Isles, where the body which promotes energy efficiency, Tighean Innse Gall, has just closed down its insulation department with the direct loss of 14 jobs.

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There is a fuel poverty rate of 41 per cent, predicted to increase to 57 per cent. Thousands of homes await help. Yet one contractor who specialised in this work said that instead of three of four homes a week, he is now insulating one or two per year. “I cannot believe”, he added, “that the SNP/Greens could sign up to such a flawed system”.

Many older houses, particularly in rural areas, were built from materials which do not lend themselves to the new regulations. Nine months of efforts to achieve flexibility, directed at Mr Harvie since his anointment, have failed to achieve movement.

Tighean Innse Gall have gone from being “Scotland’s most successful installer, pro rata to population… to being entirely stopped by these regulations… Technical solutions which have taken years to perfect and met with 100 per cent pass rates are no longer allowed to be installed”. It is madness.

Housing was administratively devolved long before Holyrood existed. A Scottish Office minister, regardless of party, when made aware of such a glaring anomaly affecting large numbers of low-income households, would have been sorted it long ago. We now have 30 ministers, a bloated bureaucracy and stultifying inaction even in a priority policy area.

There are no quick fixes in energy policy but we are entitled to expect a serious effort to ameliorate the impact of what is coming down the tracks. At UK Government level, the case is unanswerable for a windfall tax on big energy companies who are making an even bigger fortune than usual out of the factor driving bills up – ie, the price of oil and gas.

The Scottish Government’s plan to knock 150 quid off council tax for 73 per cent of households while forcing council tax up by cutting local authority funding is feeble and devoid of any intent to focus support on those who need it most. To put it at its simplest, would £300 to 36 per cent not make a lot more sense? Or £600 to 18 per cent?

Back at First Minister’s Questions, Ms Sturgeon said: “Given the timescales and practicalities involved, it is not credible to suggest that the short-term solution to the crisis lies in increasing North Sea production.” But then nobody with an ounce of common sense suggested that it does, did they?

Equally, nobody with common sense thinks we are not going to be dependent on gas for another generation. Why it is better to import it from saintly Norway, or to some undefinable extent Russia, rather than produce it ourselves, remains unanswered.

While they’re polishing their platitudes, maybe Nicola and Patrick could sort out insulation which, however tedious, is something they are actually responsible for.

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