The Liberal Democrat Conference in Liverpool last week was different from previous Lib Dem congresses on so many grounds – the stricter security, the media attention – mostly welcome – the Northern accents... But perhaps the most notable difference between this Conference and earlier incarnations was th
e thrilling fact that so many familiar faces had recently take on new roles in government – campaigns volunteers were now Parliamentary Assistants, think-tank wonks were now Sp
ecial Advisers (SPADs), and most impressively of all, the word Shadow was conspicuously absent from so many job titles – no longer were we to interview our opposition spokespeople, but Ministers and Secretaries of State.
So it was that I joined the Millennium Elephant (and his Daddy Richard Flowers, joint winners later that night of the Lib Dem Blog of the Year that I helped judge), Alex Foster (councillor, blogger and splendidly bearded Lib Dem), Helen Duffet (co-editor of Lib Dem Voice, bloggist and PPC for Romford), Joe Jordan (feisty author of politicomaniac.net, another BOTY nominee), and Alex Folkes (aka A Lanson Boy, and winner at of the best blog by a Lib Dem holding office) to interview Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Chris Huhne MP.
We started with a chance for Chris – who seemed relaxed, confident and really engaging from the word go – to outline his vision for the greening of our economy in response to Richard's first question, “Nick Clegg told us that it will be a big Autumn for green policy – could you expand?'
Chris told us that the Green Deal, proposed by the Liberal Democrats in our manifesto, will be implemented in full – that is to say, every home in the country will be fully insulated to the highest standards of energy efficiency, at no immediate cost to the home owner. The implications of this policy really are difficult to overstate – with around a quarter of our carbon emissions emanating from the home, a concerted drive to insulate homes will of course boost the UK's efforts to reduce its carbon footprint; but along the way it will create some 250,000 jobs, across the country, pump-priming a sector of the economy we would all be happy to see expand. In addition, as there will be no up-front cost to home-owners and subsidies for those living in fuel poverty, the policy will ensure equal access across demographic groups – essential if take-up is to be high. Additionally, the Green Deal will apply to small business premises too – a radical departure from previous thinking on the remit of government green policy.
In promoting the Green deal, Chris made two salient points. Firstly, I asked whether the scheme will be extended to all publicly owned buildings at some point – to which the Secretary of State replied that central government buildings had already begun to reduce their energy usage by implementing changes having signed up to the 10:10 pledge to reduce CO2 emissions this year; changes such as retrofitting movement sensors to replace light switches to make sure light-bulbs are only on when they're needed. Secondly, he emphasised that studies show the best way to reduce energy usage is to reduce demand, not just by focussing on methods of energy production – critical when it came to the N-word – nuclear – as raised by Alex Folkes.
Chris reminded us that whilst between Labour and the Conservatives there is a Parliamentary majority for the building of new nuclear power stations, not only has the abstention of Lib Dem MPs been built into the coalition agreement, the only way these nuclear stations will be built is explicitly without public subsidy – and entirely privately-funded stations will happen, delivered as part of the Coalition deal. But the absence of public subsidy is crucial – it should free up government to focus on paying for renewable energy sources, in which the UK's record is woeful – Chris lamented that with only Malta and Luxembourg producing a lower proportion of their energy from renewables, the UK needs to move from 3% to 15% to meet its legal target as set by the EU, and fast – so in delivering this target on renewables we will show that a low-carbon economy is possible, not just rhetorically but practically.
Joe Jordan moved onto more international territory, by asking what the aims were from the forthcoming climate summit in Mexico were; whether we could expect a 'Copenhagen-II,' or something different. It was clear from Chris' answer that the failure of the Obama regime to push climate change legislation domestically will scupper the chances of a global deal on reducing carbon emissions in Mexico – but that nonetheless Chris will push hard for a united European position, which will help 'crystallise the thoughts of our EU colleagues' on aiming for a more ambitious 30% reduction in emissions and not 20% as is currently the aim. Another interesting point raised was how certain nations (*ahem* China *ahem*) were being irrational about reporting on their progress on climate change on grounds of sovereignty – Chris said, “Having come from the economic area... I don't see why carbon emissions should be more sensitive in sovereignty terms than your foreign exchange reserves or balance of payments or the general development of your economy.' Can't argue with that – but the likes of China and India may well try! The whole area of international cooperation was one where the most work is needed, and Joe's persistent questioning was well-directed and well dealt-with.
Alex Foster then asked about the government's stance on renewable energy generation, referring to a fascinating scheme in his council's jurisdiction – Chris admitted that the Renewable Heat Incentive may be a victim of the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review but if the overall incentives for generating renewable energy remains then schemes to do so should go ahead. He rejected the idea of giving local authority targets for generating renewable energy – on the reasonable grounds that Southwark and Somerset have different geographies and hence capability to deliver – but with the frankly ridiculous ban on councils using feed-in tariffs being overturned, good local authorities will continue to produce renewables.
We ended on an interesting note regarding cooperation between Lib Dems and the Conservatives – that even though 'Liberalism is the only nineteenth-Century -ism left standing,' that particularly on green issues with the need to encourage investment 'over massively long time-periods,' it is crucial that the politicians show cross-party consensus instead of playing party-politics – a mature stance that was a recurring theme throughout Conference.
All in all I have to say just how positive an experience this interview was – not only was Chris approachable and open, he showed genuine appetite for the task at hand, enormous though it is. Commentators have questioned just how influential the Lib Dems are in this Coalition; if the agenda on energy and climate change is anything to go by, we can safely say that not only is our stewardship of the green economy is good hands, Liberal Democrat influence on government policy is alive, well and vibrant – thanks in no small part to Chris Huhne.